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Why I'll Root for Reese on Oscar Sunday

02/17/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

I like Reese Witherspoon well enough -- I thought she was great in Walk the Line, and Election is a classic. But I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a huge Reese fangirl.

And yet, when they announce the nominees for Best Actress at the Academy Awards Feb. 22, I'll be cheering her on.

And it's because of the character she plays.

As a weekly book columnist, I interview my fair share of authors. So every once in a while I get to say, "I interviewed her when..."

And that's what's happened with Cheryl Strayed, the author whom Reese plays in Wild.

When I saw pictures of Cheryl on the red carpet at the Golden Globes in January, I somehow felt a tinge of pride.

It's kind of like the feeling you might get when a college basketball player you've always thought was great gets selected for the NBA, and then becomes an NBA star.

That I-knew-you-had-it-in-you-all-along-kid! connection you feel to someone who doesn't know you at all.

I talked to Strayed for maybe an hour on the phone in 2013 -- one of, I can only imagine, hundreds of journalists who talked to her that year.

I had, at the time, just fallen in love with her New York Times bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012.)

For me, it was one of those books you can't put down -- I opened it one night before bed, and suddenly it was 2 a.m. and I was halfway done.

Strayed is a helluva writer. She had me laughing to myself one minute, and choked up the next. As soon as I finished Wild, I knew I had to interview the woman who wrote it.
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I called Strayed up at her Portland, Ore. home one day in 2013, and she told me that Reese Witherspoon had just optioned the book for film.

"Reese... talked to me about why she felt so powerfully connected to the book, why she wanted to bring to the screen. She really felt passionately and personally about the story," she said.

Of course, there was no way of knowing at the time the force the film would become, propelling not only Strayed to red carpet, but Witherspoon back into the spotlight.

Witherspoon was nominated for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes in January, and is up for Best Actress at the Oscars.

Wild even prompted Oprah to bring her book club back -- Wild was the first book in Oprah's Book Club 2.0."

When I interviewed her, I asked her about The Call from O.

"I've been a writer a long time. You learn to measure success differently. You never think, 'This is going to be a movie,' or 'Oh, Oprah's going to call me,'" Strayed said.

"And then one day, Oprah called my cell phone. I answered the phone and it was Oprah. When you're talking to Oprah, you know you're talking to Oprah. Oprah sounds like Oprah," she told me.

"She had gotten my number from an editor at O Magazine who had interviewed me. We had this conversation about my book. I went to her house; we shot an interview and she was wonderful and sweet. And we've stayed in touch."

The hard part? Strayed couldn't tell a soul.

"I had to keep it completely a secret until Oprah announced it. The only person I could tell was my husband. It almost killed me, especially when people were saying to me, 'Oh, you should send this to Oprah!'"
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By now, most everyone in America has seen the movie. If you still haven't read the book, read it. Strayed is one helluva writer. The story is ready-made for the silver screen, and Strayed tells it with gusto:

At 22, Strayed was a divorcee and orphan. She'd watched her mother die of lung cancer, divorced her young husband, "slept with too many men," and found heroin.

Soon, she had nothing left to lose.

Then one day, at 26, she read about the Pacific Coast Trail -- a 1,100-mile route that runs the entire length of the U.S. West Coast, from the desolation and sweltering dry heat of the Mojave Desert, through the blistering winds and icy conditions of the mountains of California and Oregon, finally, up to Washington State.

She had no experience as a hiker, but for some reason, the PCT seemed to Strayed a saving grace, a cathartic journey that would allow her to leave her demons behind.

And so, in 1995 -- before the days of cell phones or handheld GPS devices -- she made the most impulsive and fateful decision of her life: to hike the 1,100 miles.

Alone.

She writes:

"It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies ... It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets."

But Strayed was green -- she'd never gone backpacking before her first night on the trail.

She carried far too many supplies and her "Monster" backpack wore away patches of flesh where it rubbed her back when she walked. Her shoes were so ill-fitting she lost almost all of her toenails; her toes went black and layers of skin peeled from her feet each night.

She faced rattlesnakes and black bears, heat so intense so she thought she might die, record snowfalls and bitter winds. She writes: "I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. I simply did not let myself become afraid."

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One of the first things I asked Strayed was why she waited so long to write about her incredible journey.

"Over the years, I'd tell people this story, and they'd say: 'Why haven't you written about this?' And I'd always say, 'I don't really have anything to say about it," she told me. "Then one day in 2008... I started writing an essay about my hike, and I found that as I wrote, I had a story that was bigger than could be told in 20 pages."

The memoir is incredibly detailed, down to what she ate at each meal.

"I actually had my journal to consult, which was great," she told me. But "I know what you're saying: 'Gosh, I wouldn't remember anything that clearly.' But also, when you work that muscle that you have to work when you're writing about something deep in your past, your memory becomes better.

"The thing I best compare it to, is if you're at your high school reunion ...and someone says, 'Remember that night at the lake?' And you think, 'Oh my God! That was the day we went to see Bon Jovi!' Memories just start coming back."

She went on: "The biggest thing for me, honestly, is the readers. I've met thousands and thousands of people in the last year, who looked me in the eyes and told me how much my book meant to them. They cry and tell me their own stories. That's the true mark of success."

This post originally ran here.

Daley's original interview ran here.

Lauren Daley is a freelance journalist.