A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed
What can you tell us about the genesis of Torch?
I began to write the novel in its most rudimentary form more than ten years ago, when I was in my early twenties, shortly after my mother died young and of cancer, like the character of Teresa in the novel. My mother's death and my family's subsequent grief, which I fictionalized in Torch, lent itself to the kind of deep character excavation I was compelled to do as a writer. I've always been most interested in exploring relationships and delving into what motivates us, what complicates us, what crushes and saves us and, quite naturally, I've drawn from my own life experiences to do that in both my fiction and my nonfiction. The personal essays I've written for magazines like Allure and Self and the New York Times Magazine and The Sun all explore the same kinds of themes I do in Torch. Having said that, real life is only the raw material from which the story is spun and so the process of writing is not cathartic, but instead creative. Certainly, there are scenes in Torch that are close to my heart, but I didn't write Torch in order to transform myself, but rather to reach those who would be transformed by reading it.
Teresa's radio show, Modern Pioneers!, serves as a central motif throughout Torch, binding Bruce and Joshua and Claire together even when they've come profoundly apart, and also literally bringing Teresa's voice back long after she has died. How did you get the idea to use the radio in that way?
Like Claire and Joshua in Torch, I spent a good deal of my adolescence living without electricity, which meant without a television. What we had instead was a radio that my stepfather hooked up to a car battery. We could get a public station from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, much like the one I've written about in Torch, full of programs hosted by locals who essentially made it up as they went along. When I got older and moved away from home, I spent time in a number of small towns across the United States in New Mexico, Wyoming, and Massachusetts, to name a few and in each of those places the radio served as the same kind of lifeline, the same quirky, intelligent, endearing voice of, by, and for the community. Those radio stations are a real and important part of life in much of rural and small-town America, and so it seemed only right that that reality be reflected in my novel.
Plus, I am a huge radio fan. When we read books, it's largely up to us to construct the visual world of the story. Radio has that same power to provoke our imaginations. I had a mad crush on one of the hosts on an NPR show until I saw him in person, not because of the way he looked but because I had constructed his persona based on his voice the visual component changed all that. I wanted Teresa to work that same kind of mystery and magic on her listeners in Torch, to belong to her community more powerfully than an ordinary citizen would and, more important, to allow those who loved her most Bruce and Claire and Joshua to experience the pain and the joy of hearing her voice after she was dead.
Was it a challenge for you to take up a subject so fraught with emotion?
The challenge had less to do with writing Torch than it does with talking about it. When people hear the words cancer, grief, or loss in the context of a novel, they often have preconceived ideas about what they are about to read. There is a rule in contemporary literary fiction that one's writing must never be sentimental, which often results in writing that lacks sentiment entirely. And so we have a number of stories about grief in which the actual loss is never addressed directly and the emotions of the characters are portrayed only furtively, often leaving the reader rather indifferent in response. On the other hand, there's an enormous body of work in writing, film, and television in which cancer and grief are depicted in ways that really are too sentimental and melodramatic for the reader or viewer to have any kind of authentic reaction. In Torch, I set out to do something different, to write with sincerity and complexity, with emotion as well as restraint, and, of course, with humor. I write literary realism and so I wanted my novel to seem like life, which means that it had to contain the range of emotions we experience when we suffer a deep loss. There are light, hilarious moments, as well as terribly sad ones. There is the beautiful as well as the gritty truth. All of these things are pushed up against one another in Torch. For example, in the scene when Bruce is in Teresa's hospital room the morning she dies, he isn't sitting by her bedside weeping and professing his love; instead he is forcibly jamming green Jell-O into her mouth, trying desperately brutally as well as somewhat comically to keep her alive. He doesn't tell her it's OK to die; he insists that it isn't. But then he lies down next to her and gently holds her. Ultimately, he gives in to the only thing he has, which is his love.
The setting of the novel the small town of Midden, in rural Coltrap County, Minnesota has the presence of something like a character, as do the collective community members and businesses that make up the town and county. What made you want to write about these people and this particular place?
I grew up in northern Minnesota in a place much like the fictional setting in Torch. By the time I began to think seriously of myself as a writer when I was nineteen or twenty I lived in an entirely different landscape and community as a college student in the Twin Cities. The children of the middle and upper classes become more like their parents and the adults in their community when they go off to college, but children of the working and poor classes like me become less so. In the course of attaining an education and exploring the world more broadly, I was in some ways estranging myself from the people I'd loved and known best in my life. And yet this isn't to say that the people I loved and knew best or the place I came from was in any way small or uninteresting or less complicated and sophisticated than the urban, more cultured world I was beginning to occupy. In fact, the opposite was true, and I could see that more clearly once I lived outside of that world. There are riches there, stories to tell. It's the landscape I feel most connected to, provoked by, and passionate about, so it was a natural choice for me to set Torch there.
That difference you speak of, between urban culture and rural culture, serves as a thematic undercurrent throughout the novel.
Yes, and it's rooted, ultimately, in class. Like many rural communities across America, Midden is a place where there are two clearly defined groups of people: the locals and the visitors. In Torch, as in real life, the locals refer to the visitors as "city apes," a term that captures the lighthearted resentment the locals have toward the visitors, who almost always have more money than the locals. Their houses, which sit empty three quarters of the year, are bigger and newer, their cars are fancier and shinier. So the visitors have a material power that the locals don't have, and yet there is also a way in which the locals are superior, or at least believe themselves to be, and that is the power that comes from living a hardscrabble existence deeply rooted to the land. The people of Coltrap County, like the real Minnesota county in which I came of age, are generally poorer, less educated, less well-traveled, and less fashionably dressed than the urban people who make places like Coltrap County their vacation playground. Because of that they are branded hicks and rednecks and country bumpkins, and yet there is also a reverse sort of discrimination. A phrase I heard a lot growing up was book knowledge, and it was almost always spoken with a fair amount of scorn. Books and formal education were not to be trusted entirely. More valuable was the practical knowledge gained in the course of a life lived hard. In Torch, Claire straddles that urban/rural divide as she goes off and becomes educated, caught between two worlds, while Joshua has to confront the fact that he's never going to leave Midden after all, despite his claims that he will soon move to his much-idealized California. And characters like Bruce and Leonard and Mardell, who rely on the business of the so-called city apes for their livelihood, struggle with that divide in a very different way.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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