It took L.A.-based author J. Ryan Stradal 364 days to write his debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest (“Without kids or a job, it’s pretty easy to write eight hours a day,” he says with a chuckle). It’s taken far less time, however, for critics to sit up and take note. Released on July 28 by Pamela Dorman Books, Midwest has already drawn comparisons to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (which, need we remind you, won a Pulitzer and is now an HBO miniseries). Stradal took some time to chat with us about Mexican food, the Midwest versus the West Coast, and strongwilled characters before heading out on a cross-country book tour.
Considering how quickly you wrote this book, it seems like a story you were itching to tell.
It had been turning over in my head a long time, since 2010 or 2011. I’ve been saving money for years—I had been working in TV—to take a year off and write a book. I finally did that in 2013. But I had some false starts. Three of the first four chapters I wrote didn’t make the book. I go in with a plan, but I’m totally open to changing the plan. If the characters start demanding to be treated a certain way, or if I find them making decisions that force their hand, I go with it. If we’re on our way to Six Flags and they need to stop and use the bathroom, we’re going to do that.
I think it’s so interesting when fiction writers say that. As the author, aren’t you the one making the calls?
I guess, but once I create a character in my mind, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, you know? They feel like friends and acquaintances, and writing is hanging out with them. I don’t feel like I’m so much telling them what to do as much as transcribing what they do [laughs]. Once I’ve concocted them, they’ve got a mind of their own. And I throw situations at them, like “Oh, your favorite thing is your bicycle? How about I take your bicycle! What do you think of that?”
The book is set in Minnesota. Was it hard to lock into the Midwest mindset while living on the West Coast?
Yeah, it was. I found myself going back a lot to get a feel for the place. There were times when I would look out the window and go, “This isn’t so different from Minnesota!” Then as soon as I get off the plane in Minneapolis I’m like, “Oh no, it’s totally different than Minnesota.” The air is different, the landscape is different, the plants are different. I had to strip-mine my memory for sure, but I certainly had to replenish the story with fresh memories. My trips back were strategically planned: I went back to go to the state fair at one point. I also went to the St. Paul Farmer’s Market at the same time of the year that Lars goes in chapter one to see which heirloom tomatoes were in season at that time. I suppose I could’ve figured it out, but I really wanted to see and taste them for myself, see who was there, how big the place is, what kinds of people are selling heirlooms, what their attitudes are. It told me a lot and helped guide my decisions in that chapter.
But overall, in some ways it’s easier to write about a place you’re not presently in. I guess I’m the sort of person that often needs some distance to have some perspective. I’ve lived in L.A. for seventeen years now, so that’s plenty of distance [laughs].
A lot of the story centers around this pop-up supper club concept, which L.A. is no stranger to. Was that inspired by L.A.?
That was, actually, inspired by L.A. It’s possible supper clubs exist in Minnesota and I don’t know about it. They’re probably as secretive there as they are here. I certainly know people who do regular monthly dinner parties, the kind in chapter five—that’s pretty typical everywhere. But in terms of the pop-up dinner, that’s more something I’ve seen out here. I left Minnesota in ‘94, and the concept was not on anyone’s radar back then. If it was, it was so secret I didn’t know about it [laughs].
There are real-life Stradal family recipes peppered throughout the novel’s pages. Are there any recipes you’ve picked up since living in L.A. that you wish could have made it into the book?
To me this book felt so inspired by my childhood and teenage years that recipes I’ve brought into my life since being in Los Angeles didn’t really have a place in this realm. But there are a lot of things in Los Angeles that I wish I could’ve been exposed to growing up. Perhaps it’s better now, but it’s clear I had no idea what Mexican food was growing up in Minnesota [laughs]. What we had in regards to Mexican food in the ’80s and ’90s was like the airplane version of Mexican food. The school cafeteria version. A faint gustatory reminder of the real thing. But here, oh wow. I think L.A. has the best Korean food I’ve ever had, the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, some of the best Japanese food I’ve ever had, and some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had. And often inexpensively, too—some of the best restaurants that I’ve eaten at in L.A. are in strip malls [laughs]. I think I would’ve incorporated some of that because it’s so distinct in Los Angeles. It may not have had a place in a book specifically set in the culinary world of the Midwest, but certainly my food appreciation has evolved greatly out here.
I know you’re very involved in Los Angeles’ literary scene. Who are three new writers you would recommend right now?
Oh, wow, there are so many. The first would be Cate Dicharry. She’s a fellow debut novelist who wrote a book called The Fine Art of Fucking Up. Also Amelia Gray— Gutshot is great. Catie Disabato’s debut novel The Ghost Network is really cool. And there are two books I’ve picked up which are next on my stack, The Starside of Birdhill by Naomi Jackson and All That Followed by Gabriel Urza.