Thursday, 15 January 2015

Wild thing

When I was asked to interview Cheryl Strayed over a year ago and her book, Wild, landed on my desk, I rolled my eyes. Here, I presumed, was another Oprah-endorsed, Elizabeth Gilbert-esque redemptive, emotional travel memoir. Sigh. 

I couldn't have been more wrong. The book was an intelligent, entertaining and honest page-turner. If Eat, Pray, Love was an indulgent story written (well) by a privileged writer, Wild was an unglamorous account of a tough, life-changing few months in a working-class woman's life. Strayed was modest and warm, and I liked her enormously. 

The interview never ran, for PR-related reasons too dull to recount here. So, as a film of her book opens in the UK, I thought I'd briefly tell her story. 

When she was 22, setting out in the world after a difficult childhood with a violent father, her loving mother Bobbie died, rapidly, of cancer. The family, pinned together by Bobbie, disintegrated. For Strayed, going through that rocky transition into adulthood, it was too much to bear. For the next four years she drank, her young marriage collapsed, and she discovered the numbing pleasure of heroin. By the time she picked up a book called "The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California" she was at rock bottom. 

"I knew I had to save myself," she told me. "The greatest dishonour to my mother would have been to ruin myself." The book gave her an idea. "The wilderness always made me feel gathered, and walking and physical exertion made me feel good. I knew [if I walked this trail] I would emerge altered in some way, and I was right." 

A few months later she sold her belongings, packed an unwieldy backpack and headed for the starting point of her hike: Mojave, CA. 

The following three months are documented in vivid, thrilling, terrifying and often very funny detail: searing heat and treacherous snowdrifts; freezing nights in her tent; run-ins with animals and snakes; happy encounters with fellow trekkers; and above all, hunger and thirst. She was impressively under-prepared. She dreamed deliriously of Snapple lemonade and pizza. When she finds food, you salivate with her. 

But she developed a reputation among the smattering of (mostly male) hikers on the trail as a toughie, accruing awe and admiration (and they probably fancied her, too). "Day after day I was in this wild landscape, moving forward," she says. "Even on my miserable days I was growing stronger, step by step. I had to tone down the metaphors it was so literal." 

Her story ends well. She finally put pen to paper aged 40 – she is now 46 – and the book benefits from that hindsight. The New York Times described it as "loose and sexy and dark" and named it one of its ten best books of 2012. 

Why has it been so successful? Kathryn Schulz, writing in New York magazine – a long piece but worth a read – puts it well. "It is the basic bootstrapping from poverty to self-sufficiency that we observe in Wild, and that makes its story so automatically appealing."

"So many people dismiss memoirs as narcissistic – and they are, [Strayed] says if they stop at the surface truth," writes Schulz. "But if you go into that deep truth, you aren't talking about yourself. You are talking about what it is to be human."