Cheryl Strayed, the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of the 2012 memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” is ready to talk about money.
In the new anthology “Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living” by Manjula Martin, Strayed lifts the veil on her dire financial past.
“We almost lost our house before I sold ‘Wild’ [in 2009],” she told Martin in an interview for the book. “I think we had $85,000 in credit card debt by the time I sold that book. I can say that now because I don’t have any debt, but I was so ashamed of that.”
Strayed had already paid off a previous bout of credit card debt — around $50,000 — after signing the deal for her first book, “Torch,” in 2003, for which she got a $100,000 advance.
“It was November 2003 … and I distinctly remember yelling — shrieking — into the phone to my husband, ‘A hundred thousand dollars! A hundred thousand dollars!’ And we were both just flipping out. We were like, our life is changed,” Strayed recalls.
But after a 15% agent fee, Strayed said she was left with just $21,000 annually over the next four years, paid out after reaching milestones like sending the book to printing, hardcover publication, and paperback publication. And a third of those paychecks then went to the IRS.
“Don’t get me wrong, the book deal helped a lot — it was like getting a grant every year for four years. But it wasn’t enough to live off of,” Strayed said. She supplemented her income with teaching college writing courses and freelancing, but with two kids under the age of two, Strayed says it was near impossible to make ends meet.
By the time she sold “Wild” to her publisher in 2009 — for a much larger $400,000 advance — she was up to $85,000 in credit card debt and still had lingering student loans.
“So here I was trying to write my second book with two babies, and we were just busting our a–es. During those years we were spending more on childcare than I was making,” Strayed said. “And we would always be so broke and ashamed and putting things on the credit card. Really getting into trouble.”
She continued: “Here’s another thing that’s so interesting about money that people never talk about: There are all these invisible advantages and privileges people have. Parents who help out with a down payment, or a grandparent who takes the kids every Tuesday. Parents who pay for college. We didn’t have any of that.”
With her first “Wild” paycheck, she paid off her student loans and the $85,000 debt. “We went out and had sushi. But our life didn’t change. We only got out of credit card debt. But it changed in that way, trust me. As anyone who’s been in severe credit card debt knows, it was a nightmare.”
Even after “Wild” was published three years later, Strayed, a newly minted bestselling author, was still broke.
“[I]n April 2012 the book had been out a month. I was on my book tour, and I was traveling around, and everyone was treating me like this big glorious bestselling author, and my husband texted me saying, ‘Our April rent check bounced. Why did it bounce?’ And I replied, ‘Because we don’t have any money in our checking account!’ And we laughed until we cried,” she said.
By January 2013, Strayed began earning royalties for the book’s global success: “So it was almost a year before my life actually changed,” she said. The following year, “Wild” was adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who both earned Academy-Award nominations for their performances.