Interview with Alden Jones, Author of The Wanting Was a Wilderness

The Wanting Was a Wilderness by Alden Jones combines a critical study of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild with a memoir to create a powerfully original work of literary nonfiction that has been earning high praise including:

“Alden Jones intended to write a reckoning with a contemporary literary classic — but she has written far more than that. To carefully dissect Wild, she finds she must consider her own quests: her own time in the wild; her self-discoveries as a queer woman; and how she can both live and tell an authentic story. This is a beautiful, lyric, unexpected book about the power of memoir and how desire both leads us into the wilderness and makes for us a map. The Wanting Was A Wilderness is book for readers, true readers, to treasure.” — Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

“On its face, The Wanting Was A Wilderness is a critique of a widely beloved book, but Jones’s analysis of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild quickly becomes ‘a springboard, mirror, and map’ for Jones’s own journey, and The Wanting Was A Wilderness transforms, before our eyes, into her own raw and inviting memoir. The result is a masterclass in memoir writing.” —The Millions

 We were delighted to speak with Alden about The Wanting Was a Wilderness and some of the challenges of releasing her memoir into the world during these difficult times.

 Give us the elevator pitch for your book?

The Wanting Was a Wilderness began as a critical study of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and ultimately became a craft book/memoir hybrid. I wanted to understand how Strayed took the act of hiking—an activity that is not inherently dramatic—and transformed it into a memoir that appealed to so many different people, so I broke down the elements Strayed used in Wild, compared notes with other craft critics and seminal texts, and used the subsequent tools to build a memoir of my own 85-day journey in the wilderness.

What emotions ran through you when you learned your book tour/launch was cancelled?

The Wanting was originally scheduled for a May 2020 release, and given the timing of the national shut-down, our team had some time to arrive at the decision to push the publication date to late August 2020. Of course it was disappointing to lose the live events we had planned, and I will really miss connecting with readers and friends in person, but there were so many other emotions to process in the early months of the pandemic…the disappointment of a delayed publication date was a minor regret in the grand scheme of things. It gave the launch an added feeling of uncertainty, but a book launch is always accompanied by some uncertainty.

Are you and your publisher doing anything special/different to promote your memoir during this time? Are there any silver linings?

One incredible silver lining is that the success of online events has opened up some opportunities to read with people who are far away geographically, and to include audience members who can log in from anywhere. I am VERY much looking forward to an online event sponsored by the Center for Fiction in which I will be in conversation with Cheryl Strayed—that wouldn’t have happened in person, at least not right around the book launch, and if it had, only people in Portland or Boston or wherever the event actually took place would have been in attendance—now anyone anywhere can be there, and that is pretty amazing. I also love the intimacy of Zoom readings and seeing people in their writing and living spaces!

Can you tell us a bit about the path to writing and selling your book?

Fiction Advocate approached me to write a book for Afterwords, their then-new series of critical books on recent, important works of fiction and memoir, with room to riff on the critical angle. My third child had just been born, and I thought a very specific assignment—write a book about another book, here is the list of books we’re interested in having people write about, here’s the word count—seemed like something I could manage and enjoy while contending with a new baby and two other young kids. I was exactly halfway through The Wanting when my marriage unexpectedly ended. I had to stop writing in order to take care of the logistical and emotional chaos that ensued and didn’t touch the book for two years. Luckily my publisher was very understanding! When my life settled down and I had the headspace to return to it, the book took a completely different shape, informed by all that I’d learned during my life upheaval. A major element of The Wanting is accessing your authenticity in order to write a truthful memoir. Because of some difficult choices I’d made in my life, I was living a more authentic life by the time I returned to the book, so I was able to write a better book.

What is your favorite scene or character in your book? 

Very early in the writing process I wrote a 9-page whirlwind description of my 85-day wilderness journey, the section called “Boots on the Ground.” There were injuries and accidents, flirtations, runaway crew members, days on end of being wet and hungry and vaguely lost, a 17,400-foot volcano in Mexico that we summited, white water rapids, pitch black caves—so much setting, so much plot. This section came out in a flood, and I changed almost nothing from the original draft, though I moved it around in the book a few times. It’s my favorite section to read at events and I sometimes have to force myself to mix it up and choose a different chapter.

The critical section I like the most is “The Urge to Revise the Past,” in which I interrogate the reckonings a memoirist needs to do in order to write a truthful account of their life. Cheryl Strayed didn’t have to include the material she did about her promiscuity and heroin use in order to tell the story of her hike on the PCT, but her coming clean about her recklessness in the wake of her mother’s death was crucial to the deeper truth of her experience. I tried not to throw any memoir writers under the bus in The Wanting Was a Wilderness, but I did have to make an example out of James Frey in this section.

What was the hardest cut you made from your book, your favorite Dead Darling?

In my original-final draft of The Wanting, I referenced a particular summer I lived in New York, my first interaction with “the City” as an adult living and working there, and there was A LOT of drama that summer among my roommates and me. I knew that information was not essential to the plot of the book I was writing, yet it felt insincere to leave it all out if I were writing about that summer at all. And because The Wanting had become a craft book, and I had decided to show of some my work, I attempted to pack it all into a parenthetical (hey reader, just FYI, I left all of this out of this section: This romantic tension! That diary-snooping!) But despite it being important to me personally and interesting narratively, it didn’t belong there; it interrupted the story at hand.

This was a frequent decision I had to make as I wrote The Wanting: since part of the objective of the book was to demystify the memoir-writing process and show myself, the writer, taking the wrong path and then backtracking, when did I include the missteps, and when did I have to acknowledge that including them wasn’t good for the narrative—which, under normal memoir-writing circumstances, was the reason they would be excised? I’ll admit that this reference in particular was a darling and my editor Brian Hurley had to firmly suggest that I take it out; I have a lot to unpack about that summer that I wasn’t able to do in this book. Which probably means I’ll write about it in some future form.

Where can we buy The Wanting Was a Wilderness?

Directly from the publisher, Fiction Advocate:

Or from Bookshop:

Or from Amazon:

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