“The world of Kitchens is all around me.” A conversation with J. Ryan Stradal
One of the things that Eva hated the most about being a kid was how everyone always told her that childhood was the best time of their entire lives, and don’t grow up too fast, and enjoy those carefree days while you can. In those moments, her body felt like the world’s smallest prison, and she escaped in her mind to her chile plants, resting on rock wool substrate under a grow light in a bedroom closet, as much a prisoner of USDA hardiness zone 5b as she was.
Unlike her, they were beautiful in a way that God intended. The tallest chocolate habanero plant came to her waist, and its firm green stalks held families of glistening, gorgeous brown chiles at the end of its growing cycle. Holding them, tracing her finger around their smooth circumference, she could feel their warmth, their life, and their willingness to give.
–Excerpt from Kitchens of the Great Midwest, (Pamela Dorman Books)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Kitchens of the Great Midwest feels very expansive. Though your cast of characters is relatively small, the story unfolds over several decades and each interconnecting chapter is told from a new character’s point of view and features a specific recipe, ingredient or dish (lutefisk, walleye, habanero peppers). Though food plays an integral role throughout the book, many of the central characters are not what you’d consider “foodies.” A hapless teenage boy with a passion for music hopes to impress his maybe-girlfriend by writing her a song. A college student uses her young cousin’s tolerance for spicy food to win easy money at a bar famous for inedibly fiery dishes. A Lutheran housewife is on the lookout for showy interlopers in her world of church groups and county fairs (while turning a blind eye to her son’s drug dealing). The food, like the characters, varies from artisanal to comfort food, spicy to sweet. Which came first, the characters or the recipes?
J RYAN STRADAL: The characters came first. I was interested in portraying different types of relationships to food, but I let the characters decide for me what those would entail. Other than Eva, Jordy was the first character I developed, and superficially, his attitude towards food and eating are as about as far as you can get from that of a chef or a “foodie.” Still, through his deer hunting, he has a more intense and intimate relationship to food than most. People like him aren’t often written about or explored in this context, and that’s what made it interesting to me.
AR: I was really taken by the range of voices in Kitchens. I loved that Jordy’s chapter followed Octavia, who was so insufferable about being the queen bee of her foodie clique. The switch to Jordy’s unpretentiousness is a relief, even as he keeps making choices that we know aren’t going to work out for him. The third-person narration really takes on the voice of each character: (Braque, the driven, no-nonsense college softball player: “the Humanities dorm was like an icicle up the glory hole.” Pat, the six-time blue ribbon bar champion, sizing up a newcomer to her Fellowship Hall: “Pat had just met this woman and she could already tell that her loose attitude and freespending, big-money ways were going to cause problems.”) The different voices come through so strongly that even though they aren’t technically narrating I wondered if you’d played around with the idea of first-person as you developed them. How did you approach point of view?
JRS: I didn’t consider writing in first-person at all; while I’ve done it before, it wasn’t an option I’d even briefly considered when I began to write Kitchens. I knew that I wanted to cover a range of Midwestern characters and tell a life story through multiple points of view, so early on I felt that I wanted the voices to capture as much of a range as possible. There were even a few that ended up not making the cut, mostly because their chapters didn’t reveal as much about Eva as the story needed.
AR: Though I’m not a cook by any stretch I have to admit I’ve been tempted to make a few of the recipes in the book. You mentioned in the acknowledgements that five of the recipes came from a First Lutheran Women’s Church cookbook. Did you field-test any of the recipes in the course of writing Kitchens?
JRS: I grew up with them, so I’ve been field-testing them my entire life, but I hadn’t been around these recipes so much until the novel was completed. Over the last seven months, because of the book, I’ve attended more than a couple events where someone has made Pat Prager’s peanut butter bars. For my part, I recently made the chicken and wild rice hot dish from chapter one, and it’s great. No one else I’ve witnessed has attempted that one yet.
AR: It’ll be interesting to see what other dishes show up at your readings as your tour continues! You don’t seem to characterize yourself as a foodie or cook so much as a curious and adventurous eater, but many of your characters pride themselves on their intimate knowledge of ingredients, varietals, wine pairings, the science of preparation, temperature, the tools of the trade. I imagine readers who love food will be drawn in by that aspect of the book. What was your research process in terms of getting all these meticulous details right? Who were your culinary confidantes and fact-checkers?
JRS: I’m longtime friends with two chefs in particular who were a huge help – Patricia Clark of New York City and Amy Schabert Kovacs of Minneapolis. I’ve known Patricia for over fifteen years and Amy going on twenty-five, and in each case I’ve also witnessed their maturation and evolutions as chefs. Amy is primarily a baker, and Patricia is well-versed in pastries as well, although each of them has a firm enough grounding in other culinary disciplines to at least point me in the right direction when I had a question. Often, however, I set out on my own, located an expert, and asked questions. I communicated back and forth with a hot sauce collector named Vic Clinco, I ran my wine pairings by a LA-based sommelier named Olivia Smith, and I hit my heirloom and chile enthusiast friends for their knowledge and methods. The world of Kitchens is all around me – I may have written it, but I feel that it’s the work of dozens of people, and not just as it relates to food.
AR: In another interview you mention that, like young Eva you had “pretty obscure and all-encompassing obsessions.” These passions I think are what brought these characters to life for me as a reader. As Will Prager observes with equal parts wisdom and hilarious cluelessness, “in order to get girls in high school you had to have a thing.” Will’s “thing” (he thinks) is music. Eleven year old Eva’s “thing” is growing hot peppers in her closet, something that both sustains her and subjects her to bullying. What were some of your youthful obsessions and how have they shaped you as an adult and a writer?
JRS: I went through quite a few phases by the time I was twelve — I was passionately consumed by dinosaurs first, like a lot of small kids, and then moved on to Greek mythology, U.S. presidents, and eventually baseball. Each of these obsessions inspired me creatively in some way. When I was into dinosaurs, I performed a series of live lectures and Q & As at local schools in my hometown and also wrote a favorite author (Helen R. Sattler, author of “Dinosaurs of North America”) for the first time. When I was into the ancient Greeks, I made my own myth-based family trees on huge sheets of white paper in basement; I wasn’t satisfied with the simplified lines of Athenian kings and the condensed Houses of Atreus in the elementary school books. It wasn’t long before I made my own family trees of my fictional characters. While into Presidents, my favorite thing to do was revise 19th century presidential elections and their ramifications, charting what may have happened if, say, Clay beat Polk in 1844. When I got into baseball, my friend Nathan and I made up several fictional teams of made-up players and pitted them against each other for years. Some of the names I concocted back then are still in circulation in my stories now.
AR: Nice! When I started writing stories as a kid, naming the characters was always a favorite part of the process. Did any of those childhood fictional baseball player names make it into Kitchens? What were some of your other go-to sources for names?
JRS: Yes! Edgar Caquill is a name I use in almost every story. It was originally the name of a 6th man on a fictional basketball team from Constantinople that I invented for the Amiga game “TV Sports Basketball.” Jordis P. Snelling dates back to middle school – my brother Jeff actually came up with that name when we were on our way back from Chico’s Tacos in Hastings. The surname “Dragelski” doesn’t exist in the world, I believe, outside of a fictional family of demolition derby drivers that my friend Brandon and I made up in the 1990s. Several names like “Brandon Spencer,” “Ellen Chamberlain,” “Ken Kovacs,” “Al Norgaard,” and “Daniel Anthony” are conflations of the names of high school and college friends. Most of the major characters, however, were invented whole cloth specifically for this book.
AR: I’ll admit to being a little nervous at first about how often the word “quirky” appeared in the blurbs for Kitchens, but I was put at ease as soon as I began reading. I lived in the Twin Cities for a couple of years in my mid-twenties and this felt like a very sharp and funny and compassionate take on the Midwest. The humor really resonated for me and never veered into meanness or overly precious or folksy territory. I currently live in a city made famous to some by “Portlandia,” so perhaps I’m overly sensitive to this, but it feels like a particular challenge to get the humor and spirit of a place just right when you’re trying to portray it to a wider audience. Are there certain books that get this right for you in terms of capturing a true feeling of place with both humor and sensitivity?
JRS: Yes, I think the work of George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and David Foster Wallace were big influences on me in learning how to simultaneously handle humor and empathy. I’ve always enjoyed writing work that made me laugh; when writing, I will sit there and rewrite a line until I come up with a phrase that literally makes me laugh out loud. If I don’t laugh at it, why will anyone else? Humor writing, for me, is as hard or harder than drama or pathos. I really admire the writers, like the ones I’ve mentioned – and I can add Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter, and Cate Dicharry to this list – who really make me laugh out loud, and make me fall in love with their characters and language as well.
AR: Those are favorites of mine as well! Another thing I think Saunders does particularly well which I think is very hard for writers to get “right” is to address class issues in a way that doesn’t feel at all didactic or preachy or touristic. I was reminded of this in Kitchens—many of your characters are working class and facing significant economic and family hardships. Some, like Eva are going to pull through but others, like Jordy may not fare as well. There’s a lot of death and loss in the book (as one might expect from a novel spanning three decades) but the losses never felt like the focus—in fact many of them occur behind the scenes or between chapters. Was this something you thought about consciously?
JRS: Yes – I didn’t necessarily want the narrative to be a cavalcade of death, or force every major plot point or revelation to hinge on mortality. I felt like I’d be better served focusing more on the moments that were key in a character’s life or key to their interaction with Eva. For instance, I didn’t want to start Will Prager’s story months before he met Eva, just to portray his life at the time his mom passed away – I wanted it to begin exactly when he met her and focus just on their brief, melodramatic teenage weeks together. While death certainly shapes our life trajectory, the focus of this narrative to me was more the lives that shape our own, in the specific moments where their impact is the greatest, whether they realize it or not.
AR: Eva’s birth mother Cindy, whom we meet very briefly early in the novel, returns to the Midwest in the final chapter after more than a decade in California wine country. After moving to Michigan, she observes: “she’d forgotten that bewildering generosity was a common regional tic.” I loved this moment of recognition made possible by time and distance. How has moving to and living in LA shaped your view of your own Midwest upbringing? Is it easier to distill what is essentially Midwestern with the benefit of hindsight or distance?
JRS: Maybe it is – it’s hard to say. I know it’s often difficult for me to describe something when I’m in the midst of experiencing it, and I don’t think that’s uncommon. It’s also easier to judge the contrasts between the Midwest and California when I’m a somewhat frequent visitor; my recent trips there have remained sharp in my mind. I also talk to someone there a few times a month, be it my dad, grandmother, brother, or a high school friend, and that keeps me updated on what’s happening there, what people care about, and why they care about it. I know I’ve lived in Los Angeles for seventeen years, but in a lot of ways I feel like I’ve never really left the Midwest. Minnesota still feels like home to me.
AR: I understand that you’ve recently signed on with Viking for a second novel, also set in the Midwest. Congratulations! It sounds like you’ve struck up a good partnership with Viking and your editor Pamela Dorman—can you talk a little bit about how you found each other, and what the process of getting Kitchens from manuscript to publication has been for you? As an acquisitions editor (for Unnamed Press) did you feel more prepared for the process of finding the right home for Kitchens?
JRS: Wow – a lot to answer here. I love my relationship with Pam Dorman and Viking – she’s an excellent fit for Kitchens and for the kinds of stories I’m writing. My agent had identified her early as a good fit for my first novel and I’m extremely glad that it worked out to work with her again. The process of getting Kitchens from manuscript to publication was painless and joyous – she loved my characters as much as I do. I was sad when I had no more notes from her to tackle.
I didn’t start at Unnamed Press until after I’d sold Kitchens, so my editorial experience at Unnamed didn’t have an effect on the trajectory of my first book. At that point, I trusted in my agent, and experienced friends like Brad Listi, Rob Roberge, Cecil Castellucci, Gina Frangello, and Meg Howrey – all of whom gave me great advice when I needed it. It truly took a village, and I feel like things worked out far beyond my expectations. This novel is a lifelong dream and the culmination of decades of work, and to see some of the places where it’s been praised or ended up for sale absolutely blows me away. I never would’ve imagined this funny little book about Midwesterners and their food earning anything more than a modest Midwest audience. I am, and continue to be, completely floored.
Purchase a copy of Kitchens of the Great Midwest here: http://latenightlibrary.org/kitchens-of-the-great-midwest
J. Ryan Stradal 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, among other places. 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. (Author photo by Anna Pasquarella)