Steven Rowley: On Writing to Understand

Author Steven Rowley discusses how a personal tragedy was part of the spark to write his latest novel, The Guncle.
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Steven Rowley is the author of The Editor and the national bestseller Lily and the Octopus, which has been translated into 19 languages. He has worked as a freelance writer, newspaper columnist, and screenwriter. Originally from Portland, Maine, Rowley is a graduate of Emerson College. He lives in Palm Springs, Calif.

Steven Rowley

Steven Rowley

In this post, Rowley discusses how a personal tragedy was part of the spark to write his latest novel, The Guncle, and much more!

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Name: Steven Rowley
Literary agent: Rob Weisbach/Rob Weisbach Creative Management
Book title: The Guncle
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release date: May 25, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction/LGBTQ Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: In the spirit of Auntie Mame, a former television star living a reclusive life in Palm Springs takes in his niece and nephew for the summer after a family tragedy, and it brings about a season of healing for all three.
Previous titles by the author: Lily and the Octopus and The Editor

The Guncle by Steven Rowley

The Guncle by Steven Rowley

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What prompted you to write this book?

Here, I want to give a shout-out to my editor, Sally Kim. I had just spent a week with my two nephews and documented the whole thing on Instagram, and she called me out of the blue to say, “Do you think there’s something to write about there?” And that’s what got the wheels turning. I have five young nieces and nephews (and no children of my own), and they are incredibly special to me. That summer, I lost one of my very best friends from college to breast cancer; she left behind a 6-year-old son. The heartbreak of losing a mother at such a young age seemed unbearable to me, and I wanted to write about it to understand. She very much informed the character of Sara and drove me to want to write this story.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

I started writing The Guncle early in the summer of 2018, so it will be three years exactly from inception to publication. The idea and the tone of the novel remained consistent, but the entry point into the story kept changing. I find I know so much more about my characters at the end of a book, and that often requires rewriting the beginning (sometimes again and again.)

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

This was the first book I sold to a publisher off of a pitch and sample chapters. I spent months crafting the pitch and creating an outline and character details before the deal was closed, but it was a new experience for me writing on a deadline and with the pressure to deliver. In the past, if a novel didn’t work I was only disappointing myself. But now, I would be letting down a publisher too. This writing experience taught me a lot about discipline and work structure and what my strengths and weaknesses as a writer are. 

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Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I always try to leave room for surprises, even with a book I had outlined extensively like this one. Otherwise, it feels like work to sit down in the chair to write. But if I can surprise myself on any given day, it’s more exciting to do the work because I can’t wait to see what revelations and shockers might come.

I thought I was writing a book about an uncle and his charges. But it turned out to be as much a book about siblings and that unique and sacred bond. I was also surprised by how funny the book turned out to be and how much humor and grief can go hand-in-hand.

It also surprised me how this book ended up feeling very of the moment. At the start of this book, my main character had been living a life of isolation, shutting himself off from the world, when he is suddenly faced with having to raise children. And now here we are a year into the pandemic where we have all felt isolated and so many have had to shifting family responsibilities and with the closing of schools children suddenly very present in their lives.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

That life is hard and that it can be sad and we are dealt so many blows. But there is also so much joy and love to be had if we can be there for one another.

Steven Rowley: On Writing to Understand

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Write for yourself and tell stories that you’re passionate about. It’s tempting to try to follow trends or reverse engineer a headline-making advance by copying what’s been done in the past. But the best stories are the most original. I had to leave one publisher to write a book that I wanted. But I stuck to my guns and gambled on myself and it paid off—and was a huge step forward in my career. 

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