By Lauren E. Smith
When it comes to fiction, award-winning author, J Ryan Stradal, infuses his tales with charm and depth. His short stories are just the right mix of fantasy-reality, have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, named a finalist for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize, and have been featured in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and The Rattling Wall, amongst other places. Recently, he’s cooked up his first novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” which received first prize in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Competition and has been acquired for publication overseas in seven countries. When he isn’t wearing his writer’s cap, he’s using his editor’s eye to sift through works of fiction for online culture magazine, The Nervous Breakdown.
Editor by day, writer by night, we snagged a few moments with J Ryan to talk craft and about what he’s serving at his 1 Day Short Story class on March 9th and 5 Week Short Story class that starts on March 16th.
1) If you had to pin your writing down to a genre and style, how would you describe it?
I attempt to write fiction that I consider humorous and humane. I don’t like obvious heroes or anti-heroes. We’ve all been both a hero and villain to ourselves and to other people at some point in our lives. I try to capture both extremes within the stories of a few of the significant characters in my book.
2) Your short stories have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Many writers dream of accomplishing this. How did it happen for you, and did it change things for you as a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my late 20’s. It was ten years between my first adult writing class and finishing and selling a novel. I think it would’ve taken less time had I started taking classes earlier; I met a lot of important peers in those classes, including the people who alerted me to these publications. And there were a lot of rejections. I got my first story published in 2006, and I didn’t get another one published until 2010. Yet I never quit writing those four years. I look back on a lot of the stories I wrote during that period, and reading them now, I feel that they’re pretty bad — one of them I must’ve submitted over forty times, and man, I’m glad no one ever accepted it, although you couldn’t have told me so at the time when I was banging down doors with it, trying to get that elusive second publication credit. That said, I’m extremely grateful these stories exist. Every one of them made me a little bit better.
3) You’re on the advisory board for 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring organization. Tell us a little about what 826LA does and how you got involved.
826LA started ten years ago in Venice, and I leapt on board immediately. I was at home writing an embarrassing first novel that will never see the light of day, and my mom was dying of cancer, and I needed something constructive to get me out of the house. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.
826LA provides free educational and creative programs and workshops for local school kids — everything from after-school tutoring to SAT and college essay prep. It’s full of great people, and working with kids in Los Angeles is a pretty incredible experience.
4) What ingredients go into making a compelling story?
What I most often look for in a story are empathy, voice, and detail. I like plot — I love a good ending — but without those three things, plot is pure tedium. I think the biggest favor a writer can do for themselves is understand and feel for their characters, even the ones they disagree with. The most common issues I see among emerging writers are characters they don’t know or care about and lack of sensual detail.
5) You currently work as a fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. How does your role as editor influence your own writing?
Seeing what’s being published every week has definitely kept me up on what readers and publishers are responding to. I don’t think it’s directly affected my fiction, but besides actually writing, I can’t think of a better thing for a writer to do than to read constantly, and reading new fiction every week for work has been wonderful and stimulating.
6) Your first novel, Kitchen of the Great Midwest, has already received an award and tons of recognition. Tell us a little about your book and when can we get our hands on a copy?
It’s the story of young orphan in the Midwest who grows up to become the chef behind the most exclusive pop-up dinner party in the world. Each chapter is centered around an ingredient she’s introduced to at a different time in her life, and all of those ingredients, save one crucial one, are served in a meal at the end of the book. It comes out on July 28th, but you can pre-order one here. Thank you in advance, if you do that.
7) Did the writing process for your novel differ from the way you approach short story writing?
No, in each case I wake up in the morning and I write exactly what I want to write most that day, and I put it all together later on. With the novel there was simply a lot more post-first draft construction. Before I start writing, I know what my endings are almost all the time, and I just start at a point somewhat distant from those endings. With the novel, I started twenty-six years before my ending. That was one way of ensuring I’d write three hundred pages.
8) What can students expect to learn in your class?
Whenever I lead a class, I just want students to leave with something new or something they hadn’t thought about going in. I liked to do a lot of in-class writing as a student, and as an instructor, my Writing Pad classes will probably follow suit. As a writer, challenging your narrative comfort zone is essential, and while you can always return there, it doesn’t hurt to return wiser. I’m looking forward to seeing what the students unlock in themselves.
Craving a class with successful fiction author J Ryan? Indulge in his 1 Day Short Story class on March 9th and 5 Week Short Story class that starts on March 16th.