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memoirist, love of fiction

Cheryl Strayed

Joni Kabana

As she recounts in her memoir “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed is such a devoted reader that she packed a small library of books in her backpack when she hiked the some 2,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed speaks at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference this Saturday at 8:30 p.m. at the Hynes Convention Center.

Books: What are you reading currently?

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Strayed: The memoir “Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere” by a writer who I have long admired, Poe Ballentine. It’s not out until September. It’s about his life in this little Nebraska town. During the course of the memoir there’s a murder. I am also reading “Eating Dirt” by the Canadian Charlotte Gill. She worked for 20 years as a tree planter in these clear cuts. And I’m reading George Saunders’s story collection, “Tenth of December.” He was my mentor at the University of Syracuse. The stories are mind-blowing like everyone says.

Books: Can you characterize the kind of books that draw you?

Strayed: With fiction, it could be about anything. It just has to be good writing, like Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” which I read recently. I want to forget I have a book in my hand.

Books: Do you read mostly contemporary fiction?

Strayed: I do, because I want to keep up on what’s happening. But then a few times a year I’ll remember that I love old literature, too. Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” is one of my 10 favorite books. I have to go out of my way to remember to pick up a book like that, but when I do I’m blown away by how very relevant it still is.

Books: Is there one book you find yourself recommending a lot?

Strayed: “The Glen Rock Book of the Dead”  by Marion Winik. There are micro chapters, only one to four pages long, in which she writes little portraits of everyone in her life who’s died.

Books: Have your tastes changed over time?

Strayed: My tastes haven’t, but I have, so I’m a slightly different reader. The books I read in my 20s that I thought were phenomenal, if I read them now what would I think? What would I think of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” or Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina?” If they didn’t blow me away now that wouldn’t be a comment on the quality of the book, but on how I’ve changed.

Books: How did you manage to take so many books on your hike?

Strayed: One of the scandalous things I did was as I read them afterward I would burn them. I loved them, but for practical reasons I had to lighten the load. I burned favorites, like William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” There’s a whole list in the back of my book. It’s me, Hitler, Mussolini, and Pol Pot. We’re the book burners.

Books: What was the most meaningful book to you on your long hike?

Strayed: “The Dream of a Common Language” by Adrienne Rich. I carried it the entire hike. On my first night, when I felt like I was in too deep, I read the first poem out loud to myself over and over.

Books: Who are the poets you like to read now?

Strayed: Erin Belieu. Every time I read her work I’m pierced in that wonderful way poetry can. Major Jackson is another tremendously talented poet. Sharon Olds’s new collection, “Stag’s Leap,” is really good. Cate Marvin is fabulous, too. She reminds me of Sylvia Plath. I really came to literature through poetry. My family didn’t go to church. Once when I slept over at the house of a friend, her parents brought me to Sunday school with her. I was given this little pamphlet of tiny poems about the natural world, about butterflies and sunsets. My 7-year-old self was so astounded by how these few words were creating pictures and feelings in me.

Amy Sutherland

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