New Life for the Fiction of Julie Hayden: An Interview with Cheryl Strayed

By S. Kirk WalshMay 1, 2014

New Life for the Fiction of Julie Hayden: An Interview with Cheryl Strayed

IN AUGUST of 2012, the Los Angeles Review of Books published my essay about discovering the writer Julie Hayden. Hayden worked at The New Yorker, where many of her short stories have appeared. These stories went on to make up her only book, The Lists of the Past, published by Viking in 1976. She was just 42 when she died in 1981 of kidney failure brought on from malnutrition. An autopsy revealed that her system was also riddled with cancer. In the obituary that appeared in The New Yorker shortly after her death, Ved Mehta wrote about Hayden and her fiction:

The stories were remarkable for their mixture of acute observation and stream of poetic consciousness; they were beautifully ordered, and conveyed by means of fine nuances the disorganization, breakdown, and brutality of city life; and they were permeated with Church doctrine and strictures — the burden of sin and guilt […]. She was a welcoming presence — alert, sympathetic, and irrepressible.

This year, Cheryl Strayed, the internationally bestselling author of Wild, Torch, and Tiny Beautiful Things, selected Hayden’s story collection for republication with Pharos Editions, a small press dedicated to the reissuing of lost and rare books. Strayed was first introduced to the writing of Hayden by Cate Marvin, a poet and cofounder of VIDA. Marvin posted The New Yorker podcast of Lorrie Moore reading Hayden’s best known story, “Day-Old Baby Rats.” After a quick internet search, Strayed read my essay, and then located a copy of The Lists of the Past for $34.81 via Amazon’s used books program. She read the collection and set wheels in motion. Hayden’s nephews, Peter and Charlie Blake, agreed to release the reprint rights to Pharos. The decision was made: The Lists of the Past was selected for republication.

Recently, I spoke with Strayed about Hayden and the process of bringing this noteworthy collection back into the hands of today’s readers.


S. KIRK WALSH: How did you go about choosing The Lists of the Past for Pharos Editions?

CHERYL STRAYED: Basically I was asked to choose a book that is out of print to be reissued by the press. So, I was reading all of these different books that I started to get excited about. I would either find out that they were not technically out of print, but for all intents and purposes, had just been forgotten by time. Or the book would sound great, and I would love parts of it, but not the whole thing; it didn’t exactly stand the test of time. And then, I came across Julie Hayden because of Cate Marvin and your essay.

When I announced to Harry Kirchner, publisher of Pharos Editions, that this was the book I had chosen, he got in touch immediately with Patsy Blake [Julie Hayden’s younger sister], whose family owned the rights to the stories, because he needed her permission. Patsy said to Harry, “Oh my God, I just went and saw Cheryl Strayed two weeks ago.” She had come to one of my events in Santa Barbara, California. Apparently, she was in the audience and I signed her book. She was so excited. That was the beginning.

Did you have a favorite story in the collection?

I don’t think so. One of the things that I was struck by — this is true of every book that I love — when I open the page, it doesn’t matter what page that I open it to, I start reading and it’s interesting and compelling, and I want to keep reading. There are great books that aren’t great literature, that instead are funny or escapism or that sort of thing. But the books that I love where the writer is really a writer, and has considered language and the craft of language in a way that is inspiring and original and interesting — those books, for me, transcend “my favorite this-or-that.” Also, I was taken by the overall emotional impact of the stories as well as their intellectual resilience. It’s such a powerful observation of humanity — and, especially during the last half of the book, mortality. These stories about the father and his gardening and his family and his death are really powerful to me. Of course, the crowd-pleaser, “Day-Old Baby Rats,” which got attention through Lorrie Moore’s podcast, is such a great story — it absolutely stands out. But I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite. The entire book taken together is a beautiful thing.

What’s your favorite story in the collection?

“Day-Old Baby Rats,” because it was my point of entry into her work. As I reread the collection, I was struck by the echoes of characters and themes, by the density of nature, grief, death, and language in every story. It’s so bounded together. In “Day-Old Baby Rats,” she mentions the art student, and then he reappears in the story “In the Words of.” With each reading, the book holds together in a surprising way. For me, the first read was the enjoyment of the language and the unexpected levity at times. But then, as I reread it, it becomes deeper and deeper.

I think it’s interesting that you say that there is humor. There is absolutely humor. I guess I would describe it as wry. It’s not like you’re sitting there laughing in your chair as you’re reading. It’s a drier, almost harsher and sadder humor. It’s a lonely book that’s full of longing. These characters are haunted by what could have been, and they struggle but they can’t overcome who it is they are. This isn’t about triumph, but it is about resilience. So in that, there is wonderful kind of light.

I was reading the last lines of the book in the concluding story titled “Under the Weather.” The last paragraph begins:

What if they came up the long driveway under the pines, and he heard them in his upstairs bedroom and were there, back from that place, sick and undead, pale and alive? […] After the effort, the work that goes into burying a dead man. Could they endure having him back again, after that?

The question she raises: what if the father was there after they just returned from the funeral? Of course, they want him back, but there is a sense of “That’s done now, we’ve made it through.” There is a sense of onwardness.

When I spoke with Daniel Menaker, one of Hayden’s New Yorker editors, he talked about the sense of alienation and isolation that comes through in her stories. He thought it spoke to the fiction of the 1970s and ’80s, like Mary Robison or Donald Barthelme or even early Lorrie Moore. I was wondering if you had that feeling? If the stories felt like they were of a certain period? Or did the stories transcend that?

I think that it’s timeless in its quality. When I was considering other books to choose for the series, that question came up. As readers, when we’re aware that a book has been written in another era, we can make that mental leap in terms of the society in which the author or the characters lived. Sometimes, the language or the modes of thinking seem outdated — meaning that the writer hasn’t bridged the time gap. I think that Julie Hayden does this really well. The most prominent feature of these stories is the humanity of her characters, which never changes over time.

Yet, I did see that she was writing of a different world, or a different, I should say, society. We are the same people, but we exist in a society in different ways. I think that women are sadder in these stories for reasons that have to do with the way that they were bound by sexism and gender and expectations. Julie Hayden in her own life was sort of free of that in some regard. She never became a mother. She never married, right?

No, she never married. She did live with a man for some time. He was an editor at Family Circle. Unfortunately, when that relationship ended, and I’m not quite sure why it did, it was the beginning of her downward spiral.

She wasn’t a wife or a mother. Two roles that can be very rewarding, of course, but also can be — especially in those times — synonymous with being a servant to somebody else. She was this professional, working at The New Yorker. We can probably guess that she wasn’t treated with the same amount of respect as her male counterparts. I felt the weight of that. Not that this doesn’t happen today, but it happens in different ways. Also, I wondered about this whole generation of artists — not just writers, but artists across the spectrum — in the 1960s and ’70s. During the height of that era, the creation of brilliant art went hand in hand with addiction and alcoholism and drug abuse. It was very much glamorized.

Our generation — we still came up thinking, “Oh, it’s so cool, Kurt Cobain is a heroin addict” — but we also had an awareness that a whole generation of artists had been devastated by drugs and alcohol. I wouldn’t want to diagnose anyone, but it seems to me that Julie Hayden had some mental health issues as well. Certainly she was an alcoholic. It was a lot harder then to go to an AA meeting. They existed, of course, but it wasn’t much a part of the culture — and certainly as an artist, there was this “It’s kinda cool that she is this fucked up.” I wondered how much she was a victim of the times. Obviously, you can’t blame it all on the times. The culture of drugs and alcohol and being so closely related to the artist at work — how much did that factor into her demise? She died of kidney failure and cancer, but I don’t think it helped that she was an alcoholic.

I think it was a combination of her phobias and the alcoholism, particularly at the end, because she couldn’t take care of herself. During my interview with Menaker, he talked about how The New Yorker was very forgiving of the eccentricities of some of the writers on staff. But then, Hayden’s sister told me later, even with Hayden, she ended up crossing the line where they asked her not to come in when she no longer showered.

One thing that I think is interesting about her, too, is her mother was Phyllis McGinley, a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. She was a poet who wrote and revered suburbia and being a housewife. When I interviewed Patsy, she told me that their mother would tell her and Julie when they were young women, “Hide your intelligence. Don’t let a man be threatened by it.”

That’s what I’m talking about exactly. Here Hayden is: she’s working for The New Yorker, and she’s publishing in The New Yorker. That’s an accomplishment that most writers don’t achieve. She grew up, without question, in a time where “you don’t be too smart or the boys won’t like you.” It still occurs today. Sadly. But it’s lessening over time, for sure.

Are there any contemporary writers that her work reminds you of?

I felt her style was familiar to me. She reads very contemporary. It makes sense to me that Lorrie Moore chose that story to read. I wouldn’t say that they are the same, but still I could see the connection or the kinship, as if there were an ancestral line of writers. I think the way that influence works — all of these writers are in the same water. I do think there is something in the water that we absorb.

Alice Munro is my favorite writer. When I was in my 20s and reading everything by Munro and figuring out who she was as a writer and investigating her life, I found that one thing that she always talked about was how she was influenced by the Southern writers of a certain generation. Like Eudora Welty, William Faulkner. I was so struck by that, because I was really influenced by them, too. Not that it is so original to like them. I could feel in my own life the line between Eudora Welty to Alice Munro, and in the most humble way, to what I was trying to do. Obviously, I didn’t ever try to imagine that I could be like Alice Munro or Faulkner. I’m not saying that I’m of that line, but what I’m trying to do is study that line — and I can see that line.

With Hayden, what you see: here’s this woman who was writing very bold stories for her time, and then you begin to see, in the 1980s, women writing about the humanity of women in ways that feel really new. I think people like Hayden give us permission to do so.

Once I learned about Hayden’s life and how she died, I was surprised by her clarity and precision in terms of the psychology of her characters, who mirrored so closely her own life experience. I was thinking about Wild, and how you wrote about the experience long after you hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. You needed distance to be able to do that — and yet Hayden seemed to be writing about her life in a much more immediate manner.

I hiked the trail 18 years ago now. So, I wrote the book about 13 years after my hike. It certainly was like looking back. There were things that I knew about the hike and myself because years had passed. Wild is a better book because I didn’t write it a year after I took the hike. In other ways, I have written stories, essays, and other things closer to the experience. There are different ways you ring the bell at different times in your life.

When we have one book by a writer who died young, we don’t get to see what’s next. The Lists of the Past has a kind of beauty that has to do with immediacy and wisdom beyond Hayden’s years. But when people are wise beyond their years, as I think many writers are, especially writers who can produce interesting work at a young age, they end up being more amazing later on.

Look at Alice Munro: we do have Alice Munro over many years. People always ask me what’s your favorite book by Munro. It’s Lives of Girls and Women, which was her second book, and which she wrote during her 30s. From the level of craft and skill and virtuosity, her later books are technically better. But there is some energy in that early book that I respond to. With The Lists of the Past, a part of what I love about the book is the energy. Virtuosity might be pushing it. But here is someone who 10 or 20 years down the line would have been virtuosic.

That’s the sad part. Not getting to see what could’ve been.

I know. It’s always that way when people die young. We have come so far when it comes to drug treatment, addiction, and alcoholism. And understanding what alcoholism even is. I think she was so much a victim of a culture that said, “Well, you just have to stop drinking so much,” without seeing the complexity of alcoholism as a disease.

What about you? What writers does she remind you of? Has anyone spoken of being influenced by her when reading her way back in the day?

Most people’s point of reference is the Lorrie Moore podcast. She’s what put Hayden back on the map. I think for me, as I mentioned in the essay, there was some part of her work that reminded me of The Bell Jar, which obviously relates to the mental illness aspect as well as the aliveness of her characters, and also the sadness. I’m also a big Alice Munro fan, and Lorrie Moore. The first story in Birds of America, “Willing,” about the depressed movie actress who isolates herself in a motel in the Midwest, I felt some similarities. Like you said, the wry, candid look at what drives a person.

I think Julie Hayden wrote about addiction and alcoholism so well. When I first listened to The New Yorker podcast, I was taken aback by her ability to capture the mental state of an alcoholic. I thought it was profound. Obviously, I’ve seen it in other novels and stories, but there was something precise in her writing that makes it feel so authentic and real.

I agree. I do think she articulated alcoholism well, the specific life of an alcoholic.

What do you hope readers get out of reading this collection?

I hope they get what we get out of great literature — joy and a sense of connectedness, a sense of the world being bigger, more complicated and more beautiful and more interesting and more painful and more luminous than what we experience or imagine in the daily thrum of going to the grocery store, brushing teeth, and stuff. I think that’s what good books allow us — a beautiful, big window into ourselves, the world, and the other.

I wanted to present a book that I honestly enjoyed, but that I also felt challenged by. It’s not like every page is the easiest reading. But it’s also not inaccessible. It’s in the middle ground. If you let yourself sink in, it becomes absorbing, so I hope readers get that. I’m excited about The Lists of the Past, but I’m also excited about the idea of the series being published by Pharos Editions, of bringing works that are worthy of our attention back into the spotlight. This is even true of books that were published three years ago. There are so many great books. It’s like a river of books, and we’re just taking this one and putting it back in the front of the line.


S. Kirk Walsh has taught creative writing at New York University, St. Edward’s University, and Media Bistro (online classes).

LARB Contributor

S. Kirk Walsh’s nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Guernica, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other print and online publications. She is a founder of Austin Bat Cave, a writing and tutoring center for kids. Currently, Walsh is at work on a novel. She can be found on twitter: @skirkwalsh.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!