Dollar figures can be misleading. That was the disheartening lesson learned by Cheryl Strayed, the New York Times best-selling author of Wild, in 2003 with her debut novel, Torch. Despite receiving a sizable-seeming advance for the book, she remained deeply in debt for years — even as Wild, her subsequent memoir, landed on the best-seller list, Strayed and her husband, documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, struggled to pay the rent.
Strayed is just one of many notable authors — including Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner, and Susan Orlean — who opened up with Manjula Martin, the writer and editor of Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living, about success and attempting to make a living with words. Many of the sections in Martin’s book originally appeared in the magazine Scratch, which she founded and edited from 2013 to 2015. Her interview with Strayed, reprinted in full below, was among them.
“Faith, Hope, and Credit: Cheryl Strayed in conversation with Manjula Martin”
MM: Before this interview, we were talking a bit about how taboo it still is for writers to discuss income. You said that, even though you believe in talking openly about money, you were nervous about doing the interview. Why is it important to you to talk about the financial side of being a writer?
CS: I feel strongly that we’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money. There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million! We don’t have any standards in that way, and we probably never will. There will always be such a wide range of what writers are paid, but at least we could give each other information.
What was the financial experience like for you when you sold your first novel, Torch?
I was paid a $100,000 advance for Torch.
That sounds so huge to me.
Yes. It was November 2003, and I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts at a residency, 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.
And oh my god, I was so grateful. And I know how lucky I was to get that. I understand that I’m very fortunate. But I do think it’s helpful to share information, so I want to talk about what that kind of advance really means.
First of all, you don’t just get a check for $100,000. You get four checks: one on signing, one on delivery—and that’s not just when you finish the draft, but after the editing process, when it’s going to the printer. I learned that lesson the hard way. And then you get another check on publication of the hardcover, and another check on publication of the paperback.
So, I sold Torch in 2003. I got that first $25,000. My agent took fifteen percent, and then I had around $21,000. But I didn’t think about taxes. And if you’re a writer who has, like, no money, and then you cash a check for $25,000, you’re going to be taxed fully on that.
Did you put it in an IRA or anything like that?
I needed it to pay my rent. I had accrued $50,000 in credit card debt to write that book. The same thing happened later with Wild, only I was in deeper debt. So I got that check for Torch, and it was gone the next day. I actually paid my credit card bill. Poof!
Then I did revisions, and I had a baby, and the next check didn’t come until 2005. I got my third check in February 2006, when it was published, and my final check when the paperback came out in 2007.
So I sold my book for $100,000, and what I received was a check for about $21,000 a year over the course of four years, and I paid a third of that 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. So, I guess it was a humbling lesson!
How did you live during those years?
I taught, did freelance journalism, wrote essays for magazines that pay—all the things I usually do for money. My husband is a documentary filmmaker, so he doesn’t make any money either, but he would take work for money, too, and we scratched together a living. And all those years we qualified for food stamps. We never applied for them.
I grew up poor, and I did get food stamps as a kid, so there was a sense of shame about it. And I also acknowledged that we were poor by choice. Here we were, two people with master’s degrees, choosing to keep faith with our art, and because of that we were poor. That’s different from being poor—really poor, actually poor. And I know that because I came from those people. And I just couldn’t take in that way from our society.
At the end of the day, if I had really needed to get a job that paid the bills, I could have. And I always chose not to, because I wanted to write. So I didn’t feel entitled to public assistance.
And you were in worse debt at the time that you sold Wild?
We almost lost our house before I sold Wild. I think we had about $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.
How did that debt stack up?
It was really interesting. By the time Torch was published, we had two kids under the age of two. So here I was, trying to write my second book with two babies, and we were just busting our asses. During those years we were spending more on childcare than I was making. And we would always be so broke and ashamed and putting things on the credit card. Really getting into trouble.
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. I also had student loan debt from my undergraduate degree that I finally paid off on my forty-fourth birthday, thanks to Wild.
When I started to write Wild, I started to feel like I could sell this book. I just needed time to write it. So I was always fighting to try to find time to write the book—with the kids and earning a living and teaching and all those things. By the end of 2008, I had finished the first 130 pages or so.
How did you sell it? What was that process like?
In November 2008, I took Wild out to sell, and I had to take it to Houghton Mifflin because they published Torch and had right of first refusal. I was reluctant because my editor there had been let go—and I could have refused their offer, but I was so destitute. My agent called me and said, “They’re working up an offer,” and I said, “Oh my god! Whatever it is, I’ll accept it, and please put a rush on the check because we need the money!”
But these were the darkest days of the publishing industry. I then got a call saying they couldn’t make the offer, because as of that day there was a freeze on acquisitions at the company. It made the New York Times; it was a big deal. And I think I was one of the first authors to know about it because my book deal disappeared that day.
So by the time I took it out again in April 2009, my former editor, Janet Silver, had become an agent, and I decided to have her represent me. She took it out, and within a couple of days I was speaking to several editors who wanted the book, and I sold it to Knopf for $400,000. And that’s when I was like, Oh my god. Thank you. Thank you.
Again, the great, funny irony about that was that I got my first check, and we spent it all on credit card bills.
Did you at least go out to dinner or something?
We went 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. All these financially minded people said we should apply for bankruptcy. But it was like the food stamps, you know?
And I finished the book within the year. Then it went through this long wait to be published—technically it was done a year before it was published. So I had to twiddle my thumbs for a year. And during that time, Dear Sugar stepped into the breach.
And Dear Sugar, your advice column, was for free?
Labor of love. But that’s the thing about both Wild and Torch. They’re no different from Dear Sugar. I would have written those books whether I was paid for them or not. They’re all labors of love. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not totally ambitious. I’m really ambitious.
Did you aspire to be a famous writer?
I want to be recognized for beautiful work, for good work, for real work. I really want to be recognized for that. Which is different from saying I want to be famous.
If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer. When I was first thinking of myself as a writer back in my teens, the shorthand for that was fame. But then I started to really understand what writing was and who writers were. Who were the writers I valued the most as a young woman learning to write? They were people like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, and Toni Morrison.
Those people I just named are super-famous in our world, but most of the world doesn’t know them. So pretty quickly, to me it wasn’t about fame—it was about accomplishment. Once you let go of that fame thing, it’s the first step in really being able to focus on doing good work. Because you can’t fake it. That’s the deal with writing. You can’t fake it. You read an Alice Munro story—and it’s there or it’s not, you know? So I let that go pretty early on.
With fame, you have to get over it. You do. Because you will actually not succeed because of it.
An experience that’s often paired with being famous is being rich. What has it been like for you to realize you are making money off your books? Did you have any idea beforehand that Wild would sell well? I mean, usually there are some signs that a book will be big.
It was like a train that was approaching and the roar kept getting louder. Because the publisher had sat on it for so long, booksellers and magazine editors—all the people who tell people what books to read—had a chance to read Wild. So I did have a sense that it was going to get a lot of coverage. But what makes a book successful is if readers actually buy it. We see lots of books get huge amounts of press and then disappear.
That first week that Wild debuted at number seven on the New York Times bestseller list, all I knew was that that was enough. I didn’t even allow myself ever to dream that dream, and it came true. It was a beautiful moment. And then it stayed on the list.
What did that feel like? To see that this might become a longterm thing, being a best-selling author?
Having a book become a best seller was a more complicated process than most people would assume.
For example, in 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 best-selling 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. Because we couldn’t complain to anyone, and no one would believe us, but it was like, my book is on the New York Times bestseller list right now and we do not have any money in our checking account.
The first royalties I received for Wild were in January 2013. So it was almost a year before my life actually changed.
You were raised working class. Have you switched classes now?
You know when I switched classes? When I was eighteen and I went to college. I mean, I think you can go to college and stay working class, but I culture-hopped. After the experience of college, even though I was poor all those years, I occupied a different place in the culture than I had before. I had an education. I had a subscription to the New Yorker. I was friends with amazing people who were accomplished in all kinds of fields—essentially the elites of our world. And some of those people were poor and some were millionaires.
I haven’t actually changed in that regard at all since Wild’s success. The difference is, now, in that same tribe I’ve been in since I was eighteen, I’m one of the people who has money instead of one of the people who doesn’t.
The only thing that’s changed is that I can pay my bills. I can afford to not be desperate anymore. I can buy boots not in thrift stores! But the culture and the community and the things I think about people and the world and the way I feel about myself and my family—none of that has changed one iota.
There’s this narrative we have, that if you have success, you become a different person. You leave behind the little people. And it’s like, No, no, I don’t even believe there are little people—how could I leave them behind? I am the little people.
When Wild first came out, I recall some of the press and stories about your life and career seemed to imply you’re a late bloomer. How do you feel about that phrase?
Well, I think it’s hilarious. That’s such a strange way to think of a writer. I wrote Wild when I was, like, forty. And my writing career has actually followed a very smooth trajectory: I knew passionately from a very young age I wanted to be a writer. I majored in English, and I spent my twenties apprenticing myself to the craft. I came out of my twenties knowing that I needed the shelter a fully funded graduate program would offer me. The MFA program at Syracuse allowed me three years, essentially, to have a grant and write. I wrote my first book there; a couple of years out of grad school, I sold it, and a few years later, I sold my next book… . I think there’s nothing late about it!
So it’s not like, Oh, I’m just over here germinating like a little quiet seed, and then ta-da, I’m blooming!
Once, on my Facebook page, somebody said I had come out of nowhere with Wild, and that made me mad. I wasn’t mad for myself, I was mad for the community of writers I feel very much a part of, who all knew me before Wild was published. I’m talking about the community of people who go to AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference], the people who are writers, poets, creative writing teachers, etc. Those people knew about me: I was publishing essays, a novel, I was teaching. And just because suddenly a whole bunch more people knew about my work, that doesn’t negate the people who’ve known about me all along. So I hated that phrasing—out of nowhere. Because it implied that where I was was nowhere. Just because our culture doesn’t recognize most of those twelve thousand people who gather at AWP every year doesn’t mean those people aren’t incredibly successful.
How do you define success?
The way I define and measure success, all through my life and still to this day, is, can I answer the questions: Have I done the work I needed to do? Did I do it as well as I could? Did I give it everything I had? If you can say, “Yes, I did,” that’s success. And then other stuff happens—your book is on the bestseller list, or Oprah calls—or maybe not. Maybe it gets trashed in the New York Times. Or maybe it’s absolutely ignored by everyone, which happens. Those things are not about success. Those are about things that happen to you.
One thing I’ve tried to do as Sugar—and something all books do or should do—is encourage people to be able to hold many truths at once, because together they form a greater truth. So on one hand I’m apologetic that we’re sitting here in this beautiful house that Wild bought. But I know I did the work; I know I earned it. I also know that thousands of other writers out there, working away as we speak, have worked equally hard. They earned it, too. And they didn’t have that magic bunny come along and make their book a best seller, so they didn’t get that thing. Both experiences are true.
Life ain’t fair, as they say?
You have to take what you’ve been given and make the best of it and use it for good in the world. And that would be my belief whether I were applying for food stamps tomorrow or not.
Excerpted from SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin. Copyright © 2017 by Manjula Martin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.