You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy New York Times bestseller, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal. As I read, I was reminded of the book Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, with its small town feel and the fact that it revolves around a main character, Eva Thorvald. Eva appears in each chapter, sometimes the dominating character and other times hovering in the background through the eyes of others. Eva Thorvald, as an infant, is abandoned by her mother and orphaned by the death of her father. Raised by her aunt and uncle as their own child, Eva has an innate sensibility about food, eventually becoming a renowned chef. Throughout the book, we see Eva mostly through the points of view of other characters. Stradal’s great strength is in his rich character development. The reader feels invested in these characters and wanting more at each chapter’s end.
When I finished reading this book, I knew I wanted to learn more about this author and his thought processes in writing such a unique novel.
Interview with J. Ryan Stradal:
Q: When I first saw the title of your book, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I thought it was a cookbook and was surprised to discover it was a novel, a bestselling novel at that. How did you decide on the title and what was your publisher’s opinion about that?
J. Ryan: I came up with the title “Kitchens of Minnesota” before I even started writing, but the first time I saved a few of the chapters in a collected Word file, I changed it to what it is now. That said, the selection of title happened very early and wasn’t done by committee or with the intervention of my editor or agent. I will likely need their help for my next book, however.
Q: What was your motivation in writing a novel focused on food and cooking? Are you a foodie? Do you enjoy cooking?
J. Ryan: Food has been a major narrative preoccupation of mine for some time. This is the first occasion where I’ve really had the excuse to center a narrative on the topic. That said, I believe it’s a book about family first—in essence, a mother-daughter story—and a food book second, at best.
I’m still improving as a chef, but I’ve been an enthusiastic end-user for a very long time. As soon as the state of Minnesota let me have a driver’s license, I was going up to the Twin Cities with my high school girlfriend Stacy to try out new and exotic cuisine. It may have been unusual for teenagers at the time, but it was what we did, at least a few nights a month. Enjoying new food is a primary motivation behind my adult travels as well. Malaysia, Iceland, and Argentina in particular have been highlights.
Q: The reader gets to know your protagonist, Eva Thorvald as a child and teen, but we see her less as the book proceeds. Her character development seems to advance through the eyes of others. Why did you continue to move her more and more to the background just when the reader wants to get closer to her?
J. Ryan: There were a few reasons for this. I felt that it legitimized her fame and talent in the eyes of the reader – since we tend to believe what characters say about each other, and less what they say about themselves – but it also followed the arc of how her fame rendered her remote and required a greater need for privacy. In the end, when Cindy goes looking for Eva, I wanted Eva to be almost as mysterious to the reader as she was to Cindy.
Q: Do you see yourself in any of these characters?
J. Ryan: Yes, almost all of them. I’ve heard before that a writer’s first novel is about their childhood whether or not they intend it to be. Certainly I share mistakes, regrets, and tastes with many of my characters. 11-year old Eva, Will Pager, and Jordy Snelling have the highest quotient of my life and experiences in them, but none of them are too much like me.
Q: A thread runs through your story depicting children raised by single parents because of death, divorce, or abandonment. Is this something drawn from your own experience?
J. Ryan: The idea of the “family of choice” was important to me when I set out to write this book, so I decided to portray each family I featured as some kind of non-nuclear unit. It’s also been my personal experience, yes, but also common in the lives around me.
Q: I see from your book acknowledgements that some of the recipes in the book are attributed to a Lutheran women’s cookbook. But where did you get your knowledge of upscale food preparation and ingredient sourcing?
J. Ryan: That began in college with my college girlfriend Carly’s father Tony and extended into my life in Los Angeles, particularly in the last ten years or so. My friendship with a chef named Patty Clark has been the source of much of my education and awareness. Back in Minnesota, my dad and my stepmom also turn me on to new varietals, and no people I know are more serious about tomatoes than Katie Vincent in Los Angeles and Spencer Foxworth and Kristen Kennedy in Oregon.
Q: If you were invited to a dinner party, who would you want at your table? These could be fictional or real people. And what would be served?
J. Ryan: What I wouldn’t give for one more dinner with my mom. And I have to admit, my food requests would be pretty simple. Fish and peas.
Q: As a writer, I’m often interested in other authors’ writing processes—when, where, and how. What is your writing routine?
J. Ryan: I like to wake up and get at it first thing in the morning. If I don’t, I try to get the stuff of life and errands done before lunch, or else I go to the gym and eat lunch before starting work in the late afternoon through the evening. Sometimes I do both shifts in a day. I usually work at home but lately I’ve been taking trips of a few days or more out of town, in a place where I don’t know anyone. Recently I holed up at a winery near Paso Robles for a week. I was very lucky to get to do this kind of thing.
Q: Do you have plans for another novel?
J. Ryan: Yes, I’m about halfway through the first draft, by my estimation. It also takes place in the Midwest and so far involves a couple of the characters from Kitchens in minor ways. This could change, so don’t hold me to this. So far the two most prominent characters are Pat Prager’s mom and eldest niece, but Pat herself, at the moment, makes only a fleeting appearance.
Q: In addition to your writing, your varied background includes fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, acquisitions editor at Unnamed Press, and reality TV show producer. But I understand that you also are a volunteer for various charitable causes in the LA area. Tell me about that.
J. Ryan: I’ve been involved as a volunteer at 826LA, a nonprofit literary/educational nonprofit started by Dave Eggers, since 2005. It’s a wonderful organization, where I’ve met some of my best friends in the city, and working with the city’s student population has changed my life. I’ve done everything from free SAT guidance to basic English to creative workshops where the kids create something from scratch. Every time I sit down with them, they blow me away. My favorite grade levels to work with are fourth graders and high school seniors, but this spring I’m teaching writing to middle schoolers. I had an awful time in middle school myself so I’m extremely sympathetic to them in advance.
I believe that every writer with the ability to do so should volunteer in his or her community. It’s the best possible use of one’s free time, and it’ll really make a difference to someone from whom one-on-one time with a concerned adult is a premium. If not for the librarians and teachers at my grade school who made extra time for me, and devoted time out of their day to give me special projects, I don’t think I would’ve ever found a focus for my creativity, or believed in its potential or utility as much. I think about this every time I leave the house to drive to 826LA. I’m there for the students because I know what it means, firsthand, to have a concerned adult encourage and enable your ideas. It’s the absolute least I can do.
Thank you, J. Ryan, for generously sharing your time and your thoughts.