Representing the Midwest in Fiction with J. Ryan Stradal

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Mindy:             Welcome to Writer, Writer Pants On Fire. Where authors talk about things that never happened to people who don't exist. We also cover craft, the agent hunt, query trenches, publishing industry, marketing, and more. I'm your host Mindy McGinnis. You can check out my books and social media at MindyMcGinnis.com and make sure to visit the Writer, Writer Pants On Fire blog for additional interviews, query critiques, and more at writerwriterpantsonfire.com. If the blog or podcast have been helpful to you or if you just enjoy listening, please consider donating. Visit writerwriterpantsonfire.com and click support the blog and podcast in the sidebar.

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?

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J. Ryan:             I just thought, you know, most of the time I'd hop onto another production, but this time, you know, I'm gonna take this as a blessing and I'm gonna keep writing. I'm gonna use the full day now and treat it like a job. Yeah, that was another huge lesson. Was treat it like a job. Wake up, clock in, do your writing. I don't have any sort of word count or page count assigned to every day, but I do try to write every day.

Mindy:             I think what you're saying, you've got two like mini MFA courses right there - write about something you care about, which is great. And treat it like a job. That's, that's a big one. I read and I believe it was uh, Nick Cave, the singer who also writes novels and I believe that I read somewhere I have it stuck in my head that it was him. So if I'm, if I'm attributing this to the wrong person, then I apologize, Nick Cave. But, um, I read somewhere that even when he is just writing at home, he wakes up in the morning and he puts on a suit.

J. Ryan:             Oh yeah, I've heard that.

Mindy:             Yeah. And it goes to his office to write cause he has to treat it, he has to tell himself he's at work.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. My buddy Brian K. Vaughan, He rents, uh, like an office about a mile or two from his home that he goes to, you know, and so it's like going to work for him.

Mindy:             I think it's really smart because one of the things I see writers talking about all the time on Twitter, and I'm guilty of it too, is that we lay around in our pajamas all day because we can, and I think I will probably take myself a little more seriously if I had pants on.

J. Ryan:             I do notice my writing gets better if I, if I have pants on.

Mindy:             Yeah. As it should, I feel a little less sloppy if I'm actually, you know, got some support. So one of the things that actually the major theme with The Lager Queen of Minnesota is the emergence of brewery culture. And you talk a lot about how you visited breweries and you learned so much about all of the brewery process and the families and the communities that do pop up around a brewery, especially in small towns where they can be like a social hub. So if you could talk about that.

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J. Ryan:             Yeah, I've been noticing that since I was touring for Kitchens, you know, cause I did over 120 stops for Kitchens, mostly in the Midwest. That's where it so much or the brewery culture has been historically in, and is now, you know, and it's wonderful to roll into these smaller towns that were a lot less lively 10 years ago. Have this center have this epicenter. Uh, you've got some like local people working there that normally would be working elsewhere, be going to the big city or would have outright moved to the big city by now. And they're making something and keeping money in the, in the local economy, hiring locals to work the tap room and giving families, young families, couples, people with pets, quite often, a place to come hang out. That's not denominational, that's not a chain that doesn't funnel the money outside of town somewhere. It has a little bit more conviviality than a coffee shop. Also can be a little more raucous. You can have like, you know, musicians that aren't just a solo acoustic guitarist in the corner. I really love it and I love, I love seeing it and I love their uh, effect on, on small town America and the Midwest. I've been motivated to write about it since then and I wanted to marry it with this idea I had of writing the story of a, an unfairly divided farmland inheritance, which has happened a couple of times on both sides of my family. And I thought, oh, how could I marry these two things together? And Lager Queen is a result of that.

Mindy:             I find often when I'm traveling for work or I'm just visiting friends, like from college that are scattered usually around the state, they do, you know, most places have a, a semi local brewery. Everybody wants to show it to you. Everybody's proud and everybody wants you to try it and, and I'm like, no matter what, I actually think,I always tell them that it's good because you can't say...

J. Ryan:             Yeah, you got to see it's good. It's like, it's like going to your grandma's house and she makes you a pie. What are you going to say? Like grandma, your pie makes me cry. I'm going to cry to sleep thinking about this pie. No, no, funny to think of a brewery is pride of place, you know, for, for community.

Mindy:             But it really is, I went through a period of time where I was really into the microbrews and so I would tweet about it a lot. And I was traveling, I think it was a couple of years ago. I was traveling and I ended up out in California and I had a fan. She actually brought me like a six pack of the local brew.

J. Ryan:             Oh cool.

Mindy:             Yeah, it was really cool. But I, my signing ended at like 9:30 I had to fly out at five in the morning. I had like, you know, a six pack of this local brew and I'm like, oh my gosh, I can't, you know, slam these overnight.

J. Ryan:             I know. I know. That happens to me too. Sometimes people will give me beer, like tall boys or something. Like the end of the night when I've got a 5:30 AM flight or something. I'm like, well maybe I've got a buddy here that I can pass this along to and I'll take a picture of this can and next time I'm in this town I'll make a point of having this beer.

Mindy:             That is exactly what I did. I took a picture and I left it for housekeeping because I was like, I can't, I can't drink six beers tonight like that's not on the table.

J. Ryan:             Not at all. Boy. The demands on writers. Oh God, you drink all this beer. People give you so much beer.

Mindy:             Beer and coffee. That's the thing.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. Yeah. Hey, I'll take it. I love them both.

Mindy:             I do too. Do you have anything that you're working on now? What do you have coming up next or are you just still focused on pushing The Lager Queen?

J. Ryan:             I am working on another book tentatively titled Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club. So the setting is a Midwestern supper club, like of a northern Minnesota, Wisconsin ilk with the fish fries and the brandy old fashions. So that's the primary setting, but it's really, once again more about the people about the family involved. I was writing it yesterday at a hotel in Connecticut, you know, I don't know if I'll have time to work on it today, but yeah, no, it's a world I love being in and developed some brand new characters and, but it's still a Midwestern setting. I'm not, not one talking about the Midwest. It feel like it's, it's home to me in a lot of ways and also has presented me with a lot of puzzles that I need to unpack.

Mindy:             I hear ya. All of my books are set in Ohio, small town, small town Ohio, because I don't see enough of that. One more reading recommendation if you haven't already picked it up. Steven Markley wrote a book called Ohio.

J. Ryan:             Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've heard about it.

Mindy:             It's good.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. Good, good, good. That's good to hear. It's about a group of high school friends?

Mindy:             Yeah. It follows them in high school and then also in their adult lives and uh, it really captures the Midwest. specifically Ohio. Just really good. Really good. I was all over it.

J. Ryan:             Awesome. Awesome. Thank you for the rec.

Mindy:             Absolutely. And uh, thank you for the interview. It was awesome. I'll let you go. I know you've got another one to get to, but it was a great talk. Good time.

J. Ryan:             Yeah. Oh yeah. It was invigorating.

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Katy Upperman on Letting Ideas Stew For Years

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Katy Upperman, author of contemporary YA romances Kissing Max Holden, The Impossibility of Us, and How the Light Gets In.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book? 

I started working on How the Light Gets In in 2010, and have returned to the story numerous times in the years it took to sell the manuscript. Way back in the beginning, the book had a different title, different characters, and a very different plot. But it’s always been a story about ghosts (literal and figurative) set on the Oregon coast. The point of origin was a combination of elements that inspire me: the beach, a run-down Victorian, a haunting, a decades-old mystery, swimming, and a layered romance.

I also found inspiration in themes that fascinate me: families moving forward after tragedy, the way some people can help us wade through grief while others hinder forward motion, and how sister relationships can grow and change and, sometimes, bend to the point of breaking. So, the point of origin for How the Light Gets In was really a whole bunch of different components that I eventually pieced together to form a story.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I wanted to write about a girl who was sad, confused, and angry, but by the end of the story, I knew she’d need to have gained understanding and perspective, and that she should be taking steps to reclaim the parts of herself she lost along with her sister.

The plot of How the Light Gets In was built around moments that would challenge its main character, Callie, and help her grow. Those include interactions with her aunt, with whom she has a complicated relationship, interactions with Tucker, a local boy she meets on her first morning back in Bell Cove, and interactions with her sister, Chloe, in the past and the (ghostly) present. Additionally, I wanted Callie to discover a mystery within her aunt’s Victorian, one that would parallel her current situation in important ways, as well as keep the reader guessing. Because it was endlessly challenging to fit all of this into a cohesive, compelling narrative, I kept Callie’s character arc in mind while plotting, as it’s what brings the whole story together.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Yes—every single time! My process is this: Let a new idea stew. Map out characters’ goals, motivations, and the main conflicts. Write a detailed outline. Feel incredibly confident. Begin drafting. Flail. Flail some more. Revisit and revise the outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Revisit and revise outline. Draft. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the first draft is done.

For me, epiphanies come as first drafts grow. Characters surprise me. Seemingly brilliant plot twists start to seem cliché. New ideas—better ideas—burst forth as I get to know the story on a deeper level. So, while I outline, my outlines are flexible and always changing.

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Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Fresh material is very hard to come by. I envy writers who have notebooks full of hooky ideas—that is so not me. I’m character-focused; interesting people pop up in my imagination all the time. Interesting circumstances do sometimes, too. But weaving a workable plot around those fragments of ideas is tough! It takes me months or even years to have an idea fully-formed enough to attempt a first draft.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I work on whatever is inspiring me most. On the rare occasion I have more than one idea percolating, I choose the one that makes me want to write—the one that feels the least like “work”.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have two cats, and they’re most definitely my writing buddies. One or both of them almost always ends up on my lap when I’m writing, which is pretty perfect, actually, because they keep me pinned to my seat, forcing me to do nothing but work. I can’t imagine making a go at a manuscript without my furry officemates nearby. J

Authors Helping Authors

Whether here or on the podcast, I’m sure you’re constantly heard one word in relation to publishing: networking.

And networking, much like marketing, is something that can make a lot of authors shiver. It sounds schmoozy. It sounds showy. It sounds… social. It can be all those things, but it’s in the way you approach it, and how you choose to do it.

Honestly, the better way of putting it is just making connections. And if we’re going to be even more hand-holdy about it, it’s called making friends. I know, that’s totally scary, too.

This past week is a great example of how networking has helped my career, and shaped me into the person - and writer - that I am today.

Let’s start with Kate Karyus Quinn and Demitria Lunetta. These are two authors I met through the Class of 2k13 - a group of children’s authors who debuted in 2013, and banded together for support. Kate and Demitria and I have gone on to work on multiple projects together - including the anthology Among the Shadows, and the upcoming Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy.

With Betty Bites Back nearing publication, we’ve been in contact every day, 24/7 - and I do mean that. Whether it’s Slack, emails, or text, there is a constant line of communication open between the three of us. Without the connections - networking - I made by joining the Classof2k13, these two anthologies wouldn’t exist. And neither would quite a few road trips, panels, workshops sessions, and some stories about Mindy when she’s had too much to drink.

What else? I’ve got an on-going text conversation with my friend and fellow Ohio author Kurt Dinan. We text, and often call each other to air ideas, try out a new plot, or just honestly, bitch a lot.

The same is true of Kamerhe Lane, who has a short in Betty Bites Back. She is my PitchWars mentee and we share an agent. Just last week she ran two pitches past me, and can I just say - she is one hell of a talented author.

Just scrolling through my texts I see a conversation I had with David Arnold, who reached out to ask me about some specifics of bodily harm for his newest novel. I get those questions a lot. Sometimes I know the answer, and sometimes I don’t. When the latter happens, I rely (heavily) on Lydia Kang - a practicing doctor and novelist who I also met through Class of 2k13.

Madeleine Roux was in my neck of the woods recently and we took advantage of a long ride to the airport (okay, okay so I got turned around while we talking, alright?) to talk about publishing - and how to survive it. Writers need these conversations to keep ourselves sane.

I see texts in my recent conversations from Brittany Cavallaro and Kendare Blake - we’re all going to be at the same event coming up (soon-ish) and I reached out to see if we can not-so-accidentally cross paths there. I’ve toured with both of them, and I know good people when I meet them!

There’s Natalie D. Richards in my emails - another Ohio author. We’re trying to put together an event soon, since we don’t get to see each other enough.

I’ve got a note here to myself to text Jeff Zentner and SL Duncan about some questions I have about the manuscript I’m working on. They’re both lawyers, and I need their lawyer brains.

That’s just this past week. That’s how much I rely on other authors, and how much I’m relied upon. When we talk about a writing community, this is what we mean. We’re supportive, helpful, and kind. If only the same were true of all workplaces!