Back in 1995, Cheryl Strayed hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail along the West Coast of the United States. After the three-month journey, she came out on the other side stronger in every way: better able to cope with her divorce, her past drug abuse and her mother's death.
Strayed described the life-changing trek in her 2012 bestselling memoir Wild, and received countless emails from readers describing how connected they felt to her story. But there was one message that stood out in particular:
"Back in late June or early July I was reading one such email ... and I was just about to move onto the next email when the woman who was emailing me said that we really were connected, that, in fact, we have the same father," Strayed tells NPR's Rachel Martin.
The woman turned out to be Strayed's half-sister, but the reader didn't know that when she checked Wild out at her local public library. "She was just interested in books on travel," Strayed explains. "She's not a hiker but ... that hiking boot on the cover caught her eye. And she was just halfway into chapter one when she said she sat bolt upright in bed and realized that we had the same father."
On whether the sisters had ever tried to find each other before
"I've looked for her a few times — just punching her name into the Internet. I knew her first name and I assumed her last name was that of my father's, and nothing ever came up. And I didn't know if we would ever find each other, honestly. She knew I existed. I don't even think that she knew my first name. She just knew that she had older siblings that my father had another family before she came along and she had no idea that I was a writer. She didn't know anything about me except when she read the description in my book of my early life, my mother and my father, she knew that father was hers, too. I don't name my father in the book but she recognized him."
On re-establishing connections to this part of her family, including her half-sister's mother
"It's been a really interesting reconnection all around. Neither one of us have a relationship with our biological father and we both had very similar experiences with him. But what's really cool is we can connect in other ways."
On whether they've met yet
"We are half-sisters and I do hope that someday we'll meet. ... We haven't spoken on the phone. I'm sort of phone shy. I've not suggested that. ... I prefer to write about my life, I guess than to talk about it."
On the big questions she's been asking herself
"It's been really pretty interesting to think about: What is family? And what is a connection? You know, obviously this isn't someone I grew up with. I'm meeting her as an adult. And like I said, our connection is through this man who neither one of us has a relationship with now. And so how are we sisters? And how do we proceed?"
On what tipped her half-sister off
"I haven't asked her what specifically was the thing that tipped her off. ... What I think is really interesting is frankly the things that she wrote to me about her experience with my father [that] I recognized. ... We so often think, OK if we don't name somebody they won't be recognizable in what you write, but actually I've had the opposite experience, not just with my father in the book, but other people. I think that one of the things the writer does obviously is really try to describe accurately not just the way somebody looks but the way they are, the way they seem to others around them. My impression is that that is what my sister felt when she first came to the descriptions about my father — about our father."
On the unexpected ways that life unfolds
"I think that the trick to writing a memoir and the trick to writing fiction is always to have this consciousness of what it really means to be human, and what the human experience is. And the human experience is full of serendipity and surprise and situations taking a turn that you didn't expect.
"As shocked as I was to be reading that email ... I also had this feeling that I knew that was coming. I knew that someday life would turn on itself and I would be standing there facing this woman who shares my father."