‘You laugh until you cry’: a Laguna-born novelist on his deep dysfunctional comedies
On the Shelf
'Let's Not Do That Again'
By Grant Ginder
Holt: 352 pages, $28
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Grant Ginder’s publicist wanted me to be sure to check out his Twitter and Insta feeds because he’s “so funny.”
“I’m flattered that she thinks so,” says the novelist when I mention this to him over a recent Zoom conversation. “But I think my husband would definitely disagree.” His husband’s most common interjection, Ginder says, is “What were you thinking?” This was last uttered when a margarita-fueled bike ride resulted in a broken foot.
“What were you thinking?” sounds remarkably like a Grant Ginder title, of a piece with 2019’s “Honestly, We Meant Well” or next week’s (yes, very funny) release, “Let’s Not Do That Again.” The new novel, set mainly in Manhattan and Paris, follows the Harrisons, a family in so many kinds of distress that a broken foot might come as a welcome distraction. Nancy Harrison, in the middle of a run for the Senate seat she inherited when her philandering husband died, has to cope with her daughter Greta’s strange political hijinks in France and her son Nick’s misguided attempt to write a musical titled “Hello to All That!,” based on the life of Joan Didion.
The author was surely born funny: His books, including “The People We Hate at the Wedding” (currently in film production with Kristen Bell and Allison Janney) and “Honestly, We Meant Well,” are classically comic novels. But their observational depth comes from Ginder’s lived experience — none more so than his latest.
After earning a political science degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Ginder worked in Washington, D.C., as a speechwriter with the Center for American Progress. He’d interned on Capitol Hill as an undergraduate and grown fascinated with the “youth culture” of media and politics geeks. “I had this instant group of friends who are still some of my closest friends today,” he says.
Yet Ginder quickly realized that the part he loved best about speechwriting was the storytelling. After three years in D.C., he moved to New York City. “I always wanted to get to New York, the center of literature and publishing,” he says, “in the same way that, when I was in high school, I wanted to get to the East Coast.”
Plot twist! Ginder, the picture of the hard-driving Easterner, was born and raised in laid-back Laguna Beach.
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“I did homework on the beach, getting sand in my textbooks, and I don’t think any of us realized how lucky we were to be in that environment, with such incredible natural beauty all around us,” he says. “But it was also a place, when I was 18, that I was ready to get the hell out of.”
It wasn’t about the beach, or even the West Coast. After reminiscing for a few minutes about Laguna’s now-defunct Boom Boom Room, “this great old gay dive bar that had a Wednesday Drag Night,” the author acknowledges that, even though his parents were “incredibly supportive” when he came out, “there were certainly no ‘out’ gay students at my large public high school in Orange County. There were no real resources for a gay teenager. And my parents got that.”
Therein lie the roots of his just-dark-enough brand of comic fiction. “I do have a stable family, but it’s certainly not one without problems,” he says, “and what I appreciate about my family is that we’re very open about acknowledging those problems and talking through what’s going on. … Dysfunction and problems don’t excuse people from the obligation of loving each other.”
Without giving away too much of “Let’s Not Do That Again,” it’s possible to say the novel puts that notion severely to the test. Nancy, the matriarch, reflects Ginder’s view that “women in politics still get the very, very, very short end of the stick. They have to work twice as hard, three times as hard, as men. I started writing this book during the Trump administration [after] watching the horrible treatment Hillary Clinton received during the 2016 campaign.”
Nancy, whose late husband wasn’t very good at his job, discovers she is superb at it. “She has strong convictions, but because she’s had to work so hard to be in a position to use them, she’s become quite hardened,” says Ginder. Unfortunately, as Nancy fights for her seat, Greta drifts into the sights of a French far-right operative named Xavier.
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France is another place in which Ginder has spent considerable time. “Paris has very stark racial tensions, and the country as a whole is plagued with xenophobia,” he says. The country’s devotion to liberty, equality and fraternity “is very focused on assimilation and shared values. That is changing, but very slowly, and it creates trouble when it comes to politics.” As Greta becomes more and more entangled with Xavier, playing into his terroristic designs on the United States, Ginder is able to play with the connections between the far right in both countries.
Comedy has always been the author’s way into deeper issues. “You know, you laugh and you laugh and you laugh until you cry,” he says. “With this book in particular, I was writing at a time when our American democracy was being threatened by a president who told Orwellian lies constantly. I was editing the book during a pandemic and the strains a global health crisis put on our government. Those things led me to the question of: How far would a person go to protect something they see as sacred?”
In “Let’s Not Do That Again,” the Harrison family faces a difficult moral choice that is going to have a huge effect on national politics — one involving violence in the pursuit of supposedly noble ends. Some of the things Nancy and Greta get up to might seem dark, but Ginder believes “characters should be complex, particularly characters that, in the history of literature, have not been allowed to be complex. Why should cishet white men have all the fun and complications?”
They certainly won’t in Ginder’s next book, though it is a change-up — or rather a return to his roots. “It’s a novel about a gay teenager growing up in Laguna Beach in the ’90s, and it’s my first novel told entirely in first person,” he says. The first-person Greta sections in “Let’s Not Do That Again,” he believes, “unlocked something in me. I like the challenge of it and the limitations it places on you too.”
Tentatively titled “Beefcake,” the forthcoming book is “about, of course, family and the imperfect ways we love each other. As the world gets crazier and crazier, I’m more attracted to finding the macro elements in smaller stories, instead of the other way around.” For Ginder, it seems, there are no small stories, just those that haven’t yet been told.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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