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Grant Ginder melds political and family dysfunction in 'Let's Not Do That Again'

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

What kind of person takes on the task of running for office? And who has supported them along the way? Well, a new novel, "Let's Not Do That Again," focuses in on the family of Nancy Harrison, who's in the House and running for Senate. There's her always supportive son Nick and her kind of off-the-rails daughter Greta. It's a story of family, drama, humor and co-op living in Manhattan. The author is Grant Ginder, and he joins us now. Welcome.

GRANT GINDER: Hi. How are you?

SNELL: I'm great. Thanks for being here.

GINDER: Thank you for having me.

SNELL: So this is a very fun story. There's tension and family drama. And I have to say, I'm normally on Capitol Hill covering Congress. And this story made me think about the politics in our own families and the secrets we all carry. So I'm wondering, where did this story start for you? Was it a character, a moment? Where did you find these people?

GINDER: So I conceived the book around - I would say around 2018 and finished it three years later in probably 2021. And during that time, I watched as our government, I think, was being threatened from, you know, left, right and center, be it by a president who was telling, like, Orwellian lies or this global pandemic that was straining our institutions. And I kind of became obsessed with this question of how far I or anyone, for that matter, would go to protect American democracy, which until this point was something that I had always just kind of taken for granted. So I took that question, and I said, OK, so, that's kind of this interesting macro question. But what has always really interested me are family dynamics and particularly dysfunctional family dynamics. And so I thought, well, what if I give that question to this political family? And it has added weight because the consequences of it will, of course, you know, reverberate through this campaign but will also drastically change their own individual futures.

SNELL: Yeah, I think it's really interesting you mention that because this is literally a political family, but it is also a very political story about family.

GINDER: It is. It is. And that question of how politics play out within a family, where power dynamics are constantly shifting between siblings and between children, has always really, really interested me. And my past three novels have all been about that. And "Let's Not Do That Again" is certainly, certainly about those dynamics.

SNELL: So most people find escapism writing a story completely removed from the all-political, you know, landscape we live in right now. But you've really leaned into this. Why did you decide that?

GINDER: So in one sense, it was my way, I think, of grappling just with what was going on in the world and what I was seeing. But I also wanted to have fun with politics. It has been so long, I think, that we've been able to look at politics through this guise of humor and excitement and fun. And so I really wanted to capture that, that feeling that we got when we were watching "Veep" or "The West Wing," and we were actually excited to engage in these stories.

SNELL: So you worked as a speechwriter, and you were a congressional intern. So did anything in that experience kind of find its way into this book?

GINDER: Oh, my gosh. Absolutely. In terms of the interning on Capitol Hill, you know, you really - you as a Capitol Hill reporter, I'm sure you know all the pomp and circumstance and respectability that you see on TV is really just a matter of setting and lights - right? - and that the reality is that no one really knows what they're doing until the moment that they're doing it and that these elected officials and the staff members who attend to them are just as hapless as the rest of us. And so that dynamic certainly makes its way into the novel. Speechwriting I absolutely adored. It was, I think, one of my most enjoyable jobs that I've had. I will say that I was terrible at politics when I worked in D.C.

SNELL: Oh, really? What do you mean, terrible?

GINDER: Just absolutely terrible at it. I think that, you know, I look at Washington as a town that trades in access, in knowing things first, and it always felt like I was always the last person to know something. But when it came to speechwriting, what I really loved was discovering and learning how narratives could be rhetorical and how stories could convince someone of something and change their mind. And so I actually credit speechwriting for driving me to fiction, to write novels. I later went on to get my MFA in New York, but I still think that speechwriting taught me more about writing fiction, as it were, than any degree that I got.

SNELL: I'm so glad you mentioned the idea of stories driving politics because it seemed like a big theme throughout this book is how personal stories and powerful loneliness and powerlessness can be in and of themselves political motivations, not to mention love. So I'm wondering how you were thinking about those things as you were writing.

GINDER: There's one character in particular that is, in fact, manipulated by both lies that she's been told by members of her family and also stuff that she encounters, political rhetoric that she encounters online. And so that notion of how political narratives can change our minds for the better but also for the worse and how love, as you mentioned, can be, of course, this incredibly positive thing but also can be used to manipulate and control were two themes that I was intensely interested in when I was writing the book.

SNELL: So this is also a very funny book.

GINDER: (Laughter) Yeah.

SNELL: And one of the things that was very funny to me is that Nick, Nancy's son, has walked away from working for his mother for a long time as a speechwriter and just kind of as everything to her in some ways. And he leaves, and now he's teaching writing at NYU, but he's also working on this musical inspired by the life of Joan Didion. And it's called "Hello To All That!" I just - I have to ask...

GINDER: (Laughter).

SNELL: ...Where did you get the idea for this? Is this some seed of reality?

GINDER: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. I mean, there is (laughter) an unfortunate amount of reality in this, in that I myself teach writing at NYU. And I myself often teach essays by Joan Didion. I'm a huge Didion fan. I'm also, like, an unabashed musical theater geek. And so I was working on the book, and I was trying to give Nick something to do. You know, he's left working for his mother. He's finally striking out on his own. And I wanted him to write a musical because that just seems like such a pie-in-the-sky dream, right? Like, I know nothing about writing musicals, but I would love to write one. And I was like, you know what? I'm going to give this guy that goal. And as you pointed out, the book - I hope people find the book to be very funny.

So in thinking about that, I was like, well, what could be the most ridiculous thing, the most out-of-this-world, inappropriate thing for a musical to be about? And, you know, musicals are, by their nature, I think, just intensely sentimental. And Didion was intensely unsentimental (laughter). And so after teaching this Didion essay on self-respect in class one day, I was walking home from the subway, and I thought, you know what? That would be the most ridiculous musical I have ever seen. It's a musical about the early life of Joan Didion. And so, you know, I started thinking about titles for it. And she, of course, has the classic essay about leaving New York, "Goodbye To All That." And so I just kind of flipped it around, "Hello To All That," put an exclamation point at the end. And I said, that's it.

SNELL: The exclamation point is really what does it.

(LAUGHTER)

SNELL: Grant Ginder - his new novel, "Let's Not Do That Again," is out next Tuesday. Thanks so much for being here.

GINDER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
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