‘Wild’ author Cheryl Strayed to deliver free talk

photo of Strayed and Levy
Strayed, left, and Levy have been friends for about 20 years. Photo by Miriam Berkley (click to enlarge)

Cheryl Strayed, author of the New York Times bestseller “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” will be giving a free public talk on April 2 in the Hilton Fort Collins Ballroom.

Strayed, whose book was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Reese Witherspoon, will speak at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Creative Writing Reading Series at Colorado State University.

Her appearance is thanks to her friendship with a CSU faculty member. E.J. Levy, an associate professor in the English department and director of the series, has been friends with Strayed for more than two decades. Strayed and Levy met in Minnesota through a mutual friend, Gretchen Legler, a nature writer and author of All the Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook.

“Gretchen asked me to pick up Cheryl and bring her to a Christmas party in St. Paul that Gretchen was hosting,” said Levy. “Gretchen told me that Cheryl was an amazing person and writer, that we should know each other, but that I couldn’t become better friends with her than she was. We became great friends.”

Levy recalls the three of them taking canoeing trips in the area.

“Neither of us was a wilderness person, and Gretchen was queen of the wilderness,” she said with a laugh.

Graduate school

Levy said she probably wouldn’t have gone to graduate school if it hadn’t been for Strayed, who suggested that they apply together. When Levy won a $7,500 Loft-McKnight Fellowship grant that she and Strayed both applied for in the 1990s, she gave Strayed $1,500 of it. That “grant” paid Strayed’s student loans while she was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the subject of her popular memoir.

image of book cover“I would certainly count her as one of my dearest friends,” Levy said. “A lot of what I learned as a writer I learned from Cheryl. By watching her do things, I learned how to do them.”

Levy is an accomplished author as well. Her debut story collection, Love, In Theory, won the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award, a 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Award and a 2014 Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award (previously awarded to Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, and Mary Szybist for their first books).

Lasting friendship

Levy attended Strayed’s wedding about 10 years ago at the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, where Strayed ended the hike that inspired Wild. Despite the physical distance between them, their friendship has endured; Strayed is coming to Fort Collins to visit Levy and meet her 14-month-old baby.

“I’m thrilled that she’ll be coming to Fort Collins, where she has so many admirers, myself included,” Levy said. “She used to say often, ‘Let’s be famous old women together!’ I’m so happy that she’s a famous young woman. She’s really a model of sticking with it and not giving up. She’s in such demand now, it’s wonderful to have a chance to see her.”

In “Wild,” the movie based on Strayed’s book, Reese Witherspoon portrayed her character and Laura Dern played Strayed’s mother; both actresses were nominated for Academy Awards.

Strayed is also known for her advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things and the novel Torch. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. Strayed currently lives in Oregon with her husband and children.

The series

The Creative Writing Reading Series at CSU is organized by English Department faculty and the Organization of Graduate Student Writers (OGSW); Creative Writing faculty serve on a rotating basis as director of the series and faculty advisor to OGSW. The series has an annual budget of only $1,200 and relies on the support of the Associated Students of Colorado State University (ASCSU), the College of Liberal Arts dean’s office, donors, local businesses, and CSU’s English Department. Its spring 2015 events are made possible with support from CSU’s Lilla B. Morgan Memorial Endowment, a premier funder of the arts at CSU.

The series has hosted an impressive array of speakers, including Beat Generation poet Gary Snyder last September, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and National Book Award finalist Brenda Hillman in April 2014, and best-selling novelist Peter Heller in February. Mary Szybist, author of Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award in 2013, will speak on Sept. 17.

“We’re able to bring to campus people who are usually hard to see and costly to see,” Levy said.

Due to time constraints and the large audience expected for Strayed’s April 2 talk, she will not be signing books, but pre-signed copies of Wild will be available for purchase.

CSU’s master of fine arts in creative writing program was ranked among the top 50 in the country by Poets & Writers magazine in 2012. Notable alumni include Yusef Komunyakaa (’78), the first and to date only African-American man to have won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

To receive information about future events in the series, which are always free and open to the public, visit https://advancing.colostate.edu/CREATIVEWRITINGREADINGSERIES.