American writer Cheryl Strayed has become a publishing phenomenon with Wild, her memoir of hiking hundreds of rugged miles solo along the Pacific Crest Trail as she works through the grief of losing her mother and a broken marriage.

The book has hit the top rungs of bestseller lists and even prompted Oprah Winfrey to bring back her book club so she could share it.

Movie rights sold

Strayed has optioned the movie rights for Wild to Reese Witherspoon's production company Pacific Standard.

The author will serve as an associate producer and consultant on the film adaptation, with direction from Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right). Witherspoon herself is tipped to play Strayed in the screen version. 

But Strayed, who turns 44 on Monday, says she is far from an overnight sensation.

She had a novel, Torch, published in 2006 and is the voice of a popular online advice column Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a secret that was widely known in her now home of Portland, Ore. The publication of a Tiny Beautiful Things book outed her to the rest of the world.

"I actually feel very fortunate that it took this long for me to have a crazy big hit. If it had happened at a younger age I would have thought well, that’s how this happens," Strayed said in an interview Thursday with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

Wild takes her back to her 20s, when she had come to an emotional nadir, estranged from her family, unable to deal with grief and experimenting with drugs.

"In 1995, when I decided to take this trek on the Pacific Crest Trail — this 1,100-mile solo trek — I was getting divorced. I had married very young to a man who was a good man, who I loved. There was so many great things about our relationship, but at that time I did not have the maturity to sustain a marriage," she said.


Cheryl Strayed's Wild is described as 'unflinchingly honest.' She set out to hike not knowing what she was doing. (Random House)

"That was especially true because my mother had died very suddenly of cancer at the age of 45 when I was a senior in college. Really my life spun out in the wake of that grief, my family fell apart."

Strayed recalls standing in line in an outdoor store, waiting to buy a snow shovel and noticing a book about the trail on a nearby stand.

"When I started reading that book, something inside of me opened," she recalls.

So although she had never hiked with a backpack before, she set out alone to walk the whole trail. It was a journey of intense physical and emotional challenges and she was taken even lower before she had the strength to manage her own grief.   Strayed tells Q she felt safe in the wilderness because she had grown up in rural Minnesota.

"In making this choice I was trying to return to something that was like home to me," she said.

She now says she considers journeys, especially those made in our youth, an important part of the human experience,

"There is such a mythic tradition of people journeying. When I was writing I was really conscious of that hero’s journey, where the hero goes off into the darkness and finds something new."