Grant Ginder Will Never Again Write a Straight Male Protagonist
The author of “Let’s Not Do That Again” on trading sentimentality for camp and vicious humor in his new novel
The first thing Grant Ginder did when we met on Zoom was apologize for his dog being a freak. This was fortuitous, because I was interviewing him from home and my dog is also a freak; I was primed to preempt my dog’s barking once he finished snarfing the peanut butter out of his Kong. If you follow Ginder on social media, you’ll be familiar with his dog, Frankie, as well as his acerbic sense of humor.
A professor at New York University, Grant Ginder writes expansive novels about families, gay men, and settings spanning from Paris to New York, Grecian isles to Buffalo. Let’s Not Do That Again, Ginder’s fifth novel, tells the story of the Harrison family. Congresswoman Nancy Harrison–our Selina Meyer–is running for Senate, but when her daughter throws a bottle of champagne through an iconic brasserie in Paris, all hell breaks loose. Nancy sends her gay son Nick to find her, and he discovers that she’s fallen in with a right-wing troll. Part Veep, part The Other Two, the novel employs wicked humor to ruminate on the politics of family and modern New York while inspecting the precarity of democracy.
We spoke about his newest release, the intersections of the family and political drama with queer fiction, and the gay agenda: camp, Barbara Streisand, and beefcakes.
Michael Colbert: You’re one of my favorite follows on Twitter, and I remember once you tweeted that this book was conceived with a lot of wine in the pandemic. Does anything feel different to you with this novel as a pandemic book?
Grant Ginder: I started writing it before the pandemic happened, but I wrote and certainly edited most of it during the pandemic. So in that way, it was certainly borne of the last two years. And there was definitely a lot of wine involved. I think Hemingway said, “Write drunk and edit sober.” I tend to do it the other way around, which I’m sure is a problem, but usually after I write something, the only way I can stomach it the first time I read it is when I’ve had one or two glasses of wine, and this novel was certainly not an exception. But it became a sort of escape for me. This book is very much a New York novel, and I was able to write about this love-hate relationship I have with New York, mostly love though, as I couldn’t experience any of those things.
The idea itself was conceived probably around the second half of 2018 when we were in the middle of the Trump administration. I saw our democracy being threatened from left, right, and center, and I began asking myself this question, what sort of moral equivocations would a person make to protect this institution that’s currently being threatened?
MC: The comps for this book include Veep, Succession, and The Other Two. Reading, I felt they were so apt. What sorts of narratives are you interested in engaging with? Are TV and film particularly inspirational for your process?
GG: While I was asking that moral question, the thing I was thinking of was Henry James’s The Ambassadors, which gives us the character going to France to bring back a wayward American. That book is very, very different from mine–there’s not the political angle to it–but that premise of someone going to bring someone back, I was playing with that. I’m a very, very scene-driven writer. I get really bored with exposition. I love scenes, I love good dialogue, and I just like watching people. I’m a voracious TV watcher and probably watch too much TV–definitely watch too much TV–but to that end, good shows certainly affect how I think about scenes, how I think about narrative arcs playing out over the course of a book.
MC: Place figures so prominently into your work. Passing through a neighborhood, Greta says it “seemed to me to be less of a place and more of a set, a stage where people were able to act out some imagined, New York-ified version of their lives. I used to know what my place was in that illusion, but now I felt apart from it.” You’ve talked about dispelling and unpacking the mythology of places. How do the mythologies of both New York and Paris help us understand the political realities of these cities today?
GG: Wow, what a good question. I think it’s actually much easier for me to answer that with regards to Paris. For whatever reason, Americans have this incredible mythology and these symbols of Paris–the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel tower, the Louvre–but the politics of that place are incredibly complicated. While Macron won the election in April, Marine Le Pen had a stronger showing than she had five years ago, and that’s terrifying, the fact that her fascist politics seem to be increasing in popularity. The beauty of the place with the ugliness of its politics–that tension is fascinating to me, particularly in a place like Paris. With The People We Hate at the Wedding, I wrote a lot about British class. I’d gone to some tony English weddings and I always thought it was absolutely hilarious that these people who were so prim and proper would get absolutely obliterated and shit-faced and would just be vomiting in hedges, and I was in a funny way appalled by it: that tension, right, between how we as outsiders imagine a place and the reality of it.
When it comes to New York I think it’s a little harder for me to answer that question because I’m living in the reality of it. Every day for the past fifteen years, I have been sussing all that out. When you live in New York long enough, I think you understand the complications of the place, which is why you both love and hate it.
MC: There’s a question hovering over the book about how long is too long to live in New York–when do you leave?
GG: That is certainly a question that Nick is dealing with and by extension me. I don’t imagine I’m going to be leaving New York anytime soon, they’re probably going to be carrying me out of here in an urn, but it is a question that over a decade of living here, you start to ask yourself. Hello to All That! is Nick’s musical based on Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” which is an essay about leaving New York that I absolutely love. This is a line that I ultimately cut from the book, but Joan also came back. Joan left but Joan also came back, and I think that says something about the city’s draw.
MC: You spoke about clash in our ideas about a place, and it seems like, at the core of the Joan Didion musical is such a clash. You’ve said you landed on Didion, so famously unsentimental, as the subject of a musical precisely because they are so characteristically sentimental. I’m curious about that as it sits within the family drama; you have these really powerful, willful characters. What relationship do you see between the Harrisons and sentimentality?
GG: That’s a good question. I often resist sentimentality. I think that there are moments where it pokes through a little bit. It’s difficult to write family novels without a little bit of sentimentality coming through, but I resist it. I heard someone describe my novel as vicious the other day, and I think, for better or worse, I shield myself from sentimentality with viciousness and willfulness in my characters. Perhaps too much so. I bristle at sentimentality. I don’t necessarily know if sentimentality is the worst thing in the world, like life is occasionally sentimental. It’s why we cry at certain commercials. It’s why my husband and I celebrated last week being together for ten years, and he said something really sweet and I started crying. I guess perhaps growing as a writer for me will mean allowing there to be a little more room for sentimentality. I think right now I save one tiny scene at the very end for a little bit of sentimentality, and then, that’s it. As I’ve experimented more and more with humor as a way of dealing with uncomfortable truths, as a way into those moments of sentimentality that make me as a person and as a writer incredibly uncomfortable, I open myself up a little bit more to those kernels of truth or emotion or honesty and not just relying on the mean joke, which I think is the easy thing to do, but then I think humor becomes clever as opposed to meaningful.
MC: I thought the humor here was so dialed in: gay dating, wellness culture, brunch. I felt so called out when the narrator says the crossword doesn’t count before Thursday.
GG: Tuesday, please, oh my god, I can’t do it on Thursday or Friday.
MC: I stop after Wednesday.
GG: That’s when I stop too. Thursday always has the trick. There’s always some fucking gimmick that I can never get, and I always feel bad.
MC: The humor holds up such a clear mirror to society, and I notice this both in your writing and your tweets. How have you developed that sensibility?
GG: I think I hide behind humor a lot. I think that it provides a safe way occasionally of approaching difficult topics. I also really like the weirdness of life, and I think that life, particularly in New York, is really fucking weird. You’re always seeing and hearing the weirdest fucking things. I really like documenting those things, be it a weird conversation you’re overhearing in the coffee shop, or, I don’t know, you go to an exercise class that you pay an extortionate amount of money for and you’re like, I just paid 45 dollars to be screamed at. What is this life? This is crazy. I think that that often translates as humor, or my way of processing those things is to consider the weirdness of it all. When you have a war raging in Ukraine, and a pandemic, and American democracy falling apart, if I wasn’t able to find humor–and none of those things are funny–in a weird dog on the street or my weird dog, I think I would absolutely go crazy.
MC: This is also a political novel. You’ve said you were looking for fun when you were writing, but the book is obviously in contract with real political circumstances. How did you balance the fun with reaching near our political realities?
GG: That was probably one of the most difficult parts of the book: how do you construct a world that is adjacent and at times dips into the real world with real characters–Chuck Schumer, the Cuomo brothers–without making it just so, so tied to the current moment that the book isn’t allowed to age. This became especially difficult when we were in the full swing of the pandemic because I was suddenly in a situation in the summer of 2020 whereby I had started writing a book that was representative of one world and that world had totally shifted. How do you account for that in a novel? Do you try to predict what’s going to happen and have your book reflect these new realities? That feels like a fool’s errand because we have no idea what’s going to happen. So it was really about not writing a novel that was inextricably tied to absolute political realities but rather adjacent to that so you could dip in and out to give people touchpoints. Who would Nancy be interacting with in Washington? Those people are there, but it is not exactly a replica of Washington right now.
MC: This book is a family and political drama. With Nick’s storyline of gay dating, do you have any hopes for this book as a queer novel?
GG: The People We Hate at the Wedding was the first time I wrote an openly gay character dealing with really gay things–I mean there’s a very messy drugged out gay threesome in that book. It was the first time that I started writing about queer issues. I wrote it after getting my MFA. I’d spent four years writing this other book that was long and historical fiction and I thought was very MFA-ey and then we didn’t sell it. I took a break from it, and I was like, you know what, I just want to write something fun and fucking gay, and so I did. It was like a boulder had been lifted off my chest. It was the first thing that was funny that I’d written. I was like, “This is what I’m fucking supposed to be writing. This feels true to me.” After that, I was like I’m just gonna write about gay people and tough broads. There was no question in my mind ever that Nick was going to be straight. And there’s no question in my mind that I will ever write a straight male protagonist ever again. Those storylines to write don’t particularly interest me.
And so for Nick, I look at him–and I mean this in the best way possible–I look at him as an inevitability: those are the kinds of characters I’m writing now. Gay men who are dealing with the bullshit of living in New York in your thirties. What does it mean to date in New York in your thirties; what does it mean just living in New York in your thirties? I’m hoping that people will be able to come to that character and see a little bit of themselves in terms of the bullshit he’s going through, the dating that he’s going through. Before I met my husband, I went on tons of bad dates in New York. I mean tons. That list of people that he dates, I dated a lot of those people. I hope that he, in the same way that I hope all marginalized characters in literature become inevitabilities–I hope the same thing for Nick, in the same way for Will in the character in Honestly, We Meant Well, and Paul…they’re just inevitable.
MC: Thinking about the humor, Nick’s story, this narrative of mothers and their gay sons, the whole book to me feels very queer.
GG: Nancy is listening to Barbara Streisand. This book is camp.
MC: Yes, camp!
GG: When I was writing it, that was something I always had in mind, knowing where the book was eventually going and knowing what Greta was going to be doing. For that to even work, the book has to constantly be operating at an eleven, at this sort of absurd level for us to be on board when that happens. It’s funny, I very rarely look at Goodreads but occasionally I do, and the other day I saw a comment that was like, “The ending of this book was so unplausible, it was so unrealistic.” And I’m like, obviously it was unrealistic! This does not exist, this is not of the real world, you have someone writing a musical about Joan Didion, for Christ’s sake. I think the book is particularly suited to gay readers who are familiar with camp style.
MC: Are there things that are particularly exciting to you with fiction right now?
GG: Right now, this novel that I’m working on is entirely in the first person, set in the ‘90s in Laguna Beach where I grew up in the ‘90s, and it follows this teenager, it’s still very much a family book, the characters and people in his family are very prominent. Let’s Not Do That Again was such an expansive novel that I’m excited by telling a more intimate story. I always really like playing with form. I’m a huge structure nerd. With this, I wanted to have five acts. It’s a classic dramatic structure–how can I play with a classic dramatic structure? This next book I’m working on plays with structure as well as with perspective. Writing the Greta section in LNDTA, which I think weirdly is my favorite section, unlocked an interest in me. I’m excited by the challenges of writing in first person. I really like creating limitations for myself. You have to write this figuratively with one hand behind your back, now go do it and see what happens. I’m excited by that.
MC: I saw that the working title is Beefcake. I’m so excited to read this when it comes out.
GG: When I was a teenager, maybe thirteen, we had AOL, and I would download on our family computer pictures of shirtless men, and I don’t know how I knew the word but the only word I knew to describe hot shirtless men was beefcake. And so I downloaded all these pictures of men without shirts on working on cars, these very softcore erotic pictures of men under waterfalls. They all went into the downloads folder, and my dad one day–I have wonderful parents–asked me, “Who do you think’s been downloading all these pictures of beefcakes on the computer?” because clearly he saw them, they were labeled beefcake 1-5 in the downloads folder. And clearly he knew it was me, but in a moment of panic, I told him that I thought it was my mom, and so I threw my mom under the bus, and my dad was like, sure it was mom. That story itself is not part of the book, but the term beefcake, it’s very much about a gay teenager coming to terms with his sexuality in some ways, so I was like, I have to pay homage to that term that played a part in my life.
MC: I have an unfortunately similar story.
GG: I think a lot of us do. Hearing a lot of these similar stories from my queer friends, I was like oh, yeah okay I need to write this.