Interview with J. Ryan Stradal – author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest

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J. Ryan Stradal

Last month I had the pleasure of reading the novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal.  (Review here.) This month I was overjoyed to interview J. Ryan about his New York Times Best Seller, which also has been awarded the Indies Choice Book of the Year Award – Adult Debut Winner by the American Booksellers  Association.  It was like my own exclusive book club with the one person who could give me the juicy details behind his characters’ motivations, the answer to what drove him to write the novel, and which recipe I have to try first!

The novel tracks the rise of chef Eva Thorvald from birth through awkward childhood years, when her parents couldn’t understood her compulsion to grow hydroponic chocolate habaneros in her closet, to twenty-year-old dating struggles we all can relate to.  But as the novel progresses, we read about Eva more through the people who orbit her life than through her eyes.  Characters like hypocritical Christian Pat who is on the hunt to find the worst in a new congregation member, or the endearing Jordy who is determined to give his mom one last amazing margarita, or high school alt-rocker Will who just wants to impress teenage Eva with some Walleye and a canoe.  All will capture your heart and bring the Midwest alive.

Chris: Thank you so much for talking to Novel2Screen about Kitchens of the Great Midwest!  The book is amazing.  It’s honest and heartbreaking while at the same time being a feel-good story.   It’s truly a refreshing read.  I read that you wrote the novel in just under a year, which seems unreal.  Did you sit down and plot it out and tie the characters together before delving in, or did the muse just hit you and you wrote?

J. Ryan: Thank you.  Yeah, 364 days, the first draft anyway. I had an ending and I knew what my ending would be, and I knew what the final menu would be.  So, I had some idea of what I needed to do to get to that ending and what foods I needed to populate that menu, and I knew what the structure would be in terms of each chapter – and that was about it.  I didn’t even write that down.  I just knew that. Often when I’m faced with a really large project like a novel it is helpful to break it down into constituent elements that are easy to tackle discretely, and this is one way of doing that.

Chris: That’s great!  I think that gives hope to writers out there who fear that you have to have your entire book plotted out before you start page one.

J. Ryan: I think some people are more comfortable working like that, but I like the process of discovery that comes when you develop a character and you find a character taking life on his or her own. Often that means you find them doing things that you hadn’t anticipated. I like leaving my options open for those kind of discoveries.

Chris: In a way the chapters in the novel are like groupings of short stories that all intertwine and tell a larger story.  Which chapter was the hardest to write?

J. Ryan: Jordy Snelling and the venison chapter was the hardest to write.  He’s probably the most like me, and I think that explains it.  He’s a character dealing with his mom’s impending death, and that was something I dealt with 11 years ago.  I hadn’t really processed it as well as I could have, which meant writing this novel and writing that character in particular meant it was an extension of my own grieving process.  Writing about what Jordy was experiencing to me was difficult because it was forcing me to reckon with emotions and memories and experiences I hadn’t written or talked about as much as I should’ve.  I felt like going back in the past, and writing about my mom’s death through Jordy was a tremendously challenging thing to do.  But at the same time cathartic.

Also, it was a difficult chapter to write because I had to get a lot of the details right when it came to deer hunting. I’ve never been deer hunting.  I couldn’t work from memory.  I had to work from research and interviews.

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Chris: You mentioned your mom.  I feel like one of the central themes is motherhood and what a mom is or isn’t.  How much did your own relationship with your mom affect the novel besides Jordy’s story?

J. Ryan: I think it affects it quite a bit, including the fact she hasn’t been there, through no fault of her own, over the past decade. I feel like so much of the book is about my relationship with my mom … My experience with her was a driving force here.  Thinking about building a life and becoming an adult and working towards your goals in absence of that support and validation and love and understanding was important to me.  To have Eva do that was important.

Chris: Food culture is a big component of the book, and the book is peppered with recipes.  Where did you turn to for those recipes?

J. Ryan: They were recipes from my great grandmother’s church in Hunter, North Dakota. Some recipes are recipes that my grandmother used; some were written by my great grandmother and great aunt. Many were family recipes or from a family cookbook. So if they weren’t written by family members they were written by people close to the family, some of those people still attend that church.

Chris: Have you tried the recipes?

 J. Ryan: Absolutely!

Chris: OK, so which one is your favorite?

 J. Ryan: The chicken and wild rice hot dish.

Chris: Do you consider yourself a foodie?

J. Ryan: I guess so. People call me that. The term doesn’t mean as much if you assign it to yourself.  [Laughter]  I do think a lot about what I eat and why.  I like living in a state like California where so much is available to us here through the incredible agile agricultural environment.

Chris: I grew up with Maryland blue crabs, so I miss that.  But buying an artichoke in Maryland when we were kids cost a fortune compared to California.

J. Ryan: Yeah, I remember how rare it was that we got avocados [in Minnesota]. Never heard of pluots. We didn’t have blood oranges in Minnesota …  As a teenager I pursued ethnic food quite a bit. There was actually a really good taco truck that served authentic street-style tacos.  It wasn’t like the Mexican restaurants we were experiencing in Minnesota in the ’90s, not like ChiChi’s.  My mom loved those places, but she loved big margaritas and multiple kinds of cheeses and sour cream piled on top of a burrito. It was fun finding a version of Mexican food that we knew was authentic.  It was totally foreign to us.  It was not Minnesotan Mexican food. So, that’s a long answer to your question, but I guess I’ve always been driven by an intense curiosity about food, and it’s a major reason why I travel where I travel.  So, yeah, I guess I am a foodie.

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Chris:  One concept in the book is the idea of origin, whether it’s the origin of the food, such as where the butter’s sourced for Pat’s bars, or the origin of where the characters came from and the class difference between them.  How did that theme evolve?

J. Ryan: That’s insightful. Wow, I did want to complete some issues surrounding origins here because origin, when it comes to food, has become an increasingly scrutinized detail over the last decade in terms of people using it as a determinate for an ingredient for a dish’s quality or value or a diet or political opinion. The origin of the people in the book meant a lot to me too.  It was interesting commingling those two worlds.  To me Eva as a person has a very strong nose for good people.  I wanted to portray her making some mistakes, but I also wanted to show how she was able to draw from a fairly diverse array of people in terms of age and background.

Now socioeconomically, that’s one aspect where she doesn’t go too far from the well.  She tends not to make too many lengthy attachments with wealthy people …  I think what Eva was looking for in her associates was a certain kind of work ethic.  It was one way of her curating her group of friends.  It’s not something I’ve ever spoken about.  You’re the first person to ask, so I’m still piecing my thoughts together.  It was something I certainly had thoughts about when I was writing it.  Eva was someone who will give everyone a chance.  She’ll be friends with just about everybody, but I think the people in her inner circle are people she identifies as having worked to get to where they were or having accepted compromises that she could understand.  I think Pat is the one Eva can relate to the most.  Pat’s extremely honest about who she is.  Eva saw in this woman both a talent and an honesty, and I think Eva responds to that as much as an epicurean or a gourmand.

Chris: I found Pat a very interesting character because off the bat I did not like her.

J. Ryan: Yes, there’s some contradictions between how she speaks and how she behaves. That can make it difficult for readers to attach themselves to a character. Contradictions can complicate a reader’s relationship to a character.  Hopefully, she earns the reader’s sympathy.

Chris: The minute she saves her son in the car, I thought, “Alright.  I’m down with this lady.”

J. Ryan: Yeah! Here’s this woman who is somewhat dogmatically Christian and is really struggling to find a way to be Christian through action. That last action she does in that chapter is the most generous, most self-sacrificing thing she can do.  That action to me is her – apotheosis seems too strong – but her inevitable result of this woman’s belief system, this woman’s love for her child, this woman’s pension towards self-sacrifice, but in a way that isn’t pathetic or guarded.  It just feels really bold.  I wanted to create characters for whom the reader’s attachment might vary.  There’s no detail in the book that isn’t scrutinized.  It is a stained-glass window.  There’s a lot of intricate little things in here.

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Chris: You’ve been on tour for a few months promoting the book across the country.  Have you noticed a different reaction in the Midwest due to where you set the book compared to other areas?

J. Ryan: Slightly, yeah. The people in the Midwest seem very happy to be written about, and I’m grateful for that as I couldn’t imagine setting my first book anywhere else. When I was a kid I got excited when I saw film, TV, or books set in my home region. I wanted to talk about the type of Midwesterners I knew growing up.  It felt nice to hear that many Midwestern readers that I met were happy to see them, and some kids said they were waiting for them.  I feel like I did my job on that level. I think people view Midwesterners as simple people or through an oversimplified lens.  I have enjoyed the conversation with Midwesterners that I bucked some of the stereotypes.

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Chris: A little birdie told me that the novel was picked up for adaptation for film.  Can you confirm or deny?

J. Ryan: Yes, it was optioned by Warner Brothers. I’m not sure about the status of production, but the check cleared. [Laughter]  I’d be tickled to see it as a film.  I won’t be participating in the adaptation, so whatever comes of it will be novel to me.

Chris: Do you have any advice for first time novelists trying to land a publishing deal or secure representation?

J. Ryan: First thing I would do is get it copyedited. I hired three experienced people to do passes on small segments, and one copy editor, the excellent Erin Hickey, do a pass on the whole thing. You can get some copy editors who will give you notes as well.  Read a lot – read contemporary literature that is similar to yours to be up-to-speed with what is coming out.  When pitching the book, people are going to request you include contemporary comparisons.  “Cross betweens” help.  Know well what kind of world your book will be a part of.  What helped a lot for me is reading a lot and writing a lot.  Don’t be afraid to write 300 pages and get rid of it.

Some people feel too goal-oriented when it comes to writing.  I don’t think about it in terms of a goal.  Will it win any award or be a best seller?  I can’t think like that.  It’s a lot easier to just do the work.  The biggest mistake I see young writers do is that they slave away at something – how hard it is to write, [or] get through the chapter.  Then work on something else and don’t get stuck.  A means of getting around things is to write something else.  That joy and enthusiasm will carry.  I can tell when a writer has a lot of love for their sentences and stories.

Chris: What is your favorite book of all time?

J. Ryan: Oh, just one! I really like Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son. Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer [a weekly comic strip] by Ben Katchor.  James Joyce’s Dubliners.   David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest changed me as a writer.  It’s thoughtful and emotional and intense and detailed. A tour de force.  It broke my brain.  I emerged from reading it a better reader and writer.

Chris: Well, there you have it, people.  Go read Infinite Jest to blow your mind and read Kitchens of the Great Midwest to piece it back again.

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