J. Ryan Stradal has a lot on his plate. He is the fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, an editor-at-large at Unnamed Press and on the advisory board of the non-profit writing and tutoring organization 826LA. On top of all that he has a New York Times Bestseller with his debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
The novel is an ode to Stradal’s love of his native midwest and the culinary world. He’s adamant on writing stories that dive deeper into underrepresented characters and finding the next interesting novel.
He spoke at length about the Los Angeles literary scene, the evolution of Kitchens and the beginning of what’s next.
You have a lot of positions and titles. How did you get involved in that?
Slowly. I started off as being a fan; being an outsider. I didn’t have an MFA, and I didn’t even have an undergraduate in writing. I was just a big reader. For years, I wrote fiction and didn’t send it out. Ever since high school.
I never submitted anything until 2006. I was 30 years old. I finally went to some classes because I realized I needed to learn something about this thing I was passionate about. I took a few classes and got better at it. I just kept practicing. The first short story I submitted, I did get published. It was 2006 and after that it was a four year drought before I got another one published.
That was great though. I needed that time to get better. Just keep writing and not let myself get frustrated. In mean time I learned a little bit about the industry from the teachers I had. I thought if I couldn’t always get something published, the least I could do was sort of have something to offer to writers. So I got involved. A lot of what I recommend to my students is to volunteer to read incoming manuscripts and short stories. Basically help out the site you like. Often, they’re overwhelmed with submissions. I can tell you that having a staff of peers willing to read works and help you curate is important.
A lot of writers tell me all they do is read and write for great lengths at time without doing much else. Is that true for you?
All I do is read and write and read and write. My girlfriend called me – she lives in New York – and asked what I did. That’s what I told her. It’s an education. I read a lot of contemporary literature. I’m very intrigued by what writers are doing right now.
What are some things that excite you right now?
Wow. I’m reading a lot of stuff that’s not out right now. I’ve been asked to blurb a lot, which I’m excited to do that. I just started a really good book called The Wangs vs. the World by a debut novelist named Jade Chang, who lives out here in Los Angeles. I’m really excited about that one. It’s coming out next year.
There’s a book called The Wanderers by Meg Howry. She’s another L.A. writer. Her book is phenomenal. It’s this book about a Mars mission. Three people go on this Mars mission. Everyone takes turns telling the story and at one point… Well, it’s not actually based in the mission per se. It’d based in the practice, the dry run. At one point an astronaut feels like they’re actually on the mission and they’ve been tricked. It’s a pretty great read. On the sense level, it’s really wonderful. It’s a really wonderful progression of her writing. I’ve been reading her writing for a while now, and this is a lightyear ahead. It’s a tremendous progression of her as a writer.
Next is Neon Green by Margaret Wappler. I’m biased because I edited that one. It’s coming out on the press I work for, Unnamed next year. It’s one of the ones I’m really excited about. She’s a wonderful author who has a lot of visibility. She’s written for Rolling Stone, and she’s a commentator on the PopRocket podcast. She’s also an L.A. writer.
I feel patriotic about the literary scene out here. I just mentioned three L.A. writers, all of whom have new books coming out next year. Those are the ones I’ve read recently that I’m really nuts about. I think I would be excited and recommend them whether I knew them or not, or whether they’re in my city or not.
I like that you’re proud of your scene. You also really love where your from and have talked about people and towns that aren’t represented a lot. You’ve definitely did that in Kitchens of the Great Midwest.
Would you consider this book just about Eva? I know she’s technically in every story, but did you also want to explore all of these vast amount of characters? What was the goal?
Both really. I really wanted to tell the life story about someone who – well, this is an oversimplification – about someone who became successful without being an asshole. I think our terms as an American audience is to think it’s okay to not be that successful because look at that emotional cost of successful people. I don’t think that’s always the case. I was really infatuated about writing a story about someone who comes successful on her own terms and burns very few bridges to do it.
To tell that story largely through points of view of other people, which is a little bit of a cheat because a teacher once told me that you’ll never believe what a character says about themselves, but you’ll believe what other people say about them. So, I felt that this is going to make for a very credulous protagonist. Those people are constantly praising her. I think her work comes across almost too perfect at times, but I feel like in the moments that we glimpse her she is portrayed as a very flawed and very human person. It was fun to reconcile that and to tell that story within this realm of people.
And looping back to that earlier question: I absolutely wanted to touch on a range of people. I certainly couldn’t capture all of the types of people that populate the Midwest. I wanted to write about the types of people that I experienced growing up that I just don’t see represented that often. I think a lot of writers are like that. We want a book to exist that isn’t out there. I wanted to read a book about midwesterners that was like this one.
I felt that the characters were so great. I want to pick one that stands out, but they all stand out so well.
Wow. Thank you.
I read that you didn’t write “Lutefisk” [the first chapter] until last.
It was second to last. What ended up becoming the final chapter I wrote was a real afterthought. It was the Octavia chapter [“Golden Bantam”]. I wrote the first chapter, which I always intended to write last, but then I realized something was missing; her early twenties. I just skipped from high school to all of a sudden she’s a successful chef. I realized it wasn’t right. I went and wrote that chapter in three days and then I was done. I think I was just ready to write it. It was one of those things where I knew exactly would happen. It’s like when you add a spice to a meal and you realize that was the ingredient that was missing.
So, what was the story that started Kitchens for you?
The first chapter I wrote that made the book was “Chocolate Habanero.” Which was Eva’s point of view chapter. And that makes sense; I wanted the reader to know my main character. It started with a tragic event when she was around ten.
And with all of these points of views, a lot of people say this reads more like a short story collection meant to be read in a specific sequence, a lot like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Have you ever heard that?
I’ve heard comparisons. I’m flattered; I love that book. I always intended to write a novel. This is not a book of short stories that I patched together. From the start I set out to write a novel. With that said, if people are comforted by the idea of short stories, if that’s how they reconcile the disparity in the voices, I’m okay. Have it your way, but it’s not a book of short stories.
When I get asked too many questions about what happens between chapters X and Y, or what happens to character X, I qualify it by saying that my opinion is my opinion. I don’t want my opinion on the text getting in the way of the reader’s imagination.
That’s what I thought was really interesting about the book. I think more and more now there’s media like Mad Men jumps timelines. Each season is it’s own story. That’s getting more and more comfortable for people. They don’t need to have their hands held anymore when they’re reading or watching something.
I agree! That’s very insightful. I know you watch a lot of media and you’ve seen it evolve over the past decade. We’ve seen those detailed story lines become quite popular. I think that has also bled over to novels. I’ve seen a lot novels recently with a very unconventional structure.
I think that’s what excites me most about literature today. I recently talked to Bill Clegg (author of Did You Ever Have a Family) and we discussed format and structure. It’s not necessarily the story that’s being told, because every story has already been told, it’s how the story is being told.
I had one instructor who said there’s only two stories: someone goes on a journey, or someone comes to town. (laughs)
I think what you’ve done, if someone wants to break it down to a very basic level, is write a coming of age story. However, what you did was tell it in a way that hasn’t been done; or at least done that well. Since they are so different, let’s talk about the chapters individually. What chapter was the hardest to write?
Why was that?
It was the one closest to me. There was a lot that I wanted to get right in terms of my emotions concerning my mom’s dead. Especially the lack of my emotional preparedness for that event. It was just a very personal story for me. I would say Jordy is 40% me. He probably has the highest portion of me of any character. It was the closest to my heart in terms of personal experience.
Writing a character like Octavia; you know I’ve never been a passive agressive woman from a wealthy family. I felt I could write that very comfortably, Whereas Jordy was hard because of so many things. Not the least of which was reckoning with the facts of my mother’s death and how I handled it at the time. It was a difficult time. I spent the most time writing it, and the most time on that chapter during the editorial process. We ended up adding to it somewhat substantially. We took a little out, but there was probably a net add of about ten or twelve pages.
And you’ve already said how Octavia’s chapter took you three pages. Was that the easiest? Or was there another?
Yeah, Octavia was the easiest. And Braque [“Sweet Jelly Pepper”] was also easy. Pat Prager, the “Bars” chapter… I could have written a whole novel on her. It wasn’t the easiest, per se, it was hard. It took a long time, but it was very enjoyable. It was like the 20th mile of a marathon. It was like that. Your body knows what it was doing. It hurts, but it’s easier to precede than to stop. It was another that was close to home. It reminded me of my mom and her friends, how Pat and her friends acted. Some of the people and events were similar to the events that I grew up around. That book is arguable the most Minnesotan of all the chapters in terms of my world in Minnesota. That and Jordy’s chapter are the two that are most like the world that I grew up in.
When I talk about underrepresented characters Jordy and Pat are who I think about. Handling people like that, I certainly tried to give them grace and depth. I would say I could have kept writing more about that. There are two chapters, her’s and the Braque chapter that I felt I could write a whole novel with those people.
Going back to Eva a little. She’s the main character, but near the end she sort of disappears a little. Was that conscious?
What was that decision based on?
As she became increasingly famous, I wanted her to have a distance from the people. I wanted to express her fame and success through the points of view of people who didn’t know her well. I fell that lends itself to an exaggeration that I felt was important to express in relation to Eva’s fame, but also to curl back from when you see her again at the end of the book. I basically wanted to evolve this character into something almost like a legend. It’s easiest to do that when they’re not present. You can turn anyone into a prophet when they don’t say anything. You see a lot of where she was headed, but they all you get is hearsay. It was like the person who leaves the hometown and becomes successful. They don’t call as much anymore, and you only get the information from people at the beauty shop saying, “Oh, I heard so and so was doing this” and it becomes this world of gossip and conjecture. I felt that was fun to do. Then of course you scale back to her at the end and let the reader discover who she is and who she has been.
That mythos building around her made her almost this god-like figure in the culinary world. Did you always intend for the last chapter to be her mother coming back?
I knew that was the ending before I even started writing. I wanted to write a narrative with that ending. I was going for that ending from the beginning. It’s funny because I didn’t always know that about other parts of the book. I didn’t know that Pat Prager chapter was going to end that way until I got there. Sometimes I write to discover; I often do. I create a setting, put characters in it and ask, “What are you going to do?”
Eva’s story is the spine of the narrative. I knew how it was going to terminate. I was writing for that for the whole time. I knew that was down the road. Everything else in between was largely constructed to serve that in some way, but also to fill out the world that Eva inhabited and matured in. I knew I wanted to write a story that ended like that. That provided that feeling.
It’s funny, I wrote that on Valentine’s Day of 2014. I had written most of the chapter earlier, and I had written a bit of the scene or a version of it earlier. I kept going back and working on it. I wrote the final chapter somewhere kind of in the middle. I knew I could always write that scene better, so I kept going back and writing the final scene again and again and again and again. Finally I felt I got it right on Valentine’s Day. Then I wrote the first chapter, then I wrote Octavia.
When were you done with the draft?
February 25, 2014. A week later.
Speaking of endings, do you know the ending of your next book?
No. (laughs) Kitchens, I knew the title and the ending. This one I don’t know either.
Do you know the beginning?
I have a beginning that might be a middle. I don’t know where the beginning is yet. This time I feel like I’m just very slowly peddling forward and the front wheel is a little wobbly. The last chapter I’ve written for this new book, and I hope every author feels this way, I feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I feel like a much more thoughtful writer when I was when I sat down to write Kitchens. I think about every decision I make as a writer now in a very much more in tune way. When I wrote Kitchens I felt like a child just let loose on a playground. Now I feel like a teenager. I’m more carefully considering what I do. I think that has allowed me to feel a little more impulsive. I’m not putting too much pressure on myself.
Actually, I feel like I know the ending I want. I know a vague sense of where these characters are going to terminate. But I’ll let them change my mind. If they force my hand, I’ll let them have their way. With Eva though, I knew what they were going to do. She was forced onto that track. These characters are doing what they want. I’m suggesting the direction they’re going in, but they’re not on a straight path.
It’s a different mentality going into this one. With that said, it’s the same impulses. I’m writing about characters I feel are unrepresented or oversimplified in other realms. I’m writing about people that I like reading about and that intrigue me.
Is it another midwestern story? In Minnesota?
So far it’s in a fictional town in Minnesota. I may get the gumption to make it a real town. I’m not sure I want to assign a real town to any of the problems these characters have.
So is this story about a town dynamic? Or what would you say this story is about?
Everybody in this current story are so far related to each other. All of these characters are related through blood. It all takes place in one town. I don’t think any of those aspects will change. Other than that, I probably won’t go into details about plot or what the characters are doing simply because it’s still early in the process.
It’s possible that none of these chapters that I’ve written won’t even make the book. Three of the first four chapters I wrote for Kitchens didn’t make the book. I’m very used to the idea of creating a world and then re-creating it earlier.
Very early on writing Kitchens I wrote a chapter called Early Girl, which was about tomato growers. I realized another chapter served the same point and did it better.
Thanks for all of the insight. I’ll let you get back to working on everything you have to work on. Look forward to reading whatever comes next.