Zibby speaks to New York Times bestselling author J. Ryan Stradal about Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, a heartfelt, gratifying, multi-generational story about a couple from two very different restaurant families in rustic Minnesota. J. Ryan talks about his and his partner’s struggles with infertility and his decision to incorporate the intense, painful journey in this novel. He also talks about his fascinating character-development process, the books he’s reading, juggling writing as a stay-at-home dad, and how his late mom continues to inspire his stories.


Zibby Owens: Welcome to J. Ryan. Thank you so much for being here to discuss Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, your latest novel.

J. Ryan Stradal: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Sure. Would you mind telling listeners what your book is about?

J. Ryan: It’s a multigenerational story set in a Northern Midwestern restaurant, four generations, mostly women, telling the story of a restaurant that gets passed from generation to generation through a single family. Where I’m from in Northern Minnesota, that’s not unusual. I’m sorry, I’m from Southern Minnesota, but book’s set in Northern Minnesota. There are restaurants called supper clubs that are quite often up to a hundred years old or older that have stayed in the same family the entire time or maintained family ownership. I always wanted to write about them. I worked in one as a teenager. It got in my veins. Now I finally got to write about it.

Zibby: Did you cover everything you needed to cover about it, or are you still —

J. Ryan: — I hope so.

Zibby: Got it out of your system.

J. Ryan: Yeah. I don’t think I’m going to be the Robert Caro of supper clubs.

Zibby: It’s funny, when I was reading the beginning of your book, you wrote with such emotional authenticity about the miscarriage and how it felt in the bathroom, in the bar, what that whole moment was like that I was like, I could’ve sworn that he was a man. Then I literally flipped to the back. I was like, no, no, it’s the same person I’m thinking of. Just to make sure because it felt so — you were inside — not that the emotions behind a miscarriage do not also happen to any gender, but it just felt so specific. I was hoping you could talk about that and writing into that and your own experiences. I know you mention in the acknowledgements of your own child journey.

J. Ryan: We had an incredible fertility battle, my partner Brooke and I. Along the way, miscarriages, and miscarriages of IVF and planted embryos, which is devastating, even though we were told with the first one, cross your fingers, but don’t expect it. It was an immense physical and emotional strain for her that I had a front-row seat for. I shared the emotional strain. It felt like — I don’t know how to describe it. It was absolutely devastating. At one point, we actually had a ceremony to let go of the memory and expectations that we had around one of the embryos that had made it more than a couple weeks and went up to Pismo Beach, which at the time was a place that we went to a lot when we wanted to get out of the city, and wrote a letter to the embryo and burned it and scattered the ashes in the ocean. It was a really intense emotional journey for us. As a man, I had never read a man writing about infertility or miscarriages in fiction, at least not in a way that I — actually, not at all, but certainly not in a way that I identified with emotionally. This is an emotional component, not a plot element. That was very important to me. This is not something that happens to move the story forward. This is something that changes these people and changes their decision-making process and their general outlook, as it did for me. I wanted to see that.

Essentially, I think I wrote the book for the person I was going through this. I wrote the book I would’ve liked to have read when I was struggling with fertility and not yet seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. I worked closely with Brooke, my partner, on these scenes. It was very painful for her to rehash some of those moments. Of course, we have a son now, who’s three. It’s somewhat easier, I suppose, to look back on it having ultimately been successful than if we weren’t. Still, to emotionally relive these moments and put them on paper was something that she was totally on board with and in the room for. She read every draft of the book. Those scenes were — she’s like, “This was my experience. You just wrote my experience down.” I thought, I hope I did it justice because I did not bear the physical brunt of that experience, just shared the emotional one with you. She said, “I think this should be out there. I think I’d like to see more of this in the world too, more representations of infertility and fertility struggles.” I agreed with her. It was a major component to me of this book. It’s not on the cover. I’m sure some readers are awfully disappointed thinking they’re picking up a light summer read. They’re like, wait a second, I didn’t expect a miscarriage to be in the first ten pages. In a hundred years of the life of a family, there’s going to be good and bad. I didn’t want to pull back on it either.

Zibby: I’m really sorry that you went through that. That’s a beautiful imagery, you at the water. Oh, my gosh, it breaks my heart. So many people have gone through journeys. Often, we have no idea about what we go through to get to where we are. Sharing those little bits is very —

J. Ryan: — I think that’s true, Zibby. It feels like such an isolating experience. We found an online community — it was during COVID too — of people that were going through it as well, people our age, which meant a lot to us too. I forget who originally said it, but most writers put the book they need to have in the world out. This is the book I needed.

Zibby: My daughter, who’s ten, was sitting next to me when I was reading some of this the other day. She’s like, “What’s it about?” I was like, “Oh, gosh, someone’s having a miscarriage.” Then I was like, “Oh, gosh, someone’s in a car accident.” She’s like, “A lot’s happening in your book.” I was like, “I know.” It is immersive from right at the beginning. Then of course, you go back in time and all of that. Tell me about writing the structure of this. You had the idea for it and where you wanted to set it and some of the emotional authenticity behind it. Tell me about the act of writing it and the different time periods and the characters and all of that.

J. Ryan: I started with Mariel. I wrote each character discreetly. I completed each character’s story, then moved on to a different character. I wrote all of Mariel first. Mariel’s story has some of the lightest and heaviest elements in it. I knew I wanted to balance that out with stories that didn’t have — well, story actually has the heaviest element. I knew I needed some push/pull. I also realized that in writing Florence through Mariel’s eyes, that I was really shortchanging Florence. To see Florence just purely through her daughter’s eyes would potentially risk her being a stock comic character. I know and love too many women of a certain age in the Midwest to make any one of them a stock comic character. It’s also been done. I don’t want to add that to the world in a literary universe where there’s still, to my perception, a paucity of Midwestern voices and representations. If I’m going to write a working-class Midwestern woman of a certain age, I’m going to do her as well as possible. That meant that I had to write from her point of view. The funny thing is I originally intended to have this book take place over a summer. Mariel’s story takes place over a summer. I thought, everyone is. When I go to Florence, it’ll be Florence’s point of view of her sitting in that church and reminiscing about the decisions she made in life that made it there.

Then I went, wait a second, Florence’s chapters are just these huge flashback scenes. It’s terrible. Why don’t I just make them active? Oh, that means I got to start them in the 1930s. All of a sudden, this book that was supposed to take place over one summer in 1996 takes place over a hundred years. There you go, best-laid plans of any author. Up through this book, I’ve been a pantser more than a plotter. I’m surprised when these things come up. As a writer, I sit down, I don’t know what I’m going to do that day. I think I’m going to change that, actually. It’s really hard. I don’t advise it. If you sit down to write a novel, don’t just sit down every day without a thought in your head and just see what happens. It takes a really long time to write a halfway decent book that way. Whether or not this book is even halfway decent is up for grabs. You be the judge.

Zibby: At least halfway.

J. Ryan: Thank you. Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Go back and tell me about how you got into writing to begin with.

J. Ryan: Right, I’m sorry. I’m terribly digressive. I get it from my dad. I got into writing to begin with because of my mom. My mom was an aspiring writer and a published poet. Always wanted to write a novel. She had gone back to college to complete her bachelor’s in English when I was a kid. That was around the time that I realized how much writing and reading was important to her. It was academically important to her at the time. She had assignments and due dates and so on. It was also clear that she really loved it. She was going back and doing this as an adult in her thirties because this was important to her. It was something she really loved. Up until then, she’d been a waitress at Perkins, which is a Midwest chain restaurant that Jorby’s in my book is loosely based on. I don’t recall her coming home from that job with a happiness or a general attitude that she displayed when she came home from her undergraduate classes.

I just thought, wow, my mom’s happy. My mom’s loving what she’s doing. She’s reading and writing. She already was a big reader and writer. There were books everywhere around the house. Early on, I thought, if I really want to make my mom happy, I should write something. That would really impress her. She was the biggest influence in my life. Unfortunately, she passed away about a year or so before I even published my first short story, about ten years before I published my first novel. She didn’t live to see any of it. I had a writing instructor in the early 2000s who was reading the short stories I was publishing and said, “You know, once you start writing about things you care about, your work’s going to get a lot better.” I thought, oh, all right. That hit me right here, but you’re not wrong. I started thinking about what I was ignoring and addressing it through fiction as opposed to writing around it and writing to mollify myself. I was writing to resolve, not to ignore. That was a pretty big sea change. That’s when I started thinking, I want my mom to be alive. Can’t make that happen, but I can put her in my books. I can communicate with her through my books and put her in my characters. I’ve done that ever since.

Zibby: This is the third time I’ve almost cried listening to you talk. Oh, my goodness. Can I ask how your mom passed away?

J. Ryan: It was cancer. It was omental cancer. It’s not an organ. I hadn’t heard of it before. Omental, I think it’s intestinal lining of some kind. It’s not a vital organ, but it’s a large one. It metastasized from her ovaries. The approximate cause of death was omental. I remember talking to whoever writes the death certificate. “What do I put on as cause of death?” I said, “Omental, please.” That needs more research. Not to deny whatever fraction of attention that my mom’s ovarian cancer statistic might have supplied, but I just thought, this is something I never heard of, so let’s do that. It was, in part, I think, a result of her work environment in the seventies and eighties being a waitress in a smoky building. I wrote about that in the new book too, the environmental hazards that a lot of working-class women faced and how those jobs killed them. I’m making this book sound really heavy. As you know, it’s not just. There eventually is a fair amount of that kind of summer getaway vibe to it. I tried to make it the whole package. Long story short, my mom’s influence both in terms of her desire to be a writer, her writing, and her life are in this book.

Zibby: It’s funny you say how powerful it is to see how your mom was happy because I feel like so many parents, a lot of women, a lot of moms, but a lot of parents are afraid to pursue what they really love if it takes time away from their kids, that time is the greatest currency. Then you forget that the modeling of pursuing something amazing can have far-lasting effects than just being around.

J. Ryan: You’re absolutely right, Zibby. Fortunately, I had the experience of seeing both my parents do that. My dad returned to college and got his degree in his late forties. I thought that was just as cool. It’s never too late to do a U-turn, take a ninety-degree turn, or whatever analogy. I’d never seen him happier in my life than when he quit his job and told us he was going back to college. I’d never seen that man smile bigger. That’s what makes an impression on me. I wasn’t thinking at the time, you just quit your job, what are we going to do? How are we going to go on the summer vacations every year? Am I going to get that brand-new jeans I want? or whatever material things that a lot of teenagers can be preoccupied with in terms of just day-to-day life. That just went out the window when I saw his face. I just thought, good. This is an overall net and gross positive for our family. To have a happy father is much better than any material offering that his former job could’ve provided.

Zibby: Do you feel like you are a happy father?

J. Ryan: Yeah, I feel fortunately so. It’s been a stressful year. That’s got nothing to do with parenting, just the circumstances around — a tree fell on our house. We’re in a rental house the insurance company’s paying for that has its own issues. I think it’s been hard on my son to be displaced. He asks, “When can I see my toys again?” and stuff like that. He’s a versatile, hearty kid. We sometimes forget that, that kids are pretty adaptable. I think we take it harder than he does. He’s showing us how to have a good time every day. Taking him out in the world and just exploring the world and the neighborhood we’re in now is fun. I think he got me at a good time. Present domestic circumstances aside, vis-à-vis living situation, I’m in a far better place to be a dad than I would’ve been ten years ago, certainly twenty years ago, and much more wiser, more patient, calmer, and much more secure in my career. I feel like I’m really blessed that timing ultimately worked out when it did. I guess in a sense, we had a child at the last possible viable biological time we could’ve, and not without great assistance. What a blessing that kid is. It just puts a smile on my face every time I think of him.

Zibby: When do you get all your stuff done? When do you do your best ?

J. Ryan: When he’s sleeping.

Zibby: How is it all happening?

J. Ryan: I’m pretty much a stay-at-home dad. My partner is a nurse. It’s a demanding job. She comes home, and she doesn’t want — the idea of being a one-hundred-percent parent when you come home — it’s like, “Hey, I’ve been parenting all day.” She’s like, “Good for you. I’m exhausted.” We have nights on and nights off. We alternate. We have what we call divorcée nights. On the calendar, it’s like, just pretend I’m not here. That’s the night that the other one can go out with friends or do nothing, just sit on the couch and scroll or read a book or watch Happy Valley. It helps that it’s codified that on any given day, someone is not doing all the work because it is a lot of work, especially when they’re young. They can’t always communicate what they need or want effectively. I’m a full-time stay-at-home writer, so an awful lot can fall on me. I therefore have to set up boundaries on certain days where I’m like, oh, man, I’m on a roll. I know he’s up from his nap, but can I keep writing for another hour? We work that out.

Zibby: What do you do? Just lock the door?

J. Ryan: I’ll go down and say — he can climb stairs now and open doors. “What are you doing, Daddy?” He’s interested in it. His relationship with my writing is really funny. It’ll evolve, obviously. I kind of like the phase that it’s in where he sees a copy of my new book around the house, “This is Daddy’s book.” He’s conflated the notions of creation and ownership. He’s like, “This is Daddy’s book because Daddy wrote it, but it also belongs to Daddy, and I must return it to him.” I have more than a few copies of the book scattered around for various reasons. When he sees one, he has to bring it to me. “This is Daddy’s book. Here you go, Daddy.”

Zibby: That’s really cute.

J. Ryan: It’s really cute.

Zibby: Are you working on anything else now?

J. Ryan: Oh, god, no. Not yet. I started writing a new book in January. Then when the tree fell on our house, I kind of had to become a project manager when my son’s in preschool. That’s what I’m going to be doing after this call. I’ve got to drive up to the house and supervise the demolition and replacement of the irrigation system. It’s going to go all week. That was crushed by a different tree.

Zibby: What?

J. Ryan: Isn’t that funny? It broke one sprinkler head, so therefore, the entire irrigation system is being replaced by insurance, which is a good thing. I’m not writing. I got to be there and make sure I know what’s happening. I don’t mean to get too in the weeds with all that. I was speaking to a fellow writer named Charmaine Craig whose house caught on fire a couple years ago. She said it wasn’t until that whole process was remediated and the house was fixed that she started writing again. She said, “Don’t put pressure on yourself to write when you’re displaced from your home. Every day is provisional. There’s projects happening at your house. Take the pressure off yourself.” I’ve been trying to do that. That said, when things are moving along — the drywall’s up right now. The roof’s back on the house. I think I can do it when he’s in preschool and I’m at home. You’re like, all right, if I just kind of ease back and maybe start going on it again.

Zibby: Maybe your next character will be a contractor.

J. Ryan: Oh, god, yeah. I don’t know.

Zibby: You never know. All this stuff, it just goes into the thing. Then it mixes up. Then who knows where it’ll come out?

J. Ryan: Right. Have you ever had an unexpected experience that ended up in your writing? Have you ever had a similar experience where, I didn’t think I’d be writing about this topic or this kind of character, but this thing just happened to me, and now I got to resolve it?

Zibby: I’ve had stuff that I have long not thought about that comes bubbling up. I’m like, oh, my gosh, I guess that was bothering me all these years, or something. I don’t know. Now I’ll be on the lookout for it. You too.

J. Ryan: It’s possible. I can’t rule it out.

Zibby: You never know. Maybe in twenty years Sunday night at the Stradal residence or whatever.

J. Ryan: Right, that’s true. A little close to the blast radius now to find it interesting to write about.

Zibby: It has to bake for a while. Why did you move to California?

J. Ryan: For work. I came out here to work in the entertainment industry. I had an instructor in college who said he was going to interview me to be his assistant at CBS. I went to college at Northwestern in Evanston. I moved out here. I didn’t get the job, but that’s fine. I would’ve been a lousy executive assistant at a TV network. As it turns out, my first job in the entertainment industry was an executive assistant at a TV network, VH1, for Jane Lipsitz, who figured out in three months what David Zucker knew instantly, that I’m not a good assistant. She had the wisdom and kindness to not fire me, but divert me into production. At the time, VH1 was still a music channel. I was excited about working in music programming. While I was there, it evolved into what it is now, which is a reality channel. By dint of that, you end up — in the entertainment industry, usually, the ladder you start out is the one you’re stuck on. I ended up working in reality television for fourteen years. Thankfully, I got to work on some interesting shows, Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Roads. Storage Wars probably being my favorite of that group. I was working on a spinoff called Storage Wars: Texas at the time I wrote my first book.

Zibby: I lived in LA in the late nineties. I would wake up early before my job in Studio City and work out to the VH1 — they called it The Early Morning whatever it was. All those videos. That was always on in the gym in my building. That was what got me through every morning when I used to actually make time to work out and all that. It was The Morning something. It’ll come to me.

J. Ryan: What was it? Yeah, it’ll come to me too.

Zibby: Back in the day. Amazing. Do you have a favorite book that you’re reading now?

J. Ryan: You know what? I really am into The Overstory by Richard Powers. I read it earlier this year. I’m going to read it again, at least the first half. I really love what he does in the first half with diversity of voices and their distinctiveness. His level of craft with that is what I aspire to. I think Jennifer Egan does it extremely well as well. I want to read her latest book. I loved Visit from The Goon Squad. That was one of the books that influenced me to write Kitchens, both in style and format. Probably, the book I’m thinking and talking about the most right now is The Overstory, which is not even Powers’ newest book. It came out maybe five, six years ago. I’m always looking for books that have different point-of-view characters and take liberties with narrative structure because I find that’s kind of my default. I feel like I have such an inclusive sense of the community in my imagination that I just want to hear from a lot of different people. I want everyone’s voice to be heard. Very lowercase D democratic ideals when it comes to narrative, but I also love the unreliability and insularity of the close-third voice. Whenever anyone does close-third alternating POV characters, I’m like, let me at it. What about you? What about yourself? What are you reading?

Zibby: Oh, I read this book called Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club.

J. Ryan: I heard that has close-third alternating point-of-view characters.

Zibby: This is my nightstand. Last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

J. Ryan: Oh, wow. I would say don’t think about the marketplace. I didn’t. For Kitchens, I only thought about it in this sense. I thought, a book like Kitchens of the Great Midwest doesn’t exist yet, so I better write it. Then a part of me thought, wait a second, there’s never been a novel set within the world of Midwestern food before? Oh, man, I better be the first one. I bet everyone’s going to try to write that and fill that hole. Then I thought, wait a second, there’s never been a novel set within the world of Midwestern food. run screaming from that. There’s probably a very good reason for that. Who cares about on the coast. Luckily, Pam Dorman did. That book set the tone for the rest of my career. I remember just sitting and thinking, you know what, four people are going to read this book and like it. I thought, my dad, my grandma, my girlfriend, my brother. I was wrong. My grandma hated it. She told her friends, “I will never recommend this book to anybody,” then said that to me. She’s ninety-eight. She can say whatever she wants. She was only ninety then. Still a big reader. I felt like, you know what, most importantly — real quick for context, I had written a book that’ll never see the light of day before then. Any idea of making a big splash with my debut novel was firmly disabused by that. I thought, oh, man, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is going to be met with the same chorus of crickets that my earlier manuscript did. Going into it, I had no expectations that anyone’s going to care. It just liberated me to write the book that I wanted. It turns out that other people happened to agree with me, that they wanted to read it too. I felt very, very fortunate that that happened. It’s an incredibly lucky turn of events.

Zibby: I hope that your house construction goes okay. I do have a really good contractor in LA if you ever get stranded. Just let me know.

J. Ryan: That’s so nice to hear. So far, ours is great, but we’ll let you know if .

Zibby: Hard to find.

J. Ryan: You’re right. He was the fourth one we interviewed.

Zibby: I hope to meet you out there at some point. Good luck. Take care. Thanks for being so open.

J. Ryan: Thanks so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day.

J. Ryan: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

J. Ryan: Bye.


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