Cheryl Strayed optioned the movie rights for her acclaimed memoir “Wild” to Reese Witherspoon’s production company and admits it will be strange to see her story as a film — with the Oscar winner portraying her on the big screen.
Strayed will serve as an associate producer and consultant on the film adaptation, which will be written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”).
The moving memoir documents her gruelling, solo 1,770-kilometre hike of the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon — with no previous experience as a long-distance hiker. Strayed makes the impulsive decision to embark on the journey following her mother’s death and the subsequent fracturing of her family and marriage — all part of a harrowing downward spiral.
“Inevitably, there are going to be scenes that are very close to the book … that they take almost exactly how it is in the book, and it’ll be very strange for me to see somebody who’s playing me. That’s the weird part,” Strayed said in an interview at Random House of Canada’s downtown offices during a promotional tour.
“I’m going to watch a famous actress playing a younger version of myself,” she added, laughing. “It’s just strange all around.”
Universal themes of love, loss and the quest for life’s deeper meaning anchor the heart-wrenching tale, which has resonated with a wide audience. Strayed shared a particularly poignant moment with a reader at a recent Toronto appearance.
“A woman came up to me and said, ‘My nine-and-a-half-year-old child died,'” she recalled. “I took her hands and she said, ‘Your book changed my life. Your book gave me a way forward out of my grief.’ That is so moving to me.
“And then (there are) other people who are in their 20s, and just at that moment where they’re like, ‘What am I doing with my life? How do I define my path? How do I find it? Is it OK if I’ve made all these mistakes?’ So that group talks to me. And then middle-aged people and lots and lots of older people, too.”
Strayed said she believes people see different things in her story, but what they’re essentially seeing is themselves.
“I’m writing my story, and it always feels small. It always feels like this is just my story: `How are you going to connect?'” she said “But you have to trust that when you tell the truth about your life, other people will recognize it; that there is this thread of humanity and that we are all the same in spite of our differences.”
She wrote in “Wild” about selecting Strayed as her new legal surname following her divorce, describing the moniker’s “layered definitions” as those which spoke to her life and also struck a poetic chord.
Now married to filmmaker Brian Lindstrom and mother to two children, Strayed, who turns 44 on Sept. 17, waited years following the 1995 hike to start writing the book.
Strayed said she needed the time to further develop as a writer. She also believes much of the perspective she brings was gained both during the hike and through making sense of events afterwards.
One such example was the almost-comical description of piling her belongings into her pack before embarking on the hike and realizing it was so heavy she couldn’t move it.
“It wasn’t until I was writing that scene that it was like, ‘OK, I literally cannot bear this weight,’ that I could also see this was also figuratively true — that my life felt unbearable. My suffering felt unbearable at that time. The world without my mother felt unbearable,” she said. “It was through writing that it was like, ‘So, that’s what that meant.’
“In a lot of ways, that’s why I had to have all that heavy stuff. That’s why I had to carry that pack. I had to enact — in a physical way — what I was experiencing inside.”
“Monster,” as the pack is dubbed, sits tucked away in the basement of her Portland, Ore., home, and Strayed still uses it. However, the pain-inducing hiking boots are gone.
Much of the unflinching portrait of the physical toll of the hike centres on her bruised, battered feet, down to vivid descriptions of plucking out her blackened toenails.
Among the questions she’s asked, Strayed said queries about her feet rank No. 1.
“They’re like, ‘My feet hurt when I was reading'” she said, adding that her feet are OK and the toenails have regrown.
While the trek is long behind her, it’s never far from mind for Strayed, who marks the 17th anniversary of the hike’s end on Sept. 15.
Every year over Labour Day weekend, Strayed and her family head to Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon where she stayed days before ending her hike.
Strayed said the weather conditions and landscape remain much as they did when she was travelling the trail, and she often meets with other hikers coming through on their personal treks.
“It’s very funny,” she said. “It’s like I get to go visit a former self or something when I go there.”