J. Ryan Stradal on Writing to Keep His Mom Alive
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
J. Ryan Stradal is the guest. His latest novel, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, is out now from Pamela Dorman Books.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: Something I want to ask you about, which often gets noted in reviews of your work, is how well you, as a man, write female characters. In this book you’ve drawn several very well, and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how you get good at that. What guides you when you’re writing female characters? Is it any different than when you’re writing male characters?
J. Ryan Stradal: My mom guides me. I write to keep her alive. She died 18 years ago Tuesday, about a year before I published my first short story. But it was so long before I really apprehended that grief and grabbed it by the horns. I had a writing teacher named Lou Mathews who once told me in one of his writing classes, once you start writing about things that matter to you, your work is going to get a lot better.
To me that meant my mom’s death and the grief I had around that. And also apprehending her legacy. She had always wanted to write a novel herself and died before she could even begin outlining when she was only 54. If anything lit a fire under me to write a book, it was that.
I did write one novel in my late twenties, early thirties that’ll never see the light of day, but it did teach me the skills I needed to learn to have the discipline to write a book. And my mom guided me through that process. I sat down and put her in the characters and had this conversation with her about what would you want to see in a book? What kind of book would you want to read? What characters are important to you? And by putting her in my characters, I feel like I’m still communicating with her. She’s very present to me.
These characters take on a life of their own that aren’t her, per se. Like a lot of writers, once I get going, I’m just sort of taking dictation from these people. In some cases, they want me to do things to them I don’t want to do. But all in all, it’s a dialogue with my mom, and hearing her voice in my head and having her angel on my shoulder. But there is no book that has more of her in it than this one.
Brad Listi: That’s interesting. What I’m thinking of as I listen to you is, I think it was Stephen King’s On Writing. I could be totally wrong about this; I’ve read so many craft books over the years. But somewhere along the line I read that you can write successfully by having just one single reader in mind. And often you’ll have writers who are maybe writing for their spouse or their significant other, or they’re writing to a parent, and maybe a parent who’s no longer with us. That makes sense to me as a North Star. Has this been the case in each of your books?
J. Ryan Stradal: Absolutely.
Brad Listi: And will probably be the case going forward?
J. Ryan Stradal: Yeah, I can’t imagine doing anything differently. It’s the home fire in the in the house of my novel writing process.
J. Ryan Stradal is the author of New York Times bestseller Kitchens of the Great Midwest and national bestseller The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Granta, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His debut, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, won the American Booksellers Association Indies Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in California with his family.