Books

Cheryl Strayed Talks “Wild” and “Beautiful” at Harvard Book Store

By Amanda Festa  

As I approached Harvard Book Store in anticipation of hearing Wild author Cheryl Strayed read from her latest work, Tiny Beautiful Things, I expected it to be busy.  Running a bit late, I overheard two girls scurrying up the escalator of the train station bickering nervously about whether or not they would have time to grab a cup of coffee before heading in to find seats.  We would soon learn the answer to that question would be no.  In fact, we would have had to get in our time machine and travel back a good hour or two in order to even discuss the possibility of getting a seat in the room where Strayed would be speaking.  The room was at capacity, with people overflowing into the bookstore and pressing themselves against the backs of registers and display tables, hoping that maybe if they craned their necks just so, they might get a peek of the author.  Luckily for those of us who did not make it in time, there were monitors located around the store for our viewing pleasure.  Francis McGovern and I wound our way through the aisles, stepping around people who had already taken up residence on patches of floor space throughout the store.  We were on a mission, a beeline to a nearby monitor, and yet when I am in a bookstore I tend to become easily distracted by all of the—ooh new releases.

We ultimately claimed a spot, fittingly for the occasion, at the end of the ‘Memoir and Biography’ aisle.  Around us were groups of squatters passing the time rifling through the bottom rows of books and displays of calendars that were arranged nearby.  The place was so packed that my inner Girl Scout had me looking around for the closest fire exit, just in case.  The best view we could achieve found us staring upwards at a small monitor hanging from the ceiling that showed a blurred image of the podium, the camera angled in such a way that Strayed was cut off at the neck.  Alas, from the picture quality and camera work, I cannot be 100% sure she was even in there and we weren’t watching a pre-recorded television feed of a woman’s torso from the early 1980s that’s reception was gathered from a tinfoil wrapped antenna.

Yet, while the view was not ideal, it was more than enough, and I was very grateful to the Harvard Book Store for the opportunity to hear an author as engaging and talented as Strayed speak.   From the moment she began her unneeded self-introduction to the final answer of her Q&A, she was warm, charming and humbly hilarious.

When speaking about her latest work, Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns she wrote anonymously for The Rumpus under the pseudonym Sugar, she relayed how she had come to take over the position of Sugar from short story writer and essayist, Steve Almond.  She believed him to be extremely funny and found the task of filling his shoes daunting, nervous that, while she was great at evoking tears, she wasn’t known for provoking much laughter.  This statement in itself was funny, since it is simply untrue, a fact that anyone in the Harvard Book Store that night could attest to.

Strayed is as witty as she is modest, opening up her discussion with a very funny anecdote from a prior visit to Boston, when she was in town promoting Wild.  During the Q&A an elderly gentleman in the front row had posited the question of whether or not she had ever had sex for food. Instead of taking offense or quickly moving on to the next, she replied with the quick wit we all wish we possessed:  “No, do you want to have dinner?”

Although currently on tour promoting Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed split her discussion between both books, gratifying fans of Wild, such as myself, who were secretly hoping she would do just that.  Maybe Strayed is intuitive that way, just as she is when she is doling out advice in her “Dear Sugar” column.  Comparing her latest work to Wild, she insists that they are really not all that different.  She read from Wild, a scene which has her approaching her heavy pack for the first time, at first unable to even lift it from the ground. When finally she stands with it on her back the accomplishment is simultaneously physical and emotional.  She explains with a breezy yet powerful air of wisdom that, at their core, both works are simply about “bearing the weight that we find unbearable.”

Cheryl Strayed is a remarkable woman: endearing, engaging, witty and astute, with an incredible talent for turning the most human of experiences into lyrical expressions that are so raw that one cannot help but be inspired.  Hauntingly lyrical and brutally hilarious at turns, yet even in her most ribald of responses, she is insightful and speaks not only to the questioner or the readers, but to humankind itself, in a way that is quite beautiful and not so tiny at all.