20 Questions with Mourning Goats
INTERVIEW FORTY SEVEN
It's been a hell of a 2012 for Cheryl. In March, Wild was released, four months later Tiny Beautiful Things, then Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights to Wild, and Nick Hornby is writing the script for it (just turned in the first draft, actually).
But, someone who's been interviewed by Oprah doesn't need an introduction, right?
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"
When I hear it—rather than read it—I think of goats in the morning waiting to be fed, butting up against me with their scary little horns. My family had a goat when I was a teenager. Her name was Katrina. Like most goats, she was a mixed bag of delightful and dastardly.
2. Like most of your readers, my favorite line of yours has to be, "Write like a motherfucker." Where did it come from, what does it mean, to you?
I have to credit my husband, Brian Lindstrom (aka Mr. Sugar) with the genesis of that phrase. The night I met him in September of 1995 we were talking about my writing and his filmmaking and he said something about how you have to be a motherfucker to be a writer, meaning you have to be fierce and pursue it all out. I felt like he was right, so I never forgot it. The phrase made its first official appearance in a piece I wrote for a wonderful blog called Backstory http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/backstory/ that M.J. Rose used to do. I wrote the backstory of my first book, a novel called Torch, and in my piece I said I wrote like a motherfucker. http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/backstory/2006/05/cheryl_strayeds.html) A few years passed and I’d forgotten I’d written that, so I was surprised when my Sugar column went viral and a few internet sleuths figured out I was Sugar because of it.
3. You currently have three books in three different areas (columns, memoir, and fiction), which of them was the most fun to write, why?
They were all equally pleasurable and painful. I guess I’d say Torch was the hardest to write because it was my first book and I really didn’t know if I could write a book, so I was full of fear and doubt. By the time I was writing Wild I was experienced enough that I knew fear and doubt are simply part of my process. I think Tiny Beautiful Things might have been the easiest book to write of the three, but only because I didn’t know I was writing it until it was nearly done. It was like an accidental book. I was writing those columns, one by one, week by week. It was only after some time that I thought to put them together in a book.
4. What was it like getting your agent, Janet Silver, at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Agency? Did you query them or did they come to you?
Janet Silver was my editor for Torch at Houghton Mifflin, so we’d already worked together by the time she became my agent in 2009, when I was ready to sell Wild (based on a partial manuscript). She was a fantastically smart and sensitive editor and I felt such a tight bond with her that when she decided to become an agent I decided I wanted her to represent me. I love her as both an agent and a friend.
5. Like the Goat, you had a pseudonym over at therumpus.net, why did you hide your identity for so long, Sugar? And, was anyone angry or upset about it?
I inherited my anonymity. Steve Almond had been writing the Dear Sugar column before I took it over and he’d been writing anonymously, so I followed suit. There was a conversation at the very beginning about whether I should keep the column anonymous or not and I thought, Well, why not? I’d never written anonymously before and I love to try new things, so it seemed like fun. Having said that, I always knew I would someday reveal my identity, so even though most readers experienced the column as anonymous for nearly two years, I didn’t write it from a place of anonymity. I wrote it as if my name appeared at the top of each one. No one felt angry or upset about my anonymity--at least not that I’m aware of—but some people were rather passionate about not wanting me to reveal my identity. They feared it would mean I’d be less honest in the column, but that wasn’t true. I’m equally honest in the writing I do as Cheryl Strayed.
6. You received an MFA from Syracuse University, do you think it was detrimental to your career to have the degree?
I don’t think the degree itself either helped or hindered my writing career, but I know the three years I spent in the program were crucial to my ability to complete my first book. SU fully funds all the students it accepts into the MFA program so not only did I attend tuition-free, but the university also paid me a stipend that covered most of my expenses. For the first time ever, I got to put my writing before everything else for an extended period of time. I’ll forever be grateful to SU for that.
7. You've won the Pushcart Prize, how did it feel to win such a prestigious award?
It feels great to win things. It’s a nice affirmation as well as an ego boost. But it feels better to write things and also to celebrate the things other people have written.
8. Now, more than ever, you have to have a lot going on, how do you balance everything and continue writing?
My life is out of balance, with all the travel I’ve been doing for my books in these past months while also trying to be present for my children. I’m writing a bit—mostly essays for magazines or anthologies, but I can’t wait to really sink into another book. It’s going to be another few months before I can do that. I’m in the midst of a hurricane right now, launching WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS both here and abroad. What’s getting me through is the knowledge that every hurricane blows away eventually. I’ll get back to writing when it does.
9. Your memoir, Wild, has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard, what's going on with that? How did it go down?
How it went down is that Reese read an advanced reading copy of WILD a few months before it was published and she connected with it and felt strongly that she was the person to bring the story to the screen. It resonated with her. The same thing happened with Oprah deciding to restart her book club for Wild. In both cases it comes down to the simple fact that they liked the book. It was as sweet and straightforward as that. I’m terribly cheered by that. Nick Hornby is writing the WILD script. I’m a long time admirer of his work, so I couldn’t be more thrilled.
10. In one interview you said, "You've got to do the right kind of shopping. That's my main advice to young writers." about living cheaply. Can you expand on this? Why?
I was really only joking, but I suppose in any joke there’s a bit of truth. I don’t get to shop as much as I used to before I became a mom. In the past eight or so years, I’ve had far less time to poke around looking at things, but I still go to thrift stores when I can. A few years ago I bought these like-new-but-used, knee-high, black leather Harley Davidson motorcycle boots that I wear all the time. I consider them my signature piece. When I have them on I feel like the person I most deeply am and also like the person I always wanted to be. They cost me $25. In shopping, as in writing, it’s never about the money. It’s about patience and luck.
11. I've interviewed Monica Drake, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chelsea Cain, Suzy Vitello, and now, you. What is it about your writing group that is pushing out so many quality writers?
I feel fortunate to be among such a distinguished bunch. Most of the writers in my group have kept at it for years. They’re talented, yes, but more importantly they’re committed to the art and craft of writing. I have so much admiration for them and their work. They’d be doing it whether our group existed or not, but it’s pretty damn cool to share our writing the way we do.
12. You teach writing at conferences and retreats. Do you think creativity can be taught or is it more about teaching craft?
I think you can learn the craft, absolutely. A close examination of what it takes to make a story or essay or poem is a key piece to becoming a writer. So I ask my students to pay attention to what’s happening on the page on a very close, technical level. Another thing I do is offer emotional support, which I think is pretty crucial. Most writers need to be told to keep going. It might be the most important thing a teacher can give a student writer. I don’t mean I turn my classes into therapy sessions, but I talk a lot about how important it is to persevere, to keep the faith, to try and fail and keep trying. One must do as Winston Churchill famously implored his countrymen to do: never, never, never give up.
13. Apparently, there's a battle between Brooklyn and Portland for the hippest place in the country, what are your thoughts?
About this, I have only one thought: the amount of fuck I do not give about such battles is so gigantic it cannot be measured.
14. What do you feel the differences are between your different book publishers (Vintage, Houghton Mifflin, and Knopf)?
Vintage and Knopf are on the same team, both part of Random House. Vintage is my paperback publisher, Knopf my hardback. The amazing Robin Desser was my editor for both Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things and Vintage recently reissued my first book, Torch. I also just sold my next two books to Knopf, so Knopf/Vintage is my literary home. I’ve been very happy with how well they published my books, how incredibly supportive and enthusiastic they’ve been. Everyone at Knopf and Vintage who has anything to do with my books is outstanding at their job—publicists, sales reps, the wizards of design, marketing and god knows what else all those people who bring books into the world do. I’m so thankful for their work. Houghton Mifflin was also great to me when they published Torch back in 2006. I’ve been on many panels about the book business at conferences and at each one someone inevitably talks about big publishers as if they’re the evil empire—that all they care about is the bottom-line, or they’re too conventional, or they don’t give their authors the attention that small presses do. I’m sure this is true in some cases, but it hasn’t been my experience and it wasn’t my experience well before my books became bestsellers. My observation has been that big press or small, the people who work in this business are in it because they love books.
15. You had pictures taken for Vogue, what was it for and why?
Vogue ran an excerpt of WILD the month before it was published and they wanted a photograph of me to print alongside the excerpt.
16. You’ve been touring for your new books, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, do you enjoy it? What's the most interesting story, so far?
I do enjoy it. It energizes me, though it’s also exhausting. The most powerful part of the experience is meeting thousands of people who’ve made a very personal connection with something I’ve written. I’ve been humbled by the kindness, heart and generosity my readers have shown me at my events. I’ve often wished I had a camera strapped to my head so I could make a documentary of all the amazingly beautiful things people have said to me as I’ve signed their books, the stories they’ve told are astounding.
17. What do you think social media is doing for communication and literature? Helping, harming, both?
I think it helps when it comes to spreading the word and reaching new readers. Through social media, I’ve discovered dozens of writers I’d never previously read and probably wouldn’t have if someone had tweeted or posted a link. The success of the “Dear Sugar” column can be traced directly to social media. Almost all the people who read the column found it because some tweeted or posted: Read this.
18. You hiked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by yourself. How do you even begin to think about doing something like this?
Well, you’ll have to read Wild because the answer is inside. But honestly, I thought to do it because I knew I needed to shake up my life in a positive way. I needed to do something big and incredible because at that time I was feeling small and crappy. I knew the wilderness was the place that I felt most gathered, so I went there and gathered myself.
19. Your husband is filmmaker, Brian Lindstrom, does he have a lot of input on your work? Do you think that being a filmmaker gives him a different view of things?
We’re very supportive of each other. We give each other feedback. We hash things out together when one or the other of us is artistically stuck. I love that I don’t have to explain my work to my partner. He understands the struggles, the sorrows, the joys, the insecurities, the ego-bruises, the victories. We have a very similar aesthetic and sensibility. We’re both drawn to the same things, both gritty realists who dig into emotion. You could draw many lines between my work and his, not because we made each other that way, but we were each that way and then we found each other and the way we were deepened.
20. What's next for Cheryl Strayed?
Another book! That will be my answer until the day I die. Another book. Always that, always that.