Sweet Talk: An Interview with SugarBy Quenby Moone
July 10, 2012
Cheryl Strayed and my husband Lars met when she wandered by the open window of our vacation rental in Sayulita, Mexico with her laptop open, looking desperately for a WiFi signal. She and Lars briefly bonded over their mutual and depressing need to be wired in paradise, and Lars pointed her toward a coconut palm that had the most reliable signal.
Why she needed connectivity in paradise was to communicate with her editors about the first draft of WILD, which she had delivered the day before her family left on this celebratory trip to Mexico.
Our family was having a celebratory visit as well, or maybe more of a last hurrah: my father Charles had Stage IV prostate cancer, so we decided we’d better take a family vacation in case we might not get another chance.
Later that day, her kids were splashing in the complex’s chilly pool when they engaged our son Milo in conversation.
“Where do you go to school?” Cheryl’s son asked.
Milo told him.
“Really?! I go there, too!”
It was safe to assume that their schools shared only a name, since both of our families were several thousand miles away from home on vacation. How many Kennedy Elementary’s or U.S. Grant’s must there be nationwide?
“Where’s your school?” her son persisted.
“Portland,” Milo replied, surprised less that their schools shared a name than that this boy was so friendly. Milo tends toward quiet observation, but he was so sweet that Milo cautiously bloomed in his presence.
Cheryl’s son lit up. “Me, too! Where in Portland?”
By this point the adults were intrigued, and as a group, we slowly pieced together that we lived about thirty blocks from each other roughly in the same neighborhood, 2,500 miles from this magical place: Sayulita, Mexico.
It now seems an almost mystical confluence of events.
What unfolded from this uncanny intersection was a joint family vacation, our kids playing like old friends, the adults lounging comfortably as if we had hashed the plans out together beforehand. Milo and Cheryl’s daughter discovered what can only be called the first blush of romance; Milo and Cheryl’s son had such similar dispositions it was as though they knew each other their entire lives. Our two families shared meandering walks to eat shrimp tacos, beach romps in the sand, and even her husband Brian’s birthday together on their veranda overlooking the sea. We discovered mutual acquaintances and friends back in Portland. We had similar interests, similar pasts.
Cheryl and I had the shared experience of cancer as well, and though we didn’t dwell upon it, she had a sympathy for our situation that was poignant, with her mother’s death being the formative event of her young adulthood. It was also the last time my father’s medication worked: his health began to decline practically as the plane landed from Mexico; Charles passed away six months later.
After we returned to Portland, it was surreal to see Cheryl again in our kitchen a couple weeks after our trip, where she told us she was taking over an advice column called Dear Sugar on The Rumpus from Steve Almond. Mexico was a precious secret we shared, and by moving it from Mexico to Portland–where our real lives competed for every waking moment–it became obvious how special it was. And now the secret identity of Sugar was special as well.
And though she didn’t know it, Cheryl had embarked on what would become her next great work. We watched from inside our Magical Mexican Bubble as Sugar began to take on a life of its own and snowball in popularity. Cheryl would tell us funny anecdotes about living her double life. It was exciting and exhausting and all-encompassing; she poured herself into Sugar’s advice to the hopelessly distraught, sexually confused, powerfully wounded, and was rewarded with a loyalty that few advice columnists have garnered.
Her column lays it all out, too. Sugar didn’t pen a few plucky paragraphs about how to pick yourself up by your socks and move on from whatever horrors befell you–in many cases Sugar’s letters were heart-rending exhumations of her own past in search of parallels to the advice-seeker’s situation. She didn’t shy from plumbing her own failings, flaws, and troubles.
But in the end, Sugar’s columns are about heart and love. Not saccharine, treacly love that comes from greeting cards, but the gritty, painful, sometimes mundane work it takes to love yourself, warts and all.
Tiny Beautiful Things isn’t really a compilation of her advice columns. More, it’s a series of essays about life in all its grimy, unpleasant heartache, and a plea to rise above it to love truthfully and deeply and well, despite all our handicaps. Sugar navigates the path through the treacherous human psyche as a shining beacon before us, flickering in the dark.
It’s a measure of Cheryl’s well-deserved success that her schedule is so crammed that we couldn’t figure out a time for this interview. Instead, I reread her columns and wrote a series of questions, which she then answered the way Sugar answers her letters: generously. Perhaps from sterile locations: planes, trains, airports, and hotel rooms, while she misses Portland and her family and friends. But Sugar gives her best, even when she’s tired.
Our family was fortunate to have the Sugars to ourselves for a special, secret moment, but I’m glad that the world is learning about all the love that Sugar has to give.
Quenby Moone: You had just finished your first draft of WILD and came back from Mexico when Steve Almond handed you the reins to Sugar. It was sort of a lark, a crazy idea. You didn’t have a sense of it being the next thing, did you? What were your thoughts and expectations about it before you began writing the column?
Cheryl Strayed: My very first thought is that I’d try to be snarky/funny. Almost immediately that idea fell away because it’s simply not my style. So then I did my thing: sincere and sweet, with some sass and humor thrown in.
QM: I remember a Facebook post you wrote shortly after you came out as Sugar. You wrote that you kept forgetting you could post Sugar’s updates under Cheryl Strayed’s account, and I actually felt sympathetically naked on your behalf. How was that adjustment from two identities to one?
CS: It was such a relief. By the time I revealed my identity hundreds of people knew I was Sugar—they’d either been told or they’d guessed it themselves after reading something I wrote with my name on it—but thousands of people didn’t know. It was exhausting trying to remember who knew and who didn’t and trying to keep up the ruse. I’d always known I’d someday reveal my identity, so it wasn’t as if I was suddenly freaked out about the things I’d written about myself as Sugar. The anonymity was never a blanket when it came to self-revelation. And yet there was this funny transition period during which I kept forgetting I didn’t have to keep the secret anymore.
QM: You’ve been touring and doing tons of promotion since March for WILD’s release. You haven’t had a second to catch your breath–and now it’s starting again for your book TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS—the book of your “Dear Sugar” columns. How are Mr. Sugar and the mini-Sugars dealing with such a busy (and famous) mama? What about you?
CS: I spend a lot of time worrying about how my kids are dealing with me traveling and working so much, but they’re doing great. They miss me when I’m away or home but busy working, but they don’t feel tortured about it the way I do. Mr. Sugar and I talk to them a lot about how this is a really intense year in our family’s life and they seem to get it. I’m deeply grateful to have the opportunity to promote my books as I have—I know how fortunate I am to do that—but that doesn’t mean I’m not utterly exhausted. These past couple of years have been incredibly busy for me.
It wasn’t as if it just started up when WILD came out, but when it did I went from being crazy-busy to impossibly overworked. I was complaining to [author] Pam Houston about this and she helpfully reminded me it won’t always be this way. There are calmer years ahead.
QM: You’ve always been dialed into the literary community nationwide, and really love knowing writers and championing writing. There were a few people in the writing community who knew Cheryl Strayed was Sugar from the outset, but most of your friends and acquaintances didn’t. With the adoption of Sugar’s mantle, you suddenly had this massive secret identity–the Diana Prince of lit. Many of your writer friends had no idea you were Sugar. That must have felt tricky.
CS: I don’t think many of my writer friends didn’t know who I was by the end. Many of my “friends” on Facebook didn’t know, but anyone who knew me or read my work had figured it out by the time I revealed my identity. There were a couple of exceptions.
And there were definitely funny experiences along the way—in the first year I was Sugar, before many had figured it out or been told. Several friends posted links to the Sugar column on my Facebook page saying things like, “This reminds me of you” or “I think you’ll totally relate to this.” It was clear it hadn’t even entered their minds that in fact I WROTE THAT PIECE. I didn’t know how to reply. I usually just left it at: “Thanks! I’ll read it soon.”
QM: On the flip side, despite the internet feeling designed for exhibitionism, self-aggrandizement and gossip, I was totally heartened to learn that fans who figured out who “Sugar” was kept your secret until you decided to share it with everyone. It was an amazing, collective honorable gesture.
CS: I agree. I was really touched by that and surprised too. There were a few people who made public online statements guessing I was Sugar, but most people kept my secret once they knew. It’s entirely contrary to what I would have guessed would happen, but that’s true with so much about the Sugar experience.
QM: WILD and TORCH are long pieces of writing, edited numerous times before their release. But Sugar is anecdotal, episodic by necessity, and often written with minutes to spare for your [self-imposed?] deadline. What have you learned about the craft of writing from the “column” experience?
CS: It makes me laugh to think about how I write the columns. I break all my own writing advice, primarily the notion that one should let the work sit for a time before calling it done. It’s not as if I just dash the columns off—I spend hours on each one, going over it time and time again—but it’s true many were composed in the twelve hours before they went live on The Rumpus and finished only minutes before.
I think part of the reason I can do that is I’ve worked my writing muscle for so many years I can fall back on those skills, but the other part is there is something about the intensity of Sugar’s voice, the urgency of advice-giving, that not only allows me to write my columns in essentially a late-night-desperation-fever state, but necessitates it.
QM: There’s one particular column, “The Obliterated Place,” that comes back to me often. The letter is from a father who lost his adult child to a drunk driver and cannot get his life back on track. He’s so lost he can’t find any reason to continue doing anything–his life was to live for his child, and once his child was gone, that’s it: there’s nothing but the hole.
The letter is so heartbreaking that when I read it the first time, I could not figure out how Sugar could possibly have any advice. It was too momentous, too tragic. But you rose to that excruciating pain and wrote one of the most lovely, measured and balanced responses to this howling void.
You admit in an introduction to a section in TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS you have no professional training–your life is the only guide. Because of the tone of some of the letters–this is a perfect example–did you ever have a sense of impossible urgency? Or panic? A sense that someone needed more than you could give?
CS: I feel a tremendous amount of pressure at times. Whenever I spend an hour reading through my Sugar inbox I feel the edge of panic. So many people are suffering and I have a deep desire to alleviate that in the small way that I can. It’s humbling and harrowing.
I take solace in the fact that even if I haven’t answered every letter—and there is no way I possibly could, as they number in the thousands—I write the column in such a way that I am never truly addressing only the letter writer. Our experiences feel entirely specific and particular, but almost all of them are also universal. Writing shows us that. That’s why we love it so much. It allows us to join the human circle. It folds us into the endless unfolding. I agonized over what I had to give that man who’d lost his son, and yet I knew from the moment I read his letter that I would give him what I give everyone who writes to me: my open palms.
QM: Mr. Sugar and the baby Sugars are subjects in several of your columns. But once Cheryl Strayed became Sugar in the eyes of the public, the Sugars also came into a sharper relief.
Nonfiction in general is difficult in this respect–one wants to be true and honest in the telling of our lives, but also keep a zone of separation, or privacy for loved ones. How did you navigate this or weigh the consequences?
CS: I always wrote the column with the knowledge that Sugar would someday be known as Cheryl Strayed and that Mr. Sugar and the baby Sugars would also be revealed through me, so I was mindful of what I was writing about all the while. I write very openly and intimately as both Cheryl and Sugar and while doing that I’m constantly engaged with questions of privacy and risk. I don’t think writing is about blabbing every fact of your life, but I don’t think it’s about hiding either. I try to only reveal what’s necessary to get to a greater truth.
QM: It’s almost impossible to not write letters to Sugar in my head after reading a column; everyone wants help with something in their lives. What could Sugar help Cheryl with?
CS: There’s an astrologer I wrote about briefly in Wild. Her name is Pat Kaluza. She’s amazing. She read my chart twenty years ago, when I was twenty-three and said many powerful things to me that I never forgot and one of those things made its way into my book.
A few months before Wild was published, I thought it would be fun to have my chart read again, so I tracked Pat down online and made an appointment. We had another great conversation and the most important thing she told me about the year ahead is to remember that I am part of the equation. That has become my mantra: I am part of the equation. It seems like such a simple and obvious notion, but it’s a difficult one for me to live out. I like to feel needed. I like to help people. I like to share myself and be generous. Doing those things makes me feel loved and it’s also a way for me to give love.
But sometimes doing that gets twisted and I give too much and then I feel miserable and resentful. I get myself in situations in which I’ve delivered to everyone but myself. I forget that I’m part of the equation. And so I’m working really, really hard on remembering that right now.
One way it’s played out is in the “Dear Sugar” column itself. I had every intention of continuing to write a new column every other week all through my book promotions, but I’ve found that impossible to do. I’m truly, unspeakably busy. So my new approach is to write the column whenever I can and not feel guilty about it and not apologize for it. It’s hard. People write to me and beg me to get back to the column. They ask if I’ve abandoned them. That totally pushes my “they need me!” buttons.
But it’s silliness. Sugar hasn’t abandoned anyone. She never, ever would. She’s just finally making herself part of the equation.
CHERYL STRAYED is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Torch, and memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was published in March of 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf. She has been writing The Rumpus’s “Dear Sugar” column since March of 2010, and her stories and essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine,The Washington Post Magazine, Allure, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review, The Sun, The Best American Essays, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Amazing, this story of your chance meeting with her. That’s the kind of a connection that would convince me something good is afoot in the cosmos.
I recently finished Wild and feel like I was standing just off the trail watching but unable to help or offer water (or Snapple), but she got through by some miracle and ended up where she is now, with fans everywhere, having plowed through to Oprah even.
On another note entirely, I deeply appreciate the way she writes about men, hiding neither anger, nor desire, but with always a real love for the male species. She meets us with an unusual warmth and respect. But then she does this with most all subjects.
It was a great chance meeting–and yet completely ordinary, too. I think that’s the place where magic lives.
Anyway, yes. Amazing. Thanks, Nat.