“All I Want to Do Is Write Fiction”: Talking with J. Ryan Stradal about Kitchens of the Great Midwest

kitchens of the great midwest

For most of the world, J. Ryan Stradal is a new name, one of 2015’s phenom debut authors, with a New York Times bestseller right out the gate. His novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, has met with glowing praise from every imaginable outlet—Oprah and People, the New York Times and NPR. Every word of it is well deserved—the novel brims with warm, vivid characters and painterly stories, evoking a bounty of tender feeling. The book follows the life of the intriguing Eva Thorvald, an enormously talented chef born from the soil of the Midwest, through a series of linked short stories, each with a different point of view character. The stories are as witty and well observed as they are profoundly heartfelt.

I don’t remember the first time I met J. Ryan Stradal, but I’m almost certain it was at a reading at Skylight Books, one of the prime indie bookstores in Los Angeles, sometime in 2012. He’s lived out here for seventeen years, and for much of that time, has been an integral member of the literary scene—he co-founded the Hot Dish reading series in 2009; he’s a steadfast volunteer and board member of 826LA, LA’s arm of Dave Eggers’s nonprofit 826 National, which provides writing, publishing, and tutoring help. He’s always been a huge supporter of other writers, and that hasn’t changed a bit since his big break—when I met him for this interview, we talked about his crazy packed schedule, then he mentioned that he was meeting an aspiring writer that afternoon to answer her questions about publishing.

When Kitchens came out in July, J. Ryan had his LA launch at Skylight Books. I’ve never seen the store so crowded—people were crammed into the aisles; I listened from a seat on the floor by the greeting cards. There was so much pride and joy in that room—it was J. Ryan’s moment, but it felt like a victory for all of us.

I sat down with him recently to ask him some questions about his novel and his writing life.

There’s a lot of calamity in this novel. All of your characters face major setbacks—death, illness, abandonment. How do you see the role of disaster in fiction?
I certainly did set out to make my characters suffer. One of the things I was taught in my writing classes was that behavior reveals character, and one of the best or most consistently accurate barometers of behavior is how someone reacts in a crisis. So I think we as writers are tempted to put our characters in crisis situations to reveal their character. You have a protagonist and you throw him or her into a circumstance that corrodes or twists them. It’s a very tried and true narrative that I think at worst is picaresque and at best can be a tremendously revealing journey about what it is to be human, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Do you think disaster has this uniquely humanizing effect in life as in fiction?
I don’t feel that someone needs to have experienced calamity to be a complete or good person, certainly not. Character is also revealed by how people react to good news or good situations. But tragedy does become a way in which we relate to people. Not so much in the moment, but in the aftermath, we realize our emotional and sometimes physical needs have been recalibrated, and we depend on people more than we thought we did.

Your book is very funny and sometimes quite biting, but the whole time, you really go for the heart. How did you manage this pervasive earnestness when writing Kitchens?
I guess I was just really honest to my own point of view. Every writer is gonna have his own point of view on food. For some writers, a snarky treatment would come very natural. But for me the voice, or the voices of these characters are collectively my point of view. Sometimes I disagree with them or know they’re wrong, but it’s all true to them in the moment.

The tone is true to the character of the Midwest I grew up in. I grew up in an irony-free zone. My grandmother literally doesn’t understand sarcasm. She’s gonna take everything earnestly and I love her for it. If you come over and you say, “Doris, I love those drapes,” you might get those drapes for Christmas. You didn’t have to have a lot of guile to grow up where I did.

How did you like the editing process?|
It was awesome. Every day I could spend in that world was a great day. I didn’t really care if the notes were intense or even tedious. Early on I talked to Pam [Dorman] about what the book was about and I agreed with her. She saw the same book I did. What I didn’t want to do was to create a book that was out of step with my vision for it.

One of the reasons I ended up going with Pam was because she gave the most notes, and at that point I ascertained that as her level of attention and discernment and enthusiasm. Because I wanted someone who was enthusiastic for the book, but also someone who had a “yes, and” kind of impulse to it. If anything, she could’ve given me more notes.

You wear a lot of hats, J. Ryan. You’ve done short fiction, essays, humor…you worked in reality TV for a while, and now you’re even on the editing side, for Unnamed Press. Do all of these hats feel equally comfortable and necessary?
All I want to do is write fiction, but it’s not the only thing I’m doing. I do enjoy the other things I do, but they feel like side bars right now. I don’t feel like I’m a book editor who happened to write a book, or a television producer who happened to write a book. I feel like a novelist who happened to write television for a while or happens to do book editing. That said, I like all of these things. I say yes a lot but that’s because there are a lot of things that feel interesting and fun to me. None of this feels like work. When I was employed in TV, I worked with a lot of good people, brilliant producers like John Gray, Tom McMahon, Jeff Conroy, and Steve Robillard. I enjoyed the programs I worked on. It was challenging and interesting in ways that I could apply to other areas.

Where do you find the time to do all these things? Are you enormously efficient? I know you wrote Kitchens in an astonishingly short timeframe. What’s your schedule look like these days, aside from heavy touring?
It’s really busy. I have a to-do list for the week and one for the day, and they’re usually pretty full. I don’t know where the days go. I try not to say yes to things I cannot do. I’ve gotten better at prioritizing. When I was younger I used to be a lot guiltier of saying yes to everything and then sort of letting things shake out. But for me it comes out of a genuine sense of enthusiasm. Most of the things that come to me are things I want to do. I’ve had to make the choice to not have a full-time job right now in television, so that frees up a lot of time to read other people’s books, to work on a new book, to host literary events and volunteer at 826LA and do other things. But one of the things that’s accompanied the book coming out is the publisher wants you to write other things to keep your name in the public sphere and so before the book came out and since it’s come out I’ve had to make time to write essays and listicles and reviews. It’s all been fun. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s not like writing fiction.

How are you enjoying your book tour?
It’s been wonderful. It’s been exhausting. There’s something about airplanes and airports that really tires me out. I’m still not 100 percent. I’ve been home since Wednesday night. It’s Monday? I signed a book to someone the other day with a grievous grammatical error in the dedication. I didn’t notice. I don’t know what it was I thought I was writing, but when they posted the photo on Facebook, I was like, “I wrote that?” And this was at 2 in the afternoon. I wasn’t begrimed by weariness; it was the dead of afternoon. I was driving in this state.

But the activity of it is very pleasurable. I just saw The End of the Tour the other night, and until my tour I didn’t know about media escorts. It was cool to see that job dramatized in a movie, played by Joan Cusack. I felt, oh wow, I had that experience just now. I know not every writer does, but I was fortunate at least this time. We’ll see what happens in the future, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

How has life changed for you now that you are a New York Times best-selling author?
It’s really weird. [Here, he hides his face in his palm.] You don’t think about it in a million years. If you’re a sane person, you don’t lie in bed and think, “Some day, I will be a New York Times best-selling author.” I certainly didn’t. [Ed. note: I must be insane.] I just wrote the book I wanted to read, and wanted to exist in the world, so to have people excited to read it is mind-blowing to me. It’s a real honor. It’s really emotional. I just feel like this weird balance between it not sinking in at all, like oh yea that happened to someone else, or feeling like oh my God this is happening and this is great, but then also chafing against my Midwestern instinct to not talk about it or not think about it or underplay it. It feels so cheesy to talk about it. I just can’t shake that mindset that I have that oh man, tooting my own horn is something that was really looked down in my family. Self-promotion was really anathema to the Stradals of Minnesota.

Now that it’s happened, it’s like oh wow, that’s pretty cool. I’m being very inarticulate about it, but—how did that happen? Yeah I don’t know. I just wrote a book about Midwesterners and their food. Don’t get excited.

Let’s talk about LA. Your book is about community, and relationships, and the things that bring us all together, but it’s very much an ode to the Midwest. As long as I’ve known you, though, you’ve been a true Angeleno. Can you talk about how Los Angeles has factored into your writing life? Do you think you’ll ever write about LA?
I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without the writers and the community I know here. So many people I’ve met through readings and workshops and classes in L.A. have made me an immeasurably more thoughtful writer and person.

Early on, I felt like I wanted to have something to offer. I met Summer Block Kumar at a reading and we started our reading series in part because we wanted a series like Hot Dish to exist, so we created it. I got excited about the idea of asking writers I’d met and seen around to come and read at my event. I was flattered and shocked when most of them said yes. So I feel really honored to be part of a community that has a real generous feel to it.

Now there are a lot more reading series, and I’m also aware of a lot more that I wasn’t aware of when Hot Dish started. There are stalwarts like Jim [Ruland] and Wendy [Ortiz] and Conrad [Romo] who’ve been doing it longer than me, and they’re all really inclusive people. Jim said at one of his recent events at Bookshow in Highland Park, “For any of you that haven’t been to Vermin before, this isn’t a scene, this isn’t a club. You’re part of this.”

I haven’t experienced the New York literary scene, but I’ve heard it’s very different. It could help that in New York, publishing has a front seat. Here, the people with creative energies are so preoccupied by the film and TV industry that I think to some extent the literary world here feels inclusive in the way that a pick-up softball game is inclusive next to a major league baseball stadium. But this is not pick-up softball talent. It’s major league talent. It’s never ceased to amaze me how by and large the writers out here are so approachable and inclusive and helpful to each other.

I also feel like volunteering at 826 as I’ve been doing for the last ten years and seeing the ways they nurture the writers in this city has been useful. It’s been fun hosting literary events there as a fundraiser for them. So many panels and events for writers open to the adult community in Los Angeles. It’s been fun to see how easy it’s been to help create a community. We work in such a solitary realm, I think at the end of the day we want to get out of our house and relate to each other. It’s comforting to know there are like minds out there, nice, smart people who want to help each other.

I’m working on another book set in the Midwest, so not gonna write about LA any time soon. I’ve written short stories set in LA or California but in terms of a novel set here, not yet. That’ll have to wait until at least novel number three.

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