Contemplating a brave, wild life with Cheryl Strayed

Author’s note: I conducted this interview originally for The Canberra Times, to promote Cheryl Strayed’s visit to Australia, which was slated for August 2016. Unfortunately, Cheryl had to cancel her tour for personal reasons. As a huge fan of her work, this interview was a highlight for me as a writer, and I couldn’t bear to keep it hidden on my computer from the world – thankfully, her wisdom is still relevant months later, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed chatting to Cheryl! 

Cheryl Strayed is more than just a best-selling author – her words have become a talisman for women and men across the world.

Author of the blockbuster memoir, Wild, as well as the novel, Torch, and her bestselling collection of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed is known for her empowering and inspiring take on life, and the warmth and passion with which she engages her readers.

Wild is an account of Strayed’s solo hike through the Pacific Crest Trail in America in her twenties. When I speak to Strayed over Skype, she is a far cry from the lost twenty-something year old who embarked on that hike – she dials in from an apartment in Paris, and speaks with the confidence and calm that must come from years as a successful, bestselling author with a cult following that stretches across the globe.

I ask what it feels like to be successful on this scale, to the point where millions of people feel like they know the most intimate details of her life as a result of Wild.

‘I think one of the things I’ve learnt in the course of this experience is that first of all, it’s just so powerfully beautiful to be loved by so many strangers. That’s a wonderful experience. But what’s true about that is that anytime a bunch of strangers love someone, there are also going to be a bunch of strangers who hate that same person.

‘I know that there are people out there who are just hoping that I fail, or hoping that the next book I write is terrible and hated by everyone. Just that feeling of people being aware of your existence, whether it’s good or bad, can be a kind of stressful,’ Strayed says.

The author has been using her higher profile to help highlight important issues, in particular the need for gender equality in literature through her role on the advisory board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. VIDA is an American organisation, highlighting the issue of gender inequality in literature through annual data collection that demonstrates the disparity between female authors and male authors in having their work reviewed in major dailies, amongst other things.

Australia’s own Stella Prize also runs a similar project, the Stella Count.

For Strayed, gender has been something that has personally impacted her career, which is part of the reason why she is passionate about supporting VIDA.

‘I think that gender absolutely shapes our lives in ways that we have only begun to imagine,’ Strayed says. ‘And certainly, professionally speaking, this is something that I come up against every single day. Every time I’m interviewed, frankly, I have to think about how some of the questions I’m being asked are coming into play.’

Strayed is regularly faced with the assumption that her books only touch women readers, and that they are in fact written for a female audience.

‘I’m always put in this position of having to say, listen, half of my fan mail is from men,’ the author says. ‘And I understand, if you’ve come to my events in the US, and they’ll probably look like this is in Australia too, there are more women in the crowds. But I really think it’s that more women get together with their female friends and are more likely to go to a literary event than men might be. But men are reading my books too.’

Strayed believes that this assumption, whilst it might seem harmless on the surface, is linked to the broader issue of how society values work by female writers.

‘The fact that I’ve had to assert that [men also read my books] so many times, I think really speaks to the kind of perceptions about not just my work, but about work by women – that we don’t have capacity to tell a universally human story. And you know, men have been granted that for centuries. The reason why men have won [the Miles Franklin Prize] far more often than women is because we read their work as if it’s work for all of us, and we read women’s work as if it’s work for women,’ Strayed says. ‘And we know that anytime that we say, ‘oh women are the main audience of that,’ it’s seen to be somehow lesser. I have always written for humans, not women – I love that women have been inspired by my books, but men have too. And I’m sad that I almost have to remind people of that.’

As Strayed points out, this gender disparity doesn’t just negatively impact women writers, but it points to a devaluing of the emotional lives of men, as well.

‘If you’ve read my work, you know I write about our emotional lives. And in Tiny Beautiful Things, it’s all about the deepest struggles we face. And I think we do men such an injustice to act as if they’re not part of that. They’re very much right in there with us, with women. Women do not own the emotional realm, men suffer the same ways.’

Ironically, even when men are in the audiences at Strayed’s events, they often reinforce those same tropes when interacting with her.

‘At so many of my events, men who have read the book will come up to me and say, ‘I know that I’m not your audience, but I loved your book’, and I’ll always say ‘well, why do you know you’re not my audience?’

‘And they’re not even trying to be sexist, it’s just that they don’t even know it. It would be like me approaching a writer of colour and saying, ‘I’m not your audience’. It’s just really something we need to correct as a culture. So I think this movement towards gender equality in the arts, it’s a movement that’s obviously, like the broader feminist movement, good for both men and women.’

It has now been several years since the release of Wild, and while she has published a collection of quotes, Strayed is yet to release another book. She’s been far from quiet though, with a highly successful podcast series co-hosted by Steve Almond, Dear Sugar Radio.

The podcast revives the persona of ‘Sugar’, who both Strayed and Almond inhabited at different times when writing the ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column for the The Rumpus. The column became so popular under Strayed, she eventually released Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of the best iterations of Sugar’s advice. Divorce, addiction, infidelity, grief, loss, and identity are all regular topics covered in the letters discussed on Dear Sugar Radio, and Strayed has become a darling of the self-help movement.

Dear Sugar Radio has unleashed even more fans, individuals who avidly follow the show, and rely on Strayed and Almond for their wisdom and advice when confronting the most difficult periods in their life.

I ask Strayed if the thought of so many people watching for her next release makes it more difficult for her to actually put pen to paper.

‘When I was writing Torch and Wild, especially by the time I was writing Wild, there were some ‘Cheryl Strayed fans’, but a much smaller group, let’s just say. And now there’s this sense of, ‘ok, I hope I make you all happy!’ And I can’t – that’s not how you write.

‘You can’t write from that impulse of pleasing others, you have to write from that creative impulse that’s all about pleasing yourself, really, in terms of having a vision that you carry out. And so, it’s tricky. It’s scary. But you know, I’m Sugar, I’m always telling people to be brave, so I’m going to tell myself that too!’

Image: Holly Andres

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Patel Family Hotel & Cafe-38Zoya founded Feminartsy in 2014, following four years as Editor-In-Chief of Lip Magazine. She has been writing about feminist issues since the age of 15, and has had work published in a number of publications. Zoya was Highly Commended in the Scribe Publishing Non-Fiction Prize 2015, was the 2014 recipient of the Anne Edgeworth Young Writers’ Fellowship, and was named the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year. @zoyajpatel

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