Interview with J. Ryan Stradal, Author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest

kitchensmidwest2J. Ryan Stradal is the fiction editor of the online magazine The Nervous Breakdown and the acquisitions editor at Unnamed Press in Los Angeles. His debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, is the story of a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation.

While Kitchens of the Great Midwest hits the bookstores today, it has already been one of the most buzzed about books of the summer, making the must-read lists of Fodor’s, Martha Stewart Living, and the BBC, just to name a few. It has been named a July Fiction Pick by Barnes and Noble and is an American Booksellers Associations Indie Next Great Pick for the month of August.

Dead Darlings was delighted to talk to J. Ryan about his debut novel.

Could you talk about the inspiration for the novel?

At its core, this book is a conversation with my mother, who died ten years ago, and my attempt to write a novel that she would’ve loved, were she still alive. I also love food and wine, and was compelled to write about a part of the country I love that I feel is comparatively underrepresented in literature.

I love the structure of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Each chapter works as a complete short story. Did your novel start out as short fiction, or did it originate as a novel? Could you talk about how you came to structure the novel in this way?

It was always a novel. I knew the ending before I even started writing—I knew that the story would end with a carefully curated dinner party and I wanted to work backwards and tell the story of some of the most important guests.

The structure also allows you to go deeply into many characters and settings in a way that a more linear, one or two-POV novel wouldn’t–were there things you couldn’t do because of the structure you chose? Were there any limitations?

Absolutely—I felt that I couldn’t do any chapters in first or second person, for starters, and I didn’t want to tell the stories of any guests that had never met Eva Thorvald. Also, I felt I couldn’t repeat any characters’ POV chapters, with the chapters being so lengthy—and being that Eva only has one POV chapter, when she’s in grade school, I had to introduce a key moment in Eva’s life into each chapter. These were fun limitations, however.

The title of your novel–Kitchens of the Great Midwest–is so wonderful and grand. And the Midwestern setting of the book was such a large and important character. Could you talk about where the title came from? And was there something particular about the Midwest that you set out to express?

Thank you! It was just the first title I thought of—it’s what I named the Word file when I first saved it—and I stuck with it. I knew there would be key moments happening in kitchens in every chapter, and moreover, I enjoyed exploring that unifying theme of how food connects and defines the people in Eva’s life.

In terms of expressing something in particular about the Midwest … I’d have to say that I was interested in capturing its contrasts, especially as they relate to food. For much of Minnesota’s history, the phrase “farm to table” would’ve been considered pretty unnecessary and self-evident for much of its residents. With the rise in dietary consciousness, more and more people are interested in growing their own food and putting thought into where the food they purchase comes from, and not just the folks in the Twin Cities.

You are now based in the Los Angeles area. Is there any way in which L.A. is like the Midwest?

The people are very friendly. There’s a rabid interest in local and seasonal produce. I know heirloom fanatics here who can hang with anyone in the Midwest. But mostly, it’s the people—it’s not an L.A. stereotype, but it’s absolutely true, in my experience. Maybe it helps that L.A. is populated with so many lovely Midwestern transplants.

It was recently announced on Publishers Marketplace that you will be editing Margaret Wappler’s debut Neon Green for Unnamed Press. Is this your first time editing another novelist’s debut? Has working with the editor of your book (Pamela Dorman, of Pamela Dorman Books, an imprint of Viking/Penguin Random House) influenced how you edit now?

Working with Margaret Wappler’s debut novel is indeed the first time I’ve edited anyone anyone’s manuscript. Certainly my experience with Pam Dorman has been a huge influence. I admire how Pam never loses sight of the entirety of the story and judges each sentence for its consonance with the realm that a novel creates. I did my best with Margaret’s, but I have a ways to go before I wield Pam’s wise, patient and discerning eye.

Finally, the most important question: What is your favorite bar? (Cookie, not watering hole.)

Too easy. Pat Prager’s Peanut Butter Bars. There’s a reason that recipe receives such a prominent role. I’ve never had a vegan version and I’d love to try that sometime.

For more information about J. Ryan Stradal, including his book tour dates, please visit his website.

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