Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Last year, Project Open Books was fortunate enough to sit down (virtually) with Steven Rowley and discuss his third novel, The Guncle. Three members of our small team, Josh, Michael, and Derek, read the book, loved it, and couldn’t wait for the opportunity to speak with Steven about it! Steven was generous enough to offer an hour of his time to answer all of our burning questions about his novel, tell us a little bit about what we can expect to come next, and also share some of his own experience finding queer literature when he was growing up in New England, which inspired part of the geographical setting in The Guncle. The following is a slightly abridged version of our hour-long conversation with Steven.
Project Open Books: We’d love for you to introduce yourself and give us a picture of your why. That is, why did you choose to dive into writing and share your thoughts and feelings in relation to your own journey?
Steven: For sure! My name is Steven Rowley, and I am the author of three novels with queer leads: Lily and the Octopus, The Editor, and now The Guncle. In addition to that I am, well, I’m all sorts of things. I always introduce myself as a writer first, but I’m also a husband as of this year. That’s new to get used to. I feel like my identity is constantly evolving, and that’s a really exciting thing. But, yeah, I’m really honored to do what I do. I feel like it’s a real privilege. I grew up as a kid in a small town in rural Maine, and I felt very removed from queer life and queer people, and it was books and stories that originally connected me to a community that I didn’t know was waiting for me. So, to be able to do what I do now and tell stories with LGBTQ+ characters is a real privilege and an honor, and I’m excited to be here talking about it.
Project Open Books: Awesome! Thank you for sharing. Now, I can’t help but ask, because the beginning of this book dives right into Connecticut, where much of our team is either from or are currently living, and I couldn’t help but know exactly what you were talking about when writing about Hartford, CT, and the airport, and even Papa Gino’s. What is your connection, if any, to Connecticut?
Steven: Yeah, I think that’s the New England boy in me. I have now lived in California for more than half of my life, but it is hard to take New England out of the boy even though the boy was dying to get out of New England as fast as he could. Every time I go home now, I wonder what I was in such a race to get away from because it’s really lovely, but the truth is that we (New England and I) have both sort of grown up a lot in the intervening years. So, part of the story of The Guncle (which is sort of a modern take on Auntie Mame or “Uncle Mame,” if you’re familiar) is about Patrick O’Hara, a sort of larger than life retired television actor living in Palm Springs when he is struck by tragedy, and he takes in his niece and nephew for the summer, which sort of leads to a season of healing for all three of them. But, when I knew I wanted to set the story in Palm Springs, I also knew that for kids it would be sort of a fish out of water story, and I wanted to pick a place where they could be from that would be very different from the hippy-ish California desert. Certainly, Palm Springs is a city that many more people associate with retirement than with raising kids. So, I wanted to put children there, but imagine things that they might encounter or see there – for instance Patrick’s neighbors are a polyamorous, queer, relationship. It was fun to sort of create characters like that and think, well, maybe in suburban Connecticut they wouldn’t have been exposed to that. Not to knock on Connecticut, but it is a little different.
Project Open Books: It’s very clear to see how you’ve taken your lived experiences and put them into your work. You’re very authentic and it’s transparent and vulnerable, and we appreciate that! Are there other kinds of inspiration besides geographic connections that had a large influence on the book?
Steven: Yeah, so the book is a comedy – probably the most outright comedic novel I’ve written. However, it’s also a very serious exploration of grief, and finding that balance of heartbreak and humor, I think, was the biggest challenge of this book. As you go one joke too many it throws off the balance of a scene and, conversely, if you go too long without the release of some laughter in the exploration of grief, it also throws the balance out of whack. But, that was definitely something that I thought about: why I write about grief so much, and I have touched on grief in some of my other books, too. And, it’s not that I have personally lived such a tragic life, you know, I turned fifty earlier this year, and you don’t get to this age without losing some people, but I haven’t lost more than my share. When I came out in 1991/92, now almost thirty years ago, more people were dying of AIDS in the early nineties than in the eighties, and I was terrified that life was going to be very short, sad, and lonely. Instead, life has turned out to be anything but; it’s been relatively long, it has been full of joy, and full of community. There’s sort of that moment of trauma for gay men my age in particular where the generation above us is largely missing, and we didn’t have a lot of people to be role models and to teach us things, and it did feel very lonely before the internet, before cell phones and apps and things like that; it was harder to find each other. This is like a slight pervasive sadness sometimes that men my age have experienced in the community, but that’s been balanced by such joy and such humor and such bodily embrace of life, and so I’m not surprised that I draw on that dichotomy, I think, for much of my work.
Project Open Books: We appreciate that balance in your book. All of the toilet humor was very iconic; we really loved that! Though your willingness to write about trauma was also much appreciated. So, the book really isn’t about “coming out.” It’s an adult novel with an adult protagonist, and the protagonist’s niece and nephew never really question Patrick’s identity as a gay man. Was there any reason in particular that led you to make that decision – of them never really questioning his identity? It seems like a fresh perspective based on a lot of other queer literature that’s out there.
Steven: Yeah, I think it’s partly to do with where I am in my life. I would rather write stories that sort of reflect what I feel comfortable talking about now, which is adults who have been out for some time, and we happen to get a different point of entry into their lives that has nothing to do with their coming out. I would rather spend my energy trying to amplify new voices. I don’t think that white, cisgender, gay male coming out stories from liberal families where everything is going to be okay – well, we have those, and those have been done wonderfully. There’s nothing that I can add to that. But, to hand the coming out story to our trans brothers and sisters, or to writers of color and different religious backgrounds, where it is still harrowing to come out, and we do need those voices and we do need to be reminded that, you know, sometimes I live in a bubble where the stakes aren’t that high, but they are still very high for so many, and until we hear from them as well, it’s not going to get better for them. So, I would rather hand the baton on at this point in my life to other people to tell those stories and to tell them in a fresh, engaging, and frankly urgent way.
Project Open Books: Speaking of underrepresented groups, you also brought up earlier the thrupple, JED, and you bring it up in a very tasteful, graceful, positive manner. Can you talk about the intention behind bringing in those characters, and talk about what it means to you and what it means to the community to include representation of polyamory in a very positive light?
Steven: Yeah, it was a relationship that came to life because, like I said, I wanted it to feel like a fish out of water story, so I tried to imagine what the children could encounter that they might not have seen before. What could these kids come in contact with, I thought, and so that tickled me, the idea of a polyamorous relationship next door, but then the art of it, the sort of joy of writing them was to think: how can I subvert expectations with these characters? And, as it turns out, they’re a wonderful, loving home; they are funny but deeply serious, and they have legitimate points of view. So, that was fun not to just have them there as a punchline or even when you expect them to be a punchline to then sort of turn readers on their ear a little bit by making them truly lovely people. I love hearing from readers that they become some of their favorite characters. I love hearing that. Because I’m aware, I write books, and yes they all have queer leads, but my books are sort of very mainstream fiction, a lot of book clubs read them, etcetera. And so I, you know, I want to sneak something in. I want to use my readership to then pepper my books with things that maybe people aren’t exposed to, but it might lead to understanding or maybe a softening of a preconceived idea. It’s a great joy to write these stories. And, right now I’m in an incredibly fortunate position where The Guncle is in development as a feature film with Lionsgate Studios. They’re developing a big, mainstream, family comedy that happens to have a queer lead, and oh, by the way, the thrupple is in there. That to me feels like a radical act. You know, I’m aware that I write something that is considered mainstream, or book club fiction, but a big studio family film with a queer lead and a gay thrupple. Like, c’mon, that feels kind of like a radical act in a way for me. I feel very honored to bring that to a much bigger audience.
Project Open Books: Well, now you just stole our next question! We’ve seen some chatter on Goodreads with some back and forth about how this book should be turned into a movie, and I think that, first of all, congratulations that it's in development. That is an incredible accomplishment. You know, we’ve talked a lot at Project Open Books about books being just part of the funnel and process to creating a much more inclusive society where we build allyship, and we make sure that people and their identities are heard and seen and valued. Books play a very important role in that, or course, but what compliments that is music and movies, and we think that this is going to be an incredible movie, and we will be going to see it! So, to sort of build out our question, in a perfect world, who would you want to play some of the lead characters? Do you have any dream actors and actresses in mind to perhaps jump on in?
Steven: Well, certainly, I, you know, I’ve got to protect myself a little bit because whoever is cast, I’m going to pretend that they were my first choice all along. But, I will say my feelings are evolving on queer artists playing queer roles. I still take it on a sort of case-by-case basis, but I do think it’s absolutely essential in this instance that an out gay actor play Patrick in this. Mary Poppins had actual magic, Maria from The Sound of Music had music. But to the extent that Patrick has any superpowers, it’s really his lived experience as an out gay man; his pop culture references, his humor, his politics, his empathy, all stem from his sort of lived experiences as a gay man, and I think that is absolutely essential in this case. Now, the good news is there are more and more out actors all the time. Patrick in the book is a former sitcom star. So, we have many former sitcom stars from Jim Parsons to Neil Patrick Harris on down, who, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and some of these people, who, also by the way, have their own kids. Matt Bomer is another one with kids, Andrew Rannells could be on the list, as could Dan Levy, another sitcom star, so I think we’re at a point for the first time when there’s sort of a real rich pool to draw from. I like, since we were talking about JED, I like thinking about casting some of them. John, who’s the J in JED, I always sort of pictured him as John Benjamin Hickey, who I think is so unbelievably handsome, but you know, I think someone like Nathan Lane could do it, and it’d be fun to think of some older actors who could be there to represent a different generation. It’s really fun to think about.
Project Open Books: We think that any good story involves some conflict, and we do see some conflict between Patrick and his sister, Clara. We see a queer character interacting with a straight, heterosexual character. Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration for that character and why it’s really important to have those kinds of contentious conversations in a novel, and maybe talk about your thought process for bringing that to life, because it was done really well.
Steven: Oh, thank you. Well, I have two sisters in real life, and they both would like me to tell you that they are not the inspiration for Clara. So, on behalf of them, I am going to make it clear that they were not the inspiration. I think you’re right, good stories need conflict. However, my instinct as a writer is always more character and theme over plot, and I have an editor who’s always driving me: “like c’mon, let’s go, let’s find some conflict here.” Certainly, Clara was born from that, but I didn’t want to make it as simple or as clear cut because I think we’ve, well in many families at least, we’ve moved on. It’s not simply that he’s gay and she thinks that the kids shouldn’t be with him; it’s much deeper and more complicated than that. It’s a lifetime of resentment. He’s experienced fame. What is it like to be the sibling of someone who’s very famous? When people find out that you’re their sibling, all they want to do is talk about them and not about you. That builds up a lot of resentment. She’s someone who’s going through a divorce and her children are not actually her children; they're her husband’s children, and so she’s worried about losing them at the same time these kids, her niece and nephew, Patrick’s niece, and nephew, are placed with Patrick. She’s sort of losing out that way, too. And, then she just doesn’t think that he’s a responsible person or up for this task and, by the way, she has a point of view. Patrick is not a perfect person, certainly, but talk about things that are needed for stories – novels about perfect people who behave perfectly all the time are really dull reads. So, she has a point of view, it’s just that, what makes Patrick seem ill-suited at the outset to be a caretaker for these children in their moment of grief, the fact that he sort of treats them dismissively, but as like little adults, actually comes to be sort of his biggest strength because when children are scared or facing something, they don’t understand, they don’t want to be talked down to, they want to be treated with love, and I think Patrick is surprisingly well-suited for the moment, but it certainly takes some convincing for his sister.
Project Open Books: So, to shift gears just a little bit, it’s not super uncommon in books that have queer representation to highlight the intersection of queer identities and mental health challenges, and in this book, Patrick is really experiencing what a loss can do to somebody and what that mourning process looks like. One area that really gets at me personally is the loss of Patrick’s partner from years ago and how he is still struggling, not necessarily to accept that reality, but that he just hasn’t fully mourned that loss, and that’s something that he was carrying with him over the years, and it was interesting to see how he responded when the question was asked by somebody so innocent like the kids. Why do you feel it’s important to include, or to weave trauma into this story, or even more broadly in queer storytelling.
Steven: Yeah, you’re right, it’s grief in this instance, and what’s interesting about grief is that it’s not necessarily something from which you recover, but it is something you learn to live with, hopefully successfully – certainly some more successfully than others. Patrick is a character where grief is certainly soaked into the fabric of who he is, and you’re right, he hasn’t fully dealt with it; he’s dealt with it by shutting a lot of it out. I think that when the kids come to him originally with their own loss, there’s something in him that recognizes that his grief journey is not the one that he wants for them; there has to be a better way to lead by example and show them a better way. I think that trauma is a part of so many queer stories because there is just so much trauma and potential for trauma in queer lives whether that be rejection from families, and certainly the AIDS crisis is something we’ve touched on – the shadow of that I think looms over us. There is just a lot of sadness that is sort of just this cloud around us a little bit, and it’s this mission of so many queer lives to dance and laugh and find joy and experience and thrive in the face of it all. I went to college in Boston, and if I were acting too gay or something in the early 90s, that would have been not necessarily a safe thing to do, and we learn to hide ourselves and sort of tamper ourselves down and wear different identities for different people, and that’s exhausting and is its own kind of trauma. There’s so much room for it, for telling queer stories, and on top of that this is also a story about a kind of “found” family, which is another theme, a happier theme, which is woven into queer stories. Yes, Patrick is related to his niece and nephew by blood, but they don’t really know him, and he doesn’t know them, and they become very close over the course of the summer. I love found family stories because they’re so important to our history and to our queer experience whether it be friends or new actual families who have taken in queer kids who may have been rejected by their own families.
Project Open Books: To begin sort of wrapping up our wonderful conversation, one of the reasons we started Project Open Books was really based on my (Josh’s) experience coming out and going through the process of accepting who I was and what that meant and what lifestyle I was going to be living. I was fortunate enough growing up that, even in the suburbs in Connecticut, there was a Barnes & Noble not too far that carried diverse literature. I was able to go there, and while it wasn’t a whole lot, it was something I was able to still do and I was able to really connect to these characters while I was going through a really confusing process. So, I’m curious, what was your experience finding queer literature and what does it mean to you now to be somebody who is producing this content, which could truly be saving somebody’s life? These stories, this positive representation could truly be helping somebody through a dark and lonely time.
Steven: Yeah, you know, it really is a fantastic question, and I really think that I am where I am today in part because I had access to a very strong public school system and I had a public library card and parents who encouraged me to use it and that made all the difference for someone who felt very far away. You know, growing up in Maine, I guess we had Stephen King, but that really wasn’t who I was, or the art that I really wanted to consume or dreamed of creating. There was also E. M. Forster. It was hard because there were books that I wanted to read, some James Baldwin, or Dancer from the Dance, some of these queer classics that I wasn’t brave enough to check out, or I would read parts of them in the library because classics I felt I could get away with it more. I also, no doubt I was a fan of Auntie Mame, Partick Dennis’s novel from 1955, from which The Guncle takes its inspiration, but you know Patrick Dennis was an interesting character in that he was at least bisexual, but married and had kids and came out later. But, I was thinking a lot about him and Tennessee Williams, and some of these writers, queer writers who created these very larger-than-life female characters, perhaps as stand-ins for gay men, which they would not have been able to write openly about at the time. A lot of the stories that I was first attracted to were stories of very strong women and seeing some coded queerness in their stories, so it really just feels like a real joy and a real privilege to kind of reclaim what might have been intended as a gay character had someone been able to write about one openly at the time. I guess that’s a sort of bookend to where I was as a kid trying to find queerness in these characters and then reclaiming one of them and writing it in a way that I’m allowed to do because of the progress that we’ve made, and I’m grateful for that.
Project Open Books: Thank you for your time, Steven, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time with you this evening.