A GLORIOUS FREEDOM | INTERVIEW WITH CHERYL STRAYED

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The glory of growing older is the freedom to be more truly ourselves—with age we gain the liberty to pursue bold new endeavors and worry less about what other people think. In this richly illustrated volume, bestselling author and artist Lisa Congdon explores the power of women over the age of forty who are thriving and living life on their own terms. Profiles, interviews, and essays from women—including Vera Wang, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Julia Child, Cheryl Strayed, and many more—who’ve found creative fulfillment and accomplished great things in the second half of their lives are lavishly illustrated and hand-lettered in Congdon’s signature style. The perfect gift for women of all ages, A Glorious Freedom celebrates extraordinary lives and redefines what it means to gain wisdom and maturity.

The following is an extract from A Glorious Freedom by Lisa Congdon.


Cheryl’s famous memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published when she was 43 years old. It took her two and a half years to trace the steps, challenges, and revelations she faced during her three-month, 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest onto paper—and about two minutes for the finished book to land on the New York Times bestseller list. In the months following, Cheryl experienced instant fame—from Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 to the film adaptation championed by Reese Witherspoon and Nick Hornby, Wild went, well, wild. It is an international bestseller and a recipient of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award and the Oregon Book Award. Cheryl is also the author of the New York Times bestsellers Tiny Beautiful Things and Brave Enough. Her first novel, Torch, was published in 2007. Her essays have been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Vogue, and Tin House, among others, and her work has been selected three times for inclusion in the The Best American Essays. She anonymously authored The Rumpus’s popular Dear Sugar advice column from 2010 to 2012, for which she now cohosts a podcast. She currently lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

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Lisa: You worked for many years at writing, and it wasn’t until just a few short years ago, in your early 40s, you published the book that made you a household name. I encounter a lot of young artists who imagine that if they just concoct some magical formula they can have “instant success.” How would you describe the role of purpose, work, and patience in your own journey?

Cheryl: I was a successful writer long before Wild was published. What happened with Wild wasn’t “success.” It was crazy lightning striking. I’m always taken aback when people imply that I achieved success in my 40s. In fact, I had a pretty steady upward career trajectory as a writer, and all of that came about because, as you say, I showed up each day to do the work. I began publishing in my 20s. By the time I was in my early 30s I had won many awards and grants, and was publishing in respected magazines, and I’d earned my MFA in creative writing. In my mid-30s I sold my first novel to a major publisher and it was broadly reviewed and sold well. Meanwhile, I was continuing to publish essays in prominent places and I was also teaching writing.

I was known in the literary community. Then Wild happened and with that came fame and a much broader international audience. It was astounding and glorious, but it didn’t, for me, mark the beginning of the sense that I’d arrived as a writer. I was already there and I’m still here—working my tail off. That’s the magic formula: work.

Lisa: One of the most life-changing lessons I’ve learned over the past ten years is the power of embracing all of my life experience, and this is something you write about as well. Why is this idea of owning and learning to love all of your experience (even the stuff that makes us cringe or that would normally make us feel shame), why is it so important?

Cheryl: I’ve long believed our mistakes and failures teach us as much as our victories and successes. When you acknowledge the full spectrum of your possibility—as both someone who can be great and as someone who is sometimes not so great—you can bring the full force of your humanity to everything you do.

Lisa: What for you is the best part of getting older?

Cheryl: Feeling more secure about who I am. Feeling stronger about being okay with disappointing people. Putting up less of a facade. Being gentler with myself and others, too.

Lisa: What do you think is the relationship between forgiveness and the ability to age joyfully?

Cheryl: I’ve written about forgiveness a lot and it all pretty much boils down to the fact that when you can’t forgive people who have harmed you (or forgive yourself for the harm you’ve done to others) you stay locked in that struggle. Forgiveness is, to me, really acceptance. Accepting that what’s true is true. It’s saying, this is the way it was and onward we go.

Lisa: What are the three greatest lessons you’ve learned in the last ten years?

Cheryl: 1. Saying no is one form of saying yes. 2. Our ideas about famous people are projections of who we are, not a reflection of who they are. 3. Everyone struggles. Everyone hurts. Everyone wants to be told it’s all going to be okay.

Lisa: What advice do you have for women who fear getting older?

Cheryl: The fear of getting older is about the false notion that one’s power was rooted in the things that youth offers us—namely, beauty. My advice would be to see that for the lie that it always was. Our power is never about how pretty we are. Our power is about how we live our lives. Start living it.


A Glorious Freedom by Lisa Congdon publishes on 03 October 2017. Find out more here. 

See the stunning book trailer here

Interstellar Cinderella

Deborah Underwood has let us in on the inspiration behind her new book Interstellar Cinderella. 

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Interstellar Cinderella was not born out of some grand desire to reinvent a fairy tale; it sprang from word play. A friend was visiting me, we were being silly, and I heard the words “Interstellar Cinderella” come out of my mouth. I immediately ran to the big sheet of idea paper I had tacked on my door and scribbled the words down. What a great title that would make, I thought.

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In fact, it seemed like such a great title that I assumed someone else would have already written a picture book with that name. But I checked just to be sure, and couldn’t believe my luck—the title was free! Then it just became a question of writing the manuscript.

That’s the short answer to the question of where Interstellar Cinderella came from. But there were other influences at work, too.

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One of my favourite things when I was growing up was going to the planetarium with my dad. Dad was a maths professor, and his astronomy colleague did planetarium shows several times a year. I loved the domed ceiling, I loved the silhouette of our town that lined the walls, I loved the way the lights came down gradually so our eyes would have time to adjust, and I loved the distinctive timbre of the astronomer’s voice as she guided us through the heavens. So the idea of a fairy tale set in space delighted me.

I also wanted Cinderella to have more agency than she does in the traditional story. The princesses I read about when I was little weren’t exactly the drivers of their own fates. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are not just sleeping, but comatose during critical parts of their stories. Cinderella is stuck at home waiting for her prince to rescue her. The girls I know are smart, strong, and courageous. It seemed to me they deserved the option of reading about a smart, strong, courageous fairy tale protagonist.

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When I was a kid, I was interested in mechanical things (again in large part due to my father, who, in my eyes, was able to fix anything). So I made Cinderella a mechanically-inclined girl who dreams of repairing rocket ships. And I decided that her main motivation wouldn’t be to go to a ball, but to go see the ships in the Royal Space Parade. If the prince’s ship happened to break down and she was able to rescue him? All the better!

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I hope kids enjoy reading Interstellar Cinderella as much as I enjoyed writing it, and I hope it inspires a new generation of mechanics, rocket pilots, and astronomers—male and female.

Interstellar Cinderella is available NOW from all good bookshops and online through our website.

Michaela MacColl – Why Classic Authors?

Her protagonist in Nobody’s Secret was based on Emily Dickinson.

Her protagonist’s in Always Emily were based on Charlotte and Emily Brontë.

Her protagonist in The Revelation of Louisa May was based on Louisa May Alcott.

We asked Michaela MacColl about her love affair with these classic authors.

Michaela MacColl

Why Classic Authors?

I chose to write about classic authors because of a chance conversation with a librarian. One of her students had just finished reading Promise the Night, my novel about Beryl Markham’s childhood. The student came to her and said “I want to read more. The author mentioned Beryl Markham’s memoir, West With the Night. Do you have that?”

Wow.

I was floored. My book had led this kid to an amazing piece of literature. I had got her hooked on Beryl Markham the author, and she wanted more. I could give her more!

So I pitched an idea to Victoria Rock, my editor at Chronicle. Literary mysteries. And I mean literary in its classic sense – my protagonists are teen versions of famous writers. I find (or make up) a mystery (usually murder if I can find a body) and write the story in a way that recalls that author’s literary style. So Emily Dickinson finds the body of an enigmatic stranger in Nobody’s Secret – their meeting is a riff on Emily’s famous poem, I’m Nobody, Who are You? In Always Emily, Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s personalities are as different as their masterpieces.  The sisters have to come to a meeting of minds on the moors as they both get hold of a mystery from different ends. The story’s based on a local scandal and of course there’s a handsome stranger, reminiscent of Heathcliff. And my latest, The Revelation of Louisa May finds sixteen year old Louisa May Alcott trying to juggle a philosopher father, missing mother, invalid sister, a fugitive slave and a romantic interest all at once in 1846 Concord Massachusetts. When someone is killed (and believe me, he needed killing!), Louisa is the only one who can investigate and clear her famous friends, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and even her father, Bronson Alcott.

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I fell in love with all these women when I wrote these books. They may not have had exciting lives, but their work more than makes up for that. Emily Dickinson hardly left Amherst and spent the last 20 years of her life as a recluse, her poems still feel modern 160 years later.  Emily Bronte died young and never married. Her only published novel was Wuthering Heights. But Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love story doomed by jealousy and revenge still resonates with audiences today. Her sister, Charlotte, was intensely pragmatic and a bit of a household bully, but wrote perhaps the first first-person novel that explored a woman’s feelings in Jane Eyre. And Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women written in 1869 has never gone out of print and has spawned at least four movies (with a new one in production). Louisa was raised in devastating poverty due to her father’s principles (that involved him not working for a living) and her life’s goal was to be rich from her writing. Little Women and its many sequels made her a millionaire.

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Ironically, everyone of my subjects so far were profoundly influenced by one writer… Jane Austen. For Emily, Jane proved that a woman could write. Charlotte envied Jane’s success, but thought her books were bloodless and lacked passion. And for Louisa, well Jane Austen showed her that a woman could make a handsome living with her pen. By the way, the next literary mystery from Chronicle? Jane Austen finds a body!

Celebrate International Women’s Day with Well Read Women

Today is International Women’s Day.

We are celebrating Womankind with these beautiful watercolour literary heroines, all of them written by our literary heroines, from Samantha Hahn’s Well-Read Women.

Catherine Earnshaw - Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Catherine Earnshaw
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights is Emily Brontë’s only novel it was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell; Brontë died the following year, aged 30.

Although Wuthering Heights is now widely regarded as a classic of English literature, contemporary reviews for the novel were deeply polarised; it was considered controversial because its depiction of mental and physical cruelty and it challenged strict Victorian ideals, including religious hypocrisy, morality, social classes and gender inequality.

Esther Greenwood - The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“Sometimes just being a woman is an act of courage.”

The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the American writer and poet Sylvia Plath. Originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963, the novel is semi-autobiographical, the protagonist’s descent into mental illness parallels Plath’s own experiences with what may have been clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a month after its first UK publication. The novel was published under Plath’s name for the first time in 1967 and was not published in the United States until 1971, pursuant to the wishes of Plath’s mother and her husband Ted Hughes.

Joe Marsh - Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Jo March
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869.  The novel follows the lives of four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood, and is loosely based on the Alcott and her three sisters.

In the pages of Little Women, you read the normalisation of ambitious women. This provided an alternative to perceived gender roles. Little Women repeatedly reinforces the importance of individuality and female independence. 

Edna Pontellier - The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Edna Pontellier
The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening, originally titled A Solitary Soul, was first published in 1899.

Set in New Orleans and the Southern Louisiana coast at the end of the nineteenth century, the plot centers on Edna Pontellier and her struggle to reconcile her increasingly unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South. It is one of the earliest American novels that focuses on women’s issues without condescension. It is also widely seen as a landmark work of early feminism, generating mixed reaction from contemporary readers and criticism.

Lorelei Lee - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Lorelei Lee
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes began as a series of short sketches published in Harper’s Bazaar, Known as the “Lorelei” stories, they were satires on the state of sexual relations; quadrupling the magazine’s circulation overnight.The heroine, Lorelei Lee, was a bold, ambitious flapper, who was much more concerned with collecting expensive baubles from her conquests than any marriage licenses, in addition to being a shrewd woman of loose morals and high self-esteem. She was a practical young woman who had internalised the materialism of the United States in the 1920s and therefore equated culture with cold cash and tangible assets.
A bold story with a bold heroine.
Share you literary heroines – fictional characters and authors – with us on twitter using the #WellReadWomen