Interviews / Novelists

Interview with J. Ryan Stradal: “I’ve learned to give up the idea of perfection in favor of preferences.”

J. Ryan Stradal is a novelist from Southern Minnesota, where he grew up in the town of Hastings. He graduated from Northwestern University. He is based in Los Angeles County, California, where he currently lives and works.

His latest novel, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, will be published by Viking/Pamela Dorman Books in April 2023. His second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, was published by Viking/Pamela Dorman Books in July 2019 and became a national bestseller its first week of release, and was named one of the best books of the year by NPR, USA Today, Booklist, Paste, and the Texas Library Association, among other places.

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Hi Ryan, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

My name is J. Ryan Stradal, I was born and raised in Minnesota, now live in California with my family, and I’ve been a writer since I was a kid. I just finished my third novel, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, which comes out in April from Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. I like books, wine, sports, beer, root beer, and peas.

Can you take us through the creative process behind your 2019 book, The Lager Queen of Minnesota?

This was my second novel, and let me tell you, it wasn’t any easier the second time around. Much more difficult, in fact. This book took two three and a half years to write and went through two major iterations. I’m guessing that 500 to 600 pages of material ended up on the cutting room floor by the end.

I sold this book on a partial submission — two chapters, only one of which ended up making the final novel. It was my first time writing a book under the pressure of deadlines, and it wasn’t easy, in part because I was still touring for my first novel and I ended up writing much of this book on the road, in hotel rooms, airplane terminals, and cafe tables. I even wrote part of one chapter in the passenger seat of someone’s SUV.

I also write books out of order — I always know my ending first, and I usually start somewhere in the middle — but this ad hoc writing schedule didn’t help with my organization, let alone flow. When I finished the first draft, it was quite a bit messier than usual. At the time, it was titled The Money, and its primary focus was the economic fallout of a farm sale on two sisters, and not the sister’s (eventual) participation in the world of beer.

All the while, I was in the midst of doing over 130 events for my debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which unsurprisingly took me mostly through the Midwest and Great Lakes regions — which was experiencing a boom in new independent breweries.

It became clear to me that the brewery narratives in my second novel were its beating heart, and the incidental research I’d been doing on the road became quite focused and intentional. The Money became The Lager Queen of Minnesota, and I didn’t look back. After that, it was finished and out in the world in about a year.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I am the parent of a toddler, so I write when I can. I’ve learned to give up the idea of perfection in favor of preferences. Before becoming a dad, I was a morning writer, but it turns out that infants and toddlers usually wake up earlier than I choose to.

Consequently, I became a night writer, so the usual writing day for me begins around 7:30 or 8:00 pm, and goes until midnight or thereabouts. If my son’s in school, I’ll sometimes do some writing or editing in the late morning or afternoon, but that’s more provisional. There are always errands to run, and emails and texts to answer. Living on the West Coast, life gets a lot quieter after sundown. 

How did the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns affect your routine? 

It’s hard to tell, to be honest, because I became a father three months before, and to say that affected everything substantially seems like a comical understatement. Looking back now, it’s difficult to discern what compromises to my writing schedule were COVID-related, if any, with a new baby around. I’ll tell you what it did affect — my research.

My books usually have contemporary settings, so I’m accustomed to doing research in person, and I couldn’t do that for about two of the three years it took me to write the new novel, which is set largely in a northern Minnesota supper club. I had dreams of walking into a dozen supper clubs, taking in the ambience, ordering a meal, snapping a few pictures, and speaking with owners and employees.

Except for a few places I visited very early or very late in the process, everything had to be done over the phone or via email. The only Saturday night prime rib specials I got to eat were summoned from memory.

Photo courtesy of the author

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