Edith Magnusson, the hard-working heroine in The Lager Queen of Minnesota is actually a composite of some of the women closest to author J. Ryan Stradal — his own mother and grandmothers. Stradal wasn't seeing the strong, Midwestern women who raised him reflected well in contemporary fiction. So he decided to write those characters himself.
"Sometimes when they are represented they can be oversimplified or caricatured ... " he says. "I know these people too well to do that. They contain multitudes just like everyone does — only they don't toot their own horn about it."
Growing up in Minnesota, Stradal says it took time to find out how complex people were. Sure, people may present themselves simply, "but that certainly doesn't mean that they don't contain a great deal of complexity and intelligence and wonder," Stradal says. "I saw that growing up, and I really wanted to write characters that mirrored that."
The novel is a family saga and the story of family business. Stradal says he visited more than three dozen breweries in his research for the book. "The women I met working at these breweries were really inspiring," he says.
On writing for his mom
I have one reader in mind when I write, and that's my mom. She'd wanted to be a writer herself and she raised me to be a writer. She'd gone back to college to get an English degree when I was a little boy and she'd read her homework assignments to me as bedtime stories. Growing up in that house, it was hard not to want to be a writer and be a novelist with that influence.
She passed away almost 15 years ago and has never read any of my published work. My first short story was published a few months after she died. So I feel I write to honor her legacy as a writer, and as an influence, and also to keep her alive in my heart. That's why she ends up in so many of the characters. ... It's one way I think about her every day — is to write for her and put her in my characters.
On writing the character of Diana, Edith's granddaughter, who chooses a vocational path over a college path
I'm not sure if college right after high school is the best thing for everybody. ... Both of my parents dropped out of college by the time I was born. So neither of them had college degrees while I was being raised. And even though they eventually got them, I saw in my life the brilliance of people who didn't have college degrees. ... I was also reinforced that pursuing a career without a college degree was completely valid and often really compelling.
I felt like the world I grew up in had a lot of people who developed a skill, and developed a passion, and pursued it. They didn't need the outside world validating it for them. They got enough pleasure out of pursuing what they decided to do in life. ...
Although I don't want to impugn college — I mean, it's clearly a benefit for a lot of people — not everybody needs it. And I wanted to write about a character that was self-directed enough to realize that she had at her fingertips resources to further her own dreams and she just had to take advantage of them — and did.
On dedicating the book to his grandmothers, Doris and Esther
Doris was instrumental in my young life. ... I'd go up to the cities to visit my grandparents and they'd drive me to the coolest biggest libraries in Minneapolis. ... I was really into dinosaurs, and the Greek mythology, and the presidents, and the libraries in Minneapolis were just a world apart and I thank Doris so much for taking the time to help me pursue those interests and indulge me as a reader.
Esther was a huge inspiration in terms of her work ethic. This was a woman who was still shingling her own roof in her 70s. She put a lot of elbow grease into everything she did. She was a farm woman, you know, had nine children over 25 years. And yeah, really set a great example for me in terms of work ethic and also keeping your head down and not complaining.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In the new novel "The Lager Queen Of Minnesota," it is never quite clear who is the queen of beer. There is nothing royal about any of the characters. Take working-class grandmother Edith Magnusson. We meet her on the first page.
J RYAN STRADAL: (Reading) Edith, for one, had never been anywhere different or ever truly had a break of any kind. But then again, she never intended to take one. Things were pretty decent where she was, and she didn't ever see the point of bellyaching about the things she couldn't change, especially in a world that never once ran a want ad looking for a complainer.
SHAPIRO: That's novelist J. Ryan Stradal. The book follows Edith and the women in her extended family as they manage ambition and their own expectations. Stradal told me most of his characters are composites of the people he grew up with in Minnesota.
STRADAL: Edith has a few other influences as well, but there's a lot of my mom. My mom's in a lot of the characters.
SHAPIRO: People who say neat and dang and who are a little bit afraid of things that are a little bit different.
STRADAL: Yeah and not the kind of character I was seeing in a lot of contemporary fiction, so I felt really compelled to write her.
SHAPIRO: It's funny because there is something so quintessentially American about this kind of Upper Midwestern character, but you're right, that I don't think I've seen these people in other books.
STRADAL: They contain multitudes just like everyone does, only they don't toot their own horn about it.
SHAPIRO: Just because I love this character Edith so much, will you read one other passage? This is from the first time she tastes an IPA, a hoppy kind of bitter beer.
STRADAL: Oh, my God, I love this part. Hold on. Let me see if I can find it. Oh, yeah, OK, I got it. Yeah. (Reading) She held the bottle to her lips and tilted slightly. It tasted like how she'd imagined dirt would taste if someone burned it on the grill. Nope, she said and handed the bottle back.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) This is just, like, so appealing and likable and set in her ways.
STRADAL: I mean, I feel like that's how she'd explain it. You know, she wouldn't describe it as hoppy or bitter or having citrus notes. She'd say, no, that tastes like dirt burned on the grill.
SHAPIRO: Dirt burned on the grill. I feel like when I read books that have characters like this, they're portrayed in ways that are kind of two dimensional or patronizing. Are you writing this in defiance of that? Like, does that get your hackles up? Is this your, like, rebuttal to those characters?
STRADAL: (Laughter) It's a rebuttal, but it's also an assertion. I don't feel like I write purely out of making an argument. I write to answer questions. And a huge part of what inspires me to write these characters is me figuring out how they became who they became in real life and inquiring more about the complexity of these people. I mean, one of the things that I experienced growing up in the Midwest was it took a while to find out how complex people were. You know, people, like I said, they often didn't toot their own horn or reveal a great deal about their history. Like I represent in the book, you could live next door to someone who was a World War II veteran and not know about it for 10 years.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. It's this idea that simple folk aren't necessarily so simple.
STRADAL: Right. Right. They might appear simple just because they represent themselves simply. Like, their value system instructs them to keep it simple when communicating with others. But that certainly doesn't mean that they don't contain a great deal of complexity and intelligence and wonder. And I saw that growing up, and I really wanted to write characters that mirrored that.
SHAPIRO: Almost all of the characters in this book are women. Why did you as a male author want to write a book that is so focused on female characters?
STRADAL: Well, I have one reader in mind when I write, and that's my mom. She'd wanted to be a writer herself, and she raised me to be a writer. She'd gone back to college to get an English degree when I was a little boy, and she'd read her homework assignments to me as bedtime stories. And, you know, growing up in that house, it was hard not to want to be a writer. And she passed away almost 15 years ago and has never read any of my published work. My first short story was published a few months after she died. So I feel I write to honor her legacy as a writer and as a influence and also to keep her alive in my heart. And that's why she ends up in so many of the characters.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. I was going to say there are so many Midwestern grandmother and mother characters all throughout this book. And I can imagine each one of them carrying, like, a little glowing piece of your mother in their hearts.
STRADAL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's one way I think about her every day is to write for her and put her in my characters.
SHAPIRO: There's a line where you write it was like a man to scratch his name on the banister of history. But Helen had come to believe that it was better to be the stairs.
STRADAL: Mmm hmm.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like your mother was the stairs.
STRADAL: Oh, very much, yeah, and certainly for me, certainly someone who led by example. I mean, one of the things I really enjoyed seeing in both my parents is how eagerly they took on second acts in their lives. Both of them went back to college as adults and got careers they really loved. And that was very inspiring to me as a kid to see parents, you know, who had dropped out of college, you know, partially to start a family, you know, and return to college and demonstrated to me that, oh, you know, you're never done evolving. You're never done changing.
SHAPIRO: And so you set this book in the world of beer making, which is a traditionally male-dominated field with some prominent exceptions. But what appealed to you about writing the story of women in the world of beer?
STRADAL: I feel as a novelist my impulse is a little utopian (laughter). I like to write the world I want to see exist.
SHAPIRO: There's something so appealing about women not just kind of dipping their toe in a world that isn't always welcoming to them but also them, like, dominating it (laughter).
STRADAL: Oh, right, right, right. And that was a lot of fun to write. I've seen that in my own life, and I wanted to reflect that in the world of brewing because as I was touring the country, I visited over three dozen breweries...
STRADAL: ...Doing research for this book. The women I met working at these breweries were really inspiring, and there are organizations like the Pink Boots Society that aim to establish mentorships to bring more women into the industry. And I do mention them in the book, but I also wanted to write about a female brewer that was very self-directed and when it came time for her to make hiring decisions was very thoughtful about where she came from in terms of mentoring.
SHAPIRO: You dedicate the book to Doris and Esther, grandmothers who could, and did.
SHAPIRO: What did they do?
STRADAL: Wow. Well, Doris was instrumental in my young life by taking me to libraries. I'd go up to the cities to visit my grandparents, and they'd drive me to the coolest, biggest libraries in Minneapolis.
SHAPIRO: Do you mean temperature coolest in a hot summer?
STRADAL: (Laughter) No. Coolest in terms of book selection.
SHAPIRO: Oh, OK.
STRADAL: Yeah. I was really into dinosaurs and the Greek mythology and the presidents, and the libraries in Minneapolis were just a world apart. And I thank Doris so much for taking the time to help me pursue those interests and indulge me as a reader. And Esther was a huge inspiration in terms of her work ethic. This was a woman who is still reshingling her own roof in her 70s (laughter).
STRADAL: Yeah. She put a lot of elbow grease into everything she did and, you know, was a farm woman, you know, had nine children over 25 years and, yeah, really set a great example for me in terms of work ethic and also keeping your head down and not complaining.
SHAPIRO: Just getting in touch with my own Fargo roots, I'm tempted to say, what a neat book.
STRADAL: Oh, thanks (laughter). Yeah. Yeah. It's pretty decent. It's pretty decent. Yeah (laughter).
SHAPIRO: J. Ryan Stradal - his new book is "The Lager Queen Of Minnesota." It's been great talking with you. Thank you.
STRADAL: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.