Zibby is joined by author and professor Grant Ginder to discuss his latest novel, Let’s Not Do That Again. Grant explains how his experiences in politics have shaped how he approaches storytelling, as well as which four books he brought on a three-day vacation. The two also talk about their similar writing habits, what Grant has enjoyed the most throughout the ten years he has taught expository writing, and what project he’s in the early stages of working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Grant. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Let’s Not Do That Again.

Grant Ginder: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Let’s Not Do That Again could refer to our ineffective Wi-Fi snafus in which we find ourselves.

Grant: It’s a very versatile title in that way, right? It could refer to a lot of things.

Zibby: Yes. Could you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Grant: I would love to. The book follows the last chaotic weeks of a New York congresswoman’s campaign for senate. Her name is Nancy Harrison. She should be a shoe-in. She comes from this long political lineage. She’s a rising star in her party. As they get closer to election day, as the campaign gets closer to election day, a curveball is thrown. That curveball is that her daughter, from whom she is estranged, surfaces in a viral video. In the video, she is throwing a champagne bottle through the window of a very famous French bistro.

Zibby: Fouquet’s? How do you pronounce? Fouquet’s?

Grant: You know what? My very bad French, I would say Fouquet’s, but every French person I know is like, it’s actually Fouquet’s. I’m like, but that doesn’t follow the rules of your language. All of which is to say your guess is as good as mine. As you can imagine, an event like that for a very famous congressman throws the campaign into even more turmoil. To that end, the book, obviously, it’s about political dysfunction, but it’s as much about family dysfunction and the way that those two things come together for this family.

Zibby: I love it. When you have the book open, you have the congresswoman basically watching her daughter and having it be on all the news and being like, I would recognize those cheekbones anywhere because they’re my — I gave her those cheekbones. It was so funny. Your sense of humor, it’s a dry wit. It comes through right away. I just love the way you write. It’s a great style of writing.

Grant: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Zibby: It feels very cinematic type of writing. I can immediately picture myself in the kitchen with her and all of that stuff.

Grant: It’s funny. I tend to be a very, very scene-driven writer. I’m working on a new project right now. I find that I’m becoming an even more scene-driven writer to the point where when I do have to back up and give it a little exposition or backstory or anything like that, it’s becoming harder and harder for me, which creates some hurdles with this next book that I’m writing. Particularly with Let’s Not Do That Again, I wanted the scope of the story to be . It’s a New York story. It’s a Paris story. It’s a political story. Writing these very vivid, very quick scenes was how I set out to write the book. I’m glad that they resonated.

Zibby: I have to say, I wrote this memoir recently. When I thought about it as a whole project, it was really overwhelming. I was like, you know what? I’m just going to write it in scenes. I’m just going to take a scene. It made it so much easier. I’m like, I could write twenty scenes. That’s no problem. I could write forty scenes. A book seemed overwhelming.

Grant: Yes, exactly. Right. When you put it in the context of a book, when you think about all the connective tissue that has to go into putting scenes together, to connecting those scenes, it becomes overwhelming. When you think of the individual scenes, at least for me, and I’m glad that you feel the same way, it ends up becoming really exciting because you can visualize these moments and start picturing these moments in a way that the book, the story starts feeling more real. I’m exactly the same.

Zibby: Of course, my scenes are my life. For you to imagine them and figure it out and have it all link up for a reason, that’s a real gift.

Grant: Thank you.

Zibby: Where did the idea for this come from? I’m hoping it came from you walking down the street and being like, what would happen if I threw a champagne bottle in here?

Grant: You know, it kind of did. No. I think it came from a lot of different places. I live in New York. I wanted to write what I felt was a quintessential New York novel. This aims to be that with just a little dash of Paris. Conceptually, the idea came from — I started thinking about it maybe in 2018, maybe at the end of 2017 where I was looking at politics in the United States and this thing, American democracy, which, my entire life, I had taken for granted. It was like water or food or air. I was seeing it threatened from left, right, and center. I started asking myself a question. How far would I, a seemingly sometimes-rational person, go to protect this thing that I’m now realizing is so important and is not granted, that in fact needs to be protected? That question is a question that this family, the Harrisons, ultimately are faced with towards the end of the book. How they decide to answer that question is going to have repercussions for the rest of their lives. That was the seed that started it. It grew from there. Families and families’ dysfunctions are always really interesting to me. Smashing up family dysfunction against this very public political dysfunction was an exciting challenge for me and seeing, again, how those dynamics play out. I’m really interested in the ways that — you have politics on the macro level in this sense, but you also have politics on the micro level and then the various negotiations that are constantly taking place between siblings, between parents and children. How there are always those struggles for power even within just a given family was really interesting to me as well.

Zibby: Have you ever had any political ambitions of your own?

Grant: I have not. I don’t know if I ever had political ambitions. The trouble I got into in college kind of killed all of that.

Zibby: Wait, I think we need to go deeper into that. That sounds really interesting.

Grant: That’s another book. I worked in DC right after graduation. When I was in college, I interned for a congresswoman both in her district office in California and then also on Capitol Hill where I gave tours of the capitol and forgot facts and made them up to these poor tourists who were wandering around the capitol. I did that. Then after I graduated, I moved back to DC. I worked as a speechwriter for John Podesta at the Center for American Progress. It was a job that I absolutely loved. I thought it was fascinating, but I was really bad at the political stuff, atrociously bad at it. I feel like DC is a city where you — it trades on knowing things first and access. I just did not care to know anything first. I didn’t care about what information was coming out of some subcommittee. Though, today, I actually am following the news about committee hearings. Some subcommittee on agriculture, I just didn’t care. What I was really interested in was — my husband always says I sound like such a nerd when I say this — the narrative nature of politics and how, particularly with speechwriting, the best speeches are ones that tell stories and use stories as a rhetorical means, use stories to change a mind or to make new policy. Studying the arc of an argument, essentially, is what ultimately drove me to write fiction. I had always been a huge reader of novels. I was a real nerd in that way. I continue to be a real nerd in that way. I’m here at the beach for three days, and I brought four books with me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re exactly like me. I took my daughter to a birthday party. I was like, I’ll be gone for two and half hours. I packed three books. I was like, I’m not going to read three books. I’m not even going to read one book, but what if?

Grant: I know. What if? What if I find that time? I’m going to read it.

Zibby: What if I find time? Yes.

Grant: The storytelling aspect was always there for me. Then the politics, the writing of the speeches really got me to focus on narrative structures. I later went on and got my MFA at NYU. I actually think that I learned more about narrative arcs from speechwriting than I did in any of my MFA classes.

Zibby: Maybe you shouldn’t say that out loud.

Grant: I know. I learned how to be a writer when I was getting my MFA, but narrative arcs, maybe speeches.

Zibby: Okay. Wait, now I’m really curious, what four books did you bring on your vacation?

Grant: This is a very good question. I brought Either/Or, which I finished last night. I finished the book in bed last night. We got in late. I got into bed. I finished the book and then stared at the ceiling for an hour smiling.

Zibby: I love that feeling.

Grant: I love her writing. It was one of those things where it’s like — I can’t sleep. I usually panic when I can’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep. I was so happy I couldn’t sleep so I could just think about the book. I brought that. I brought A Calling for Charlie Barnes, the Joshua Ferris novel that came out last year. I love his work. I didn’t get around to reading it when it first came out, so I’m excited to read that. Then Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Then I brought Shuggie Bain with me. I haven’t read Shuggie Bain yet, and so I brought Shuggie Bain with me. These are ambitious books to read over a three-day period. Last year when I came, I remember I read Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.

Zibby: I loved Writers & Lovers. Loved.

Grant: Loved it. It was the sort of thing where I had to be like — my nieces and nephews were pulling me off the beach. They were like, the sun’s going down. It’s time for you to come back inside. I loved it.

Zibby: It’s so good, oh, my gosh. That is the best feeling. I think that’s what we all do every time we open it up, open up a book again. You never know. Is this going to be the one that’s going to keep me and I’m going to talk about it for the next twenty years, or is it going to be one that I don’t even get more than twenty pages? You just never know.

Grant: You never know. I will say, knock on wood, I’ve had a really good streak recently. I read Either/Or. Then right before that, I read Sorrow and Bliss. Have you read Sorrow and Bliss yet?

Zibby: Yes, I loved it. Meg Mason?

Grant: Yes. I was in jury duty, I remember, waiting to be called back one year. I was alternating between laughing and tearing up and laughing and tearing up. It was so expertly done.

Zibby: She was on this podcast also. I loved it. Do you know Nick Hornby is writing that screenplay?

Grant: What?

Zibby: Yes.

Grant: Oh, my god, that is going to be amazing.

Zibby: Yeah. I interviewed him too, and he told me that. I was like, that’s amazing.

Grant: He’s perfect for it.

Zibby: You’re actually the first person I’ve talked to about it. That was months ago. I put it out. I put the podcast out. Nobody said anything to me. I was like, oh, my gosh!

Grant: That is going to be fantastic. That’s great news.

Zibby: Grant, you should have a book club. Do you have one and I don’t know about it?

Grant: I don’t, but now I’m kind of inspired to start one.

Zibby: You should totally start one. First of all, I love all your picks. I would love to follow along with all the stuff you’re reading because I feel like there’s so many things that I love too.

Grant: Maybe that’ll be my summer work between — I teach at NYU.

Zibby: You should totally do it.

Grant: Okay, I’m inspired.

Zibby: Totally. This is awesome. Wait, so back to your own writing.

Grant: I know. Back to my book.

Zibby: Back to your book. You write in scenes. I want to hear, actually, about your next book. We can come back. You encouraged me. Not encouraged. What is the word? You piqued my interest. What is the next book that’s coming?

Grant: The next book that’s coming, I’m pretty early-stage into it. It takes place in the late nineties in Laguna Beach, California, which is where I grew up. It follows the summer in the life of this one family in Laguna Beach. It’s different than my previous three books in that the entire book is in first person and is told from the point of view of the youngest son, who is fifteen when the book opens. It’s told from his point of view. He’s looking back about twenty years later on this summer where there were a number of different things that happened. That’s about all I’m ready to share about it right now. The tentative title for it is Beefcake, which there’s a story behind. That’s the working title right now, is Beefcake.

Zibby: That’s so amazing. Can you go back? You left us off with getting your useless MFA. Then what happened in your life?

Grant: You’re right, I shouldn’t have said that, particularly in a podcast that I’m sure a lot of people with MFAs, probably who I know, listen to.

Zibby: No, it’s totally fine.

Grant: After I got MFA, I worked, actually, very briefly, for about a year as a literary agent with a small agency that is now part of a much larger agency here in New York. I had wonderful colleagues. It was totally eye-opening and a very cool experience. I’m in awe of people, and I think that there are a few of them out there, like Bill Clegg, who are able to —

Zibby: — I love Bill Clegg.

Grant: His work is incredible. Who are able to both be on the business side of this crazy business and also be . For me, it was really difficult, both just finding the time to write, but also, you’re in a situation where you’re kind of seeing how the sausage gets made. You’re seeing contracts. You’re seeing what work goes where. It was really hard to divorce myself, to keep those two parts of my mind separate. I did that for about a year. Then this position opened up in the expository writing program at NYU for a full-time contract faculty member. I applied and got that. I’ve been there now for a decade. I just finished my twentieth semester, which is pretty wild. I love it. It’s not creative writing. It’s writing essays, which I find actually — when I was getting my useless MFA — I’m kidding. When I was getting my MFA, NYU has an opportunity for, while you’re getting your MFA, if you want to teach an intro to fiction and writing course, you can do that for undergraduates, which I did and I absolutely loved. Weirdly, I find that I like teaching writing for essays even more than that. You know as someone who reads novels, like you were saying, you don’t even know if a novel’s going to speak to you when you pick it up. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the novel is bad. It’s just not for you.

I found that my students were turning in stories that just weren’t for me. I was like, I can’t really tell you why they’re bad. I felt like I didn’t know how to be effective in that situation. With essays, what’s interesting is that you can see this growth. You can start talking to them a little bit more about structure and about the ways to form an argument and to write a thesis. Interestingly enough, I think that in the same way that writing speeches turned me into a fiction writer, I’ve had to use my fiction-writing skills to talk about writing essays to my students, if that makes sense, because I write so much more fiction than I do essays. That idea of a narrative arc that I first learned in speechwriting and now really think about when I’m writing fiction, I also apply to the teaching of essays. An idea has a narrative arc. In the same way that a character is affected by different events in their life over the course of a story, an idea is affected by different pieces of evidence, different moments of reflection over the course of an essay. I’ve learned over the past decade that the two, fiction writing and expository writing, are in fact much more similar than I once thought.

Zibby: I recently got pitched a book called Undelivered, I think it was called. It’s about all the speeches that were written for people and that they never ended up giving and how history might have changed had they been given.

Grant: What a fascinating book.

Zibby: I think it’s called Undelivered, Undeliverable. I’ll look it up. I can send it to you if you can’t find it or whatever.

Grant: I would love to read something like that.

Zibby: As we’re talking, by the way, I had this new idea. You could do a podcast for my Zcast network and call it “Grant’s Book Club” or something like that or whatever you want to call it. You could have people read along with you and then do a podcast either with the author or you could just talk about the books or something like that.

Grant: Oh, my god, that would be my dream come true, literally to just nerd out about books.

Zibby: I’m almost getting offended by your frequent use of the word nerd because that is, then, me because all I do is talk about books and read books.

Grant: I take such pride in that label that I use it almost as a compliment for myself when I call myself a nerd.

Zibby: You’re taking me down with you, so thank you for that. If you are really interested, we should talk about it because that could be really fun.

Grant: Yeah, I would love to talk about it. Absolutely love to.

Zibby: We’ll email after this.

Grant: Offline. You have my email and stuff now, right?

Zibby: I don’t, but I can get it from your publicist or something.

Grant: Perfect.

Zibby: I’ll find you. I’ll track you down. Last question. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Grant: Oh, gosh. I think that the most important piece of advice that I give people and that I often have to tell myself is to write the story that you need to tell as opposed to the story that you think you should tell. Twice now I’ve written books, and I mean full manuscripts, of books that were the books that I thought I should be writing at a certain point in my career or because they were akin to the books that I would see on the best-seller list or the grand literary lions were writing. Both times, they didn’t sell. To cleanse my palate in those moments, I wrote the book that I wanted to write, and they sold, one of which was The People We Hate at the Wedding and then one of which was Let’s Not Do That Again. With People We Hate at the Wedding, I spent four years working on a book that ended up being 190,000 words that was this sprawling historical epic. I started it when I was getting my MFA.

I really thought it was going to be this very serious literary fiction. My agent and I went out with it to just a few people. No one picked it up. There were positive responses, but no one really picked it up. My agent came back and was like, “Why don’t you work on editing it a bit?” I was like, I can’t look at this again, so I’m going to just take a month working on this other idea, People We Hate at the Wedding, that was funny and gay and had the sort of characters that I see in my daily life and am interested in. I wrote it in nine months because it was just like, this is the thing that I want to write. I think that that comes across both in the prose and in the story and your attitude towards the characters when it’s not the thing that you’re writing because you think that’s what the industry is wanting you to do, but rather, it’s the thing that is true and is representative of you and your position within the world.

Zibby: Amazing. This has been great. I have this vision of turning you into a full-on bookfluencer. I don’t know why I’ve decided to make this a little cause of mine. We’ll keep talking.

Grant: I’m into it. Let’s absolutely stay in touch. Again, I’m so sorry about the technology in the beginning. I’m glad that this window I’m sitting —

Zibby: — It’s perfect. It all worked out okay.

Grant: Okay, good.

Zibby: It’s perfect. We’ll stay in touch. I’ll get in touch with you.

Grant: Thank you so much, Zibby. Perfect. I’m around.

Zibby: So fun. Bye.



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