Dinah Lenney interviews J. Ryan Stradal

A New Collection of California Prose

November 6th, 2014

A YEAR AGO, Outpost19, an independent press based in San Francisco and New York, published the first California Prose Directory, a compilation of fiction and nonfiction edited by Coloradan Charles McLeod. This year’s editor is J. Ryan Stradal, who writes in his foreword: “Whether you’re a resident, visitor, or future resident, whether you’re drawn to Joshua Tree, Silicon Valley, or the would-be breakaway counties on the Oregon border, you’ll find California plentiful with stories of reinvention and risk-taking […].” And he would know: in the latest edition, the recently published California Prose Directory: New Writing from the Golden State, Number 2, he’s assembled a strong and eclectic cast of storytellers, among them Aimee Bender, Dana Goodyear, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Joshua Mohr, and Jerry Stahl. Busy as Stradal is — his first novel comes out next year — he agreed to answer a few questions about how the anthology came together.


DINAH LENNEY: Are you a native? A transplant? That is, why were you the guy for this job?

RYAN STRADAL: I’m a transplant. Coming from Minnesota, I wasn’t sure I’d survive out here. My first impression was that I was way too earnest for this place. I didn’t subscribe to the romantic notion that I should hole up in a basement and devote myself to my art — I wanted to be part of a writing community. From the readings I attended at Dutton’s and Beyond Baroque, I sensed there was one somewhere in Los Angeles, but I didn’t know how to get involved. Then, in 2004, the presence of 826LA changed things for me. At 826, volunteering with kids, I met tons of other writers (and some of my favorite people in the world), and what’s more, I learned that the way to get involved in anything — from community outreach to open-mike poetry — is to have something specific to offer.

At this point, a decade later, I’ve been actively hosting and co-hosting literary events for about five years, I’ve written a sports column for The Rumpus, co-edited the fiction section of The Nervous Breakdown, worked as a guest editor at Trop, published a number of short stories, and, most recently, written and sold a novel.

Somewhere in there — like two years ago — I heard about the California Prose Directory, and submitted a story I’d published in Hobart. By the time the outgoing editor Charles McLeod wrote and asked if I’d like to edit the 2014 edition, I’d had enough editorial experience to be comfortable with the idea.

As with most anthologies, all of the work we considered had to be previously published, and to me, this was a major draw. I instantly thought of about a dozen stories written by California authors that I loved, and the idea of having them all in the same volume felt like being at my favorite restaurant and being able to order everything on the menu.

Like Rob Roberge’s story, “Money and the Getting of Money,” which is an excerpt of his novel The Cost of Living. I first heard him read from it at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. From the opening line, “I met Johnny Mo’s father only a few hours before he killed himself at the end of what had already been a long day,” I was taken with the strength of the voice — its beautiful resignation — plus there’s so much potential for drama packed in that one sentence it’s hard to not keep reading.

I also was able to include investigative journalism — where else are you going to find Ann Friedman, Dana Goodyear, and Deborah Vankin all in one place? Ann writes about the excesses of the Malibu rehab clinics, and Dana delves into the deadly threat sleeping in the dust on the edge of Los Angeles, and Deborah takes us into a secret world where female guests are pampered and entertained well beyond the usual boundaries.

I was even able to include a music review by the late Eyad Karkoutly, who was, before he died, my personal nominee for the claimant to Lester Bangs’s throne. Eyad put so much fierce vitality into his life; it inevitably saturated his passion for music (he was a DJ and musician, in addition to being a writer), and to capture a slice of it here in this anthology is an honor.

Does the collection lean toward one genre or another? Were you conscious of that along the way? And how much of the state is represented here?

It turns out this edition is exactly split between fiction and nonfiction. (I tried to keep proportions in mind as we winnowed down our favorite submissions to 30 in all.) And though much of the state has found its way to these pages, there’s a strong SoCal bias, mostly because this is where I live, and I know a lot of writers here. As noted, the submissions had to have been previously published, and to concern or discuss California in some way — I’d read enough of that kind of thing in my four years co-hosting Hot Dish to decoupage every yoga studio in Santa Monica.

But regional diversity aside, there’s plenty of variety in these pages, and from some well-known California-based institutions: there’s food writing from the managing editor of Lucky Peach, a parody of a self-help blog written by a writer from Family Guy, one of Wendy C. Ortiz’s celebrated McSweeney’s columns on legal marijuana culture, and a true story, originally in The Rumpus, about a young woman who got to make out with her favorite porn star. (No poetry, though — we decided early on: this anthology would stay true to its founding mission as a “prose directory.”)

In fact, a compelling aspect of the job was the chance to arrange such diverse material in a single volume. Good fun to have Jim Gavin’s high school basketball story lead into Joshua Mohr’s tale of two drunks, one recently missing their front teeth, stumbling through the streets of San Francisco. And Kate Milliken’s story of an unsavory event at a Hollywood dinner party (with one of the best, eeriest endings I’ve read in a long time) is followed by Carribean Fragoza’s about a hesitant girl gang member who is put in charge of a nitrous tank for a night.

The unfortunate thing — or maybe it’s fortunate — is that we had too many great stories to print. If this edition were twice as long, the quality would not have been diminished.

Tell me three things you learned from the Directory that changed the way you see California.

Pretty much everything fits that description. Like a lot of people, when I think of California prose, I think of writers like Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Michelle Tea, Luis J. Rodriguez, Walter Mosley, Amy Tan, and James Brown, just for starters. All of them capture a sense of their place and time perfectly — but California’s size and variety renders futile any attempt to capture it in a single voice. Even the 30 points of view expressed in this anthology, none of which closely resemble any of the writers I’ve named, aren’t enough. Trying to capture California in one book is like attempting to catch a hurricane in a shot glass.

But, okay, here are three things I learned:

1.In Rico Gagliano’s story, the notion that people develop talents specific and meaningful to a place; even if that place is Hollywood, and the talent is a little silly. His story makes me think about what draws people to Hollywood and the real and imagined intersections where dreamers meet legends. It has universal themes, but it truly couldn’t have happened any other place on earth.

2. In Rachel Khong’s essay, the alternate names for the “Danger Dog.” I had never seen them before I moved here; to me, post-concert or event, their smell is an inevitable and distinctly “LA.” Although her profile on street franks is very short, she steps into their history and present in a satisfying way.

3. And in Dana Johnson’s story, in a desert that looks like “three different kinds of mustard,” she describes the windmills in the wind farm between Los Angeles and Palm Springs as “giant white men […] waving at me like crazy.” I can’t see them any other way now — and wherever in the world there are wind farms, I do not believe they look like giant white men standing in fields of variegated mustard. Only in California.