Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best-selling memoir “Wild,” wowed an audience of about 1,900 people Thursday night at Oregon State University.
A total of 1,200 watched from inside Austin Auditorium at the LaSells Stewart Center, with 200 more in an adjacent auditorium equipped with monitors and 500 more watched monitors set up in the lobby.
It was the largest crowd to see such an event at the LaSells Stewart Center, said Shelly Signs, the director of university events. And the audience ate up Strayed’s intensely personal presentation, clapping and laughing and standing as one at its conclusion.
The timing was good for a discussion of “Wild,” because the film version of the book picked up two major Oscar nominations Thursday: Reese Witherspoon for her performance as Strayed and supporting actress Laura Dern, who portrayed Strayed’s mother.
And it’s that mother-daughter relationship that is the key to the book, the movie and to the approach that Strayed took with her remarks.
“How could this even be possible? It makes me want to cry,” Strayed said. “It’s astounding to me that one day people playing me and my mom would be nominated for an Oscar.
“ ‘Wild’ is about my mom and her life and what her death (from lung cancer) meant to me. When she died, I didn’t know how to live.
“In my sorrow I lost my way. I got married; I did a lot of things married people shouldn’t do. ... Well, I did a lot of things single people shouldn’t do, except in moderation.”
Including heroin use.
“I was suffering and I was in pain — sorrow, confusion and pain.”
Strayed exorcised her demons on a challenging 1,000-mile hiking trip in 1995 on the Pacific Crest Trail. She began writing “Wild” in 2008; the book was published in 2012.
While waiting for the book’s publication, on a whim, she shipped a copy to Witherspoon, who bought the rights before it hit the shelves.
And a book that became a bestseller fueled interest in a movie that has swept past $30 million at the box office in its sixth week out.
Strayed had a small role in the film. She appears as the driver of a pickup that drops off Witherspoon at the starting point of her hike.
Strayed had one line: "Good luck."
In the truck before the scene got underway Strayed asked Witherspoon for advice.
“Just don’t f--- it up,” Strayed related; the audience roared.
Strayed spoke for 37 minutes before taking questions from the predominantly female audience. Some were hearfelt queries about mother-daughter relations.
Others asked about her approach to writing, her “side job” as an advice columnist and whatever happened to her first husband (he’s doing fine, Strayed said, and he liked the book).
One young man noted that this was the first time he had ever heard an author talk.
“This is fabulous,” he said, to more laughter.
The event was free, benefiting from financial support from the Provost’s Fund for Excellence, the OSU Foundation and the Hundere Endowment for Religion and Culture in the College of Liberal Arts.