Minor spoilers below.
If you’ve ever read Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed’s beloved compilation of advice columns that she wrote as The Rumpus’ anonymous Dear Sugar, you’ve probably had a moment similar to this one: I was sitting in a hotel room in New York celebrating my 21st birthday when I closed the last page of the book,only to immediately open it back up again, decidedly aware that Sugar’s words were now a companion I would carry with me forever. You probably followed closely when Strayed resurrected the column in the form of a podcast, and you might have seen that this week, Hulu is releasing its own adaptation of the best-seller, starring Kathryn Hahn, Merritt Wever, Tanzyn Crawford, and Sarah Pidgeon.
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It’s a daring brief for Hulu—creating a miniseries out of a book that, in essence, is a collection of epistolary short stories from Strayed’s own life that also include some profound advice. “The book is such an ambitious advice column,” Liz Tigelaar,the series’ creator and executive producer tells ELLE.com. “I wanted the show to feel like a very ambitious half-hour that was trying to do everything.” Thankfully, Tigelaar and the rest of the crew also had Strayed onboard as an executive producer.
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Together, they created the series’ structure, which follows present-day Clare (Hahn) as she begins her Sugar journey, and flashes back to younger Clare (Pidgeon), as she dreams of becoming a writer and starts to grieve her late mother. (In many ways, Pidgeon’s Clare is Strayed’s true story, while Hahn’s Clare is from an alternate universe, mostly divorced from the author’s current life.) And just like the book, each episode’s storyline dovetails with a “Dear Sugar” letter-writer in order to deliver a bit of sage advice at the end.
For now, all eight episodes are available to watch as its own pre-packaged gift, but Strayed told ELLE.com she’s open to more. “We would love to keep exploring the story,” she said. “I’ve already mapped out like, six seasons in my head.” Below, Strayed and Tigelaar break down what it was like creating Tiny Beautiful Things—and what they hope old (and new) readers take away from the show.
What did you all discuss in your first conversations about this adaptation? Cheryl, were there specific ideas you had from the start?
Cheryl Strayed: Liz and I met, and the first thing I was trying to find out wasn’t anything so particular about her vision of what the show would be, but that she understood what I was doing in the book. Right away, when we first started talking, I could just tell that she got it, that she was going to imbue the show with the same kind of generosity of spirit and desire to bring more love and beauty and compassion and kindness into the world. There were many conversations where we were like, we could do this or what about that or what about this thing? But Liz would always return to: I want people to feel the same way they do when they’re watching this show as when they read the book.
Tiny Beautiful Things (10th Anniversary Edition): Advice from Dear Sugar
Tiny Beautiful Things (10th Anniversary Edition): Advice from Dear Sugar
Liz Tigelaar: I will say, there were things, Cheryl, that you knew you didn’t want in terms of who our adult character was, meaning she wouldn’t be called Cheryl.
Strayed: Well, how impossible would that be? We might as well just bring a camera crew and do a reality television show if the character was me in the present day. That was never the interesting thing for either of us. At the same time, I was saying this woman who writes an advice column, she’s going to be somebody who has a lot in common with me and who could be my friend in real life. But there is one part of her life that does have to be very much aligned with mine: the things that made her, the most formative experiences of her life, the things that put her on the path that she’s on now. She has to have lost her mother young, she has to be a motherless daughter and have spent her adult life without her mother. She has to have an estranged and sad relationship with her dad. She has to have grown up poor and working class in a rural environment and have gotten married too young and divorced young. Those things that I return to again and again in the columns had to be there. This is how we created this strangely bifurcated Clare, where we have the young adult Clare, played by the extraordinary Sarah Pidgeon, [where] so many of her scenes are straight from my life. Then we have the wonderful Kathryn Hahn playing the adult Clare, who is the person who took a different path than me.
Tigelaar: It’s like the ghost ship version.
Kathryn Hahn in Tiny Beautiful Things.
I wanted to ask about just that: the structure of the show with younger Clare mirroring your life and older Clare diverging. It felt like a puzzle of sorts for people who follow Cheryl’s work closely, like when young Clare writes the “Love of My Life” essay. Were there conversations about what you wanted to include or not include? Was it strange to watch a historical-fiction version of your life?
Strayed: Yeah, it was. And I didn’t have an agenda. I was never really like, this can’t be in there, this must be. But you’re right, there were all these things that a close reader of my work knows. Like, wait a minute, she really did write “The Love of My Life.” That really was her first essay that brought her some attention. Liz was very intrigued by this part of my autobiography where my mother goes to college with me. Liz was like, we’ve got to tell that story. Well, where that story is really told—and also of the grief, what I did after that—is in my essay, “The Love of My Life,” which is not in [the book] Tiny Beautiful Things. So one of the episodes is based actually on that essay. I was so impressed watching Liz work, creating this universe. She would always turn to me in the writer’s room and say, “We’re stuck. Cheryl, tell us what really happened.” And then it would be like story hour.
Were there specific stories that you shared, Cheryl, that were really important to you? Or ones that really stood out to you, Liz?
Tigelaar: Cheryl told a very heartbreaking story that also had a dark humor to it about when she and her siblings had to bury their mom and dress her for the funeral, they didn’t bring underwear. Because why would you need underwear? We did an episode about that. To me, you could not make that story up.
She also casually mentioned something her mom used to do: Because they didn’t have electricity, her mom took them into a field at the summer solstice and put out blankets and sleeping bags and had them sleep under the stars. Horses came and were sniffing their hair and nuzzling them. Stories like that, that hadn’t been written anywhere necessarily, we were able to mine and use.
Strayed: A lot of those stories, where our minds first go are the ways that they contributed to plot, which indeed they did. But a lot of the storytelling we did was also to really get at, and tease out for ourselves, the complexity and the essence of these characters. While it’s true that my mom did the night among the horses on the solstice, it also tells a bigger story about who she was and the way that she mothered and the way she lived her life, which was imbuing magic in everything. So for us to land there and then go, what does this also tell us about this character of Frankie [Clare’s mother on the show]? How do we convey that in other ways? And we had long discussions about grief. This was something I felt very strongly about, because the ways that grief has been characterized and framed and the assumptions that are made about it are often incorrect, and they actually harm people who have experienced deep grief. I wanted to tell a truer story about grief than most of us have seen on TV.
Cheryl, what was it like for you to watch Sarah Pidgeon and Merritt Wever act out these formative years of your life and these previously untold stories?
Strayed: It was very moving and powerful. The image that came into my mind—I felt the petals of me blowing away sometimes, that I would just be left a bare thing, being on set and watching people reenact the scenes from my life that were beautiful and true. I remember watching Owen Painter and Sarah Pidgeon in bed together, and it’s the night before their mother’s going to die. They have this talk about their mom and their childhood, and it’s so exquisitely beautiful and painful for me to watch that. Almost just wanting to burst into tears and not letting myself, because I had to create some space and distance emotionally.
The thing that also very much moves me to tears whenever I write really vulnerably—or in this case, witness a scene being reenacted from my life—is I know there are so many people out there who have lived that experience too and who will feel laid bare by watching it. So much of everything I care about in my work is taking those painful and ugly experiences—taking those times where you’re lying desperately in your childhood bed with your little brother and saying to each other is, I don’t know how I’m going to live—and then making something life-giving and life-affirming of that experience. Turning the ugly thing into the beautiful thing, it feels so full circle.
Owen Painter and Sarah Pidgeon
So much of what’s new in this series is about older Clare’s struggles with marriage and motherhood. Why was it important for you to have those additions in this story?
Tigelaar: To me, that’s the reinvention and part of the “why adapt it,” right? Not to say that Cheryl doesn’t have her own struggles. Nobody’s life is perfect. But Cheryl did the things. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. She went on an amazing journey that was challenging and life-altering and cathartic and healing and baring. Then she also wrote about it, and she became everything that she could have probably ever dreamed she would be as a writer. You see Cheryl now, and you’re like, of course you can give advice. But what was so interesting about the story to me is that back when she gave it, she was in a different place. It was almost like, how do you take a place [Strayed] experienced a decade before but put it into somebody who just hadn’t done those things that they wanted to do? Or those things that would offer healing and grace and forgiveness toward themselves? It felt rich and a little bit different.
Strayed: We both thought it was really interesting to have a woman be in middle age and have not answered—in addition to all the stuff that Liz just said—that essential call within her, that essential knowing voice within her through which she speaks as Sugar. Over and over again, she decided not to choose herself when it came to making good on her intentions as a writer. So in this series, we’re saying: It’s never too late to do that. Now she is doing it, and what’s going to happen?
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Cheryl, did creating the show help you think about the book in a new way?
Strayed: Absolutely. I really had to think deeply about all the layers of things that I do when I give people advice as Sugar and share that with Liz and the amazing team of writers. The ways we talked about the book inevitably had to dismantle the book. Any time you do that, I was able to see new things that I’d done. And the thing I always return to—the thing I probably find the most powerful about this book and ultimately also about this show—is that I didn’t write the book alone. There are the lives of the letter-writers. Those are real people out there who trusted me and told their stories to me. Those lives are in this show, too. The show is very much about Clare, and Kathryn Hahn’s performance very much takes us into this journey she’s on. But ultimately, the show diffuses the boundaries between one person’s story, because what ends up being true is that one person’s story ultimately is a story about all of us.
I think that’s what people feel in their hearts when they read the book. They read a letter by somebody who has a problem that’s very much like theirs and that moves them. Or they read a letter from somebody who has a problem that they don’t have, and then they begin to read my answer to it, and they see themselves in it. The great tumble of story and sorrow and beauty and failure ends up being present in the show the same ways it’s present in the book, and people will see themselves in it. That’s what I hope at least.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison is a senior writer/editor at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture. When she’s not on the internet, you can most likely find her taking a nap or eating banana bread.