Author J. Ryan Stradal has lived over half of his life in California, but his years growing up in Waseca, Owatonna, Chaska, and his main hometown, Hastings, have clearly been a huge influence on his writing.
His three works of fiction–Kitchens of the Great Midwest, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, and this latest, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club–are all set in Minnesota, reveling in deeply entrenched midwestern experiences. Take this passage from Supper Club:
“…a proper supper club meal began with a free relish tray and basket of bread, followed by a round of brandy old-fashioneds, and then a lavish amount of hearty cuisine, with fish fry on Fridays, prime rib on Saturdays, and grasshoppers for dessert.”
Dang, that’s a very Minnesota/Wisconsin paragraph! For Stradal, each of his books are an ode to Minnesota in one way or another.
“I feel like my Minnesota upbringing is central to my personality, my outlook,” he says. “It’s given me a lot of life events to puzzle over and unpack in fiction. I also grew up in a time when I didn’t find a lot of Minnesota authors out there. I really wanted to see my home state and the type of people I grew up with represented in fiction. Of course, there are so many great Minnesota authors now, but I feel like I can write for that teenage kid in Hastings who is just overjoyed to see any mention of Minnesota.”
His latest work, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, is a story of a matrilineal family that spans generations of mid-life crises and uncertain futures. You know, the stuff many of us grapple with. Muriel loves tending bar but isn’t so sure she wants to run her small town supper club after she inherits it from her grandmother. Her mom, with whom she had a falling out over a decade ago, is upset that she wasn’t the one bequeathed the business. Meanwhile, Muriel’s husband is in line to inherit a small diner chain that could bring them stability, if not passion. How do they move forward with so much past?
Released on April 18, Supperclub has already garnered praise (including from Racket, where reviewer Deborah Copperud described it as “a cute Midwestern gothic, like if a Lorna Landvik novel and a Noah Hawley Coen Brothers spin-off had a baby”). Best-selling author/shit-starting tweeter Roxane Gay also gave this concise quote: “This is a perfect book.”
But Stradal doesn’t just write from his misty water-colored Minnesota memories. He’s an avid reader of local publications.
“I still sub to the Pi Press and the Strib,” he says. “Not just for the sports coverage; the restaurant reviews and food coverage is important since so much of my work is in Minnesota. I really want to stay on top of what’s happening here.” (During our talk he also namedrops Racket’s Money Journals, Macalester College’s archives, and the Minnesota Historical Society.)
Though Supperclub was written mostly during the pandemic, Stradal was able to make his way to Minnesota for research, talking to chefs, touring clubs, and dining at places he planned to fictionalize. He loves hearing wild stories from folks who work in the industry: the worst-case-scenarios, the wild successes, the insider beefs.
“This didn’t make it into the book, but a chef I interviewed talked to me about how much he hated bakers, and I just thought that was so funny. ‘They’re lone wolves! They don’t play well with others!’” he says. “It’s fun to hear those stories and turn some of those narratives into fiction with the blessings of those people.”
“I really enjoyed talking to Sean Sherman,” he says. “It was before Owamni opened, so he didn’t know how it was gonna do, and this was still through the pandemic as well. It was really neat to reconnect with him, because I really wanted to get the details on how a restaurant that serves Native foods would be executed properly. Speaking to him was invaluable.”
Supper Club is also a tale about mothers and women wanting to become mothers. Which makes sense, as he cites his mom and his mother's friends as major inspirations.
“Minnesota has been my mom’s home for most of her life, so I write for her. I write for my mom,” he says. “I write for her friends and people like her. I write to keep my mom alive quite often. And as such the characters quite often end up being women from Minnesota. It’s a means of communicating with my mom and weaving my mom’s story with mine.”
IF YOU GO:
J. Ryan Stradal in Conversation with Lorna Landvik
The Hook and Ladder Theater
6-9:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 25
Tickets are $15-$20; find them online