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Cheryl Strayed talks 'Tiny Beautiful Things' book-to-TV adaptation

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

"Tiny Beautiful Things" is a brand-new series on Hulu based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling book of the same name. It follows Clare, both the woman she is today and the teenager she was. The show stars Kathryn Hahn as an adult Clare and Sarah Pidgeon as a young Clare, and Merritt Wever plays Clare's mother, Frankie. And although the series is generally fictional, it does closely mirror Strayed's own life and experiences, many of which were captured in the advice columns that Cheryl Strayed wrote anonymously under the name Sugar. From the start, Strayed tells us, she knew that Clare, aka Sugar, had to have her past.

CHERYL STRAYED: She has to have lived through many of the most formative experiences I had, namely the death of my mom - my mom died very suddenly of cancer at 45. She has to have been estranged from her father since a young age like I was. She has to have grown up poor in a rural environment, because those things not only formed me. They informed the advice I give as Sugar.

DETROW: That reminded me of one of the columns you wrote where you talked about the idea of the choices that you make in life and how you're a different person because of the journey you went on, but there could be this idea of a parallel version of you who made some different choices, and how important it is to make peace with where you ended up as opposed to the alternate you. And you kept coming back to this idea of a ghost ship life in the column.

STRAYED: Yeah. So the letter was from this man who is around the age of 40, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to be a father or not. He was agonizing over, you know, if he would make the wrong choice, that he would regret it. And so he asked me to help him find some clarity on this question that, really, I think so many of us ask ourselves. And what I told him essentially is I don't know that there will be clarity, that what happens is we do our best and we live the life that we choose. And there will be losses and gains no matter what choice we make, and then come to peace with that idea that there is nothing we can do about that life that we didn't choose but salute it from the shore.

DETROW: What was it like for you to encounter this ghost ship version of yourself in the form of a TV show?

STRAYED: Really moving. I mean, Kathryn Hahn, she's such an extraordinary actress, and she captures the full range, really, of humanity. So she makes me laugh and she makes me cry. And I think, you know, I couldn't be happy if I hadn't made good on my intentions and dreams to be a writer. And in so many ways, this is why Clare is struggling and suffering. She doesn't know who she is because she never followed that voice within her. I think the thing that moves me the most is it isn't just about me. And I always knew that when I was watching, for example, Sarah Pidgeon and Merritt Wever perform those conversations where they're talking about the character of Frankie, who Merritt plays, dying. I know that it's not just me reliving my own life, that so many people who are watching the show are going to feel that loss in their own hearts because they've experienced it too. And I think that that's the magic of vulnerability. It's the magic, frankly, of literature and all art, that we tell the particular story that is ultimately universal, that we're always - when we speak in the truth, we're speaking to that collective experience.

DETROW: Absolutely. Looking back at the show for a moment, adult Clare becomes Sugar at this point where her own life is very much a mess, I think, to put it mildly. I mean, her marriage is falling apart. She's given up on being a writer, as we've been talking about. Her work life is in shambles. She's making some legally dubious decisions. And then her friend Sam comes along and asks her to write this column, and let's listen to a bit of the scene where Clare is telling Sam why that is a terrible idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS")

ZAK ORTH: (As Sam) You should be the one doing this.

KATHRYN HAHN: (As Clare) Doing what?

ORTH: (As Sam) Being Sugar.

HAHN: (As Clare) What? No.

ORTH: (As Sam) I mean, it doesn't pay. And, you know, there's no credit because it's anonymous. But I would be your point. And all you have to do is answer, like, one letter a week...

HAHN: (As Clare) Sam...

ORTH: (As Sam) And...

HAHN: (As Clare) Stop it. I am not giving anybody advice. My life is a [expletive] show.

DETROW: So we've been talking about how the big difference here is that Clare has never fully taken that step to become a writer. What was going through your head when you got the opportunity to be Sugar? Were there moments of self-doubt, of who am I to give advice to other people?

STRAYED: Of course. Of course. I'm laughing to that scene because parts of it are really exactly what I thought and felt, and other parts of it are different. And so my friend Steve Almond, the wonderful writer Steve Almond, sent me an email one day. And in my life at that moment, this was early 2010. Steve said, Cheryl, I've been writing this Dear Sugar column for The Rumpus and I don't want to do it anymore. And he said, Cheryl, I realized you're Sugar. You need to write this column. I don't want to write it anymore. He said, it pays nothing. You get no credit because it's anonymous. Would you like to take it over? And I said, sure. And so I did. But as soon as I said yes, I had that same question that Clare says - asks Sam, you know, says, listen, I'm not qualified for this. My life wasn't falling apart in the ways that Clare's life is in the show, but I certainly didn't feel like I had any special wisdom or information to share with others.

DETROW: Each episode features a different one of your columns. The first episode features one of your most famous ones, and it's, of course, the name of the show, "Tiny Beautiful Things." Someone had written Sugar and asked, what would you tell your 20-something self if you could talk to her now?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS")

HAHN: (As Clare) And someday, you look back on that one Christmas when your mother gave you a mustard yellow coat that she'd saved for months to buy. Don't hold it up and say it's longer than you like your coats to be, and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Because your mother will be dead by spring and that coat will be the last gift she ever gave you, and you will regret the small thing you didn't say for the rest of your life. When a gift is given, say thank you.

DETROW: What made you answer the question that way?

STRAYED: I still get emotional listening to that because that is from my life, and that is a regret that I carried around for a lot of years. You know, I stayed up all night one night, and that column just spilled forth. And I just - I try to tell the deepest, truest stories. And I really did try to, you know, contemplate that question. What would I tell my younger self? And one of the most important things I would tell her is about gratitude and about saying thank you when a gift has been given.

DETROW: What do you hope viewers will take away from Clare's journey on the show?

STRAYED: There's nothing better than both a good laugh and a good cry, and I hope that people get that from the show. I'm such a believer that art is to be enjoyed, and so I'm not so worried about saying, hey, take some big amazing message from this. What I'm more interested in saying is, I hope you enjoy it and I hope you see yourself in it. I hope you laugh and you cry and you remember that you're not alone.

DETROW: That was Cheryl Strayed. She is the executive producer of "Tiny Beautiful Things," which is based on her bestselling book of the same name. "Tiny Beautiful Things" is streaming now on Hulu. Cheryl, thank you so much for your writing and for being here.

STRAYED: Thank you so much, Scott. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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