The book is The Lager Queen of Minnesota, but this release could cement J. Ryan Stradal as the King of Midwestern novels. The author, who resides in Los Angeles but hails from hearty Minnesota stock, first made waves with his beloved Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a beautiful family novel that followed cooking habits through generations.
There are similarities in Lager Queen (complex female characters, tragedies, and descriptions that will awaken all your senses), but this time the family’s legacy is rooted in beer, not casseroles. Stradal tells EW he was inspired by his first book tour, which took him through a host of small towns, all sporting booming brewery businesses. He also drew from his own roots.
“All the characters have, to varying degrees, aspects of my mom in them,” he says. “She passed away 14 years ago and is the reason I’m a writer.”
Writing the novel, which follows two sisters whose childhood fight eventually spawns two rival beer ventures, required extensive research. The author visited 36 different brew operations — some covertly (sneaking in, testing the product, and taking photos) and others more officially (Spiral Brewery in Hastings even let him peruse their books). Even after all that, he admits he’s not quite the beer aficionado one might expect (he prefers wine).
“If I had my druthers I’d probably have a Citra IPA,” says Stradal. “I know it’s a normcore choice, but I’ll own it.”
Below, the author tells us more about his inspiration for the new novel, which is on shelves now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did the idea for Lager Queen first come to you?
J. RYAN STRADAL: One of the things that inspired this book was my book tour for Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It brought me to a lot of smaller towns in the Midwest, and I noticed that a lot of these towns now have breweries. I was born in 1975, and in that year there were fewer breweries in the entire U.S. than there are in Minnesota right now. It made me think, this has happened under my nose. I don’t know that much about beer; I’m more of a wine drinker, to be honest. But I thought, this is happening in such a robust way in the part of the country I grew up in — I’m going to invent some characters who will help me learn more about beer.
It’s clear where the inspiration for place came from, but what about the characters? Are they based on real people who you know?
They’re definitely based on real people. Like my mom — she first put a book in my hands and encouraged my writing at a young age. She was actually a writer herself, but she died before she could publish anything other than a few poems. I feel in a lot of ways that I want to continue her legacy and honor her influence and write books that she would like if she had gotten to see them.
One of the things I do to keep her alive, in my heart, is to write her into my characters. In some cases I’m having a conversation with her. I think a lot of how Edith looks after her family above all else is inspired by my mom. She’s very willing to accept compromises in other aspects in her life, except for when it comes to her family. Helen’s ambition comes from my mom. She went back to college as an adult, got a degree, and ended up becoming a writer for the state of Minnesota — that kind of midlife career change and the happiness came out of it was a big influence for all of these characters. They all have a point in their lives when their priorities shift in a major way.
Can you discuss your use of archetypes, specifically as it relates to Midwestern culture?
I think it happens naturally. I don’t know any stereotypical Minnesota women, so it’s pretty easy not to write that. It’s more difficult to attempt to write complex characters. I like to see how Midwesterners stand up to conflict, and also how they react to success. That’s something I’ve been intrigued by since I was a kid. Another attribute of Edith that reminded me of my mom is that she has no instinct for self-promotion, or willingness to self-promote. She’s a little proud of herself at times, but it’s never her idea.
What’s your own personal beer drinking preference?
I did a lot of research. I probably personally visited about three dozen breweries, and I rather intensely visited about a dozen within that 36. At some I just went in, tried their beer, and took pictures, and at some I talked to brewmasters and saw facilities. At Spiral Brewing in Hastings, Minn., they even broke down the numbers for me — they were very transparent, and that kind of thing was helpful to know for [writing this book]. I like beer, don’t get me wrong, I have plenty in the fridge. I just didn’t know it as well.
Your last book also took place in Minnesota and had a few inside jokes. What kind of reaction did you get from people in the Twin Cities after Kitchens of the Great Midwest?
I really like being specific as a marker of not only place but also time. One of the things that’s sadly known about restaurants is they often don’t stick around for a long time. Readers bring up a lot of upscale restaurants that don’t exist anymore. I did have a number of people say, “Oh yeah, I used to go to the Steamboat Inn.” I used to work there, so I have a lot of fondness for this place, and one of the things I learned with Kitchens is it’s just one more thing for people to connect to, it’s another reference point.
What do you anticipate will really resonate with Minnesotans in Lager Queen?
I’m sure there’s going to be at least one beer nerd in every audience that’s going to have a different opinion than my characters did in the book. One of the things that I wanted to see more of in contemporary fiction, because I read a lot of it, is a sense of hope and reconciliation, and also a book that was funny and moving. So I hope that other people who are looking for that kind of book find it, and perhaps they’ll agree with me. I certainly went through a lot writing this book; emotionally, I felt it took a lot out of me. As my friend Lou Matthews says, always be ready to take credit for things other people see in the book.