It’s clear from your book that you have great knowledge and love for food. Does this come from childhood or discovered in adulthood?
My interest in food began when I got my driver’s license, which took three tries – I was a famously terrible driver as a teenager. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota, I had a lot of wanderlust and a yearning to see the world, but couldn’t swing international travel on the money I was making as a janitor at the Steamboat Inn and as a clerk at Sam Goody. Therefore, with my high school girlfriend Stacy (who shared similar dreams) we hopped in my mom’s VW Golf, drove north on Highway 61 and hit all of the unusual and ethnic restaurants we could find up in the Twin Cities.
At college outside of Chicago, this trend continued. The parents of my college girlfriend Carly were really into wine; I went on my first trip to Napa Valley with them one year. That’s where another lifelong interest began.
Living in Los Angeles – where I finally learned to drive well; it was that or be killed – there’s no shortage of exceptional and interesting cuisine. Food is still a major motivation behind the international travel I’ve finally been able to do as an adult; my favorite culinary destination in the last few years has been Malaysia, no contest.
Did the recipes featured in each chapter come from family/friend recipes, or did you have to research them? What made you decide on these dishes?
Five of the eight recipes came from the 1984 edition of “First Lutheran Church Women,” a cookbook released by the First Lutheran Church in Hunter, North Dakota, where my grandmother was born and raised. My great-grandmother has recipes in that volume. So some of these dishes have been in the family for generations.
I wanted to choose food that was particular to the Midwest, so things like lutefisk, sweet corn, venison, and dessert bars fit that bill, but I also didn’t want to merely adhere to the typical. My dad grows Serrano peppers in his garden in central Minnesota, and I know plenty of Minnesotans like him who enjoy spicy food. While not stereotypically representative of the Midwest, I wanted to demonstrate that passion as well, and I feel that Eva’s interest in Chocolate Habanero peppers also is a bit of a metaphor for my own wanderlust and interest in faraway places. I think it’s extremely typical for teens and pre-teens to venerate what’s exotic to them. That was absolutely true for me.
What does the “J.” stand for?
It’s the result of a family argument. My dad’s side of the family is 100% Czech, mostly from a small town called Domazlice, and my dad was especially close to his “Stryc Joe” (stryc is Czech for uncle) who died shortly before I was born. My parents wanted to name me after him, but my superstitious Czech grandmother was having none of it. As a compromise, my parents named me “J. Ryan,” with the “J.” implicitly, but not legally, standing for “Joseph.” As a result, my birth certificate, passport, etc., all read “J. Ryan.” That said, the short answer is that the “J.” doesn’t stand for anything – it’s just “J,” like the “S” in Harry S Truman or the J in Homer J Simpson. I didn’t even know about the “J.” until I was ten or eleven, when I came across my birth certificate. Until then, my relatives and friends called me Ryan. Some still do.
Did you draw Eva from any people or experiences in your life?
Eva is the largest amalgam of people I’ve ever written, but she’s mostly me, especially as represented in her pre-teen years. I didn’t grow exotic peppers in my closet, but I had pretty obscure and all-encompassing obsessions, and I was relentlessly bullied on the bus. It was a tough time, and my interests – which helped me feel connected to a larger world outside of this small, hurtful one – kept me going.
What made you decide to tell Eva’s story mostly through the point-of-view of other characters?
I set out to write a story about redemption through empathy, and it seemed like an inherently empathetic structure; I wanted Eva to face conflict and challenges, but I didn’t want there to be a villain or an anti-hero as such. I felt that, in the case of the characters who may initially be the hardest to like, getting in their heads and feeling their pain was a way of ameliorating any “straw man” aspects to their characterizations.
Do any of the characters reflect your own personality or experiences?
All of them, I think. I feel that at one point or another, I have been every single one of these people. There’s only one character directly based on myself, though, and I’ll leave it for the readers to figure out who that is.
In addition to being a writer, you have also worked on a number of reality shows. Do those experiences factor into your stories? Did working on those shows give you any good material or inspiration?
The shows I worked on were very different from each other and in each case, I didn’t interact with the talent very much. Maybe there are vestiges of TV personalities in characters like Octavia. I do have to say that editing unscripted TV is an extremely useful narrative exercise. When you’re trying to get a twenty-nine minute rough cut down to twenty-one minutes and thirty seconds, and you only have a few days, at most, to do it, you have to develop an instinct for the necessary. Fortunately, I learned from some of the best – folks like Jeff Conroy, John Gray, and Phil Segal, who have all won multiple Emmys. However, I have never explicitly written about TV or based any character on anyone I met in that world. Too soon, maybe.
What’s the best meal you have ever had?
Extremely tough question. I can think of several, and they all were really more about the people present at the meal than the food involved. In cities like Los Angeles that are confederations of individuals split from families and lifelong friends, we form our own families of choice, and food is a unifier, a value system, a mode of expression, an attractor. While the food may have been unbelievable at some of the gatherings I remember most, the people involved were, invariably, the point of the whole affair. I think that’s ultimately true for Eva as well.