THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA is J. Ryan Stradal’s anticipated follow-up to his bestselling debut novel, KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST. With his signature warmth, detail and exquisitely fine storytelling, Stradal once again delivers a novel worthy of falling in love with. An excerpt is followed by a Q&A between the author and AFLW Fiction Editor Pete Hsu.
Chesley stopped ahead of Helen in the shade of an old storage shed. The worn-down grass on the east side, where they were, was a testament to the desirability of this location. From where they stood, they faced only a ceaseless, unjudging pasture, and had their backs to Chesley’s parents, the house, the road, and the whole rest of the tiresome adult world.
“I’m going to leave too, you know,” Helen informed the boys.
“Huh.” Chesley grimaced. “Why?”
She looked over at Chesley and his little brother Linty, in their boxy, faded clothes and dirty boots, on a weather-whipped farm of faded buildings, the smell of manure on the hot breeze. She stared out at the Sarrazins’ dairy cattle picking apart a field of prairie grass so wide and flat its horizon wobbled in the heat. “You tell me,” she said, reaching under her shirt for the beer bottle.
Chesley looked sad as he opened his brother’s beer, then hers, then his, and pocketed the caps.
“You don’t want to stick around and get married instead, like your sister, huh?”
“Well, I want to go to college first,” she said, her shoes brushing across her footprints. “But I might come back.”
“I bet you will,” Chesley said, posing against the shed with his thumbs through his belt loops and his beer bottle at his hips, like he thought he was James Dean, and for the time and place, he was close enough. “Those city boys will chew you up and spit you back out.”
Helen was sure that he had no idea what he was saying, and was just repeating something he heard his mom say to someone, but she didn’t want to ruin the moment with an argument. As Chesley and Linty leaned their backs against their father’s shed and threw back their first swallows, in the imitation of men, Helen stared at the FITGER’S label on the wet bottle.
This was beer, the drink that her father craved at the end of a hot day. This is what her mother claimed would make Helen careless with her modesty and desires, and end up like a few local girls who’d been quietly removed from school. This was the stuff that her tee-totaling Swedish grandfather claimed that one drop of, just one, would send her to hell. So, like any sensible person, she was intrigued. She slapped a mosquito on her arm, and then took just a tiny sip, because she believed in hell, and despite what her grandfather said, hoped that one small taste could be forgiven, just in case she hated it. She leaned her sweaty head against the wall of the shed and felt the beer hit her tongue.
Whoa, she thought.
Her body flickered with a fear that had nothing to do with her family’s warnings, or Chesley, or anything she’d ever known or imagined. She felt it in her mouth, behind her eyes, in her blood, in places no one had touched. It wasn’t just because she was doing something she wasn’t supposed to be doing, or suspected it would lead to her finally making out with Chesley. She was scared because it felt good.
Excerpted from THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA with permission from the author
On Second Chances and Writing THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA
Pete Hsu: There’s a genuine optimism throughout THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA. It’s what Bradley Sides of The Millions called “the true essence of hopefulness in the voices of [your] characters.” I think of it as the foundation of your novel’s universe, where it’s not that the universe is necessarily good, but that goodness does exist and can prevail. Tell us about where this comes from.
J. Ryan Stradal: I’ve never really had to explicate this before. To me it feels inherent; I credit my parents, and my friends and neighbors in Minnesota. I think I have a fundamentally optimistic viewpoint about life, which feels tested in our current political climate, but it was important for me to create characters who reflect this and the fact that there is still a lot of decency and compassion in the world. It’s tragic to live in a time where expressions of kindness seem defiant, but I’m hopeful that this wave of ugliness in our culture can be pushed back. There are so many good people out there; they’re just not grabbing the headlines or making editorials right now.
PH: Helen, Edith and Diana all share a creative energy. One way or another, all three feel compelled express it, but each in their own way and in their own time. What do you make of their passion to create something great, and also the rigorous and multiple paths to creativity?
JRS: I think Edith and Diana each had a lot of problems they couldn’t solve with their wallets, so their passions and ingenuity are also fueled by a necessary resourcefulness. Helen is following a singular lifelong dream, unlike the other two, and I think she’s able to proceed with confidence in part because no one ever told her she couldn’t do it; it wouldn’t have occurred to the people she grew up with that she’d even attempt to do what she did. Through these three characters, I tried to get multiple perspectives into how people find their way into their dream jobs. In Edith’s case, she doesn’t even know it’s a dream job until it becomes one.
PH: One of the themes of the novel is the great American tradition of second chances — artistically, economically, as well as relationally. Can you share your thoughts about how and why you think this idea continues to inspire us?
JRS: I saw it happen in my own family, with each of my parents returning to college to complete their degrees as adults, turning their lives around and becoming much happier people. As people live longer, I think we’re seeing far more second acts and third acts in American lives, and I wanted to write a novel that reflected this. Some of it is out of necessity, as healthcare expenses and inability to save for retirement has forced more Americans to work into their 70s and 80s, and I wanted to discuss that as well.
That said, I think there’s plenty of opportunity for a group of people like Edith and her friends to inspire us in real life, and I think we like stories like this because it brightens the path towards our own future, and makes us think of aging with a little more anticipation.
PH: How in the world did you come know so much about beer, brewing and the beer industry?
JRS: Years of research! I spent over three years touring over three dozen breweries. I put as much in the book as was useful to the characters.
PH: Fellow novelist Meg Howrey calls your writing a “meticulous tenderness — missing nothing and accepting everything.” I imagine it’s this capacity that helps make your writing so extraordinarily beautiful in both form and spirit. So, I’ll cut to the point: How do you do it?
JRS: By the way, I love Meg and her writing, and that’s a kind quote and a tough question. I guess the short answer is that I try to write from a place of love. I truly love my characters, and I want them to share my compassion for the world around them, even if it’s obscenely focused on one pursuit or detail. I think most readers can quickly discern when a writer dislikes their characters, or are using them merely to further an argument, and because that often frustrates me as a reader, I consciously try to avoid it.
PH: One more writing question. In a recent piece you wrote for Vanity Fair, you credit your 14-year stint as a reality TV story producer for developing your ability to write compelling narratives. I’m just gonna drop the link HERE, and encourage any narrative writers to check it out. But for the sake of this Q&A, is there anything you’d like to add to or as introduction to that article?
JRS: I’d add that I didn’t expect to learn those narrative lessons at the time, or realize how unsubtly they’d influence my fiction writing. Sometimes you don’t know what’s shaped you as a writer until you get some distance from it. I’d surmise that’s why I’ve written about Minnesota so heavily in the years since moving away from my home state.
PH: Someone on Goodreads called you “Jane Smiley with a sense of humor,” and I can see how THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA is like a reimagining of A THOUSAND ACRES, which is itself a reimagined King Lear, which is I guess a reimagined Cain and Abel story. What do you think about stuff like that, how your work is in conversation with what’s come before you?
JRS: All the time. I used to be preoccupied with doing the opposite, when I was much younger. During my late teenage years, I think as soon as I made peace with the idea that I’d never write a truly original story, I could revel in it. I’ve never based a novel on one pre-existing text or narrative, but I’ve openly permitted things to influence me, and hope that they’re the right things. But yeah, we’re all writing on the same palimpsest. It’s kind of comforting.
PH: How about some beer recommendations? Gimme a lager, IPA, a stout and maybe something kinda out there.
JRS: Lager – sentimental favorite — Nordeast, by Grain Belt (New Ulm, Minnesota). IPA — Expatriate, by Three Weavers (Inglewood, CA). Stout: Satin Solitude Imperial Stout, by Central Waters (Amherst, WI). Out there: (I have to say this) Grandma Edith’s Rhubarb Pie in a Bottle Ale, by OverTown Brewing (Monrovia, CA).
PH: What’s the best thing you’ve read so far in 2019?
JRS: It’s not new this year, but it was new to me — LIFE AFTER LIFE, by Kate Atkinson. An irresistible conceit and complicated structure that nonetheless read flawlessly. I didn’t want it to end. It’s the most humane novel I’ve read in some time.
PH: What’s next for you? Are there any other projects you’d like us all to know about?
JRS: I’ve got at least one more book in me about people who work food in the northern Midwest. That’s what I’m working on now. I’m maybe halfway through the first draft, and that’s as much as I’ll say.
J. Ryan Stradal the author of the new novel, THE LAGER QUEEN OF MINNESOTA and a contributing editor at TASTE Magazine. His bestselling debut novel, KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST, won the 2016 American Booksellers Association Indie’s Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year and also the 2016 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for debut fiction. Born and raised in Minnesota, he now lives in Los Angeles.