J. Ryan Stradal: Writers on Writing

Award-winning and best-selling author J. Ryan Stradal shares the most important thing he has learned about writing and how it helps him in this short interview.

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J. Ryan Stradal
Author J. Ryan Stradal. Photo by Franco P. Tettamanti

J. Ryan Stradal is a Los Angeles-based writer. His debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, released in 2015, was a New York Times best-seller and won awards including the American Booksellers Association Indies Choice Book of the Year Award and the 2016 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award; it was also named the year’s top novel by the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association. His short-form writing and journalism have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Granta, The Guardian, and numerous others. Stradal has also written for television networks such as VH1, MTV, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

This sounds terribly simple, but proceeding from a place of asking questions as opposed to stating arguments; letting what I don’t know guide me instead of what I do know. Being able to sit down and write without knowing where these people were going was a game-changer. It was absolutely liberating to learn that I could trust in a character’s behavior to define and guide them.

And how has that helped you as a writer?

I used to be preoccupied with ideas, and I would let a concept tell a story instead of the characters. Now, while it takes longer, I occupy what confuses and scares my characters and let their actions and reactions tell me who they are. It’s difficult at times, and false starts occur a lot more often, but if the characters are not in service of an ideology or argument – if they’re not strict metaphors for some facet of my theme – I’m able to broaden them and allow them to surprise me. That’s probably the most delightful thing to me about being a novelist. Besides indie bookstore employees – the best people in the universe.

—Gabriel Packard is the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel published by Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown.