Tag Archives: Kitchens of the Great Midwest

An Interview with J. Ryan Stradal

10 Sep
J. Ryan Stradal's debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called "an impressive feat of narrative jujitsu" by The New York Times Book Review.

J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called “an impressive feat of narrative jujitsu” by The New York Times Book Review.

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.

September 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Descriptions that Cut Both Ways

8 Sep
J. Ryan Stradal's novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called, by The New York Times, an "impressive feat of narrative jujitsu" and "a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle" by Jane Smiley.

J. Ryan Stradal’s novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest was called, by The New York Times, an “impressive feat of narrative jujitsu” and “a terrific reminder of what can be wrested from suffering and struggle” by Jane Smiley.

When describing characters, it’s tempting to attempt the literary equivalent of a mug shot and try to capture an exact likeness. A description of this nature will rely on precise details: height, weight, hair color, eye color, clothes, and shoes. But what does this really tell us? My father likes to describe a person with a particular body type as being “built like a brick shithouse.” This delightful statement tells you as much about my father as the person he’s describing, which is often the effect of good writing. An effective description will reveal essential qualities of both the character being described and the character doing the looking.

A great example of this two-edged description can be found in J. Ryan Stradal’s novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest. You can read an excerpt at the website of Stradal’s publisher, Pamela Dorman Books.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, we’re shown an encounter between two characters who will eventually get married. So far, the narration has followed Lars, and so the encounter is portrayed from his perspective:

It was during these happy weeks when Cynthia Hargreaves, the smartest waitress on staff—she gave the best wine pairing advice of any of the servers—seemed to take an interest in Lars. By this time, he was twenty-eight, growing a pale hairy inner tube around his waist, and already going bald. Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful, and not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most. This, to Lars, made her feel approachable.

This passage contains two different kinds of descriptions. The first is literal. We learn Lars’ age and two specific details about his anatomy (hairy inner tube, bald). With Cynthia, we about her height and teeth and one of her physical ticks. In short, we’re shown both characters’ distinctive physical traits. But these, for me, aren’t the best lines. Instead, it’s the statement that explains her beauty, in Lars’ eyes: “not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.” It’s a cliché to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also true. Good writing often revitalizes such cliches. (And, as much as I’d like to claim that piece of wisdom as my own, it’s been previously stated by, alas, Jonathan Franzen and covered in-depth in this book by Orin Hargraves.)

That line about trucks and pizza reveals something about Cynthia (she’s not what some might call “classically beautiful”), but it reveals even more about Lars, the kind of man who connects beauty to trucks and pizza. It also tells us something about the nature of his desire. He’s not simply admiring Cynthia the way someone might admire a statue. Instead, he wants her, which is a feeling one doesn’t usually get in a museum unless you’re an art collector. So, we learn about Lars’ needs, not just his aesthetic bent.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write double-edged descriptions using Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal as a model:

  1. Describe the thing literally. Don’t use metaphor. Instead, focus on physical traits—height, weight, particularly body parts like teeth or hair—or on personality traits like a big smile, quick to anger, easy to get along with. Write a lot. Go overboard with the description. It may be the case that the character isn’t firmly planted in your mind, and so it can be helpful to describe as much as possible.
  2. Give the description coherence. Don’t treat your characters like strangers. There’s a reason that eyewitness descriptions tend to be vague; they eyewitnesses don’t know the person, haven’t developed an opinion toward the person, and so recollect the most general of details. But if you were to describe your partner, sibling, child, parent, good friend, or mortal enemy, you’d likely be precise and specific. You wouldn’t, however, be exhaustive. You’d mention some character traits but not others, choosing the ones that fit into your sense of the person. This is your goal for a fictional description as well. Stradal does this in a very clear way in this passage: “Even though she had an overbite and the shakes, she was six feet tall and beautiful.” The sense of the person is important. Someone else might simply focus on her teeth and shakes and not consider her beautiful, and that sense of her would lead to an entirely different description. So, try this: Choose a broad word like beautiful, ugly, mean, kind, intelligent, savvy, deviouslazy, or ambitious. Then, write a sentence-long description that aims toward that word (and perhaps even uses it). In this sentence, you could include details that don’t seem to fit (like “an overbite and the shakes”) but say, “But he was ____ anyway.”
  3. Add the viewer’s perspective. Choose a set of eyes for us to see the character through. In Stradal’s case, he shows us Cynthia through Lars’ eyes. Because they’re his eyes and not someone else’s, Cynthia’s beauty takes on a certain tint. She’s not just generically beautiful. Instead, she’s beautiful “not like a statue or a perfume advertisement, but in a realistic way, like how a truck or a pizza is beautiful at the moment you want it most.” So, you’ve got a coherent description and a word (beautiful, ugly, etc.). Now, add an explanation of how the character is beautiful, ugly, whatever, in that particular person’s eyes. Don’t rely on a generic intelligence, savvy, or laziness. Instead, make a comparison, literal or not, to something else; that comparison should tell us something about the person seeing the character, the person whose head we’re in. The difference in calling something beautiful like a chandelier and beautiful like a neon light tells you a lot about a character.

Good luck.

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