Welcome back to DUM DUM Zine’s Text Message Interviews! This month we interview J Ryan Stradal, one of our favorites here in the L.A. lit scene and DUM veteran, who who debuted his first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, last summer.

DUM DUM Zine’s Media Editor Ian Dick Jones joins Stradal in text message exchanges about working in kitchens, his favorite emojis and the process of writing and rewriting a novel. Read on, and #GetDUM.

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Ian Dick Jones (DD): Hey! this is ian from dum dum zine and wanted to start the text message interview. also, how should I address you, J? Ryan? Mr. S?

J Ryan Stradal (JR): J Ryan works

DD: cool! the first question we ask all in every txt.msg interview is easy, can you send me 3 images that are inspiring to you right now?

JR: hm, one second

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DD: wow! I feel like all of these would make really good desktop backgrounds to keep you inspired. are any of them directly connected to something you’re working on currently?

JR: The last one is. It’s the world’s longest glass bridge. It just closed to visitors.

DD: ooooh juicy! can you talk about what you’re working on? is it another novel? KITCHENS was based in the Midwest where you grew up, is it safe to say you’re expanding your horizons the second time around?

JR: I’m taking a break from my second novel while I await my editor’s notes. I’m writing a short story, set in the near future, about a character’s relationship to a particular irreplaceable bottle of wine. It takes place outside the Midwest, but nowhere near the location of the glass bridge. That photo was unearthed while researching glass or transparent structures; sadly there’s no scene (yet) in China.

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DD: what is your writing process like? do you start journaling, or hit the keyboard right away? do you go through lots of drafts?

do you read your work out loud to your family or friends?

JR: I hit the keyboard straight away and I go through dozens of drafts before I’m done. I usually read a finished chapter or story aloud to Brooke, my girlfriend, and sometimes I email it to a close group of fellow writers. I’m also in a few writing groups where work is shared monthly.

DD: what was the hardest chapter to write in KITCHENS? how many rewrites did you go through?

JR: In terms of most difficult chapter, that was easily Venison. I did dozens of drafts of that one. Very hard to get the voice down, orient the emotional lives of the characters, and balance the real and symbolic aspects of the story.

DD: ok cool! so, when you’re trying to get those specific quirks in each voice what do you do? is it different for each piece? do you do lots of research online or IRL?

I loved that though KITCHENS was in 3rd person it was so close that it almost blended into 1st person for moments, but it was always hyper specific to each character. like when going thru Eva’s teenage years and you merged the lyrics of “Aeroplane over the sea” into the characters thoughts as he went to bed, like “play the song and repeat, and……” – that moment was so real for anybody that liked that kind of music as a teenager

JR: Thank you for saying so — that’s the kind of teenager I was. I was completely obsessed with music.

DD: same

JR: The voices are indeed completely different for each piece, at least to me. Increasingly I have to “write my way in” to a chapter or story and work on it for several days before the character finds their voice. Once in a great while I may originate a piece with a certain gimmick (i.e. a character that doesn’t ever say what they mean, speaks in short sentences, etc.) but people aren’t gimmicks, and I always give myself permission to mix it up when the character asks for it. I like the freedom to listen to my characters at the expense of anything premeditated.

DD: what’s your favorite/most used emoji? (I have some questions ready to go to finish up but wanted to start easy hehe)

JR:

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JR: Somehow that’s ended up as a default reaction in a lot of exchanges.

I’m told that, for a writer, I have what passes for an optimistic, upbeat demeanor. My girlfriend calls me “What, Me Worry?” sometimes, and it morphed into that emoji, which she uses when she refers to me via text.

DD: that’s funny. I feel like writers get pegged as “not talkative” but in reality I think it’s quite the opposite because people who can churn out 100′s of pages of material obviously “have something to say”

what is your least favorite part of working on a novel?

JR: They may not feel they “have something to say,” but they certainly have things they want to figure out.

As a writer that’s more motivated by questions and curiosity than explanations or arguments, that’s how I feel, anyway.

Least favorite part? It’s a good problem to have, but probably waiting for notes. Which is what I’m doing at the moment. Luckily I have plenty of things to keep myself busy. I’m sure a lot of writers feel this way. My editor and agent are actually extremely responsive and open. But any kind of hang time between delivery and revision is difficult, even in the most ideal circumstances — because you can’t work on the project in the meantime, and it’s all you’ve been thinking about for a very long time.

DD: do you use any apps on your phone to store / jot down ideas on the go?

JR: Yes, I just use the “Notes” app on the iPhone, and sometimes I use Voice Memos. I try to usually carry a pen and notecards, but the phone is a consistent fail-safe.

DD: what’s the best piece of advice you could give to someone working on a novel?

JR: Be patient with yourself. Be prepared to write a lot of things that won’t make the novel as a way of discovering what will.

DD: what was your editing process like before having “an editor”?

JR: I’d solicit notes from willing (and generous) writer friends and hire freelance copy editors.

DD: how much research do you do for your writing? like the part about the Lycopene content of tomatoes, I felt like I really learned some kitchen tips from the book.

JR: Thank you. I do quite a bit. Sometimes I feel like I enjoy the research almost as much. I like to go out in the world and observe experts and pester them with questions. I think I picked that up from my dad.

He’s a hydrogeologist in Minnesota and knows a lot about a lot of things. It was cool growing up in that kind of house.

There was a consistent and sincere engagement with the tangible world. Which was good for me because I was a dreamy kid and I’m still most comfortable in my own head.

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DD: speaking of dreamy kid stuff, what’s the funniest / most outrageous story you’ve heard from 826? I used to tutor kids in writing in college very similar to 826 (I have friends who work with 826chi) and still remember some of them.

this one kid wrote a 25 page story called “Bra Kid” over his spring break about a boy who took his moms bra and became a super hero while everyone else did the 3 page requirement

JR: Wow. That’s as ambitious as it is wonderfully bizarre. I lead a workshop where I help kids invent a country from scratch (design the flag, draw the map, write the laws, etc) and I’ve been doing it for ten years and never seen the same country twice. It’s remarkable. With just a few open-ended prompts, a child’s imagination really explodes in a unique way.

Most of the countries, however, do explore a few common themes: money and desserts are plentiful and often a feature of the natural landscape. Pets are encouraged in the thousands or millions; sometimes islands or continents are devoted to them. Meanwhile, civil liberties of parents and siblings are often severely curtailed. School, if it exists at all, is limited in scope and duration.

Even the students who like school tend to alter it drastically.

But right now I can’t think of one particular story or project that stands out as hilarious, per se. Among my high schoolers, there are a lot of poignant or emotional ones, but those aren’t my stories to tell.  

DD: I also gotta ask, have you worked in kitchens before? did you hate it? love it?

JR: I’ll be reading a menu description at an airport diner and I’ll think about who wrote it and how many drafts they did and what their life was like at the time and what coded messages they may be relating, consciously or otherwise. And I’ve worked in food service on two different occasions.

As a teenager I worked at the Steamboat Inn (it was a real place) mostly as a janitor both in the kitchen and on the floor. Later on I worked for a caterer in LA. Doing both prep and service. But I’ve never had a serious kitchen job. That said, I loved working with the caterer and at the restaurant. I thought the whole ecology was extremely fascinating.

DD: with that in mind, what inspires and astonishes you as a creator?

JR: It’s really hard to narrow down what inspires me. A lot of what inspires and astonishes me are things that some people would probably find really boring. This world hasn’t yet been assembled by robots, and the human element in every detail of life astounds me.

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Friday, September 30th 2016