Author’s latest novel finds humor where family dynamics and politics collide

Grant Ginder (courtesy photo)

Grant Ginder is the author of four novels, Let’s not do that again, honestly, we meant well, people we hate in marriage, driver’s education, and This is how it starts. Before working as a novelist, he was a speechwriter for White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. He earned his MFA at New York University and now teaches writing there. His latest novel, Let’s not do this again explores the ways in which family can be both supportive and exceptionally nurturing. When Nancy Harrison decides to run for the Senate, her adult children, Greta and Nick, alternately become her biggest supporters and those who could potentially derail her entire campaign. Grant’s humor, seen in his book titles, invites readers to explore the darker truths of family dynamics and the pitfalls of navigating the lives given to us with those we ultimately choose.

Let’s not do this again is currently in the works in a film starring Allison Janney, Kristen Bell and Ben Platt.

Grant talked to us about writing, humor and his knee-jerk reaction to apologize to all the cast when he visited the set of the film based on his latest novel. We can’t wait to have him in town for this year’s Festival.

EMILY MEIER: This is your fourth novel. And I read somewhere that the opening scene came to you long before you started writing and it remained the opening scene throughout the revisions. How do most books come to you? With a line or two first? An opening scene? How do you know when an idea is a novel-worthy pursuit?

GINDER GRANT: Big question! The origin story of each of my books has been very different. The people we hate at marriage, for example, I started with a friend who asked me (literally) who I hated at a wedding we had both just attended. Let’s not do this again on the other hand, began with a central question: how far would someone go to protect something – or someone – they loved? It’s a question that has plagued me for the past few years – especially under the Trump administration – when I have seen so many of our fundamental institutions come under existential threat. It kept me awake at night, and that’s something I don’t have an easy answer for. In the end, that’s often how I know an idea is worth pursuing: if I can’t stop thinking about it, to the point that it becomes an obsession.

EM: When you write a novel, do you sketch and plan? Or are you more of your pants writer’s seat, writing scenes as they come to you? At your process changed when writing your novels?

GG: I am absolutely a bypass. I’ve tried writing near the seat of my pants, and it just doesn’t work for me – I write myself in circles. I need to know where a story is going, even if that destination eventually changes. I’m in admiration of people who have no idea what’s going to happen on the next page.

EM: You were a speechwriter at DC and now teach essay writing at NYU. The essay and speech writing share an element of storytelling with the novel. But they differ from writing novels in that at some point in the writing process, with an essay and a speech, a writer can keep it all in their head, beginning, middle, end. But with a novel, it is more difficult to hold all the work in progress in this mental space in the same way. What were some of the challenges in moving to writing novels (long form) from writing speeches. And how does writing in these various ways inform each other?

GG: I wish I could hold an essay or a speech in my head while I was writing it! With all three forms – novels, essays, and speeches – I often find that I can’t see the thing clearly until I’ve reached the end, which makes the review so exhilarating: it’s only after I’ve written the first draft that you achieve what you are actually trying to write. Likewise, all three forms have their own story arcs. In fiction writing, we call this ground, and in essay writing, we call this developing an argument or idea. Is there any difficulty moving between the three forms? Sure. A novel, for example, requires a sense of mental and emotional stamina that isn’t needed when you’re writing a ten-minute speech. That said, I prefer to think of them all as more similar than they seem.

EM: “That’s the problem with having a politician as a mother. You never know what to believe,” is a line from this book that stood out as I read it. The line brings humor and levity to a potentially tense moment in the story, but is also weighted with darker truth. The way the humor dances with the heavier elements of your novels seems to be your signature. And how families serve as a microcosm for broader global politics also seems to be a recurring theme. Can you tell us a bit about how you choose to use humor? And why do you think family politics is so endlessly funny and interesting?

GG: For me, humor has always been a way to tackle dark or difficult subjects; it allows me to process tragedy and heartache without losing my mind. In terms of family politics, I can think of nothing more fundamental to the human experience. You are thrown into the world with a group of people you did not choose, and you are told that, for the rest of your life, they are the people to whom you are supposed to ascribe your most basic loyalty. I’m interested in how we grope in this arrangement – how we surprise each other, disappoint and betray each other, and yet always find a way to keep loving each other.

EM: This book is written in the third person except for a section written in the first person, which allows Greta to speak. How did you decide to play with the point of view for this book?

GG: Greta makes some pretty gruesome decisions throughout the book – choices that I was sure would frustrate the reader. To that end, I knew that for readers to empathize with her – even when she was acting like a complete mess – they would need to understand her and her motivations in a more intimate way than the other characters. The first person makes it possible to create proximity. It erases the little narrative distance that exists when writing in close third person and really allows you to get inside a character’s head.

EM: They say that every book an author writes teaches them something about the writing process. What did you learn from writing this book?

GG: To take risks! In many ways, Let’s not do this again is a departure from my previous work in terms of genre and structure. There are similarities, of course, but there are also stark differences. It’s always terrifying to take risks – to write in a new or uncomfortable space – but ultimately, I think I grew as a novelist from this process.

EM: How do you balance teaching and writing? Do you find it difficult to work on your own projects during a teaching semester?

GG: It’s definitely a juggling act! And yes, naturally I find it more difficult to work on my own projects when the semester is in session. To that end, I’m very protective of the space I set aside for myself to write. I say no to plans and reserve weekends that I dedicate to writing. Yet sometimes there is too much to do and my own work takes a back seat. It bothered me; a week would go by without me touching a draft, and I would feel remarkably guilty about it. I learned to let go. You have to be gentle with yourself.

EM: Congratulations on your novel, The People We Hate at the Wedding, which was made into a movie starring Kristen Bell and Allison Janney. I heard you visited the set during filming. How was that experience, seeing your characters come to life that way?

GG: Totally and completely mind-blowing! I had never been on a movie set before and was shocked at how many people were involved in the production. I kept walking around apologizing to everyone for making them get up so early, and I think they thought I was a little nuts. What amazed me the most was how well they captured the spirit and voice of the book. Everyone involved is so talented and dedicated – I can’t wait for people to see it.

EM: Do you avoid reading certain genres when working on a new novel? What are you reading right now?

GG: There isn’t a particular genre that I actively try to avoid. On the contrary, if I’m stuck, I usually look for novels that do what I’m trying to do, so I can study how they work. For what I’m reading right now, I just finished Benjamín Labatut’s When we stop understanding the world, which was absolutely amazing, and unlike anything I’ve ever read. I also recently enjoyed Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, which is a masterclass on how to create a slow sense of dread over the course of a story, and Either / either, The sequel to Elif Batuman The idiot. If I could write like anyone else, I think it would be Elif Batuman. I will read everything she writes.

EM: Are there any authors or books you come back to, re-read?

GG: Well, ah, Elif Batuman! I also keep coming back to Zadie Smith and George Saunders, both their fiction and their essays. Oh, and Joan Didion, who if you’ve read Let’s not do this again will not be a surprise. I probably read Didion at least once a week.

EM: What would you like readers to know about this book? What do you hope readers take away after reading your novels?

GG: It’s always a tricky question for me, because I think once a novel is out in the world, it’s up to the reader to interpret it; each is going to bring their own baggage and beliefs to a narrative, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily my job to dictate how they fit all of that into the story I’m trying to tell. That said, there are a few things that I hope will break up the noise. I always portray queer characters that aren’t defined by tragedy or death, because when I was growing up, the literature I read didn’t have that. I hope some of my readers will see themselves reflected in these characters, and perhaps feel a little less alone in the world because of it. On a larger scale, I hope readers will see that even though these characters have flaws in their attempts to love each other, even though we are often flawed in our attempts to love one another – that doesn’t absolve them or us of the obligation to keep trying.

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Irene B. Bowles