A different kind of story: Cheryl Strayed on grief, writing, and the end of homophobia

By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
“I’ve always been interested in writing about people in their moments of being forced to transform,” says author Cheryl Strayed. Photo by Randall Szabo

For a writer so familiar with the painful side of life, Cheryl Strayed laughs very easily. The author of the #1 New York Times bestseller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” and “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,” Strayed has transformed her personal grief into powerful, blazingly honest explorations of what it means to be human. On the occasion of the rerelease of her debut novel “Torch,” Strayed sat down with PQ Monthly to talk about her process as a writer, her new novel currently in progress, and why her son practically demanded that she have a lesbian affair.

PQ Monthly: You’re so accomplished in the worlds of both fiction and nonfiction. How does your process differ between the two styles?

Cheryl Strayed: When I’m writing it, it doesn’t feel different. When you’re writing fiction, you really have to inhabit that human’s experience, even if it’s a character you created. I do the same thing in my nonfiction — of course, I’m inhabiting my own experience, but that involves going back to my experience and re-enacting or reviving what actually happened, all of the memories. You have to ask, “What did that experience mean? What bearing has it had on my life?”
I think a lot of times, when people start writing nonfiction, they think: “I had a terrible thing happen to me, and therefore there’s the essay.” You really have to process it! We’ve all had traumatic, strange, interesting, funny things happen to us. There’s a difference between that and making literature, and it involves a lot of work.
So, writing fiction and nonfiction feels very much the same on the ground level. … I will say, though, that there’s a difference in terms of where I sit in terms of the audience — there’s a difference about a character who’s been raped and writing about being raped. That difference is the author saying: “There’s no screen between you and I, this really happened.” You reveal yourself and expose yourself to a greater extent…
Right before “Wild” came out, I flipped out and went, “Why the fuck did I write a memoir!? Am I insane!?” You’re just asking for it! It’s horrible to have your novel condemned by readers and reviewers, but to have your memoir condemned is even worse! With a novel, at least, you can say that you don’t like the characters — but with a memoir, I am the character. If you don’t like that person in the book, you don’t like me! It’s really scary.

PQ: One thing I notice in your work is that grief is a character in itself. Does the grief ever surprise you or go in a direction you don’t expect?

CS: Up until this point, grief [around losing my mother at age 22] has been this thing that I’ve absolutely had to write through. What was interesting to me in rereading “Torch” was that I could see my younger self…  and I could see how much I still needed to work through and process my grief and how I was doing that by writing “Torch.” I’d characterize [that grief] as my obsession, and I’ve had to tell that story over and over again. … I think I’ll always write about that experience of losing my mom, and that it’ll come up in all these ways throughout my life and my work as a writer, but I do feel a little bit as though I’ve been released from it.
Now, I’m interested in telling stories that aren’t just about grief — not that my stories are only about grief. One of the most gratifying things is that I sometimes read my work and think, “My god! Just get over it! Why are you grieving so much?” Then I go out and meet readers who say: “Thank you so much, because I lost my brother, or my mother, or my wife.” In my writing, I’ve somehow helped them see and experience what they couldn’t express — something inside them that they couldn’t say. I was essentially held in grief’s grip as an artist for a long time, and now I’m ready to move forward and tell a different kind of story.

PQ: Do you feel like the novel you’re working on now tells that new kind of story?

CS: It’s so brand-new that I don’t want to curse it, but there are no dead mothers in the book — at least not so far! (Laughs) The novel is set in Portland, and it’s about these four people for whom the world is ending. By that I mean that each of them are in a place in their lives in which they’re being forced to transform, to take stock and reassess and let go of what no longer serves them in very different ways. One’s a radical environmentalist who’s in legal trouble because she bombed a research facility in central Oregon; another’s an old hippie astrologer who lives on a commune.
I’ve always been interested in writing about people in their moments of being forced to transform. In some ways, that’s what both “Torch” and “Wild” are about also — I even say in both of those books, I think, that essentially the world as I knew it ended the day that my mom died, and I had to figure out who I was in the world without her. The world without my mom was a very different place for me than the world I knew with my mom — so who was I going to be in it?
In some ways, even though there isn’t going to be a dead mother in this next book, the ghost of my dead mother will be in it. Can there be a double ghost? Not the ghost of my mother, the ghost of my dead mother! (Laughs) Nobody dies in this book, but for each of them, something that big happens, in which they have to figure out what to do next.

PQ: What are your thoughts on the modern state of queer rights?

I think that we’re going to age out of homophobia. I’m 44, and in my lifetime I’ve seen real change that has happened. I’m so absolutely furious about these amendments that say marriage is between one man and one woman — that stuff is just horrendous and retrograde, but it’s going to die out. In the next generation, we’re not going to have to mount these battles. It’ll be recognized as a basic right that two people who love each other should be able to get married, regardless of their gender or sexuality or whatever. In Minnesota, my home state, they’re trying to go out of their way to make a constitutional amendment that makes gay marriage illegal, and I think that the reason that exists is that there’s so much feeling the other way — they’re threatened and they’re going to be eradicated. We have them cornered! That’s why they’re fighting so hard, because there has been a perspective shift.
My kids are in first and second grade, and when they were in preschool they had enough friends that had gay parents that my kids had no perception that marriage was only between a man and a woman. When my son was 4, he was in this big “I love mommy more than anyone” phase — which has been a rather long phase, granted — and he got in the car one day and said, “I want two mommies!” I said, “Well, you have a mommy and a daddy, and that’s pretty cool, too.” He said, “Yeah, well, I want two mommies instead.” I had to sell him on the old chestnut of the heterosexual family! Only in Portland does your son demand that you have a lesbian affair, right? So, I had to say no — that I was going to stay married to their dad for the time being. I guess that’s what it is — the struggle for gay rights is a very important struggle for me. I don’t think these issues are a side note for anyone. They’re essential to who we are.

“Torch,” “Wild,” and “Tiny Beautiful Things” are available at Powell’s Books and other local independent booksellers. For more information, go to CherylStrayed.com.