D-Lit Questionnaire: J. Ryan Stradal

In my other life, as the Food Editor for the digital magazine CRAFT by Under My Host, I featured the book Kitchen's of the Great Midwest in a gift guide. I loved the book so much, that I had to get Author, J. Ryan Stradal onboard for the Devour Lit Questionnaire. Happily, he agreed!

What do you prefer to read fiction or non-fiction?

I love them both, but I read more fiction because it’s what I prefer to write.

What is one bookstore you enjoy visiting, and why?

There are so many. One local store I love is {pages} a bookstore in Manhattan Beach, California. It’s cozy, wonderfully curated, and has a kind and intelligent staff who are excellent at making recommendations. I also love Excelsior Bay Books in Minnesota, Tattered Cover in Denver, Blue Willow in Houston, and A Great Good Place For Books in Oakland for their monstrously smart, helpful staff and personal touch with readers and authors. I also selfishly love Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida for selling over 120 copies of my first novel despite the fact that I’ve never even set foot in their city, and I Know You Like A Book in West Peoria, IL, Beaverdale Books in Des Moines IA, and Arcadia Books in Spring Green, WI for their incredible work in pairing amazing (and appropriate) chefs and food with my book events. Finally, I want to mention Chapter2 Books in Hudson, Wisconsin, for sharing my taste in debut authors, as well as for being the closest thing I have to a hometown indie bookstore, among many other things.

What books or other mediums have been particularly inspirational to you? Did they directly or indirectly affect your work? Why?

Too many to list over the years. Early influences in my twenties were works by Jorge Luis Borges, Ben Katchor, Donald Barthelme, Denis Johnson, and Aimee Bender; around the time I wrote Kitchens of the Great Midwest, I was deeply inspired by Alice Munro, Jennifer Egan, Barry Hannah, and Flannery O’Connor. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Jane Smiley, Edward P. Jones, Lucia Berlin, and upcoming work from Meg Howrey and Nickolas Butler.

What emotion do you find is the most difficult to write and why?

Humor. If a line is supposed to be funny and it doesn’t make me laugh out loud, I keep rewriting it until it does. This can take a while.

What do you believe are your responsibilities as a writer to your readers?

Respect their imaginations and leave room for them. They are meant to complete the story; if you’ll forgive the awkwardness of the analogy, they are like a stool’s third leg. I view my readers as collaborators, not recipients.

Are you a disciplined writer or a habitual procrastinator? If the former, how do you keep yourself focused? If the latter, what are your favorite procrastination tactics?

I procrastinate until I get started, and then it’s impossible for me to stop. To me, the first page is by far the most difficult. I love the Internet, so getting sucked into the rabbit hole of current events and random information is all too common for me.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer and why?

As long as I can remember. My mom taught me how to read at a young age, and there were some bumps in the road (I wrote my first “book” by writing “written by Ryan Stradal” in blue crayon on the inside cover of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go). Luckily, I eventually wrapped my head around the concept that I could use words to make up my own stories.

If you could be a character in someone else’s book, who would it be?

Wow, that’s tough. It’s probably annoying to say this, but I’d love to be at the Enfield Tennis Academy in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, playing eschaton.

What is the most difficult part of writing for you?

Writing the first page, which inevitably gets thrown out every time, and then the first week or month of writing, which also rarely sees the light of day. They’re like those labored first thrusts on a new bicycle, only tolerable because someday there will be coasting, and no coasting without them.

What is the most rewarding part of writing for you?

Once in a while, there’s a feeling of total thoughtlessness, like I’m a warm conduit for a character or story, and the feral, attuned sensation of sentences and paragraphs flowing through me is probably the closest I’ll ever get to whatever surfers feel.

Should the Oxford comma live or die?

That’s up to my editor.

How do you feel when you look back at your early work?

Amusement. I wonder, how long is it going to take before this kid writes something that truly matters to him? Some of it I still find kind of funny.

What are you 5 favorite words?

The five I’ve been looking for.

Is there a genre you haven’t attempted, but would like to? If so, what is it and why?

I can’t think of one. I’m going to leave a lot of genres un-attempted.

What are the best conditions for you to write in?

Quiet, with caffeine.

Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?

I might have to say Pat Prager from Kitchens. When I finished her chapter, I could’ve kept writing in her voice, and maybe I should have. She and her family and friends have more to say.

What are the last three books you read?

Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, Meredith Alling’s Sing The Song, James Boice’s The Shooting.

What is a quality you prize most in a character?

Can I hear their voice in my head and be convinced I’ve heard it in real life?

Would you describe yourself as a diligent writer or a do you work best under pressure pushing the limits of your deadline? Why?

I’m diligent because no one else is going to write my damn books for me. The minute someone steps in and says, I’ll have your career for you, I’ll reconsider being self-motivated, but until then, I gotta get to work.

Is there a character that you have created that you simply cannot stand?

Ha! Octavia from my last book is a pretty difficult personality, but maybe we caught her at a bad time.

What pushes you to be a better writer?

Everything. Just being worthy of life and the lives of others. If you’re going to do this thing that’s so demanding of your time and the time of your readers, do the best you can at it, or go to bed.

What author’s work speaks to you?

So many of them. Right now, Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges, George Saunders, Jane Smiley, Edward P. Jones, Edward Albee and Ben Katchor. For starters.

What are your least favorite words?

This is easier: Very. Huzzah. Moist. Jubilee. No.

Is there one trait that all of your main characters have in common? If so, why?

They all want something that their background and/or environment probably tells them that they should have no business wanting, and they either begin their story ill-equipped for success, or with a set of unfortunate or ill-advised circumstances. Which I guess makes them a lot like almost every main character in fiction, so damn.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

In a character, that whole “refusal of the call” bullshit. Is ambition such a negative that we demand our heroes be dragged face-first into their own heroism? A lot of people who’ve changed other people’s lives for the better have always wanted to; they didn’t need to be forced into a life of service by an unfortunate (and convenient) circumstance. I only consider it necessary when it’d be extremely ill-advised for the character to “answer the call” and it would likely set them up for immediate humiliation or failure. Otherwise, it’s a waste of our time.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Probably these: “warm conduit.” “ill-advised.” “kind and intelligent.” “Smarmy Kitten.”

If you could sum up the reason you became a writer in five words or less, what would it be?

Let’s find out why.

What is next?

Another novel, also set in the Midwest, probably out in early to mid-2018.

Click here to find Kitchens of the Great Midwest!

Click here to check out my gift guide in CRAFT by Under My Host!


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