Guest host Julie Chavez interviews New York Times bestselling author Steven Rowley about The Celebrants, a funny, tender, and incredibly moving tale about a group of college friends who lose one of their own to suicide and make a pact to throw each other living “funerals” – celebrations to remind themselves that life is worth living. Steven shares how he weaves grief and humor into his writing; what life is like with an author for a husband; his experience narrating his audiobook; and just how brilliant his editor is.


Julie Chavez: Mr. Steven Rowley, I am so happy that you’re here with me today. Welcome to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Steven Rowley: Thank you so much for having me.

Julie: I’m so excited that I got to be the one to interview you. I have been looking forward to this for months. I am a school librarian, and I actually saved your book specifically for after school was out because I was like, I don’t want this to be ruined by children interrupting me and bothering me. I have to say, it was worth the wait.

Steven: I love that for two reasons. First of all, I want to picture behind the scenes at the Zibby empire, that people are arguing over me. Don’t deflate my ego if that wasn’t the case.

Julie: No, I will not.

Steven: Two, I’m so grateful to librarians in particular. I am able to do what I do today in part because I had parents who insisted I have a public library card and a children’s librarian who took an interest in me. Again, grateful for school librarians now more than ever. We don’t need to get too deep into it, but it’s such a dangerous moment with the defunding of libraries and banning of books again. Librarians are on the front lines. I just want to say authors have your backs. We love you. Grateful for all that you do.

Julie: That means so much. I love hearing that from anyone and everyone because it’s so true, and especially our public librarians. I’m lucky to be in a school district in my position. They are on the front lines. I’m so grateful. I love hearing about people that have an experience with a children’s librarian because there is something so special about someone else seeing you and taking an interest in what you are interested in. It’s magical. I love when people still have that.

Steven: Yay. I’m coming to you today from my home state of Maine where I’m on book tour currently for The Celebrants, and so I’ll be speaking at my public library this week. I’m very excited. It feels like a homecoming. I always wanted to be an author. It did seem like growing up in a rural state when I did, long before social media and podcasts and the way we have to connect with authors and readers now, it seemed like maybe it wasn’t a job that was available for me. Maybe it was something you could do if you grew up in Manhattan or if you had a society name of some kind. Then tucked away in Maine was Stephen King.

Julie: I’ve heard of him.

Steven: Others may have too. In fact, I think my parents sometimes think I’m kind of a big deal. I have to remind them that I’m not even the most famous writer named Steven from Maine.

Julie: Good to keep him humble. Those parents, they really make you crazy.

Steven: I graduated right from the children’s room to Stephen King. I don’t know what that says about me.

Julie: I love everything about that. I was just seeing that he has another book coming out. That’s so exciting.

Steven: You can all argue over who gets to interview him. I know I’m just very lucky to be here with you.

Julie: No, I’m so thrilled. I want to loop back around to what you were talking about with libraries and librarians and especially diverse voices because in your acknowledgments, you spoke about Sally Kim, your editor. I loved reading that. We’ll put a pin in that. I wanted to start by just giving people a sense of what the book is about. I have to say, this is a Read with Jenna book pick. It’s a New York Times best-seller. It’s already out and everywhere. It’s been listed on so many lists. There are so many things that are just going beautifully for this book and for your career. I do have to say it’s so well deserved. Your writing is so joyful. Especially now, I think it’s so necessary. I’m so thankful to see all of it. Will you give just the quick what this book is about? I’m afraid of giving away too much.

Steven: Sure. I’m going to do it specifically without giving away too much. The Celebrants is about a group of college friends from the class of 1995 who, right before graduation, lose one of their own to suicide and after attending his funeral and hearing all the incredible things said about him, wonder if he hadn’t been alive to hear those things, if he might have made a different choice. They make a pact in that moment, because they’re about to scatter in all different directions when they graduate, to reassemble at a moment’s notice to throw each friend their funeral at their lowest point in life so that they can hear how much they’re loved and how much they’re needed and how necessary they are here. Hopefully, that will reignite a passion for living. I don’t think any of them think they’ll ever need to use it. Then over the decades, life starts to intervene, as it does. As with all of my books, while it may start with a serious-sounding premise, there is a lot of humor and a lot of joy and a lot of laughs, hopefully, because what is it you do when you get together with a group of friends? Drink, maybe, but then laugh, hopefully. I hope humor is such a big part of this book. There’s going to be a lot of talk about how artists and writers in particular address the past few years that we have been through. While I conveniently skip the years 2019 to 2023 — that’s my prerogative as a writer. I’m not ready to go there yet. This idea of coming together in celebration and telling the people that you love what they mean to you while they’re still here, that’s very much a reaction to COVID and to these last few years and when we were isolated and not able to be together in the way that we might have wished.

Julie: That’s a beautiful way to put it. That was perfect. Gosh, you would think you’d done this before.

Steven: I know. You’re catching me on week three of book tour and not week one.

Julie: You’re polished by now. We’ll get back into it. I’m so glad that you talked about, for me, what the heart of the book was, that we need to tell our people how much we love them and how much they bring to our lives today. That really resonated with me. Can we just jump into the deep end here for a minute?

Steven: Let’s.

Julie: I kept reading this book and thinking, I wonder how he feels about death. Did writing this change anything for you? Tell me a little bit about how you approached it.

Steven: Let’s jump into death in the context of comedy.

Julie: Yes, we’ll get back around to humor writing.

Steven: I do think it’s an interesting point. A lot of my work has touched on grief. My first novel, Lily and the Octopus, was about the grief over losing our animals and our loved cats and dogs. The Guncle, my novel, was about children who’d lost their mom. Here, we’re touching on losing a friend and what it means to lose a friend. It’s something that I think is a unique kind of grief because it does force you to face your own mortality in a way. If you lose a close contemporary particularly, and at a young age as these characters did, it’s formative. I did a lot of writing about that character, that sixth member of this friend group, even though he doesn’t appear on any of the pages. I have pages and pages on him because I had to understand what that loss felt like, who he was, how he was the glue that kept having these friends reunite year after year after year. He was the driving force behind that. I did lose a close friend from college a few years ago to breast cancer. It is kind of unmooring. It’s not something that there’s natural context for. If you lose a parent or a grandparent, you can say that people kind of can contextualize what that loss is. With friends, we have many friends. Some are casual. Some are so close. Sometimes they’re closer than family, even. To lose one, it can really set you adrift, particularly in middle age where these characters are. I certainly have friends who are twenty-five years older. I have friends who are twenty-five years younger. There’s no deal with when we might lose one. I thought it was a really rich and fertile ground from which to write.

Julie: It really is. It made me think a lot about those early losses. I had a friend who died in 1995. Reading this and remembering how much that impacted me and continues to do so, too, because you carry it — I think there’s something about the marking of time with a contemporary where you reach an age, and you automatically think about the age they would’ve been because you’re kind of moving on these now tandem paths. You did such justice to that because I kept feeling their intensity in that loss and the way that carried them forward. Now that we’ve touched on death — check. That’s done, so that’s good. I want to hear about — you are a humor writer. These are funny books. That’s what I want people to know. I think people do know that about you by now, especially after The Guncle. Your books are hilarious. They’re also truly heartfelt humor. Nothing about them feels — sometimes you read it, and you think, okay, this was going for the cheap laugh. I saw where this was going. Yours are just so honest. What’s your process? How did you find your way into that vein? Is that your sweet spot, do you think?

Steven: It is my sweet spot. It’s certainly what readers have come to expect from me. It’s hard enough to make somebody laugh out loud on the page. It’s also hard to make them cry on the page. Somehow, I keep going for both in one. I must be a glutton for punishment. I’m not sure. We said we talked about death. Check. The flip side of that coin is living. Humor and laughter have always been the tools that have made life joyous and been the way through, even in the more difficult moments. I do think even in writing about grief, that it is impossible to do that without emphasizing laughter. I do take the craft of it very seriously. Sometimes you can write a scene with one or two too many jokes. It will work against what you’re trying to accomplish emotionally with the scene. Conversely, if you go too long without letting the reader take a breath with a laugh, it can weight the scene too heavily in the other direction too. Sometimes it really is line by line, carefully crafting the scene so that you’re not working against yourself. That’s something I work very hard to do.

Humor, though, in novel format, it’s a very particular art. You’re not writing a Tonight Show monologue. I can’t be topical because it takes a long time to write a book. Then publishing is a long-lead industry. It could take another year, year and a half after you finish the book before anyone reads it. Then you hope your book has a long shelf life too. You want the jokes to be inherent to character and situation. Also, there are those that say it’s really hard to be funny in these politically correct times we’re living in. I don’t find that to be true at all. I think there can be kindness and humor. I think if you think it’s impossible to be funny now, you might have been mistaking cruelty for humor in the first place. The humor in this book comes from these characters. Even when they get frustrated with each other, there’s still an underlying love that’s there that hopefully comes across on the page.

Julie: Gosh, mistaking humor for cruelty. My goodness, truer words were never spoken, especially right now. I think you’re exactly right. I have teenagers, so we get to talk about these sorts of things a lot. A joke at someone’s expense is not a joke. They love that mom wisdom. They just live for it. They’re lapping it up all the time.

Steven: There are those who deserve to have jokes made at their expense, but you always want to make sure you’re punching up.

Julie: What a good way to put it. Yes, punching up. I’m going to write that down for later. They will like that.

Steven: Let’s get them on right now. Are they around right now?

Julie: Kids! Where are you, children? I like hearing about writing humor because I love the idea of being funny on the page. I think people do, not that it’s an intentional miss, but I just don’t think they often know how tough it is to achieve that.

Steven: It’s very tough. It’s a terrible return on investment. If there are writers listening to this right now and you were thinking about writing a comedic novel, I’m just telling you, go be a stand-up comedian. It’s just such a terrible return on your investment. I come up with a great joke. I’m typing away. I laugh. Then I realize, oh, it could be years before anybody reads this. By the way, I won’t be there, unless I’m hiding in the bushes outside your house, to see if it gets a laugh or not. I just sort of have to trust that it will.

Julie: It’s so true. You’re exactly right. You get zero feedback on it. I love laughing at my own stuff. Sometimes I’ll force my husband to read something. Then I kind of awkwardly stand over him, which he loves. “So was it funny?” He’s like, “Yeah, hilarious, Julie. Good job.” I have a couple questions. You are married to another writer. What is the best part of being married to another writer? I am not. My husband’s barely a reader. Bless his little heart. What’s the best part of being married to another writer?

Steven: I’ll tell you what is not the best part first, which is when you give them —

Julie: — That was my next question.

Steven: Two-parter. Second part first.

Julie: You can go in reverse. I’ll allow it.

Steven: Giving them a first draft of something and trying to listen in to see if they do laugh or to see if it does get a reaction, that is difficult. The best part of it is — I know other writers who assume that my being married to a writer would be a nightmare. It’s not. We’ve found a way to make it work. Not only am I married to another writer who writes novels and writes very funny novels, we had books come out on the same day this year. That was something to navigate. We’ve been leaning in and having a lot of fun, I will say. I have a great editor. I have a great agent. By the time a book comes out, I’ve got a publicity team and a marketing team. There’s a team. The initial parts of drafting that first draft particularly, it’s a very solitary endeavor, novel writing. It is helpful to have someone else around who understands it, who understands the process. It’s a hard job to turn off when it’s dinnertime. I may still be in my head working something out not ready to just chat about my day. It is helpful to have someone who knows the process. We do read each other’s work. The challenge is there, as in any relationship, is communication. I have to know what hat to wear that day. Is he giving me something to read as a spouse? In which case, I just want to be encouraging and say, keep going. This is great. You’ve got this. Is he coming to me as another writer? In which case, he might like some critical notes. Then it’s in how you deliver. It’s all about knowing which hat to wear. Other than that, we’re navigating it pretty well.

Julie: I really can see how that would be a gift because, you’re exactly right, you have an appreciation for what the other person’s rhythm might be. My husband is in sale. He travels. When he’s at Hamilton and I’m at a middle-school band concert, it’s just really hard to reconcile those two. I could see that being an advantage. You’re exactly right, you have to know what hat you’re wearing. That’s just true for married life, I think, right? Do you want a solution to this, or no? The other thing that people need to know is that you narrate the audiobook for The Celebrants. I loved it. I was so impressed. Tell me about deciding to do that because I don’t feel like that’s common for novelists.

Steven: Tell me, how deluded are you that you thought that this would be a good idea? This is the second audiobook of mine that I’ve narrated. I had a wonderful actor, Michael Urie, who narrated my first two audiobooks. There was something about The Guncle, the first one that I narrated, where I hadn’t — there was enough overlap between that character and who I am that I thought — and there was enough of a latent high school theater kid in me still that wanted to shine. I thought I wanted to try it. When I brought it up, the publisher didn’t necessarily think it was a good idea. In fact, I had to audition in order to be able to do it. Once I got the go-ahead, I was boasting to a friend. I was like, “I’m going to narrate my own audiobook.” For The Guncle, this was in late 2020. The friend said, “You’re going to put an actor out of work during a pandemic?” I thought, oh, no, what have I done? Sweet Michael Urie is on a TV series with Harrison Ford now, so I think he’s fine. I think he’s landed on his feet. Thank goodness.

Julie: He’s okay. Good for him.

Steven: For me, writing a novel, it’s yours and yours alone for a very long time, and that means I hear my work in a very specific way. When an actor reads it for an audiobook, they’re not in your head. They put their own spin on it. By the way, they should. That is an actor’s job, to interpret the text. For better or for worse, it might be interesting for a reader to hear how it sounds in my head or how I intended it to sound. I have limits on my ability as a performer, per se, so maybe it’s not a hundred percent, but it’s an interesting recording of how it sounded to me as I was writing it.

Julie: I thought it was fantastic. I was so impressed because I was shocked that you were narrating it. As I was listening to it, that’s exactly how I felt about it. As a writer, you put so much into expression. I know I read a lot of my stuff out loud to myself over again, especially if I’m stuck. The idea that that emphasis can come through and you get to say exactly what you meant to say and how you meant to say it in those moments, I really enjoyed it. You did a good job.

Steven: I will say, I don’t know that I’ll always do it for every book of mine going forward.

Julie: No, you have to.

Steven: It has forever changed my process. I want to mention this. Moms don’t have time to read. I don’t know how they would ever have time to write, but I know that there are many incredible writers who are moms. You’re all heroes. Taking a moment to read the material out loud will forever be part of my process moving forward because I think it’s an invaluable — you just hear it in a different way. It’s easier to hear how a reader might interpret it as well.

Julie: Is that something you figured out with doing The Guncle?

Steven: For sure.

Julie: Interesting. That’s amazing how you learn all of these things along the way. You just wouldn’t know until you do it. You’re exactly right. There were so many lines I marked in this book, so many times where I was listening to it and I ran over to my copy to mark it. I was so moved by it. I’m excited for people to read it so that I can talk to them about the fullness and all the details I loved. One thing that you really did a good job of talking about in this book is the illusion of control. I’m sure that was something that stood out to me because I may be kind of a control freak. I’m not going to say for sure. It’s still up in the air for no one. When you were talking about the idea that things happen, they’re not necessarily remarkable, they’re unlucky, I think that was a powerful moment for me where I was thinking about that. This book made me think about death in a very wonderful, holistic, hopeful way. There was a lot of inspiration there. Are you a control guy? Do you like control, or are you a fly by the seat of your pants kind of guy?

Steven: I’m probably somewhere between the two. Look, I’m a novelist and not — I don’t write television in that I’m sitting in a room with a bunch of writers spitballing ideas back and forth. I think that’s the control side of me. I like to work in a very solitary genre so that every choice is mine. Again, I don’t want to undercut — one of my novels is called The Editor. I take that as a sign of the esteem in which I hold editors. Nothing can be done alone, but I do sort of like having that authorial control in my work. On the flip side, I think in my life then, I balance that by being a little bit more easy-breezy, hopefully. You can get my husband on the podcast and ask him if he would agree with that. Life is about balance. I think I’m a little of column A and a little of column B.

Julie: That’s a really good way to put it. I like that. I do have your husband’s book next on my TBR. I’m super excited. I can’t wait.

Steven: Yay.

Julie: Do you know this plot of the book from the outset? Did you know what it was going to be about the whole time? Did you have a sense of the arc before you started, or did it come out as you write it? As you write it? Lord, have mercy. As you wrote it.

Steven: I had a good sense of the story that I wanted to tell. I had a joke in my head that was four funerals and a wedding, kind of. These are living funerals. There’s not been a bus crash. We’re not putting bodies in the ground. These are funerals that are celebrations of life. Something about that line tickled me. That was a driving point to start. How I approach my craft, I am more of a pantser, as we say in the biz, that fly by the seat of the pants, in that I have the concept. I have a strong beginning. I have a good sense of how it’s going to end. It’s that middle part that I like to leave room for surprise. I think a lot of writers would tell you the hardest part of the job is butt in chair. It is showing up at the computer to do the actual writing. I know many writers who are prolific outliners. That works for them. They know every single thing that’s going to happen before they start writing a word. God bless them. For me, I’m excited to show up for work if I don’t know exactly what’s happening that day. It makes it more fun for me, the ability to surprise, hopefully. That’s how I enjoy working, which doesn’t mean I don’t go off on some very wrong tangents sometimes and have to backtrack, but it’s all part of discovery.

Julie: I think that that’s so good for people to hear, that there’s sort of a middle ground because I think we like to categorize ourselves. I think every writer wants the iron-clad process. How do I get to point B?

Steven: Maybe that ties back to my previous answer. It’s sort of controlled chaos a little bit. It’s controlled pantsing.

Julie: That is a really good way to put it, controlled pantsing. Let’s talk about, just real quick, like we mentioned in the beginning — I want to tie off this literary thread, as it were, with your editor. Talking about how she has allowed you space to tell your stories but also has made you a better writer, how does your relationship work with her overall?

Steven: I want to say, too, not just the fact that I have an editor, this is the first book of mine where I’ve employed sensitivity readers, only because this is about a group of people, a group of friends, and like the friends that I have in real life, they are a diverse group. For instance, one of them is a Japanese woman. I would not write a novel where the sole main character was a Japanese woman. It wouldn’t be my place to tell that story, but I have to craft a world that’s reflective of the one that we live in. That means including diverse people. I take, hopefully, great responsibility to do it correctly. My editor is a huge part of that as well. She is excellent. When you’re working with the right editor, it’s because you have a common goal. It’s the best version of this book in the author’s voice. You’re working together to make that happen. A bad editor — not even a bad editor, but if you’re paired with the incorrect editor — let’s just say that — sometimes you’re working against one another. Sometimes we’ve read books that feel a little strained. I wonder what’s going on behind the scenes. I do think editors are so incredibly important and invaluable to the process, but their work is kind of invisible when they do it really well. They’re unsung heroes in a way. There’s no way I’d be able to do what I do without my working relationship with my editor, the great Sally Kim.

Julie: That’s fantastic. Would you ever want to be an editor?

Steven: It’s not my particular skill set. Here comes the control freak part. Even in reading my husband’s work sometimes, it’s hard for me not to want to take the pen and start rewriting because I see so much — I’m inspired by what he does. Then I’m like, I want to run with it now. That’s not my place. I think I would be bad about knowing where my job ends and the authors really need to take over responsibility. I don’t know. I might be too fastidious, too fussy as an editor, but who knows?

Julie: You never know, but good self-awareness.

Steven: I’ll tell you what I could definitely not be, is a copyeditor. They are incredible, the people who go line by line grammatically correcting every single detail. The research that they put in, they’re truly incredible. One of my favorite reads of the past couple years is a book called Confessions of Comma Queen written by Mary Norris, who was the longtime copyeditor at The New Yorker. It is part autobiography, part grammar instructional manual. It’s very funny. It’s not at all dry like you think it might be. For word nerds and book nerds, it’s such a great read.

Julie: I will be picking that up as well. I will be getting Big Gay Wedding and also Confessions of a Comma Queen. That’s very exciting. I love it. I’m an Oxford comma person.

Steven: So am I.

Julie: I have a T-shirt for it and everything.

Steven: Oh, great. This book is right up your alley, then.

Julie: I can’t wait. As soon as you said it, I was like, and check. One more question for you. Obviously, you’ve had such tremendous success, especially with your last couple of books. There’s a lot of publicity and excitement. As I said, it’s so well deserved. I love seeing it. What does writing mean to you separate of all that? What is writing for you?

Steven: Writing is joy. It is discovery. It is learning. I did not publish my first novel until I was forty-five years old. I was always the one who was jealous of someone who came out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at twenty-five and made a headline-making deal. I think what I love so much about writing is that you’re never done learning how to do it. You’re never done learning things to write about. Publishing is one of the rare industries that values life experience and the wisdom that comes with age. I think of two of the biggest success stories in publishing in the past ten years, let’s say, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus in the past year and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. These revolutionized publishing, a debut writer in her sixties, a debut novelist in her seventies. I really think that’s incredible. I think that’s incredible. It’s inspiring to me. I know I struggled for years. I have novels that sit in a drawer that I had to write in order to learn how to write. There were years where it felt like I was the last person who didn’t give up on myself. That’s what I love about writing. It’s something you can do for yourself, even if you’re not published, even if you’re not the Today Show book club pick, even if you’re not a New York Times best-seller. If you believe in yourself and you stick to it and you keep being open to learning about craft, with hard work and time, you can get there.

Julie: That’s a beautiful sentiment. You know who has a great book on that very craft? Stephen King.

Steven: Stephen King, yes.

Julie: I’m so happy. We brought it all back around.

Steven: Look at us.

Julie: I know. What a pair.

Steven: Incredible. Do we get some sort of award now?

Julie: Yes, I’m waiting. Maybe they’ll be engraving the trophy real quick.

Steven: They’re probably outside engraving a trophy right now.

Julie: Probably. It’s true. Thank you for these minutes. Thank you for this time. Thank you for being a writer. Your books bring me personally — I know I speak for so many people. They just bring so much joy and thought and love into the world. I’m so, so honored that I got to talk to you about it today.

Steven: Yay. Thank you for this conversation.

Julie: Thank you.

THE CELEBRANTS by Steven Rowley

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