I met J. Ryan Stradal where I meet a lot of the people I end up adoring … in New Orleans, where he was receiving an award for his yet to be published first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. His easy smile and terrific reading from his book made him seem like a guy you want to know – smart, funny and easy to hang out with. I got to interview him for this blog, and I feel quite lucky, as he has become something of a superstar since our first encounter last November. His book is out now, and I’ve read it and recommended it to everyone. It is quintessential summer reading, perfect for the beach or the hammock, because like the author, it is quirky and charming. If you love believably weird characters, gardening, spicy food, and great writing, well, you can thank me later.
Q: WHAT WAS THE FIRST STORY YOU EVER WROTE?
The first story I remember writing was in third grade, and it was the illustrated story of a bipedal, anthropomorphized lizard named Vole and his friends, also lizards, named Alanna and Chlorophyll Jack. They lived in a house in the suburbs and had to deal with things like nefarious door-to-door salesmen.
Q: WHAT WAS THE FIRST THING YOU PUBLISHED?
In 2003, I wrote a short story called “The Augustus Mackinnon Story,” about a young man with a degree in poetry who becomes a furniture mover and begins arranging the furniture in people’s homes in, say, iambic and trochaic patterns. I didn’t send it out until 2006, several drafts later, and the first place I sent it to, Hobart, accepted it. They even nominated it for a Pushcart Prize, which was mind-blowing to me at the time. I thought all of this was, naturally, confirmation of my innate talent. Nope. It would be four years before I’d have another story accepted anywhere — and I badly needed those four years of solid writing and disappointment.
Q: WHAT CHARACTERS/BOOKS DID YOU LOVE AS A KID?
The first novels I read in grade school were novelizations of my favorite movies. I particularly loved “The Dark Crystal” by A.C.H. Smith. I learned a lot of useful new adjectives in that one. I also enjoyed Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and books about dinosaurs and U.S. Presidents, particularly Helen R. Sattler’s “Dinosaurs of North America,” “A Field Guide to Dinosaurs” by David Lambert, and William A. DeGregorio’s “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents.”
Q: WERE THERE SPECIFIC BOOKS/AUTHORS YOU READ TO HELP YOU WRITE THIS BOOK?
Alice Munro was a major influence. People have compared “Kitchens” to “Olive Kitteridge,” but I didn’t read that excellent book until I was finished with my second draft. In terms of the structure, I thought of books like Jennifer Egan’s “Visit From The Goon Squad” and Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go Bernadette” — I’m heavily influenced by contemporary writing. Reading a Jane Smiley book right now; love it. This summer I’m looking forward to reading the new books by Naomi Jackson, Catie Disabato, Patricia Park, and Gabriel Urza, among others.
Q: WHAT KIND OF RESEARCH DID YOU HAVE TO DO FOR THIS BOOK, OR DID YOU ALREADY KNOW A LOT ABOUT, FOR INSTANCE, HABANEROS?
I went back to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market during the exact time of year that my characters do, just to see first-hand what’s in season. I ate lutefisk for the first time in about twenty years. I picked the brains of heirloom tomato growers I know in Portland and spent some time with them up there during planting season. I visited a friend’s dad who hydroponically grows various (legal) plants; it’s a necessity in some parts of the country. I read a lot and got a lot of advice from online experts. And I also ate a lot of Midwestern food. I can’t say that any of this was difficult.
Q: ARE YOU PART OF A WRITING GROUP? PROS AND CONS OF WRITING GROUPS?
Yes — right now I’m part of an excellent group with four other novelists; three of whom have books out, and the fourth will. It’s wonderful to get input from people that are a little farther down the road than I am as well as people who are extremely dedicated to the craft of longform fiction. They’re also some of the nicest people I know in Los Angeles.
Q: DO YOU THINK THAT MEN AND WOMEN WRITERS ARE TREATED DIFFERENTLY?
By the media and event organizers, absolutely, still. Start with the statistics compiled by VIDA, which demonstrate a clear lack of gender parity among published work in major publications. I don’t have hard numbers on this, but it definitely seems like women constitute the clear majority of readers and MFA writing students — what I would consider the foundation & the future — yet we’re still in an age where men often dominate lists, readings, panels, and awards. Thankfully we’re getting good at pointing out the glaring imbalances when they occur. The All Male Panels tumblr and things like it need to exist until things irrevocably evolve.
Q: WHAT’S THE SCARIEST/COOLEST THING ABOUT HAVING THIS NOVEL COME OUT?
The coolest thing was probably when my dad read it. He’s a hydrogeologist who’s handy with cars and motorcycles. He reads nonfiction — his favorite writer is probably John McPhee. I don’t think he’d read a novel in a while. His favorite character — the brash, vulgar 19-year old softball player, Braque — was not at all what I expected.
Ryan Stradal is the author of KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST (Viking, 2015), and lives in Los Angeles, where he is the Acquisitions Editor at Unnamed Press, Fiction Editor at The Nervous Breakdown, Advisory Board member at 826LA, and co-producer & host of the literary/culinary series Hot Dish.