Mindy: Today’s guest is J. Ryan Stradal. His first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, was published by Viking in 2015, and reached the New York Times Hardcover Best Seller list. His short fiction has appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, and Midwestern Gothic, among others. His second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, is available now. J. Ryan joined me today to talk about representation of the Midwest in popular culture, the rising importance of microbreweries in small communities, and the lost stories of the middle class.
Mindy: Let's talk about the book, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. One of the things that, as I said, really appeals to me about it is that it's about the Midwest and it's setting is in the Midwest and you grew up in the Midwest. I often see, and I imagine you probably do too, writers and TV show producers and movies, always trying to do the Midwest and not quite getting it... if sometimes completely missing the mark and really corn holing us. So if you could talk a little bit about that, I would love for you to let us know your opinion.
J. Ryan: I totally agree. I've seen some over the years, like Butter for example, which I thought was extremely condescending. The writer of that movie, I'm not gonna name names, but he's from Maryland. He's not even from the Midwest, you know, we gotta make our own art. We've gotta represent our own people. So in a lot of ways this is a response to me not seeing our people represented properly or with enough depth or imagination, but also not just a course correction or a diatribe. It's the celebration of these people. Being a Minnesotan, I'm more inclined to praise what I love than denigrate what I hate. I'm more motivated to write stories about these people because I love them, than do it as some kind of retort to culture at large, but that does play into it. I wasn't seeing enough stories about the people I consider to be my people out there in the world, in any media. There are plenty of great Midwestern writers. Don't get me wrong. Peter Guy, Nicholas Butler, Lorna Landvik Vic Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley. There's a ton of them, but in terms of writing about kind of contemporary working class suburban and kind of like the people I grew up with, I wasn't seeing a ton of that. That's kind of my sweet spot in terms of inspiration, subject matter, like people that live in these smaller towns on the outskirts of a city and live paycheck to paycheck. That's how I grew up.
Mindy: Yeah, me too. I encourage you as an offside, check out the author, Donald Ray Pollock.
J. Ryan: Oh, you bet. I saw him on a panel a while ago and he was really cool. I actually bought one of his books at that event and gave it directly to my brother. Said, give it to me when you're done and he's never given it back to me.
Mindy: Take it back because that man is my idol. I mean, pure sheer Midwest. He's from the Circleville area up here, very southern Ohio, very Appalachia. Stunningly talented.
J. Ryan: Cool. Yeah, I've heard people compare him to Dennis Johnson.
Mindy: Absolutely. Yup. Absolutely. No doubt about that. So the other thing that you talk about, and you just mentioned it too in response to the question about the Midwest in general is middle class and it's so true that so much of our popular culture is centered on the Uber rich or Uber poor. That's what we talk about. It's like that's where the stories are and that's not true. I mean there is that grind and that struggle of just making it, it's so terrifying in itself in some ways. And I know it plays into the book. So if you could talk about that for a little bit.
J. Ryan: Well, it's also so rich with conflict and I mean, when you're struggling to make it every day is some kind of conflict. Anytime you can't answer a problem with money, you've got conflict. And that's one of the things I find kind of amusing, uh, about the fact that so many books are written about wealthy people or, or at least financially stable people. It's like, boy, what problem do they have that they can solve with their wallet? And the people I grew up with couldn't say that. And my characters, most of them can't. Every situation could end up becoming septic for them. You know, like the smallest cut could kill them sometimes. I enjoy exploring that dynamic because you know, you grew up in a world where, you know, as Eda says in my book, you'd treat money like a motorcycle driver treats asphalt. It keeps you going, but one mistake with it can kill you. I knew a lot of people who are very risk averse, you know? Certainly very cautious, very, uh, if not stingy at the very least, you know, very conservative with money. Like I grew up in a family. We didn't eat out a lot. You know, I wanted to though, boy, I'll tell you that when I started working out out of the house and making my own money, I spent it almost all on restaurants and CD's.
Mindy: I love that.
J. Ryan: So those kinds of purchasing decisions, having opportunity costs when it comes to money, you know, and I explore that with my character, Diana, you know, she's got a job, she makes money doing something criminal on the side. But anyway, she's got money that she needs to sustain her and her grandma's life, but also looks at this money in her life and goes, what do I spend it on? I have a choice. I can't do both things. Boy, that's as dramatic as it gets. I'm surprised more people don't explore this realm. Talking to someone else earlier today, and, uh, we talked about this topic and it came up that, well, maybe not enough people come out of the working class to become writers. And that could be a part of it too. Is that you've gotta be in a fairly privileged situation to be able to afford the time off to write a book. At least have your mornings free. I mean, if you have kids and you're working a full time job, I mean, how many hours a day do you get to write? You can do it. I know people who do, it's a lot harder. You know, someone whose parents paid for their MFA and now they get to sit in an apartment in Brooklyn and write their novel. It's very different for them from what I came from.
Mindy: Yeah. Exactly. Same here, same here.
J. Ryan: And they're obviously gonna write a different kind of novel than you or I. I don't even think they should try to write a novel set in Ohio. I wouldn't want to read it.
Mindy: No, not at all. And that's, yeah, that's the experience that I have. Um, I'm lucky enough I'm able to write full time now, but you know,.
J. Ryan: Yeah me to too and I feel the same way. I feel lucky.
Mindy: Yes. And always aware that it can be taken from you.
J. Ryan: Oh yes.
Mindy: Well, and you mentioned being risk averse as part of that middle class mentality. And I see that, I mean, you can't take a stand and say, I'm going to be an artist. I mean, that's all risk.
J. Ryan: Oh my God. Yeah. And it was a risk my parents supported, you know, my mom's supported and understood because she always wanted to be a novelist herself. My Dad was slower. His burner on the stove is slower to heat up under that pot. He's into it now, you know. But uh, at first when I went to college, he was like, oh, you should major in, uh, in a skill like a trade. And so I majored in Radio, TV, film partially, you know, partially to make him happy, but also because I was scared shitless of the idea of writing prose at the time. I was a young dude. I didn't like to revise.
J. Ryan: I didn't revise. Oh my God, what, what insanity was that?
Mindy: You know, I didn't either. My very first book, I finished in college, I wrote a novel, finished it and was like, I'm sending this to publishers. And I did. And then, you know, that didn't end well. That did not work out.
J. Ryan: Thank God. it didn't. Imagine if that had been your first book out there, you wouldn't be able, if it was still on shelves like right now you wouldn't to be able to look at it.
Mindy: Thank God self publishing didn't exist then because, oh my God.
J. Ryan: Oh yeah, yeah, I know. I know. I know. Just imagine. I talked to writing classes sometimes about that, but like I've sent out this story 50 or 60 times and it hasn't been accepted. Like, you know, maybe in five years you'll be glad it wasn't right? Also think of that.
Mindy: I have a blog post, an interview with another author coming up tomorrow and she was querying for six years and I had over 500 rejections and you know, I was querying for 10 and I definitely had over 500 but I'm not sure how many, but then she says the same thing. It's like it was all on me. I was just so convinced that I was this little undiscovered genius. I wasn't revising, I wasn't putting in the work. I wasn't even rereading my own stuff. I was just like, this is awesome!
J. Ryan: Oh no, Oh no, no. Yeah, Kerouac writing on the road. This is just my role of typewriter paper right here. I know I wrote a manuscript in my twenties that'll never see the light of day, but I was of course, you know, disappointed about that at the time. You know, like any writer would be. I didn't even get a response from agents. Yeah. I mean, once or twice I maybe got, we received it, you know, but certainly no one asking for a full. And then the cases I sent a full like no response. You know? And I look at it now and I perfectly understand it's an embarrassing piece of work, but it was the first novel I had to write more to develop the discipline of writing a novel.
Mindy: Absolutely. I know I would get partial requests, then I would send them off and they would just be like crickets. And now I'm like, well, I mean I'm glad they didn't respond. I don't want to know what they thought.
J. Ryan: Me Neither. I'm glad that some of these agents are no longer in the business and they're no longer around to besmirch my good name should they check their email archive.
Mindy: So you've mentioned writing that bad first novel and getting out of your system. How many novels did you complete? How many books I should say? Did you finish before you got an agent?
J. Ryan: Okay, well I got an agent with my second one, but it was 10 years later and then the intervening 10 years I took extension classes at UCLA, which were great because first of all I had an instructor, Lou Matthews, best instructor I've ever had who read my work and said, you know what J. Ryan, your work's going to get a whole lot better, once you start writing about things you care about. It's like, Oh snap. He was right. Lou was right. I was like all right, okay. Waddled out of there like in shame like a toddler. But then, you know, I thought, you know, he's right, I've got to take him up on this. And so that was one thing. The other two things were a ton of reading and a lot of writing. I published my first short story in 2006 after my mom died.
J. Ryan: It was about four years before I had another one published and that four years it was instructive too. Cause I wrote, I was writing, submitting that whole time, you know. I was burning up, Duotrope, you know, like deadliest catch captains smoking, you know, it was, you know, I just didn't let it get me down. I could feel myself getting better. I took the, I took Lou's advice, started getting short stories out in the world again and one was published in 2010 and 2011 then a couple in 2012. And it was just slowly building up a little momentum. And in 2013 I started writing Kitchens of the Great Midwest. I mean I'd been thinking about it since 2009. I'd been saving money since then to take a year off from work. I'd been working in TV production, but I just couldn't help it anymore. In February of 2013 I was working on a show called Storage Wars, Texas. I just started writing it in the morning, you know, before going into work. And um, the rest is history, I guess. It took me about a year to write writing every day. And when Storage wars, Texas was canceled for some reason. Who knows?