Food, Family, and Strong Female Characters: A Conversation with J. Ryan Stradal

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For me, and thousands of American readers, a novel by J. Ryan Stradal is an occasion for sitting down in a comfortable place, like a porch or couch with a great beverage and a long shot of time—because you’re not going to be getting up soon. I’m always completely immersed from the first page, ducked under the surface of another world. In his first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, it was a Minnesota where a young girl was motherless, then fatherless, and food was her currency of survival: pepper-eating contests, church women competing for the best dessert bars, and dinners prepared with secrecy and imagination. When Stradal’s new novel arrived, I knew what to do: brew the strongest Canadian Maritime tea from my dad’s people, sit on my front porch strategically hidden behind a hedge so no one could see, and read for four hours. Then stare into the street, dreamlike.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota is just as absorbing as Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and the women he’s created are just as inventive and sturdy and hilarious in their responses to tragedy, and this time, instead of bars and dinners, the main characters are obsessed with beer. I learned about the invention of American beer, Blotz akin to Coors, to satisfy hardworking people and about craft brewing, everything from yeast to Gose to IPAs. It is women who brew these beers. It is women who begin this novel, with pie. It is women who run this book, with fortitude but never condescension, with decisive anger and with indestructible love and loyalty. Two sisters, one granddaughter. Many sums of money, small and large. The story of America, all laced together by work and beer.

I spoke recently with J. Ryan about pie, beer, mayflies, women like the women who run his fictional brewery in Minnesota, and women like his mother and grandmother, who inspired him.

[Don’t miss our EIC, Marisa Siegel, in conversation with J. Ryan Stradal about The Lager Queen of Minnesota at The Center for Fiction in Brooklyn next Tuesday, July 30! – Ed.]

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The Rumpus: Your first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, was my favorite novel of 2015. You know this. I emailed you out of the blue and told you I’d read it on my porch, in three days, couldn’t put it down, missed the women of the novel when I was at work. I bought ten copies and gave them to my friends. I invited you to an event for your own novel, and brought my famous homemade shortbread recipe from Maritime Canada to share. That’s because Kitchens of the Great Midwest was about food, the singular taste and obsession and love of several generations of women from various places in Minnesota who survive and succeed through death and heartbreak and abandonment and cancer, by baking and cooking and serving their own regional and beloved foods. The book is all about bars, man. Dessert bars, and fish, and peppers, and women who love food. How did you start writing about women, and family, and food, with this intense passion and particularity?

J. Ryan Stradal: First of all—thank you, for all of this. I can’t tell you what it’s meant to me to have the support and friendship of someone who I admire as a writer and a person on a number of levels. I’m incredibly grateful for you.

I’m glad you started with this question. Food has been a preoccupation of my fiction as long as I’ve been making stories; when I played with my Star Wars action figures as a kid, I’d have them go out to eat, forcing them to wait until their entire party was present. That’s what the Cantina playset was for, right?

My curiosity about food and my willingness to learn about it were major inspirations; I’d often set a quirky narrative within a particular food setting, or explore the potential for humor and satire in a recent food trend. Then, I started taking classes at UCLA Extension, and learned from an inimitable instructor named Lou Mathews, who told me how much better my writing could get once I started writing about things I truly cared about.

It was a huge step to make. Nothing in my life has had a larger impact on me than my mother’s death in 2005, and there was no getting around that grief if I was going to tackle issues of personal resonance. She’d dreamed of being a novelist herself, and is the reason I write them. Following Lou’s lesson, each novel became, to a large extent, a way of communicating with her and keeping her alive in my heart. Consequently, most of the characters, or the characters with the majority of my heart and love and tears, are the women. They are, to varying extents, her. In their words, she is alive.

Rumpus: We’d met only once, at a 2012 reading at Beyond Baroque, where you read an unforgettable short piece about a refrigerator grocery list that told an entire story. My three daughters and ex-husband were there, the first and only time they ever all came to an event with me. I read about a boy burned by cigarettes, and the secrecy of children. But your piece was the one my daughters talked about. We loved it. You were already writing about food, and women.

Stradal: Thank you for remembering that. I fondly recall that event as well, because your book Between Heaven and Here had just been published by McSweeney’s. It was, honestly, more than a little intimidating to share a bill with you.

By 2012, I was a year away from starting work on Kitchens. I was getting close. It’s really cool of you to discern its sources like this. I won’t deny that the shopping list story contained a few hints about what was to come.

Rumpus: The Lager Queen of Minnesota continues and deepens your fierce talent and love for your female characters, and constructing an expansive plot that follows a family for several generations. At the book’s heart are two sisters, Helen and Edith, growing up on a family farm in Minnesota, and the day in 1959 when Helen tastes beer for the first time, at fifteen, just before her sister Edith, twenty, will be married. The storyline is not chronological, but follows the sisters and their lives, from that moment. How did you sort out the plot? The chapter titles consist of differing amounts of money.

Stradal: I sorted out the plot in July 2017, after I’d been writing the novel for over two years. I am never going to work that way again. I’d written a turgid mass of material and some of it had potential and some of it didn’t. The unifying factor between the chapters and characters at the time was the unfairly divided inheritance, which is still the key moment early in the book. Every chapter dealt with a different amount of money to illustrate the ramifications and vicissitudes, over generations, of one family’s financial imbalance. However, it was clear to me, that fateful July, that the chapters and characters that concerned beer were the best.

Rumpus: I know you completed several drafts of the novel that considered different characters and ways to order the narrative. In early incarnations there were more men. What happened to make this novel center on the women?

Stradal: Stripping the novel down to the beer narrative was the vital move in this regard. It didn’t lose the prevailing framework, it just supplied it a necessary focus, which naturally centered it around the most important characters, all of whom happened to be women. Earlier drafts had PoV chapters from all manner of ancillary and briefly relevant relatives. No more. I miss some of the dudes, but this is far better. There will be more men to come. There’s a male PoV character in the book I’m writing right now and he’s the sweetest man in the universe and it’s wildly fun to write from his PoV. I hope he makes it. But at the end of the day, it’s whatever’s best for the story.

Rumpus: Can you talk about how growing up in Hastings, South Dakota, among women like the characters in your novel, stays with you as a writer? You live in Los Angeles, but is your heart, and your imaginative soul, still in the Midwest? Your grandmother was a great influence on you.

Stradal: Many of the women I grew up with and around were huge influences and have provided vital support. They are a major reason that my heart absolutely remains in Minnesota. I most frequently try to evoke my mom in the characters I write, but a number of my mom’s friends and many other relatives—including both grandmothers—have really stuck with me. They just simply have characteristics—a combination of acceptance, work ethic, practicality, warmth, humility, and intelligence—I really don’t see in most people elsewhere. If you knew them, you’d write about them, too.

Rumpus: One of my favorite parts of this novel, and your style, is the utter lack of sentiment most of these characters apply to their lives. The women, Edith and Helen, and then Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, are not merely forthright and practical, they do not mess around with the ideas of what might have been or should have been. There are secrets in this novel, moments that occur in childhood and adulthood, that the reader sees as they happen, and in a more traditional, sentimental incarnation, those secrets would be revealed to the characters, but they are not. They’re revealed only to the readers. How did you make that decision?

Stradal: I think it’s consistent with the behavior of some of the people I knew who resemble these women. There’s a fair amount of compartmentalization, and secrets, and restrained emotion, out of what they believed to be a necessity. They can be extremely emotional people, though, don’t get me wrong. I just often put them in situations where they know that they cannot let their prevailing emotion lead them, where something, often another person, takes priority.

Rumpus: Those moments are hinges for the plot: The beer delivered to Helen by Edith and her new husband Stanley. The unfair towing and hostage-holding of a Toyota Cressida, which infuriates Diana.

Stradal: Yeah, who would they tell, if they could? These private victories and losses propel us in ways that the public or shared ones cannot.

Rumpus: A bold thread weaving its way through this book is this: it is so damn hard to survive, as a working-class American, in America right now. The narrative is clear about this. Edith works two and three minimum-wage jobs, as does Diana and nearly everyone else around them, and still they can barely make it. You write about the system that makes every small moment in lives like these impossible—the nation that doesn’t help, and actually works hard to hurt, people like Edith and Diana, and their friends.

Stradal: This is an extremely important part of the book for me. If there’s a theme connecting my novels right now, I’d argue that it’s class, not food. Most people I knew as a kid in Minnesota, including my own family, struggled to make a living, at different times and to varying extents. I remember when my parents once told me that they had twenty dollars between them in the world. The emotional charge of such knowledge, and how it was imparted, never left me. I might spend the rest of my life trying to do it justice. I am compelled to write about the kinds of people I grew up with and around, and how they struggled, in the least reductionist and simplistic way I can muster at my skill level.

Rumpus: What makes a perfect novel, to me, are scenes like the one wherein the grandmothers who are running a brewery take their beer to the Minnesota State Fair, and on the way home, they see a snowplow, in summer, clearing the road of dead mayflies. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve read. How do you see these moments, when you write?

Stradal: I remember them. I couldn’t have conceived of that if I hadn’t experienced it. I saw that truck and those brown drifts of mayfly corpses as something beautiful and fascinating. What I didn’t know at the time was that it’s also specific to a certain area of the country and a certain time of year. I couldn’t yet visualize a world where this didn’t happen.

Rumpus: We should end with beer, and pie. I don’t drink beer—only whiskey—but I loved reading about the lagers and stouts and IPAs. I love pie—pumpkin and banana cream—and I learned to make homemade crust from my grandfather’s sixth wife, Iola, on the prairie of eastern Colorado. Lard, man. I know you learned a lot from your grandmothers. How did you come to love the particulars of food, of the way what we bake and cook reflects who we are, who we want to be, and how we live?

Stradal: To put it simply, because I knew it had to exist out there. I love my parents, but lunches and dinners were perfunctory events in our house. I did have grandmothers who were well-steeped in some wonderful regional and cultural food traditions, but most mealtimes, exposure to a culinary realm of meaning, history, emotion, care, and quality, was not prioritized. Like most adults I knew, they were struggling young parents and had neither the interest, nor the time, nor the budget. Even so, after they’d each attained college degrees and improved our family’s standard of living, food was still not a line item that enjoyed a commensurate evolution. We remained a family of frozen pizzas, Taco Bell, white rice, and Creamette pasta. Maybe we egged on the overfishing of orange roughy with a bit more alacrity. I know that we never ate another variety of fish unless we caught it ourselves. That should’ve been incentive enough.

The moment I could drive, I made it my mission to expose myself to food that was creative, interesting, thoughtful, and/or delicious. What depressed me was that most of this food was also expensive for what it was. If we respect and sustain the supply chains to help thoughtful and conscientious farmers, growers, and foragers make a living, good food will not only become more accessible, it will represent a better value. Still, we’ve made great progress; I had no clue in the 1980s that we’d be living in the food world we’re experiencing today. I feel wildly lucky to be alive in this time. And I can sure say this without hesitation: the beer has never been better.

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Photograph of J. Ryan Stradal by Franco P. Tettamanti.


Susan Straight's new memoir, In the Country of Women, will be released August 6, 2019 by Catapult. A new edition of her novel Highwire Moon was published in July 2019 by Counterpoint. She's published eight novels. Her essays and stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, McSweeney's, The Rumpus, Harpers, Granta, and other places. She is Critic-at-Large for the Los Angeles Times. More from this author →