The Guncle by Steven Rowley is a delightful heartfelt story of family and loss; the perfect book to kick off the summer, especially during Pride Month. Uncle Patrick, the fun uncle who lives across the country in Palm Springs has no experience with children yet he is called upon to take care of his niece and nephew for the summer in his California home. The children are suffering a monumental loss and need guidance and unconditional love – but is Patrick the best person in the extended family to take on this responsibility? The single, gay, out of work actor has suffered detrimental loss in his life as well and while he takes on the challenge to entertain his brother’s kids for a few weeks, he ends up teaching them quite a few things, learning so much about himself as well.
This beautiful story of love, responsibility, family and healing reminds us to be kind and alway have a sense of humor. With hysterical comments, old Hollywood references and lessons in love and kindness, along with realistic loss, rejection and sadness, The Guncle made me feel and experience life vicariously through a wonderful, larger than life character I wish I knew in real life!
One week after publication, Lionsgate won the film rights and Steven Rowley will adapt the screenplay and be an executive producer. I’m hoping Dan Levy gets a shot at the lead!
Author Q & A
Q: The Guncle is your 3rd novel: the first, Lily and the Octopus was autobiographical, The Editor was about Jackie Onassis as a book editor and it explored a mother/son relationship, and The Guncle is about a gay uncle, love and loss. How much of you is in Patrick, The Guncle?
A: I think Patrick is the closest character I’ve created to my sensibility, outlook and my humor. He’s sadder than I am for sure, but he has experienced real loss, but I feel a real connection with him. I think it’s safe to say we would be really good friends. (And Yes, Lily and the Octopus’s Ted is really based on me, but I feel he’s more a reflection of who I was a decade ago.)
Q: Sara was Patrick’s soul mate and Joe was his love. When they both were gone, Patrick seemed empty, checked out of his career and became reclusive in his own life. Caring for his brother’s kids was healing for him – did you know that healing would be part of the story when you sat down to write it or did that reveal itself later?
A: Joe was not a character I had envisioned at the outset. But early on I felt it was important for Patrick to have real insight into grief and what the children were experiencing. I think deep down he knows the way out, but he’s been too lazy perhaps to find his way. But when he takes a good hard look at his life I think he sees it’s not a future he wants for the kids and so he has to start leading by example. I love then that the novel became about a season of healing for all three.
Q: Your humorous references kept me smiling the entire time I was reading – what is it about old Hollywood (Auntie Mame, Marlene Dietrich, Sound of Music, Louise Fletcher, Streetcar Named Desire etc.) that appeals to you?
A: Well, certainly the kind of movies I love they don’t make on a grand scale anymore so I’m left turning to old Hollywood. But old Hollywood is a nice mirror for Palm Springs, which sprang up as a playground for stars like Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtus, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford and Cary Grant. It also serves another purpose – a writer hopes their novel has a long shelf life, and in that regard I didn’t want to use too many contemporary references that would sooner than later make the novel feel dated. Using older references helps make it feel timeless.
Q: Names are a topic of discussion amongst the Guncle and the kids, Patrick had a fake name (Jack Curtis), Marlene the dog was named after an actress, Patrick called his agent many different mountain related names in jest, Emory was confused with Emily… why are names in a novel important and how do you decide what they are?
A: Names are so important to me, and sometimes they change over the course of the book to better fit the character I create. Patrick was named for Patrick Dennis, the author of the 1955 novel Auntie Mame, which is also the name of the orphaned nephew in that tale. It was a meant as a nice homage. Ted Flask, the protagonist in Lily and the Octopus was named after the third mate aboard the Pequod in Moby Dick. So sometimes I draw literary inspiration, but I pull names from all kinds of sources. It’s hard to explain, but I usually try out a few names until something just clicks.
Q: What inspired you to have Patrick talk to the kids in the hysterical, no filter way he did (as if they were adults using references they would never understand)?
A: I think what makes Patrick seem ill-suited as a caregiver at the outset of the story becomes one of his strengths. Many kids can handle more than we give them credit for, and in uncertain times I think they don’t want to be treated with kid gloves or to have things to be sugarcoated. I loved flipping the script in that way and having the kids rise to the occasion, instead of having Patrick talk down to them.
Q: The absurdity of having a Tesla and not driving, having a heavy sculpture hanging over the bed, the dented Golden Globe at its replacement, Grant’s lisp, Christmas in July…how did you come up with all of this? Did you make a list of humorous and crazy ideas you wanted to include in the story or did they just appear as you were writing?
A: I have a general outline that I use for story structure, but beyond that I like to paint in the details as I go. That makes writing fun, when I sit down in the morning and have no idea what fun elements I might add on that day. Making Patrick a former television star gave him the means to allow my imagination to run wild.
Q: Patrick and Sara danced to Wang Chung and I had the best time googling and listening to all their 80s hits on my phone! Does that music bring back any specific memories you want to share?
A: Oh, sure. 80s music is my music – I graduated from high school in 1989. But I don’t think I knew what a lasting impact it would have on my life. I feel so fortunate to have come of age at a time when pop music was so joyful. It all sounds like a technicolor dream to me, and it’s hard for me to imagine this story now without 80s music, and I stand by my love of Wang Chung and the song featured in the book.
Q: Was the throuple next-door inspired by anyone?
A: So much as this is a modern day Auntie Mame story, Mame had a best friend named Vera Charles. As isolated as Patrick’s life has been, from a story sense it made sense to give him at least one confidant. But Vera Charles was such a great character it took three men to fill her shoes! Plus, I just liked making Patrick’s world one that seems a bit bizarre for children, and adding a polyamorous throuple next door tickled me. I loved making them serious people with real and valid views that added to the story.
Q: Did you come up with the Guncle rules before you wrote the story or did they write themselves as the story developed?
A: They sort of presented themselves as I wrote. Again, I like to be able to surprise myself.
Q: Were there any rules you had in earlier drafts that you ended up taking out?
A: Oh, I’m sure. But none that come to mind. I try not to be too precious about things I have to cut.
Q: The YouTube videos were introduced to Patrick by the children buy ended up being a way for him to feel reconnected to his audience – what inspired you to include this?
A: When I was a kid, television was everything. Reward, entertainment, babysitter, educational tool. Children are equally dependent on screens today, but they don’t have the same reverence for television, or know what it’s like to only have three channels and to have to watch programs at a set time. My nieces and nephews are far more interested in videogames or social media or YouTube than television itself. I find that fascinating and hard to reconcile with the role TV played in my upbringing.
Q: The letter Patrick wrote to himself that revealed more about his relationship with Joe and Joe’s family was the most serious part of your story and deeply heartbreaking. I am continually shocked by the harsh realities gay men have faced (I’m addicted to the TV show, Pose where the setting is NYC in the 80s and so many young gay men were rejected by family and kicked out of their homes) and was heartened by the fact that Patrick’s family loved and supported him. I wonder if loss of a loved one (Joe, in this case) hits event deeper for someone like Patrick who experienced the rejection (of Joe’s family) simultaneously. What are your thoughts?
A: I think it’s impossible to overstate the importance of found family for LGBTQ+ people, even when the families they were born into are accepting. That’s something a show like POSE does so beautifully. If you’re African American, for instance, your family is also most likely black. But if you’re gay, statistically you’re probably the only gay person in your family. So community and the relationships you form with other LGBTQ+ people are monumentally important, and it becomes devastating when you lose them. To have someone invalidate these relationships from the outside can feel like a final blow.
Q: How long did it take you to write The Guncle, and during the revision process, was there anything you were asked to take out that you wish was still included?
A: I began writing The Guncle in the summer of 2018 and finished the first draft just after my last novel, The Editor, was published in Spring of 2019. Then there was another year of revisions. I was so afraid with each new draft that I would have to take out Patrick’s letter to Joe. I was worried that maybe it just didn’t fit. But it kept staying and I’m grateful it did. That would have been the only truly devastating thing to lose.
Q: You mention the Westport Country Playhouse at the very end and I wondered what your connection was to that theater. I actually have season tickets – fun connection when I read it!
A: I’m from New England originally – although Maine, not Connecticut. I wanted the kids to be from New England as it’s so the opposite of Palm Springs, so the story has its bookends there. I saw a show at the Westport Country Playhouse once when I lived in New York – but that’s really it! It was just the perfect geographical fit.
Q: How did the pandemic impact you in terms of writing and your sanity?
A: Writing is a very input/output endeavor. Sheltering at home, the creative coffers started to feel empty as it was so difficult to be out in the world observing all the rich detail and human behavior that can make a story come alive. I’m thrilled to be vaccinated now and slowly putting myself out there again. It really does help refill that sense of creativity.
Q: Author Byron Lane (A Star is Bored) proposed to you in a public and literary fashion (congratulations to you both!) Can share how that went down?
A: Yes! Being in a relationship with another writer can have its challenges, but for us it just works. We’re each other’s first readers and can give notes and advice along the way. I thought I knew his novel A Star is Bored inside and out, but he snuck in four words at the end of his acknowledgments: Will you marry me? For anyone who has read Byron’s book (you should – it’s brilliant and out in paperback on 6/15) and felt that left things with a bit of a cliffhanger, you can read my answer to his proposal in the acknowledgments for The Guncle. (Spoiler alert: I SAID YES.)
Q: Before becoming an author you worked as a screenwriter. How are they different and which do you prefer?
A: My first two novels were written in the first person, and I loved going so deep into one person’s mind. Screenwriting by its very nature has to be more external, everything must be shown through action and dialogue. I don’t think I could choose one over the other, although perhaps I enjoy having a more single authorial voice in the publishing process, whereas filmmaking is much more collaborative. But I’ve been blessed with incredible collaborators for all three films, so I have no complaints.
Q: If The Guncle were to become a movie (which I would LOVE to see), who would you cast as Patrick, Sara and Greg?
A: It would have to be someone with a prickly demeanor but with a soft side not too far beneath that protective outer shell. Dan Levy, Billy Eichner, Michael Urie, Jim Parsons all come to mind, but there are so many more. I do think it’s essential to have an out gay actor play the role. Clara and Greg are used to fading into the background whenever Patrick is around, as he takes up so much oxygen in the room. So I think workhorse character actors who have never truly gotten their due would have something special to add.
Q: What have you read that you recommend for this summer?
A: I really loved The Second Home by Christina Clancy which just came out in paperback. I’ve also been reading a number of comedic novels as I think we’re all in the mood for something lighter. I reread Less by Andrew Sean Greer, I adored Julia Claiborne Johnson’s Better Luck Next Time, and look for a book in July by debut author Emily Austin entitled Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead. And one final plug for Byron Lane’s A Star is Bored based on his friendship with actress and writer Carrie Fisher – it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read!
About Steven Rowley
Steven Rowley is the bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus, a Washington Post Notable Book of 2016 and The Editor, named by NPR and Esquire Magazine as one of the Best Books of 2019. His new novel, The Guncle, arrives May 25th, 2021. O Magazine hails it as one of the LGBT books changing the literary landscape. Rowley’s fiction has been published in twenty languages.
Lily and the Octopus is in development as a feature film at Amazon Studios. The Editor was optioned by Twentieth Century for director Greg Berlanti. Steven has worked as a freelance writer, newspaper columnist and screenwriter. Originally from Portland, Maine, he is a graduate of Emerson College. He currently resides in Palm Springs with his husband, the writer Byron Lane.