Back in February, when Cheryl Strayed last appeared in Las Vegas (she spoke on a panel about female novelists for UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute), nobody had really heard of her. She had a well-received but largely unknown novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). She had a week previously relinquished her anonymity as (unpaid) advice columnist Dear Sugar for the online magazine, The Rumpus. And she had a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, $26) that was a month away from being published.
What she did not have: a line for her book-signing.
When Strayed returns to Las Vegas on Sept. 26, the opposite will likely be true. In June, Wild became the inaugural book in the relaunch of Oprah Winfrey’s book club. In July, the book reached No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. Also in July, Strayed released a collection of her best columns, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar (Vintage, $15).
For Strayed’s stop here, a pre-festival event for the Vegas Valley Book Festival, she’ll be joining UNLV professor/author/former classmate Maile Chapman in an conversation about her work.
You hiked the Pacific Crest Trail to heal after your mother’s death. Instead you grew blisters and suffered physically. How did this help you?
It wasn’t until I got out there that I understood how very much the physical would consume me, and I was a little pissed off about that. I thought, I came out here to heal these sorrows and I’m always thinking about things like my feet and where to get water. But that’s when the greatest healing can take place. Of course, I didn’t know this until after I’d taken the hike and, especially, when I was writing the book and reflecting.
The lesson of humility is a huge part of Wild. Is it difficult to stay humble now that you’re famous?
I haven’t even really made sense of what’s happened—it’s just been such a rocket ride. I guess what I feel is really grateful. There are so many people talking to me about how the books have changed their lives, and they tell me their stories. I just feel so humbled to be the recipient of this.
She just called me up on my cellphone one day, and told me that she loved Wild, that it really moved her. I thought this can’t be actually happening. A few days later, I was at her house in Santa Barbara [Calif.], and we spent the day together. We shot the show, and we spent time getting to know each other a bit. It’s a huge honor to get that kind of exposure.
As Dear Sugar you’re asked some heavy questions. How do you respond?
When I first took on the column, I questioned whether I was qualified because I didn’t have a degree in psychotherapy or anything like that. Then I realized that the writer’s job is to figure out how humans work; and what we say about ourselves; and where the contradictions are; where the secrets, and struggles and sorrows are. So, I enter their problems with the same kind of delving that I would do if I were writing a short story or a novel.
How did it feel to tell the world that you were Dear Sugar?
By the time I revealed my identity, I’d told so many different things about my life that people did know who I was. They just didn’t know my name. They knew I was a 43-year-old woman with two children, that I’d been divorced, that my mother had died. They knew basically all the big things about my life. So, when I revealed my identity, it was really one of the best days of my life.
You hiked with books, despite their weight. What are you reading now?
This is very bold of me: Right now, I’m reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. I’ve heard such great things about it and I thought, I’m just going to buy this and read it, I don’t care what other books I’m supposed to be reading. One misses being able to just pick a book out just because you want to read it.
Are you writing anything now?
I can’t wait to get back to writing. I miss that contemplative, eternal place that you can go when you’re writing. But, I do plan to go back to writing soon. I started a novel before the storm of Wild-ness. I’m really excited about going back to that. I also think I might write another memoir. I’ve always enjoyed tapping into the actual lived life.