J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest. He edits the fiction section of The Nervous Breakdown with Gina Frangello. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and McSweeney’s: The Goods. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in Los Angeles and has worked as a TV producer, notably for the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers and Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch.
To read an excerpt from Kitchens of the Great Midwest and an exercise on writing character descriptions, click here.
In this interview, Stradal discusses the challenge of covering large time periods, novel pacing, and the influence of Minnesota’s most famous writer.
You cover a lot of ground in the first chapter, from Lars’ childhood to his post-high school days to married life. Spanning so much time would seem to pose a challenge for the narrative: how to make individual events taking place over a decade or more cohere? How did you approach this problem? Lutefisk seems to be a big part of the answer.
J. Ryan Stradal
I just tried to concentrate on the moments that I considered to be essential. They weren’t always the most apparent life-defining moments, but moments that, if a character looked back, they would consider to be a vital fork in the road. Lutefisk and the other food that enjoyed their moments in the sun as window dressing for each chapter just helped give these disparate moments a unifying theme.
The first page contains a couple of story-propelling lines. Here’s one:
“Lars blamed his sorry luck with women on his lack of teenage romance, and he blamed his lack of teenage romance on the fact that he was the worst-smelling kid in his grade, every year.”
A line like that seems to beg for an explanation: Tell us why he smelled so terrible! Here’s another line:
“Fish Boy” they called him, year round, and it was all the fault of an old Swedish woman named Dorothy Seaborg.
Again, that line begs for more. It suggests a story. Both lines seem carefully crafted to drive the reader deeper into the novel. Was this purposeful on your part, or did lines like these simply occur to you?
J. Ryan Stradal
No, I’m not lucky enough to have those natural storytelling instincts. I try to ask a lot of questions during a chapter to keep it moving forward, and give the reader a reason to keep going if they’re invested, and these are two pretty flagrant examples of that. This section was one of the last parts I wrote in the entire manuscript, so as such I was propelled by my own knowledge of what was to come, and attempted to pace the establishing narrative to set up the novel as efficiently as possible while still trying to be entertaining.
It seems inevitable that a novel that contains lutefisk, Lutherans, and Minnesota will draw comparisons to the work of Garrison Keillor. Your novel is quite different from his writing, but it does share some characteristics, especially with his novels, which tend to be about young men grappling with their dour, Lutheran, Minnesota upbringing. How did you approach writing a story that takes place in a kind of Yoknapatawpha County, a place that has been famously mined by one particular writer? I’m curious because the shift in main characters between the first two chapters seems like a move away from Keillor (away from young Lutheran men), but the fact that the novel ends up telling so many characters’ stories seems to have a bit of Lake Wobegon to it. Did you feel any need to write purposefully toward his influence—or away from it? Or did it not affect you at all?
J. Ryan Stradal
It didn’t really affect me at all. I enjoy Keillor and his work, but I don’t listen to it often, and haven’t heard it regularly since I lived in Minnesota, almost twenty years ago. My mom and grandma were/are big fans, and I may have been influenced by what they enjoyed about it, but there was a conscious effort on my part to not hew too close to any existing narratives or styles of characterizing my home region. The Midwest I attempt to capture isn’t quite like any I’ve read or heard. I hope I’ve succeeded at making the world of Kitchens its own universe; I personally can’t wait for an even greater array of diversity of setting and voice among Midwestern authors.