Steven Rowley, THE GUNCLE

Steven Rowley, THE GUNCLE

Steven Rowley joined Zibby for an IG Live Happy Hour to talk about his new book, The Guncle. The two caught up on what has happened since Steven was last on the podcast, namely two book releases, an engagement, and, of course, a global pandemic. Steven shared the event that inspired him to think about what life might be like for a child who lost a parent at a young age, and how his role as a real-life guncle helped shape his novel’s protagonist. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’s book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here:


Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. I am doing an Instagram Live now with Steven Rowley who wrote The Guncle, which is hilarious. I am so excited to be talking to him about it. I had Steven Rowley on my podcast for The Editor. We had a meeting in LA. That was really fun. Now I am so excited that he has another book out and we get to talk about that. This is the great thing about doing this podcast for the past three years. Now I have so many authors who had books coming out and then had subsequent books coming out. Steven’s here. Again, we’re going to be talking about The Guncle by Steven Rowley. Hi.

Steven Rowley: Hi. Whoops, mine’s upside down.

Zibby: How’s it going?

Steven: Good. It’s so great to see you.

Zibby: Great to see you too. I feel like so much in the world since I’ve seen you last — it’s been crazy.

Steven: So much has changed.

Zibby: So much has changed, but not your sense of humor.

Steven: No, I survived intact. Thankfully, with the books, books have gotten me through the past fifteen months. I’m so grateful to be out here and talking with you again about a new book.

Zibby: Amazing. Steven, tell everybody what The Guncle is about.

Steven: I guess we should start right at the very beginning. By the way, this was advertised as a happy hour, so…

Zibby: Oh, I’m sorry. I know. Here, I brought a drink. This is all that I had left in the bottle.

Steven: Cheers.

Zibby: Cheers. Yes, it’s a happy hour. Happy Friday to everybody, if anybody’s watching or will be watching later. I’m so happy we got to Friday. Sorry for jumping in. This is habit now. I just have to know what everybody’s books are about right away. Yes, it’s so nice to get to the end of a week. Every Friday, it’s like, how did I get through that one? But, boom.

Steven: I guess we’ll start at the very beginning in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know what a guncle is. Guncle has become very popular slang in the past five, ten years for a gay uncle. More so than that, it sort of has a connotation of a larger-than-life, fabulous character like Auntie Mame was back in the day. Certainly, that is the case with this character. Patrick O’Hara is a retired television star living kind of a reclusive life in Palm Springs, California, when a tragedy strikes and he is tasked with taking in his niece and nephew for the summer. He’s unprepared for that, as I can imagine a lot of parents were this past year as they suddenly had to deal with family in an entirely different way and learning homeschooling and all sorts of things that Patrick is thrown in the deep end for. It’s strange how it kind of lines up with the times.

Zibby: Are caftans a requirement of a guncle or just a nice-to-have?

Steven: Patrick is fond of wearing caftans. It’s right on the cover. I have a whole caftan closet. If anybody wants to follow me, I’ll be posting lots of caftan content soon, including some giveaways. I’m going to have a discount code for my favorite caftan company. Stay tuned. I’m going to be posting that maybe this weekend.

Zibby: What about the toilets? Not a toilet. What do you call it?

Steven: A washlet.

Zibby: Washlet, yeah. Are you giving those away?

Steven: There’s a big set piece in the book with — Patrick has a twenty-thousand-dollar Japanese toilet, or washlet as they say. Sadly, I do not have any such marketing partnership with that company to give away. I’m going to have to invent twenty thousand of my own dollars to do that giveaway. Frankly, the strange thing about being a writer — I don’t know how thriller writers do this. If you ever google “how to get rid of a body” or whatever, I think the FBI would be after you. For me, after doing research for that particular porcelain device, all of my sponsored content, all of my suggested ads were for very high-end bathroom appliances.

Zibby: I bet, oh, my gosh. Do you watch Succession ever, by the way?

Steven: Yes, yes.

Zibby: You know how they have that whole thing, we’re listening? Well, we really are listening. They listened in on every conversation to market. Your book was hilarious, also poignant. It starts off with kids losing their mother. Then their father ends up admitting himself for opioid addiction. Yet you do it in a lighthearted way. If you could ever put loss and addiction in the first chapter of a book and make it funny, I guess you get that prize. These are heavier topics.

Steven: I’ve always had a long fascination with Auntie Mame. It’s always been a favorite. First, the 1955 Patrick Dennis novel. Then it was a Broadway show and a movie with Rosalind Russell, and then a Broadway musical, and then a movie musical with Lucille Ball. Originally, I imagined myself writing a sort of light, comedic novel in that shadow. Then early on in the writing process, I did actually lose one of my very best friends from college to breast cancer. She left behind a six-year-old son, which is devastating. It’s just devastating. It got me thinking about grief and children in a much more serious way. What does a six-year-old remember of his mother? What space does family and friends and her community have to step in and remind these children how fiercely they were loved? Auntie Mame sort of sent her orphan nephew off to boarding school. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to sidestep the grief. I think the book is still very funny. I think it’s outright my funniest book to date, but it’s walking a very fine line, as you say. It was a challenge to know just when to treat it very seriously and when there was room to deflate some of the tension with a laugh.

Zibby: You even put in the meaning of life in the middle of the jokes about —

Steven: Oh, yeah, you just sneak it in there, as you do.

Zibby:Three’s Company and all of that stuff. Wait, hold on. I have to find this passage. Let’s see. It was something like, one of the kids asked, why is there death? Patrick said, people die so that we can appreciate the life we have. I’m like, is that why people die early? That’s so sad. Who gets to decide who the sacrificial lambs then get to be, which families have to suffer for the rest of us to benefit from seizing the day?

Steven: You know, I wish I knew the answer to that. In my first novel, Lily and the Octopus, I had a line in there that was something like, “The distribution of loss is inequitable.” It doesn’t feel like anyone’s in charge of handing it out sometimes. That’s why so many people have faith and look for meaning in that way. For those of us without, it is a real struggle to understand that.

Zibby: You had this other very interesting passage when Maisie asks Patrick, “Do you like being gay?” He says, “I used to.” She says, “You don’t anymore?” Patrick says, “It used to be cool, being gay. Counterculture, you know, rebellious. Now it’s all gay marriage, gay adoption, assimilation, and some of that’s good. It’s progress, but I liked it more when it was different. Now everyone’s in a hurry to be the same.” Do you share any of those thoughts?

Steven: Do I share views with Patrick?

Zibby: I don’t know. Where did this come from?

Steven: I don’t know if those are my views, per se. Spoiler alert, I live with another writer, Byron Lane, whose debut novel came out last summer during the pandemic called The Star is Bored. Living with another writer, we’re each other’s first readers. We help each other through drafts, give notes. I thought I knew his book frontwards and backwards, but he snuck in, in the back of his acknowledgments, four words when the book went to print in hardcover, which was, “Will you marry me?” For anyone who read his book and then was wondering, what happened? I answered that proposal in the back of the acknowledgments for The Guncle. Spoiler alert, it worked out. Clearly, my views and Patrick’s views diverge a little bit. Characters are interesting ways to work through some intellectual arguments sometimes that you have with yourself.

Zibby: Wow. See, that’s the problem with getting galleys. This is my acknowledgments.

Steven: Oh, there’s no acknowledgments. Acknowledgments to come.

Zibby: This is why I have to get the real copy. Maybe I have it somewhere. That is really exciting news. What a totally writerly way to be proposed to and accept and everything.

Steven: Now our proposal and the acceptance are both documented in the Library of Congress. I don’t know who else could say that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Maybe your next one is like, what do you think, adoption?

Steven: I know, right? We’re going to have to keep having books now to have this epistolary romance going back and forth.

Zibby: Wow. In fifty years, we can look back on the whole thing and track your fights and track everything.

Steven: In the back of the acknowledgments, it’s over. Hopefully, we don’t get to that.

Zibby: Exactly. Oh, no, look what happened . Oh, I finally found that quote. “Maisie said, ‘I don’t understand why people have to die.’ ‘That’s an easy one. Some people are here for a long time, and some people are only here for a short time, and none of us know. That’s the beauty of it. We don’t have a damn clue how much time we get. Guncle Rule number eight.'” Then you said, “That’s why you live your life to fullest every single day because every day’s a gift. That’s why people die, to teach us the importance of living.” Sorry, had to read it.

Steven: All these little nuggets of wisdom, hopefully wisdom, between the jokes. Anyone who fashions themselves after a bit of Auntie Mame — Patrick has these bon mots or little nuggets of wisdom that he likes to coin as Guncle Rules. That was really interesting. Maria in The Sound of Music had music. Mary Poppins, when she blew in on the wind, had actual magic. Patrick’s strength as a caregiver over the course of this summer — listen, he learns as much from the kids as they do from him. It really is about a season of healing for all three of them. His strength is his lived experience as an out gay person. His empathy, his sense of humor, his pop cultural references, his politics, his worldview all come from his lived experience as a gay man. It’s fun to watch him funnel what wisdom there is from that experience and applying it to the kids’ lives.

Zibby: You use him as a vehicle to express a lot of things that parents, aunts, uncles, and everybody agree with in terms of dealing with kids, in particular, the fact that kids don’t watch TV anymore and prefer to have — Patrick says, I have sixty-five-inch screens, and yet they’re on these two-inch devices. It’s so true. Why do I even have a television on the wall? I’m like, “How about we watch a channel?” They’re like, “What?” “A channel where something just automatically comes on.” “You mean the ones with ads?” I’m like, “Yeah, the ones with ads.” No interest. That’s it.

Steven: I’m a real-life guncle to five, the oldest of whom is twelve, so they’re all still young. It’s really remarkable to me. I am not a former television star like Patrick. That was an invention on my part. For him, he takes it very personally. I’m equally aghast sometimes. When we were growing up, television was everything. It was not the babysitter as much as it is today for busy families. By the way, there wasn’t enough to babysit. There were three channels. That was kind of it, and PBS. It was certainly a reward. It was the reward that we all worked towards. Watching television, it was so great. My mother loves to tell this story that the saddest day in my life was the day that I realized Mister Rogers was not just talking to me, that other people could see him too.

Zibby: Yes, that happens to Patrick.

Steven: Oh, okay. I forget what’s actually in the book. I always have a hard time getting used to — they’re like, we’ll watch it later. I’ll be like, you don’t understand. In our day, butts had to be in the chair at the moment it aired. You didn’t have a choice. If you missed it, you missed it. I think it’s so funny.

Zibby: I know. I would watch Little House on the Prairie every day at five. I would run and take a shower or bath between commercials so that I could finish it before dinner.

Steven: Coordinating a bathroom run and getting a snack and being back during the commercial break.

Zibby: Totally. Although, the commercials then were so great too. I know everybody talks about this, but I do miss that collective consumption and how everybody from a certain era, it’s a shorthand, Silver Spoons and a night of The Golden Girls, even Soul Train or whatever the shows were.

Steven: Whatever. Dance Fever, all these shows.

Zibby: Dance Fever, exactly, oh, my gosh. He was so funny too, Patrick, about not wanting to sit on the aisle because he was afraid people might recognize him despite his years off of being an actor.

Steven: He doesn’t want to fly in coach. He calls it steerage.

Zibby: He’s so funny. How was the writing process of this book? Was it done during pandemic times or beforehand?

Steven: Strangely, it is kind of about a character who’s been in self-isolation finding his way back into the light. The one thing a writer has no control over is world events as their book comes out. That’s why I’m so grateful to people like you who help shine a spotlight. Particularly people who had debuts last year during the pandemic, so many books got lost in the shuffle. It’s so hard to break through sometimes. You have no control over world events. Fortunately, with this book, they just seem to line up. I would love to say, oh, yeah, I wrote it during the pandemic and this was kind of, vaguely addressing that. The truth was, the book was largely done before quarantine began, so no, but it takes the pressure off. A lot of writers are trying to decide, how do we address this time in our next works? For some reason, I feel like I’ve written my COVID novel about isolation and rejoining the world, so I guess the pressure’s off.

Zibby: There was some line in here about vaccinations, but they were referring to the measles or something else. At first, I was like, oh, are they talking about COVID vaccinations all of a sudden? Then I realized, of course, no, people got vaccinated before.

Steven: I know. It’s all so focused on this vaccination. There were vaccinations.

Zibby: I know, exactly. They were super important and all the rest of it. It was also so funny when one of the kids asked Patrick why he lived in Palm Springs and you were like — I keep saying you. Patrick was like, you know, I’m thin in Palm Springs, or I’m thin in Connecticut.

Steven: This is the sad truth for gay men. Listen, I live in Palm Springs, so this is true for me. I just turned fifty last month.

Zibby: Happy birthday.

Steven: Thank you. The sad truth for gay men is that fifty is old in Los Angeles. It’s sort of middle age in San Francisco. It’s young in Palm Springs. That’s why he’s retired to Palm Springs. It was fun to set a story there in a city where people associate it more with retirement or end of life than with raising children. It was a fun, fish-out-of-water element to put kids in this setting where there aren’t a lot of other kids.

Zibby: It’s true. We go to the tennis tournament there. Now I’m blanking on what it’s called.

Steven: Oh, Indian Wells.

Zibby: Indian Wells, yeah.

Steven: The Paribas Open. I love it. I’ve been to that as well. I missed it last year.

Zibby: Rumor is that it’ll be back in October. That’s what I heard. We’ll see. What are you working on now? Did you already finish your next book? Are you working on it? What’s the story?

Steven: Zibby, it’s either — you’re way too young to be my mother, so you’re my agent, maybe, perhaps. These are the two who ask me this question. I’m always writing something. Yes, I have been working on something. I don’t know. I’ve said this before, but writing, to me, it’s such an input-output endeavor. We need observations of life. I need to be out there seeing the world and experiencing people. That’s been so hard to do this past year. Even when you are observing people, oftentimes, they’re behind a mask. It’s hard to get these wonderful details that make you feel so creative and all that. I’ve definitely been writing. I need to go back now and read what I’ve written over the past year and see if it’s any good. Now I need to go out and observe all the details that I can now layer over this to make it feel rich and complete as a novel. I’m also very excited, we announced last week that film rights for The Guncle have been picked up by Lionsgate. Right now, actually, I’m writing an adaptation of The Guncle for the big screen.

Zibby: That’s awesome. That’s great that you get to do that. It’s so cool. That’ll be fun.

Steven: It’s very exciting. To imagine these characters coming to life, it’s very exciting for me.

Zibby: Are you going to do a big premiere in Palm Springs?

Steven: All-caftan red carpet.

Zibby: All-caftan red carpet, I love it. Yes, I can see the whole thing going. That’s awesome.

Steven: Palm Springs, next week, it’s already going to be up to 115 degrees here. It depends what time of year the premiere is. Otherwise, everyone would just melt.

Zibby: Wow. You’ll have to time the release to a more temperate —

Steven: — Somehow make it a Christmas movie.

Zibby: Exactly, Christmas in Palm Springs. I know I asked you this when we first met about The Editor, which by the way, remains top of my list — it was such a great book. Your characters in that were so vivid that I think about it a lot, and the Jackie Onassis character’s quiet reservation. I feel like I can see the whole thing still, which to me, is a good book when the characters are implanted in my brain despite whatever else I throw in there.

Steven: With the number of books that pass through your hands, I’m honored that that sticks with you.

Zibby: I can’t remember anything but characters in novels. What a useless skill, but at least I found something to do with it. Anyway, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Steven: Congratulations, by the way. Since I’ve seen you last, you’ve had your book come out. You were one of those authors who had a book released during the pandemic, so you know firsthand how difficult it can be to break through. One of the hardest parts of the last year was missing bookstores. I just missed going into bookstores and browsing the new release table or asking our booksellers for recommendations. You can buy books online. You can support all of your independent bookstores online too. Many ship and have been open for curbside pickup and whatnot, but you kind of have to know what you’re looking for to shop online. Anyway, I don’t even remember the question. Advice for writers.

Zibby: Advice for writers.

Steven: I will say, keep at it. I don’t think this was your first career. This certainly was not my first career. I’ve been writing for years and years and years. I didn’t publish my first novel until into my forties. It takes time. I was always jealous of twenty-five-year-olds who come out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and write something brilliant. That was not my path. It is okay to live life and find your voice. I think that is the most important thing, not only your writing style, which is very important also, but what it is that you have to say about the world. It’s okay if that takes you time. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens’ first novel, and she was seventy, that’s been the biggest publishing story of the past ten years, so there’s time and patience. If you see someone with their debut novel getting a lot of attention, chances are they have other books. I have three manuscripts on a shelf that were not published before I broke through with my first novel, Lily and the Octopus. It takes time. It’s connecting the right paths. There’s no substation for doing the work. You have to write. You also can’t give up.

Zibby: I love that. I have another anthology coming out in November called Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids. In it, there’s a whole section on how moms don’t have time to write. I wrote an essay called “To All the Books I Never Sold.” There are so many of them. They just keep piling up.

Steven: That’s so important. If you have young kids — I have a hard time finding the time to write sometimes, and I don’t have kids. All the power to you. Also, my god, what rich, fertile ground to find things to write about. The hope is that, to other people out there, don’t get so discouraged that you don’t have the time in this moment. Take notes. Build some sort of system where you’re cataloging all these wonderful things because the sad truth is, memory fades. Catalog all this while it’s fresh. One day, sometime, the right time will present itself to sit down and actually do the writing. It’s those wonderful details that you’ll want to have at your fingertips.

Zibby: It’s so true. In college or whatever when you were working on a paper, part of working on the paper was going to the library and reading all the stuff and taking all the notes. Then eventually, you would get it all together. You would write it. I feel like there’s something that want-to-be writers look down on themselves thinking that — they don’t realize that, actually, what they’re doing every day by just living is doing that research. They’re not in the library, necessarily, but without that, they can’t do the writing part.

Steven: There was a concept I heard. I think it was called the double arrow or something. Writers are very guilty of this. You can apply this to a much broader context too. I was writing. I had a day job at the time. I would get up super early in the morning at five AM or six AM to have a couple hours to write before I had to go to work. Say I knew I had a three-hour window. Then because I was tired and just waking up, I realized I was having a cup of coffee and I was on the internet. I was wasting time for the first ninety. Then I realized, oh, my god, now I only have ninety minutes left to write. Then the second arrow is, the damage comes from, I’m being so angry at myself for not being productive for the first ninety minutes that then you waste the second ninety minutes being angry. Then you have no time to write. I think that that happens sometimes. We think, oh, god, I didn’t write today, this week, this month. Then it just self-perpetuates. The thing is, you can put a stop to it anytime. Eventually, the butt has to go in the seat. There’s no substitution, as I said, for showing up. When there is time, don’t waste it being angry at yourself because life is busy. Life is incredibly busy. Look what we’ve asked so many people to do in the past year, become teachers and caregivers in a whole and incredibly stressful, new way. So patience, and hopefully, the time will present itself.

Zibby: Perfect, I love it. In the meantime, you can delight yourself by reading other great books like The Guncle which was so funny and poignant. I just loved that sarcastic wit and all of that. It’s just very refreshing.

Steven: Thank you. Reading, it certainly has saved me in the past fifteen months. When we talk about that input, being able to hear so many stories — listen, not just COVID, our country’s gone through a lot in the past year. It’s so important right now to read books by people who don’t have your life experience, who don’t look like you. That is how we are really, as I said, refilling that creative coffer.

Zibby: You’re absolutely right. A hundred percent. Well-said. Awesome. Have a great weekend. Great to see you.

Steven: I miss you in person. I know, I can’t wait until we can talk again soon in person.

Zibby: Cheers. Have a great weekend. Thank you, everybody, for watching.

Steven: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Cheers.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Steven Rowley, THE GUNCLE

THE GUNCLE by Steven Rowley

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