Cheryl Strayed is a novelist, memoirist, and essayist who ignited a huge fan base (and a line of merchandise) when she told a reader to “write like a motherfucker” in her beloved, anonymous advice column, “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus. Each week as Sugar, Strayed applies the balm of her personal experience to the most intimate problems of her readers: a “living dead dad” who lost his only son to a drunk driver, an ex-liar and thief given to shame, a teenager hot for body flab. In February 2012—after two years of public speculation as to the identity of Sugar—Strayed came out as the fierce-hearted and frank voice behind the pseudonym.
Under her own name, Strayed is the author of three books. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), is set against the backdrop of Strayed’s native Minnesota and illuminates the sorrow, love, and survival of a family grieving the 38-year-old wife and mother they lost to a flash battle with cancer. The upcoming Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage, due out in July 2012) will deliver a collection of “Dear Sugar” essays. And in Wild, her highly anticipated new memoir, Strayed recounts the year that—at age 26, newly divorced, dipping into heroin, and reeling from her mother’s death—she set off on a 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Wild will be released by Knopf on Tuesday, March 20th. (That’s tomorrow.)
The winner of two Pushcart Prizes, she has also written stories and essays published in The Best New American Voices; The New York Times Magazine; The Washington Post Magazine; Vogue; Allure; Self; Brain, Child; The Missouri Review; and elsewhere. Two of her essays, “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life”, were selected for The Best American Essays. Strayed makes her home in Portland, Oregon with her husband, the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.
On a break from multiple appearances at this year’s AWP conference in Chicago, Strayed spoke with The Days of Yore over lunch at a busy diner. We found her to be animated, funny, and quietly authoritative. We were also delighted to discover that when she’s not writing essays or fiction, or reasoning out your private dilemmas as Sugar, she’s secretly inventing the gadgets you’ve always wanted, like a diary with a key that actually works.
What first compelled you to write things down?
My love of books from a young age. I remember my early reading experiences as epiphanies; I remember reading and feeling the need to close my eyes because it was amazing to me that you could make images and feelings with words. It was powerful, not in a way of controlling but of moving, and I wanted to do that.
My mother used to read books out loud to me. My family was not educated, but she read me Black Beauty and Bambi. Not the kids’ versions: the full novels. I was four and five and six. They’re amazing books, but I wouldn’t read them out loud to my six- and seven-year-old, because you know, they shoot the deer. There are brutal scenes where Black Beauty is beaten.
So those things influenced me: my mother reading to me, and how riveted I was. I started writing stories as soon as I could write. Remember those diaries with the little key? And the key would never really work? I got my daughter one for Christmas, and it’s the same damn thing. We’ve got all this technology, and we still can’t make a diary with a key that works.
We should market one together. We could make a lot of money.
Girls across the land would thank us! The way to become rich is not to write, but to do something like that. When I was a waitress in the early nineties, when there was a lot more smoking, I worked in this French bar in Portland and thought of a hat with a big bubble on top. A tube would connect the bubble to your arm. You’re holding a cigarette, it sucks the smoke up, and then you have this bubble-of-smoke hat. Granted, people wouldn’t want to wear it. Maybe it’s not as good an idea as the diary lock. It was inspired by those frat-boy beer hats, you know the ones?
Yes! Now, if you could make a beer hat that was also a smoke-absorbing hat—
We could call it Frat Party.
You need to patent that. So is it safe to say that if you hadn’t been a writer you would have been an inventor?
Absolutely. Well, no. But think about what that is: it’s like creating stories. What do you need and how are you going to solve that problem?
What else did you want to be when you were growing up?
There was a tiny window in maybe third grade when I wanted to be a country-western singer. I wasn’t exposed to much country-western music. I just had this idea of myself with a guitar.
What’s true is that I have always wanted to be a writer. But for a long time, I didn’t realize that I could be a writer. I remember thinking that I needed to be a journalist. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a journalist, but I grew up working class, and it was always: How will you make money doing that? Nobody was going to pay me to write a collection of short stories. It wasn’t until a couple of years into college, where my professors were writers, that I understood how they put that together financially.
What other jobs did you work in the meantime, before or during or after college?
When I first came out of college, I worked as a political activist for the National Abortion Rights Action League. It was rewarding, but ultimately, it was the thing I cared about second-most. It kept me from my writing. I gave that up and became a waitress. All through my twenties, I was a waitress, and I would save up money, apply to residencies, then quit my job so I could go three months to Wyoming or wherever. I got a lot of writing done in those bursts. I didn’t have to save a ton; I lived simply. I had student loan bills, but I could live off of a small amount. It’s different now. I have kids and stuff.
I had so many jobs. I would do basically anything for money. Almost anything. There was one thing I didn’t do, but I came really close. I once almost had sex with somebody for two hundred dollars, and I kept thinking, “Well, why not, actually?” There’s an interesting argument to be made for it. I had to answer for myself and decided not to.
As a teenager, my first job was at a Dairy Queen in McGregor, Minnesota. I was a vegetable picker, a teacher, a youth advocate, a tutor, a pregnancy prevention youth counselor. That was another job I loved. It fulfilled my sense of mission. But always, a nagging voice said, “This is good, but those girls don’t need you. They need someone like you. What you need is to write.” So I left that to be a writer. I was also an EMT, an emergency medical technician. I would drive around in this van in Portland, pick up publically inebriated people and bring them to Hooper Detox, named after the last person who died in police custody from alcohol withdrawal.
The theme was always service. That was the hardest thing about being a waitress: it made sense financially, because I could make the most money in a short period of time, but I felt useless bringing people food. It didn’t seem to matter.
Did you work long hours when you were waiting tables? How did you balance that with writing?
Yes. The theory of waiting tables is that it’s a job you don’t bring home, so you’re going to write in your off-time. Of course, what happens is you get off at one a.m., you’re sleeping with the cook, you’re drinking, you get home at four in the morning and wake up at noon. You go have coffee, you’re shopping for thrift store dresses because you need something cute to wear to work at five, and it’s like, “Well, I was going to write today, but I didn’t.” Those days were the story of my twenties in a lot of ways, but it later contributed to my writing.
It was out of that place that I decided to go get my MFA. I had just turned thirty, and I said, “I have to do something.” Waitressing and writing was sort of working, and I was sort of publishing; it wasn’t that I had no identity as a writer. It was that I couldn’t finish a book. I needed that shelter of time, so I decided to apply to MFA programs and go to Syracuse.
I applied only to places that would offer full funding. Syracuse was not at the top of my list. A number of programs accepted me, including the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. They gave me a full fellowship. That’s one of those things I look back on: Should I have done that? Other writers would say, “Of course, you’ve got to go to Iowa.” Even Iowa was like, “Of course you’re coming to Iowa!” To this day, I receive alumni materials from them, like they cannot accept that I didn’t go there. [Laughs.]
If I had been younger, I would have thought that I had to go to Iowa because it’s a name. But I talked to students at Syracuse and at Iowa, and the students at Syracuse seemed happier. When you’re a little older, you have the ability to look at not just the external glory attached to something, but the internals: who you are, what you need, what drives you, and what makes you shrink up into a little flower and die. It was exciting that Iowa offered me a fellowship, but they only offered one person that fellowship, and they let twenty people in. I would be the one person who got something nobody else got. At Syracuse, all six of us got funding, so we were together. I knew that I would thrive in that atmosphere; it was competitive, but not as competitive as Iowa.
I think that ultimately, if I had brought in a story at Iowa and they said, “I can’t believe she got the fellowship; she’s not that good,” I would have agreed with them, because that’s the voice in my head, too. I would have been self-conscious and second-guessing. Whereas at Syracuse, we were all funded, we all felt like shit together, and it was a great experience. Good, bad, ugly, hard, beautiful, all those things.
What did you do right after the MFA?
I finished my MFA in the spring of 2002. I finished my book in August of 2003. My husband’s a documentary filmmaker, and when I graduated, we were going to go back to Portland, where he’d been doing work. At the last minute, he got offered this job in Massachusetts, four hours from Syracuse. I had packed the boxes, we had a U-Haul rented to Portland, and we just switched it and moved to Massachusetts, where he worked for this documentary series as a filmmaker and producer.
I was only halfway done with Torch, because all through graduate school I kept rewriting the first half. It was my thesis. So my mission was to finish my novel. My husband was making barely any money, and we decided—and this is not necessarily what I recommend, but I’m glad I did it and I’ve done it two times now—to put a whole bunch of money on credit cards to supplement our living so that I could finish my book. Like, a lot of money. This was back in the day—in the Days of Yore!—when they’d give a graduate student a credit card with a $10,000 limit and you could get four of them.
I had also applied to a residency called the Sacatar Institute, on this island off the coast of Brazil. These wealthy Americans own it, and they support artists from all over the world. You get to work for two months, they feed you, you have a maid, and you’re in this big house with all these other artists. I was going there to finish Torch, and the week before I went, I found out that I was pregnant. I wanted to be; my husband and I had been trying to conceive. I thought, “Women are pregnant all over the world. I’ll be fine,” and then I went and immediately became incredibly ill. The only things I wanted to eat were pretzels and pickles, but they were giving me fish with the head and tail on, deep-fried in oil. Even if you’re not pregnant, that’s a bit challenging. I was so sick, but I decided, “I cannot leave this island until I finish Torch.” We were maxed out on our credit cards, and they fly you there, they pay for everything. I didn’t stay the full two months. I just wrote like a motherfucker, not to quote myself, and worked and worked and worked until I finished the book. I flew out of Brazil the next day, got to Massachusetts, bought pickles and pretzels, and sent the book to my agent.
So you already had representation at the time that you finished your first book. How did you meet your agent?
I’d gotten an agent the month before Brazil, when I started publishing work: my first two essays, “The Love of My Life” and “Heroin/e,” which both ended up in Best American Essays, and short stories, too. Agents started contacting me, but I would take their name, have a conversation, then say that I didn’t want to show them my work until I had a book done. Graduate school fucked me up in that regard. I would be writing and thinking, “Sal’s going to hate this, Chris is going to love this.” I was never right about what they loved and hated, but there was this sense of judgment and who I might please and disappoint. That year after graduate school, I had to get all the fingerprints off of my manuscript and be with myself. I didn’t want an agent. I just wanted to write the book that I needed to write.
This one agent kept calling, and I liked her. I said, “You can read the first half, and if you like that, we’ll pursue this.” And she did. When I got back from Brazil, I sent the whole book to her. She had minor suggestions, and within a day I changed them and she sent it out. I had previously met Janet Silver, who was the head of house at Houghton-Mifflin, at Bread Loaf [Writers’ Conference] when I was there. She said, “When your novel’s done, send it to me.” I liked Janet, and told my agent to send it to her first. My agent, Laurie Fox, took it to Janet and within a week, Janet bought the book. It was fast: once I finished it, that all happened within a month. I flew back from Brazil on October 12th, and on November 14th we settled the deal.
You said that for a while you were able to live cheaply. How’d you do it?
I lived in little tiny apartments or with other people. I drove a junker car. My husband and I still have one car, a 2004 Honda. I spent my money on travel and writing. Well, and thrift store dresses and cool boots. Okay. But even now, these Harley Davidson motorcycle boots I’m wearing today are my favorites and I love them, and they were twenty-five dollars at a thrift store. [Laughs.] You’ve got to do the right kind of shopping. That’s my main advice to young writers.
What did you eat when you were living on the cheap?
This was another benefit of being a waitress: I would eat at the restaurant. I’d have toast or whatever at home, and then I’d go to the restaurant.
What was your undergrad experience like?
Because I grew up way in the country, in this tiny town of forty people an hour and a half west of Duluth, I was too intimidated to go to the University of Minnesota. I wanted to go to the Twin Cities, but it seemed far. So I applied to this small Catholic college, the absolute wrong place for me to be, but the brochure had a pretty picture on the cover. When they let me in, the letter said one of the benefits was that if you went there, your mom, dad, and grandparents could all attend for free. What they assumed, of course, was that your mom would take one French class. My mom always wanted to go to school and never got to because she had three kids by the age of twenty-six and struggled financially. She said, jokingly, “Maybe I should go, too.”
One thing led to another. My mom was my hero, and I loved her and wanted to help her, but I also wanted to go to college by myself. We made this arrangement: I would live in the dorm as a normal student, and she would drive to campus and stay with friends. The rule was that if she saw me on campus, she could not address me or show any recognition unless I acknowledged her first. [Laughs.] So if I said, “Hi, Mom,” she could talk to me, but sometimes I would see her and just walk by. Isn’t that evil?
Did your mom take a full course load?
She went full-time. At the end of one year, I transferred to the U in Minneapolis, and my mom transferred to the U in Duluth, so then we went to the same college in different cities. We were about to graduate—it was our senior year—when suddenly my mom got this bad cold that wouldn’t go away. She died seven weeks later, the Monday of our spring break. Her funeral was that Friday, and I went back to school on Monday.
My mom had only two classes left when she died, but I had five, more than a full load. I was devastated, but my mother had said, “Please, you have to graduate,” so I went back to school and did everything I needed to do—except I did not write one fucking five-page paper on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” I wrote about that in “The Love of My Life,” how I could not write that paper. In retrospect, I have pure and total understanding of the young woman who could not write that paper, but then I just felt like a failure. I couldn’t get my degree.
Six years later, I called them up and said, “I need to take a class.” They let me do it by correspondence. I took Introduction to Latin and got my degree. My mom got hers, too—the University granted it to her posthumously, and I went to her graduation. She beat me—she got her degree in ’91 and I got mine in ’97.
What was your artistic community like before graduate school?
Over the years, I’ve had different friends and groups that I would exchange work with, but really, graduate school was when I found a community focused on the literary arts. Before that, as a waitress—and this was a beautiful thing I loved—I was always with other artists: writers, dancers, painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, all kinds of artists who couldn’t make their living with their art and needed to wait tables. There was a culture of the artist’s life and struggle. I was always going to performances and gallery openings by coworkers, but most were dancers and painters, so I felt a little isolated. I had writer friends I would correspond with in different cities.
But it wasn’t until graduate school that I experienced the rigorous examination peers can give you, for better or for worse. While what happened in graduate school was positive, its negative effect was too many fingerprints on my pages. It took me several years after I finished to want to share my work with other writers. I had to get my own voice in my head. A few years after Torch came out, I was invited to join this wonderful writers’ group in Portland, so now I do that.
Your Portland writing group includes Chuck Palahniuk and Lidia Yuknavitch, doesn’t it?
Yeah, and Monica Drake—there are nine of us. It’s a very meaningful community to me. Then there’s a national community of friends—people can slam Facebook and Twitter all they want, but it’s been wonderful in community-building for writers. It’s our water cooler. I’m connected with people who I would have never met in real life, and with old graduate schoolmates, too. It’s wonderful that you can go online and feel that you’re not alone.
Portland has such a strong literary community, but do you feel that you could live and write anywhere?
I feel lucky to have such a great community in Portland, but I could live anywhere and write, because you go to that really private place when you’re working. Now that I have kids, I can’t do the residency thing. I can do a week, but it’s hard to find a residency that will let you go for that short a time. What I’ve done in Portland a couple times is just checked into a hotel for a few days. Not some lovely place, just a room that I’m alone in, and that’s all I need to write. It’s lovely to sit by the ocean in a Brazilian paradise, but I don’t think that really contributes to the writing, because I go to such a deep personal place.
Do you have any personal rituals or superstitions around your writing? Anything that you do to get yourself started?
A lot of times, I’ll read poetry for a while. I write realistic prose, but language is important to me, the rhythm that I hear in the work. Poetry helps me kick into that. I’m not a fussy person. I don’t have to have things a certain way. I just need to be alone and not interrupted.
One of the things I’ve learned to trust, big time, as a writer—and it’s amazing how long it took me to actually believe this, because I always knew it and would say it, but to take it into my heart—is that you just need to write. You need to write this very basic version of what it is you’re trying to say. Then you can go back and figure out how to say it better.
I used to get so stuck, avoiding the work by asking, “How should I begin this story?” The Sugar column is the bane of my existence—I love it, but I have a deadline on a regular basis, and I never sit down and think, “This is going to be fun!” I almost always do it in the middle of the night on Wednesdays. I’m breaking every rule I’ve told my students: that your first draft will suck, but to give it time to sit and then revise. I’m just up against it, writing with a gun to my head, and I give way to it. I think, “This is going to be hard, and I don’t know how to begin, so I’m just going to begin somewhere, even if later that’s not where it begins.” After years of working that muscle, I finally know how to use it.
I used to be a runner, and when I was training for a half-marathon, I reached this point where I could not go on but had to keep going. It was literally a matter of just allowing your body to move over the ground. As a writer, that means covering the page, even if you don’t know where it’s going or why you’re telling this story. That gets you moving, and then you’ve gotten somewhere instead of being parked on the empty page.
You mentioned working up against a deadline on the Sugar columns. What’s your process in coming up with your responses to the problems posed by your “Dear Sugar” letter writers?
One of the things that makes me happiest about that column is that I come up with the answers by writing. Especially in the columns where I tell a story about my life: I ponder the question and, for whatever reason, that thing from my life keeps emerging in reference to this letter. Oftentimes I don’t understand why. Sometimes I write that story and nothing happens; it’s the wrong story, and I have to put it in my scrap pile and make use of it somewhere else. But most of the time as I’m writing, I figure out the connection. Something intuitive manifests itself into an insight or a deeper or more expanded way to think about a situation. It’s trusting story.
I’m not a therapist, and when I first began, I thought, “I am not qualified.” Then I realized that maybe more than anyone, storytellers in the culture are qualified because we’re trying to reveal the truths, contradictions, undercurrents, and the mysterious inner-workings of the most important things in our lives. Love, relationships, loss, the questions of youth and of old age, the wounds of childhood and the fears of adulthood: that’s what the entire literary history is about. In the advice column, this is gathered into the very particular form of a letter to one person, saying, “Here’s what I think you should do,” but really trying to offer something more.
Let’s back up for a minute. Can you talk about how you wound up taking on the mantle of Sugar in the first place?
Steve Almond emailed me and said, “Hey, I write this column called ‘Dear Sugar,’ and I know you’ve read it.” I had written Sugar a fan letter, actually. Steve wrote the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, and in it he tells the story of how I had written what he says is the only fan letter he ever received as Sugar—which I don’t believe. He didn’t reply, so I give him shit about it. He gets one fan letter and doesn’t write back? I mean, come on.
Anyway, Steve said, “I don’t want to do it anymore. Do you want to take it over?” I said, “Oh my God, Steve, I love this column! Sure, I’ll totally do it!” And the minute I sent that email, I was like, “Oh, fuck.” Because there was no actual reason to do it. He told me there’d be no pay. It would anonymous, so I wouldn’t even get to claim it. I was thinking that might be a good thing, though, because I’d probably give shitty advice that people would disagree with, and at least if I was anonymous nobody would openly hate me; they’d just hate Sugar. [Laughs.] There were all these reasons against it. I had two little kids. I had just finished the first draft of Wild and was waiting for my editor’s notes and was going to have to do revisions. I’ve got to write to make money—that’s how I make my living. But Sugar’s always saying to trust your gut, and there was something in my gut that said, “Give it a try.”
I was scared because Steve is so funny, and funny is not my thing on the page. But I liked the idea of challenging myself. My first idea was to be this smartass, snarky, mean-funny kind of person, and then I realized that no way in hell could I do that. I decided to just make it mine and try to build a following by making it regular. Steve’s columns were funny and beautiful, but a column would go up, and I would love it, and then it would be months before another went up. He didn’t have a schedule. I’m a Virgo, so I impose Virgo rules. I decided to do it every week, and I did. Two or three weeks into it, a column got seven comments, which was a big deal. [Laughs.] And it grew. People got addicted to checking it every Thursday. Then it took on a life of its own, and it took over my life. I had to do
Wild revisions—the thing that I got paid to do, and that was being published as a book with my name on it—but I was spending my days writing this little column that I got nothing for. I loved doing it, so I came to a peace with it.
You came out publicly as Sugar on Valentine’s Day. What’s it like now, the secret being out, versus being anonymous?
The anonymity thing started not to work. People who read my work would email me and say, “You have to be Sugar.” Book reviewers reading Wild were putting it together. When I first took the gig, Steve Almond and Steve Elliott and Isaac Fitzgerald and I emailed back and forth about whether it should be Sugar or Cheryl. I wanted to be anonymous for a while, but I also wanted to someday say that this was my column. Valentine’s Day seemed like the right moment. So many people knew—a couple hundred, an inner circle—but thousands of readers didn’t know. And I was starting to feel oppressed by the cloak. Do you know how many conversations I’ve had where I had to pretend that this whole part of me didn’t exist? I’d be like, “I’m really busy.” “With what?” “Oh, just things.” I was like the dude who has a secret family across town—I’m so glad we can all live in one house now! I feel whole.
Did you ever have conversations with friends or colleagues who talked about Sugar with you but didn’t know that you were Sugar? What was that like?
Maddening. Tortuous to the writer’s ego. Friends would post Sugar columns to my Facebook page and say, “Cheryl, you have to read this.” People who know me know that I’m the kind of person who would like Sugar, because we write, like, a lot of the same kinds of things. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t know how to respond, so I’d say, “Oh, thanks, I’m busy now, I’ll read it later.” One time I was in a café in Portland and got to talking with this woman and she said, “You just have to read this column. It’s called Sugar.” I wanted to stab myself in the eye with a fork.
I was a fellow at Sewanee the summer before last, and in my typical fashion, I arrived with a column due the next day. It was “How You Get Unstuck,” the letter to a woman who’d had miscarriages. I stayed up all night in this little dorm room and wrote it. I went to bed at 4:30 in the morning, and then I had to wake up and do this whole thing. It went live, and that afternoon I was at a cocktail party with the wonderful writers Aryn Kyle and Nina McConigley, who were fellows too. Nina said, “Erin, have you read the new Sugar?” I’m just sitting on this cooler, they’re talking about the column, and finally I looked at them and said, “I’m Sugar. I wrote that last night.” I couldn’t not tell them.
Sometimes I told my own secret. Maybe it was ego; I needed to be able to say, “I wrote that.” Then at times I would freak out and think, “Everyone knows! I have to be quiet about it!”
How did you know Steve Almond before he asked you to take over as Sugar?
We were on the faculty together at a conference called Writers at Work in Salt Lake City. My son was two and my daughter was six or eight months old, so they had to come with me because I was nursing, and my husband had to come with me to look after them, so I had this entourage—which was unlike any of the entourages I had imagined back in the Days of Yore! They traveled all over the country with me on my book tour for Torch. I would get off the elevator in the hotel after my reading and hear my daughter screaming at the end of the hall. I would let down and be running toward her. It was intense.
So, at this conference Steve was teaching, too, and he was with his wife, Erin, who was pregnant with their first child. I did the thing you’re not supposed to do: I went into graphic detail with Erin about the natural births of my gigantic children. She was traumatized, but Steve forgave me and we became friends.
Did Erin have a natural birth after that?
[Laughs.] No, she never intended to. Me, I gave birth in a teepee to an eleven-pound baby.
Did you really give birth in a teepee?
I did not give birth in a teepee. But I did not give birth in a hospital. And my first child was eleven pounds.
Was it hard to write after you had children?
It was incredibly hard. I was thirty-five when my son was born, and I had just turned thirty-seven when my daughter was born. It is the defining challenge of any woman writer’s life who is also a mother, that balance. What mothering requires of you is both the opposite of what writing requires and also what it demands. It’s a creative and exhausting endeavor to do either thing. As a writer, you need solitude, uninterrupted time, and the ability to think—and you can only think if you have slept.
My career took off at the same time that I had my kids, and it imposed a lot of discipline. When I was younger and floating around buying thrift store dresses and hanging out in cafés and sleeping with the cook, I would be like, “Well, I’ll write, but I need to do this first or that first.” Now it’s: “I have an hour, I’m paying a nanny who’s downstairs with my kids, and I’m going to make that money worth my while and work.”
The writing moms I know, we talk about the intricacies of being a mom and a writer. Sometimes we have resentments toward our male counterparts who are fathers—they’re also stretched, but there’s another layer to being a mom, and some of it’s physical. The first couple years of our children’s lives, my husband could travel for work and be in some hotel room at the end of the day watching MacGyver. When I traveled for work, I had to bring my entourage, because I was the food. I would give readings and when the director of the Blah Blah Blah would say, “I’d like to take you out for dinner afterwards,” I’d say, “I can’t. I have my babies here, and I have to get back to them.”
My kids hindered my ability to move freely as a professional, but they also made me a better writer. There’s a whole dimension of the world that I can write about having experienced being a mother. But there’s also guilt. Right now I’m in Chicago, my kids are in Portland, and I’m not going to go home until Monday.
What do your kids think about having a writer for a mom?
Two days before I left, we drove by Powell’s Books, and they have my name up on the marquee because I’m reading there on March 21st. My son said, “I love having a famous mom, but famous moms have to work all the time. I’d rather have a mom who didn’t have to work all the time.” Right now I’m working all the time, but at the end of August, after Tiny Beautiful Things, things are going to chill way out. I’ll have things to do, but it’s not going to be crazy. We will downshift back to regular life.
I try to talk with my kids about it. A lot of women have to work a lot. If you work full-time at the 7/11, you’re away from your kids, too. My kids also get that because my husband and I don’t work traditional jobs, they don’t have a mom who has to be at the office at nine and stay there ‘til five. They never have. All their lives, we’ve had intense times together: I’ll go away, but then I’ll come back and we’ll be together. In January, we all went to Mexico for a week. I was going to be away, so I pulled them out of school for a week and we were there eight days, all together. They’re going to New York with me at the end of March for their spring break; we’re all going together for my book tour. I’ll be busy, but I’ll be with them.
After I had my son, for a while I didn’t give a shit about writing. There was some natural drug that went into my head that said, “The absolute only thing that matters is this child.” He was my whole reason, even though I had never been a baby person. I had no idea I would love them like that. And I know, it’s totally cliché.
No, no. It’s such a bizarre, awesome, human thing to have an experience where you care so much about something that it changes your behavior.
Would I have a book out sooner if I didn’t have kids? Absolutely. I would have written a book faster after Torch. A lot of Wild was written with my baby in a sling, and it was like running through thick sludge. But that’s okay. If my book came out last year or the year before compared to now, it wouldn’t really matter.
Life happens as it needs to, and I have no regrets. I really wanted to publish a novel in my twenties, but that’s a dream. It happens for some people. I’m grateful it didn’t happen for me; it would have been a lesser work because I was a lesser writer. Writing is not something to rush.
You’re 43 now. If you could go back to your 33-year-old self and your 23-year-old self, what advice would you give them?
The arrogance of youth propels many writers. Even though there was a part of me that was full of self-loathing and doubt and fear and anxiety, there was also a grandiose part that said, “You will be the one who writes The Great American Novel by 27, and everyone will think it’s great!” I think I would go back in time and give myself a message about patience, humility, and the importance of listening—not just in a literal way but a grand scope way, to understand that all those days of sleeping with the cooks and shopping for thrift store dresses, all the things one has to do to live a life and grow up, those things will to contribute to that book. I would say, “It’s going to be okay. It’s also going to take some time. You have a lot to learn, and it’s okay that you don’t know it. You can’t force yourself and you can’t hurry into it.”
And then the 33-year-old self. By then, I was well into Torch, almost done with it. These last ten years, from 33 to 43, are the years that I’ve come into my own as an author, producing books. What really matters is the writing. The work. Obviously you try to make good things happen for your books, to do your due diligence and get it out into the world, but that stuff is outside of you.
And I don’t read my reviews on Amazon or anything. That’s stepping-back and knowing oneself. I can do that at 43 in a way I couldn’t have before, because what’s about me is the writing, and what’s not about me is everything else that happens around the book. You have to have a buffer between you and those things, and at 23 and 33, I don’t remember there being a buffer.
There are always so many more opportunities to learn how not to take things personally.
Always! The writing is what’s important: do your best, speak your truth, and don’t get overly tied to it. George Saunders would always say to disregard the praise as much as you disregard the criticism. Don’t believe your own press; it will wreck you. That’s a difficult thing.
Even praise can wreck you if you’re not okay with it. If you write something that you hate and people say nice things about it, you’re like, “Don’t insult me!” [Laughs.] You need that separation.
Yeah. And when Torch came out, it was so terrifying, the reviews. I remember feeling really glad that I had two little babies at that time, because that was my life on the ground level: no matter what anyone said about my book, I had these two beautiful children who would smile at me.
It’s funny, though: the very first time my son said “Mommy” was when People magazine reviewed Torch, and it was sitting on our coffee table. He was doing his baby thing, and it opened to a picture of me and he said, “Ma-ma! Ma-ma!” I laughed so hard.
And now you’re in Vogue.
Have you seen the photo in Vogue? They came to Portland and dressed me and made me look all pretty and took pictures of me, and I’m sure there are some lovely pictures somewhere, but they Photoshopped the shit out of me. I guess I didn’t fit their standard of appearance. The one saving grace is that I asked my kids, “Who is this?” and they recognized me. I was so glad.
I saw that Jezebel had a piece about the Photoshopping. But the essay is wonderful, and that’s what matters.
The book is better. They take all these pieces from the book and pile them together; it’s a bit painful. But I’m seriously grateful to Vogue. As my husband said, they made me look like an anorexic Fox News broadcaster, but that’s okay.
What’s funny is that it’s contrary to everything I’ve written about being authentic. They Photoshopped the wrong person. I feel that they missed an opportunity to have a real woman. I wasn’t in there to be a fashion model; I was in there because I wrote something that they wanted to publish. I did wonder when Vogue took the first serial and said they were going to do a photo shoot. I wondered if they had found images of me to make sure that I was passable raw material for their Photoshopping. I have a friend who’s obese—would they not take her piece?
I don’t know. Some women’s magazines want to see pictures of people before they’ll agree to bring a pitch to their meeting.
That’s so sad. We all grew up steeped in that crap, and I keep thinking maybe the next generation will be better—but it’s only gotten worse. I had tons of pressure to be pretty, and I think your generation had even more. There are more parts of the body, now. When I was growing up, you would never know anyone who’d had plastic surgery. It was what movie stars did. Now two of my best friends had boob jobs last year. I don’t say that judgmentally; it’s just that it’s come to us in a way that it didn’t before. It becomes the standard and the norm.
It’s like the whole pubic hair thing, too. I mean, it used to be when I was growing up that you just had your thing. In the Days of Yore.
Ah, bush in the Days of Yore.
Yes. This is the main thing that I want in this interview, is to say that in the Days of Yore, girls, there was bush, and it was fun.
My agent says, “Always bring it back to the book.” So now we’re bringing Wild back to bush. This is not in the book; this is extra material only you guys are getting. When I was on the Pacific Crest Trail hike, I went to this hot springs. It’s all naked, it’s Oregon, and this woman gets in who was completely nude. I mean, bare. I had never seen that on a grown woman, and I was so taken aback—I thought that she was sick. Then I realized that this was the thing now. She was a stripper; they were on the cutting edge of waxing and all that. I was kind of scandalized, but now it’s a regular thing. Waxing. Boob jobs. Everything. [Laughs.] There’s nothing wrong with it, exactly, but it’s another pressure. You’re sixteen and you feel like, “Now I have to take care of that, too, just to be normal.”
Recently, I think it was on Jezebel, they interviewed all these men, asking, “What do you like your partners to do down there?” Thankfully at least some of the men said, “I wouldn’t presume to tell my partner whether to shave or not.” I was like, thank you. Let’s just get that out of the way, this idea that maybe a woman gets to choose what to do with her own body without pleasing you. Anyway, a lot of them said they like bush.
…Who knew we would land here, in this conversation?
[Laughs.] We started out talking about inventions—
We’ve gone from my brilliant smoking hat to my really dense bush. [Laughs.]
It has been a wide-ranging conversation.
The Wild bush. [Laughs.] What else is there? Anything else you guys would like to know about me gynecologically, or—?
Actually, it’s a bit of a non sequitur, but I wanted to ask you about handling rejection. Did you ever get rejected—
Never. I have never been rejected. [Laughs.] No, I’m teasing. Jesus!
You know, looking at them from the outside, I made a lot of assumptions about other writers who were further down the path than me. I assumed that anyone with a book out was financially set. That isn’t true. I’ve had so many friends who’ve written a second book that they couldn’t sell because their first didn’t sell well. All that crap. But rejection, as you know, is part of the writer’s life. Early on, I was rejected many times for my essays and stories.
The essay “The Love of My Life” is probably my most read piece. It came out in The Sun, it was in Best American, and it’s taught a lot. But I came across the old submission log that I kept when I was sending it out, and I’d forgotten that it was rejected by all these places that now, if I sent them that essay, would take it. I met some people from Tin House a few years ago, and they said they loved that essay. I said, “Really? Because you guys were the first people I sent it to, and you sent it back in a week.” Of course, I sent it to the slush pile, and some intern read it and didn’t like it and sent it back. The same at several other publications. It didn’t get rejected a ton, that piece—four or five tries. It can be much worse than that. What I mean to say is that it’s not like this golden path opens up before you, even after publishing a book.
Magazines have called me and said, “We love your work. Will you write this or this?” and then afterward said, “We don’t really like what you did.” When that happens, it’s because I’ve been trying to do their magazine-y thing. They call me because they read something that I wrote authentically, but they want to impose their magazine style, and I can’t do that. It’s fake and they can see it. They want to kill the thing in me that they loved and make it into something else.
Even within the experience of acceptance, there’s rejection. With my editor for Wild, there’s been, “This scene is not working, Cheryl,” or “You come off like a braggart and an asshole in this scene.” Well, she didn’t say it that crassly. You have to take that criticism and lick your wounds and keep going. You learn to accept it. So yeah, I was rejected a lot, and still am and will be. I’m sure there’s a lot of rejection still awaiting me.
You’ve said that writing fearlessly is writing in the presence of fear. But what do you do with the fear while you’re trying to work in its presence?
When I feel afraid, that’s an indication that I’ve tapped into something worth writing about. Whenever my writing has made me cry or ask, “Can I really say that?” that has always been the material that readers respond to most passionately. You can recognize when a writer has told you something true—and I don’t mean true in a literal, nonfiction way. Look at Mary Gaitskill’s fiction. You feel that human character on the page because Mary has crafted and revealed that spirit in a way that most of us don’t dare to on a regular basis. To do that, you welcome fear into the room. You welcome sorrow into the room. You go deep into those places.
The interesting work of writing is often in dark terrain. Even if you write funny, like David Sedaris, it also has to do with darkness. I’m not a humorist, but they go into things that aren’t funny and make them funny. I go into places that are scary and hard and sad, and I make them bearable. Bringing light into this and bringing dark into that—those two things exist in a wonderful opposition that is unified in the end.
That’s one of the interesting things about the Sugar column. A lot of the letters are people writing to me about the thing they’re ashamed of or fear. That’s so compelling to readers. I understand that people get something out of what I write, but if I decided to publish a hundred letters and not answer any of them, a hundred weeks in a row, everyone would still want to read the letter. To see: what is this person saying about their life, and where do I sit in relation to that? Am I judgmental of it? Do I identify with it? Do I think it’s creepy or funny or insufferable? We all have an opinion on that letter when we read it.
It must have been odd for some people in your life to find out that you had this alter ego as Sugar.
It’s like that with any writer, though. That’s what’s disturbing about, say, your parent reading your book. You show them a different side of yourself. They have judgments of you that they don’t want you to exceed too much; they want you to be that person who doesn’t have striped hair, or who graduated from college on time. When they see you in a new light, they don’t always like it. Your book shows them your inner self, your spirit, the nasty thoughts in your head, whatever is in there. It’s scary for them, but it can also be wonderfully bonding. Have you ever read a professor’s book and felt closer to them? You feel that you know them in a new way. Or maybe someone is really introverted, and you read their book and they have all of this life inside of them, they’re outlandish, and you’re like, “Wow! That’s you on the inside!”
Have people who’ve read your work told you that you’re different in person than they expected you to be?
Not with Sugar. But you know how I said that the essay “The Love of My Life” is taught a lot? Sometimes if I go into a college classroom, especially undergraduate, students have expectations based on reading that essay. I went to speak at a class at American University in D.C. one time. The professor, Richard McCann, stepped out into the hall before inviting me in. He had this worried look. I said, “Do they all think I’m a slut?” He said, “Yeah.” [Laughs.] So then I go into the room and I can tell they’re all surprised. I was on tour for Torch, I was plump from having kids, and I just looked like a mom. They expected me to come swooping in wearing a black cape and smoking a cigarette.
I know it’s a sad essay about hard things, but I’m actually a pretty happy person. Even if you met me when I was 22 or 23, you would have experienced me as a fun, cheerful person. It’s not that I’ve misrepresented myself on the page; it’s just that the page is the internal struggle.
It was probably a good experience for those students to have those judgments and then meet you and see, oh, she’s just like us. We were judging this person based on something we’ve read, which is only—
Ten pages of text. Yeah. And we all do it. The same way we think that 50-year-old women don’t have sex, and then you hit fifty and you’re like, “Wait a minute! I’m still me, having sex.” Or I remember going to a bar once and seeing my English teacher drinking a martini. I was like, “She drinks?” Which is absurd. Of course she drinks. We put teachers up in this different place. We do that with writers, too. I think we can’t help that we do it, but it’s important to remember.
A lot of people say to Sugar, “I just want you to be my best friend.” But I don’t just sit around and spout Sugar columns to you as your friend. I’m a person who is annoying and all these other things, like every person. I’m not just the great Sugar Mama all of the time. Only this little part of the time. It’s different being my friend than reading my column.
Interview by Harvest Henderson and Kassi Underwood.
Photo by Joni Kabana.