LOS ANGELES – When she hiked more than 1,000 miles through California and Oregon wilderness, Cheryl Strayed didn't expect to end up in Hollywood.
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The author of "Wild," opening this week as a film starring Reese Witherspoon, hadn't planned to write about her three-month solo trip on the Pacific Crest Trail. When she finally did years later (at her husband's urging), she sent the manuscript to Witherspoon's camp, knowing the actress was looking for complex female characters to bring to the screen through her new production company. Still, Strayed was stunned when the Oscar winner called.
"This was before the book was released," Strayed said; before it became an Oprah Book Club pick and a New York Times best seller.
Since then, the 46-year-old writer has been on a Hollywood adventure — one that has inspired profound gratitude and piqued her interest in writing her own screenplay.
Handing her memoir over to Hollywood was scary, she said.
"But I do find that if you take risks, that often the best things come from being brave in that way, from making yourself vulnerable," she said. "So I just trusted that."
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She also trusted Witherspoon, with whom she's become friends, and who invited Strayed's involvement in nearly every aspect of the film. The author consulted on costumes, locations, the hiking experience and intimate details about her personal life.
Witherspoon plays Strayed, a young woman who escapes to the wilderness to end a self-destructive bender that began with her mother's premature death. Her marriage crumbles as she turns to drugs and promiscuity to numb the pain. Desperation with a glimmer of dignity drives her into nature — an inexperienced hiker determined to trek one of the toughest trails in the country.
Witherspoon says the memoir is "one of the most important books I've ever read in my life." She was deeply moved by Strayed's story and grateful for the author's support in making the movie.
"She sort of relinquished control and gave us this wonderful story to tell," Witherspoon said. "And being an artist herself, she was so open to having us interpret her words, to make it cinematic, which was incredibly freeing and really the greatest gift ever."
For Witherspoon, the book offered "resolution." For Strayed, the hike, and her reflection on it, fostered a sense of redemption. It's a story about "bearing the unbearable," she said.
"It's a very deep experience for so many people to read 'Wild' and feel what they feel, because of course they're not feeling it about my life, but about their own," she said. "And that's what art does: It reminds us that we are more alike than different and that our common humanity connects us really profoundly."
Serving as "the ambassador for 'Wild'" — first for the book, then for the movie — has kept Strayed from her regular writing routine. But she has "big plans for 2015" that includes more books, and maybe even a screenplay.
"I was absolutely informed by the experience I went through with 'Wild' because I was so involved in the making of the movie on every level, and it was a great education," she said. "It gave me confidence... I know how to make a story, and I can make it work in this form. So it's kind of exciting to me."
AP National Writer Jocelyn Noveck contributed to this report.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .