We All Assemble Families of Choice: An Interview With J.
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Los Angeles-based author J. Ryan Stradal is currently on hiatus from his post as fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, while promoting his debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. He is also the acquisitions editor at Unnamed Press. The story of Kitchens concerns Eva Thorvald, the world’s best chef. One ticket to her pop-up supper club costs five thousand dollars, but Eva wasn’t born with a proverbial silver spoon in her mouth. Her mother abandoned her at infancy, and soon after, her father died, leaving Eva with an aunt and uncle who hide her birthright. But they can’t preclude Eva from discovering her true calling. While intertwining the lives that touch Eva’s, Kitchens asks whether any of us have a choice of who we become.
Stradal is often first on-hand to support and promote other authors and their work. I met him at an event at 826LA in Mar Vista for the California Prose Directory, an anthology about life in the Golden State, which Stradal compiled and edited. We became friends over drinks at the 2015 AWP conference in Minnesota, which also happens to be his home state and the setting that influenced his novel. Over a whole-wheat apple muffin and almond milk latte at Sycamore Kitchen (he had a tuna sandwich), a foodie haven on La Brea, I had the opportunity to ask J. Ryan a few questions about Kitchens and our mutual loves of food, wine, and the craft of writing.
Andrea Arnold: I love your writing, its honesty, depth and sweetness. How did you come to the story?
J. Ryan Stradal: Thank you. I was thinking about this novel for years before I started writing it. While there is no shortage of Midwestern writers, I felt that the sort of people I knew growing up were underrepresented in fiction. I really wanted to write a story about the kind of people I grew up with, and I wanted to write a story set in the world of food. I’m intrigued by food and wanted to start something that I would wake up every morning and feel excited to write about. Every day I worked on this novel was wonderful.
AA: Who is Eva Thorvald to you?
JRS: Eva is someone I wish I was. She’s way more interesting than I am. She’s a dynamic person who faced a lot of difficult circumstances in her life and concentrated on the positive. She worked really hard and became successful in a world that didn’t give her many advantages.
AA: Why did you decide to write about a female protagonist, being a male author?
JRS: The two chefs I know the best both happen to be women, Patty Clark and Amy Shaffer Kovacs. They were big influences on my life as friends and as people, so when I think of a chef I think women, because I think of them. Amy is trained as a baker and now works in Minnesota and Patty is a private caterer in New York City.
AA: Secrets play a role in the novel. No one tells Eva who she really is. Why did you decide to play out this secret throughout the narrative?
Perhaps you’ve had someone in your life who inspired you to think, I just can’t have this person in my life anymore.
JRS: Jarl and Fiona are very different parents than Cynthia and Lars would have been. Lars would have been a lot more transparent. Fiona and Jarl live in a much smaller world and in order to live in a small world you need to close a lot of figurative doors and windows. The truth of Eva’s parentage was the most significant one they closed. For them to enforce their version of the world in their home, that was something they didn’t want to address. For starters, they had decided early on that they didn’t like Cynthia. They didn’t think that Cynthia deserved a role in Eva’s life so I think that by not even mentioning her it was like she never existed at all. I think that’s how they feel. They basically want to silence her out of existence, and as far as they know they’re successful at it. Cynthia doesn’t seem interested in engaging with her daughter anyway. Instead of raising Eva knowing she has a birth mother she would inevitably one day wish to seek out, they decided to spare her the pain and disappointment of having to deal with this woman. Perhaps you’ve had someone in your life who inspired you to think, I just can’t have this person in my life anymore.
AA: There have been many.
JRS: So that’s the choice they make for themselves as well as for this little girl. And I think they do their best as parents. They’re not the ideal parents for Eva but they love her and they do try. They don’t prevent her from achieving her dreams but they begrudgingly get out of the way and let her do what she wants. Overall, they don’t have any context for a child like her. They try to raise her just like a normal kid and she’s not a normal kid.
AA: Is that how you were raised? Left to your own devices?
JRS: Yes and I was really happy with that. I was extraordinarily happy being by myself. My entire childhood felt like a series of waiting for things to be over. I don’t remember having a lot of unpleasant experiences but there were so many things I thought were just humdrum and uninteresting. I had very strong interests and most of them involved reading and research. I never wanted to go to a water park. Most of the places where kids are supposed to have fun I found either harrowing or tedious. I had stuff I wanted to do.
AA: I love how all the minor characters come full circle. I found myself reading someone’s name, remembering it and having to page back to find out where I saw them last. How did you keep track of all your characters?
To me, it’s a story about a family that gets assembled by a woman that doesn’t have a nuclear family.
JRS: It was really easy. It was just like keeping track of the friends in your life or your relatives. To me, Eva intentionally curated this dinner. Essentially the story is told backwards. It’s the story of the guests at a dinner and where these guests came from and how they came into her life. That’s the umbrella handle and the spokes are the individual chapters, but the way people read the book obviously is the opposite. One reviewer on Goodreads called it a “coincidence party.” I don’t want to make a habit of commenting on reviewers, but I can see how by reading the story in order one can come to that conclusion. In my mind, I knew the ending before I even started writing. To me, it’s a story about a family that gets assembled by a woman that doesn’t have a nuclear family. We all assemble families of choice to varying extents, and particularly those of us who leave our family to move elsewhere. Often this doesn’t come at the exclusion of the family you are born into, but at the wider net of who your intimates are. Eva being an orphan I think it was very important to her to have a family and stay very close to her cousins, but then branch out to friends. When she meets Jordy, her heart really goes out to him. She knows what he’s going through. At that point in his life he’s not ready to accept what she has to offer, but she makes it clear to him that I’m here for you when you are and by giving him a job she might have saved his life. She knew enough about that kind of darkness to know how to respond to it and not be too forceful initially. The chapter that doesn’t exist but that could is where Eva and Adam, Eva’s boyfriend and Jordy’s brother, pull Jordy out of bed and take him to detox and make him sweat it out.
AA: When did you become a foodie?
JRS: Once I could drive I was going to all kinds of ethnic restaurants. My high school girlfriend and I would go to Ethiopian, Indian, Middle Eastern restaurants every weekend. I was really into traveling — or the idea of traveling. I hadn’t been anywhere. It seemed like the next closest possible thing of seeing the world is having the cuisine of the world, of course as represented by Minnesota restaurants.
AA: How did you choose the recipes for the novel?
JRS: Most of them are from my great-grandmother’s Lutheran church in Hunter, North Dakota. There was a recipe book they used to put out. Maybe they still do. I have two versions of it at home, the 1969 version and the 1984 version. Most of these recipes are from the ’84 version. The ’69 version is vague sometimes with its measurements and its time. It’ll say, “Cook until done.” These are recipes by women who’ve been doing them for decades and just know. A lot of it is very traditional Midwestern food, and when I decided to write a narrative set in that world I wanted to stick with the bread and butter of Midwestern cuisine.
AA: How did you get your hands on that cookbook?
JRS: I think I got it when my mom died. I was 29. Ten years ago. I’ve had it for that long but it was in our house before that. There are recipes in the ’84 edition from my great-grandmother and two of my grandmother’s sisters.
AA: Was there a constant dish served in your home while you were growing up?
JRS: I remember my mom experimenting with different kinds of casseroles a lot in the eighties. Different one-dish meals served with a side of frozen green beans or peas.
AA: Who made lutefisk? How did it get worked into the first chapter?
JRS: I remember having it as a kid thanks to the Norwegian-Swedish influence of my great-grandparents on my mom’s side. We’d go to church events where it would be served, sort of like how I characterized it in the book. During Advent in Minnesota there are some churches that will have a social night where things like lutefisk will be served. I recall my great-grandfather, his name was Gus — where Gustav came from — was into it, but when he died the family interest in seeking it out seemed to wane. I had it once as an adult a couple years ago, and my experience buying it was not unlike Lars’s experience buying it. The people who sell lutefisk these days are a self-selecting and passionate, peculiar lot. They’re a dying breed, I think. If someone gives it to me I’ll eat it, but I don’t think I’ll pay money for it again. (Laughs) It tastes like how an aquarium smells.
AA: LA has a big farmer’s market and pop-up restaurant scene. Did those things just fit into Eva’s story as you already envisioned it or did you want to write about LA’s food scene and then wrote Eva’s story around it? What came first?
JRS: There were a lot of things that were important for me in Eva’s evolution. For one, I wanted her to evolve into the time that we exist now. I felt the pop-up supper club seemed like the perfect realization of her dynamic, rootless personality. I also wanted Eva to have a goal that wasn’t a relationship and wasn’t achieved through a relationship. I didn’t want it to end with her getting married or for some guy to come in and be the difference-maker. I like that she has a boyfriend but he’s a supporting character. He’s along for the ride.
AA: You also write extensively about wine. I follow you on Instagram so I know you’re super into visiting my favorite place on Earth, Los Olivos.
JRS: I’m really into those big, bold, fruity, high-alcohol Southern California wines. (Laughs) They’re crowd-pleasers. Pinot noir is a connoisseur’s grape but I don’t drink a lot of Pinot. If I’m going to drink a lighter-bodied red, I’m probably going for Zweigelt or Corvina.
AA: So if you were going to throw a dinner party for your favorite people what kind of wine would you put on the table?
JRS: It depends what the food is, but I would probably choose the food to go with the wine. I would choose something like lamb chops that would go well with Grenache because I like it a lot. My favorite American Grenache winemaker is Beckmen. They do these big, complex, fruity Rhone-style blends and varietals. And they’re biodynamic. They’re very thoughtful, unpretentious and friendly. They’re very good at what they do and stick to it.
AA: The main character in my novel drinks a lot of Melville Pinot noir because that’s my favorite vineyard. What came first, your love of wine or the story and Cynthia’s interests? What was your research process like?
JRS: Wine came first. I have a friend who is a sommelier. I would ask her what pairings would go well with the coppa-style cured ham that’s served as the Amuse-bouche at the top of the menu. I’ve had that exactly once, years ago. I don’t remember what kind of wine I had with it at the time. Probably whatever kind of wine I felt like having. But what’s the ideal wine? We had a conversation about it and we decided on Lambrusco, which I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. So I had some really useful conversations with an extremely helpful friend. The others I paired on my own, but I still ran them by her.
AA: I read your Acknowledgments page. It’s really beautiful. Did you start writing this after your mom passed away?
JRS: Thanks. Well after. She never saw any of it. She didn’t even live to see my first published short story, which happened about a year after she died.
AA: Several of these characters have lost a parent. This is a hard question to ask, but were you finding your way through the loss of your mom in writing Kitchens?
JRS: That’s very insightful. It’s a running theme. I know totally what you’re getting at here and I’m glad you mentioned it, because that’s not a place a lot of interviewers and readers go when they talk to me about the book. But that’s absolutely true. This book was a conversation with my mom.
AA: How did your father influence the novel? Was he a particular character?
JRS: No. He gave me some good input about gardening and deer hunting, even though I got more specific details about deer hunting from my brother. Like in terms of the height of the deer stand, what time of day to go hunting, what characteristics you look for in the environment, and stuff like that for the Venison chapter came from him. My brother did once shoot a female deer that had a fawn and he didn’t see the fawn until after he shot the mom. I always wanted to write about it, so I worked that moment into Jordy’s chapter. I’ve been to where they hunt. I’ve seen the deer stands. I‘ve been on those grounds. It’s on an uncle’s farm, much like it is characterized in the book, but those characters are nothing like my uncles.
AA: Will Prager stood out for me. He’s a really strong character. Who is he?
JRS: Will’s me in high school. (Laughs) As a young man I scared off a number of women by falling for them too quickly.
AA: I loved his notion of having “a thing.” How did that come about?
JRS: He feels that, as a man, you have got to have some kind of specialty. You have to bring something specific to the table. He’s convinced himself that this is true, and for him it’s not just an opinion, it’s a lifestyle choice.
AA: So what’s J. Ryan’s thing?
JRS: Well, we’ll see if this writing thing works out. (Laughs)
AA: When did you start writing seriously?
JRS: In my late 20’s. I took classes with Rob Roberge and Lou Matthews, both at UCLA Extension. They really turned me on to being a fiction writer. Up until then I was sort a self-defeating screenwriter. What screenwriter isn’t to some degree? I had that quality in a much greater quotient than other people. In college, I was a creative writing for the media minor, which meant I was writing a lot of screenplays and plays, but I was writing stuff that no one would want to make. I even had a professor, David Tolchinsky, tell me that. He was absolutely right. I didn’t sell anything. I did get a job at one point writing an action movie screenplay but that didn’t get made. Then the writers’ strike happened. Could be it was for the best.
AA: Is that why you came to LA? To become a screenwriter?
JRS: I came to LA because I knew in my heart I wanted to be a writer, but I was too chicken to be a fiction writer yet. LA seemed to have a lot of interesting things you can do for money while you pursued some off-work creative endeavor. It just took me about ten years to get around to doing that seriously. In my first few years out here I worked at VH1 and MTV. I worked on parts of the first two seasons of The Bachelorette.
AA: That’s my favorite show!
JRS: Yeah, it’s fun. My mom really enjoyed it. If she was still alive I think she would call that the highlight of my career!
AA: Can you speak to emerging authors about what kinds of stories you look for at The Nervous Breakdown and Unnamed Press?
JRS: I would like more stories from women and people of color. I personally like stories that are funny, that have a lot of heart and are maybe a little weird or might be a little hard to characterize. For example, we just bought a book by Margaret Wappler, and I really like it because it has one pseudo-science fiction element to it, but it’s not a sci-fi book. It’s a family drama set in suburban Chicago. I think it’s absolutely wonderful, and it’s the right kind of weird. It has a lot of heart and is superbly well written.
AA: What else have you read and liked lately? Any recommendations?
JRS: There are a lot of great books coming out. I loved The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato. I loved Cate Dicharry’s The Fine Art of Fucking Up. That’s a little bit of self-promotion because it’s out on Unnamed, but I didn’t acquire it. It was there before I came aboard. I also really enjoyed the Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. I got that in galley and read that in one sitting on a plane. At BEA, I also picked up the new books by Naomi Jackson and Gabriel Urza, which I can’t wait to read. I’m also reading my friend Meg Howrey’s novel-in-progress which is staggeringly good. It might be the best thing I’ve read this year.
AA: Can you discuss what you’re writing next?
JRS: I won’t say much about it other than it’s a novel also set in the Midwest.
AA: Maybe that’s your thing. You’re the guy who writes about the Midwest.
JRS: I don’t feel like writing about LA yet. Maybe I will someday. When I wake up I want to write about my home state and the people there. I think about them every day.