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Sherri Richards, Published March 13 2013

Strayed toward home: ‘Wild’ author to speak at UND Writers Conference

While the crocuses bloom near her home in Portland, Ore., heavy snow falls in northern Minnesota, the place Cheryl Strayed considers her homeland.

It’s the place where her longest journey began. Where her mother died, her marriage crumbled, and the idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail took root, a chapter of her life compellingly told in her best-selling memoir, “Wild.”

This month, Strayed returns to this homeland for library events, then makes her first appearance in North Dakota since “Wild” went wild. She’ll be part of the University of North Dakota Writers Conference on March 21 in Grand Forks.

Writers Conference organizers secured Strayed for the 2013 event last year, shortly before “Wild” was released. Before Oprah Winfrey made it the first pick of her revamped book club, before it topped the New York Times bestseller list and before Reese Witherspoon’s production company optioned the film rights. When she was best-known as an essayist and author of an award-winning novel “Torch” and recently was revealed as advice-giver “Sugar” on TheRumpus.net.

Strayed will take part in a noon panel discussion with fellow memoirist Nick Flynn and poet Ed Bok Lee. She’ll read from “Wild” at 8 p.m. March 21, discussing her life, her hike, the writing process and what’s happened since.

This month, Strayed spoke with The Forum about “Wild,” “Torch” and “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a compilation of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns, as well as what’s next.

Q In “Wild,” you write that when you left for your hike, you knew you were leaving Minnesota forever. What is it like to return to the area?

A I’ve returned several times on my book tours, both for “Torch” and “Wild” and “Tiny Beautiful Things.” I think what I meant by that is I’m not coming back to live there. That’s different to me than coming back to visit. I love to come back to visit. And I would also, I’m sure, enjoy living there. It’s just that, I will say, that place is so full of ghosts for me.

It’s really a place of my past life. Like many pioneers before me, I came West to start fresh, to start a new era of my life. It does feel nice to have that distance.

Q You set “Torch” in northern Minnesota, and so many other details of the novel reflect your own story. Why did you feel compelled to write a fictionalized version first?

A One of the complicated things always about “Torch” is both things are true. It is based really strongly on my experiences. There’s no question. It’s set in a place that’s like the place I grew up. I didn’t feel any obligation to have it be the place I grew up. … It’s always hard to explain to people it’s drawn from life, and based from a lot of experiences I had, and it’s totally a novel; it’s fiction.

The reason I wanted to write it first is, first of all, it never occurred to me to write about my hike until recently. It wasn’t like I thought, OK, here’s a book. I thought it was an important experience, but I didn’t feel like it was a book.

When I was really developing as a writer, fiction was my first love. … It was novels that I was looking to as models of the kind of book I wanted to write. And I loved that I could both tell the truth in big ways, about what was true in my heart and in my life, but also not be bound by it.

I could go line by line through the novel with two different colors of highlighter, or maybe three different colors, and it could be completely true, completely not true and a combination of both things. And more than you think would be completely not true.

Q Your mother’s death has shaped so much of your writing. Do you feel your experience is representative of other people who lost their mothers at a young age? Or do you think you experienced the loss at a deeper level because of your close bond?

A I have definitely felt aware in myself as a writer, like, “Ugh, get over it. Why are you writing about your mom?” And lambasting myself for it, or feeling funny I’ve written about this so much.

But one of the things that’s so absolutely mind-blowing to me is how many, thousands I’m telling you, thousands and thousands of people at this point, have written to me, come to my events, sent e-mails, posted on Facebook or Twitter. They all say “thank you, because I know exactly what you mean. I lost my mom or my son or my brother,” whoever it is, if it’s that person who is essential to them. And they say that I’ve expressed what they feel.

I did love my mother extraordinarily. And we did have an extraordinary bond. And also, it’s true that she was really my only parent. There are times when people lose a mom or lose somebody close to them where they don’t quite experience it at the magnitude that I have. But I think more people do than we think.

Q You now have two children. How has motherhood shaped your writing?

A I think that every year, I grow up a little more. I know a little bit more about the world. The whole work of being a writer has to do with trying to really get at what does it mean to be human and illuminate that on the page through your writing. Certainly, becoming a mother is one of those experiences where you get to see a whole aspect of what it means to be human that you can only see through that experience.

That doesn’t mean people who aren’t parents don’t have great wisdom. This isn’t a competition. … But I will say becoming a parent was incredibly empowering to me, and it shifted my point of view, it cracked my heart open in a way I really couldn’t have imagined without experiencing it. It gave me a lot more compassion. I was always a compassionate person, but even more so, for everyone. Everyone is somebody’s baby. When you have a baby or two of your own who you love dearly, you really reflect in a more emotional way upon that simple truth. We were all born to someone and that we’ll also all die.

Q You talk about your compassion, which is clear in “Dear Sugar.” Have you always been one to give advice?

A I think probably. If you asked my siblings, they’d say “Yes, she was always bossing us around.” (Laughs) I’m certainly a pretty outspoken person. It’s not like I think that I was the best person to come to for advice, but I’m pretty easy with expressing what I think people should do if they ask me. And probably more importantly, I’m definitely somebody who my friends can come to and tell me things and I won’t be judgmental.

But I didn’t stumble into Sugar thinking I was a great advice giver. I honestly didn’t conceive of myself of an advice giver. I had never thought of writing an advice column and hadn’t really read many advice columns. It was completely new to me. I took it on because it seemed interesting. Pretty soon, I realized, as I said, the writer’s job is to figure out what it means to be human and illuminate that on the page. So, all of that training of a writer that I’d done was really preparing me to give advice.

You really have to get inside, whether it’s a fictional character or yourself, you have to get inside to that deeper rubble. What’s motivating you in that situation? What are you lying to yourself about? What are you revealing and concealing? All those things that we do, that real people do. In Sugar, I was able to use that in a real life way. People were actually writing to me about their problems and I was actually trying to figure out some way of helping them see it in a bigger and deeper and more lucid way.

Q So what’s next?

A I’d really like to turn back to the work that I really love to do and that’s writing. I would like to write some more Sugar columns, but what I really want to do is get to work on another book.

I’ve got two that I’ve started and sort of dabbling in them. One’s a memoir and one’s a novel. I’m not sure exactly which I’m going to write first. I think that so often that what’s happened in my life is the writing has led me to the next thing in my life. I just need to get to that quiet place where I can just sit down and write again.

If you go

What: University of North Dakota 44th Writers Conference

When: Tuesday through March 23

Where: Memorial Union Ballroom, Grand Forks, N.D.

Info: Cheryl Strayed will speak during a noon panel and 8 p.m. reading March 21. Other authors taking part in this year’s conference include Tony Kushner, Ed Bok Lee, Nick Flynn and Mary Jo Bang.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556.