If Minnesota needs an ace storyteller to replace Garrison Keillor when he retires, the state might look to another native son, J. Ryan Stradal. In his debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, Stradal shows his knack for creating characters with Midwestern values, interwoven with the best recipes his homeland has to offer.
Just to be clear, J. Ryan Stradal has written a novel, not a cookbook. It’s a satire, and it’s about foodies, including some who will pay $5,000 and wait 295 years for a meal cooked by an elusive chef named Eva. Stradal doesn’t hesitate to make fun of them.
“I think anybody that expresses outsized passion for something can be easy to make fun of,” Stradal says, “particularly when the appearance is more valuable than the substance. I think where I get critical of foodies is when they get overly precious.”
And he doesn’t mind taking on tradition, like the great Midwestern dish called lutefisk.
“I think it’s almost like one of those inside jokes that other people get to be in on,” he said. “But that said, it’s sort of become a short hand for a particular kind of rather objectively disgusting ethnic cooking that has analogies in other cultures, but the Midwest has lutefisk, perhaps, as its most flagrant example.”
The comparison to Garrison Keillor is easy because Keillor and Stradal are both from Minnesota. And they both write humorous books about people so real we think we’ve met them. Eva the Chef is Stradal’s central character, although she is absent from much of the book. By minimizing Eva’s appearances, Stradal heightens our curiosity about her and plays into her reputation as a shy genius. Like a lot of famous and talented people, we feel her impact through six degrees of separation.
Stradal left the Midwest years ago, and for most of his career has worked in the TV industry in Los Angeles producing reality shows, like Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch. How has that helped him as an author?
“I do think I learned a lot about concise storytelling from over 15 years of working in unscripted television. You have to be pretty decisive. You have to be able to watch raw footage and know immediately what lines you want to use and how you’re going to use them to tell the story … what I call an impulse for the necessary.”
Stradal was no stranger to the Los Angeles literary community. He worked with authors who spoke at a book group long before his first novel was published.
“I mostly met the collaborators and editors in my life through the local literary scene here in Los Angeles,” Stradal said, “through running a reading series and through six years of doing this and meeting a lot of writers I was fortunate to occasionally glean some of their wisdom when I wasn’t being too annoying, and pestering them with questions -- Do I need an agent? How do I look for an agent? How do I write a query letter? -- just starting from the basics. I didn’t know anything. It kind of turned out that I was amongst the community I needed already.”
Stradal says he is not a chef. What he likes to cook up, more than anything, is a good story. In addition to writing short stories and articles, he is acquisitions editor at Unnamed Press. He’s smart, he’s funny, and he gets a lot done. Does he consider himself an overachiever?
“Ah, I think I’m a pretty hard worker. If someone gave me a day off, I would say, ‘Oh, cool, I’ll get up and write.’ Like here’s a day when you can do whatever you want, what are you going to do? Like, I’m going to get up at 6:30 and write, then. If I get to do anything I want. I mean, if I go a day without writing, I feel nasty. I feel like I just bathed in potato chips.”
Author J. Ryan Stradal will talk with CapRadio’s Donna Apidone at the next CapRadio Reads event. You’ll find more information at capradio.org/reads.