Steven Rowley Talks Grief, Loss, Joy and Celebration

Written by | Books, Entertainment

What a complete thrill and joy to turn on the TV for my usual morning viewing of The Today Show to find NY Times Best Selling author Steven Rowley enjoying his chat about his latest novel, The Celebrants, as an official Today Show Read with Jenna Book Club pick. As part of his mega book tour that took over a month, he was in the spotlight as never before, having earned his way with his previous novels, Lily and the Octopus, The Editor, and The Guncle, each earning a number of accolades from critics and readers alike. Not a bad start for having published his first book at the age of 45. Each novel is masterfully crafted, with the inclusion of queer characters so perfectly woven into the story, the books are not limited to the LGBTQ community but rather appeal to all audiences while telling our stories.

Growing up in Portland, Maine, writing was an inherent part of Steven’s life from early on.

It was a great place to grow up, I have a lot of good memories from there. Of course, as I entered high school and my teenage years, I couldn’t wait to get out. In part, because at the time it seemed like gay men had to leave in order to come out and be themselves wherever they grew up. But as a kid, I really loved it. I was always a writer. I used to write short stories and my dad would bring them into his office and photocopy them. And I was like, wait, there can be more than one copy of something I write? And I think a little light bulb went off then.

I always thought that I wanted to be a writer and yet, Maine felt very far away from publishing. And I thought, oh, maybe you have to be a kid who grows up in Manhattan or have a society name or something to be a writer. But then lurking in the background was Stephen King in Maine. As soon as I graduated from the children’s room in the library, I went straight for Stephen King and read everything he wrote. I was probably the loner, creepy horror kid.

Thank goodness for my mom too. I have the career I have today in part because she insisted that I have a public library card and brought me regularly to use it. So grateful for that.

A running theme in Steven’s books is grief. Particularly grief due to loss. And while that seems depressing, his novels are not. They are filled with humor and joy, deeply emotional, for sure, but always optimistic. Having recently experienced a great loss myself, his latest novel The Celebrants came at a unique time. Better than a grief guidebook, his story and how his characters dealt with loss brought tears to my eyes more than once, not out of sadness, but out of hope and belief in the strength of the human spirit.

There’s an honesty about the difficulty in life, and I do write a lot about grief and grieving, but in a way that feels hopefully uplifting and also funny, because humor has always been the way through every difficult time for me. For the gay community at large, it has been such a coping mechanism through years of bullying and then AIDS and rejection from our own families and building found families, which is another theme I think in my work. I think that grief in particular can feel very isolating when we’re in the throes of it.

The truth of the matter is, it’s such a uniting part of the human experience. If we’re fortunate enough to love, we’re going to lose it eventually. So many people have been there, and I don’t know why there’s not more of a communal understanding of grief, particularly in the last couple of years. We’ve lost so much, not only just in the US but worldwide, so much loss. It’s not even just the loss of a person, it’s a loss of time, and certainly togetherness. I don’t think we’re dealing with that quite as head-on as we should be.

Why can we not all unite sort of around it? To the extent that in this country we’re very immature on a lot of issues, and grief is sort of one of them. We’d rather not talk about it than talk about it. Hopefully, my books feel like a place where people can go and that there’s some healing in reading them.

Rowley has such a grasp on the stages of grief, how it looks from the outside, and how it feels from the inside. What is his direct relationship to grief?

It’s just a part of life for me. I haven’t suffered loss any more than anyone else, I haven’t lived a particularly tragic life. Most recently before writing (The Celebrants), I lost one of my best friends from college. There is something unique about losing a close contemporary for the first time that makes you sort of question your own mortality in a way. I think it stems back to some trauma that we don’t really talk about, particularly for a gay man my age – I’m 52.

I came out 30 years ago in the very early 1990s when more men were dying of AIDS than even in the 1980s. When I came out, I assumed that life would be very sort of lonely and sad and short. I think there’s inherited trauma from that – when the opposite has been true. Life has been full of community for me and very joyous and comparatively long from what I was expecting. So, I’m still working through that trauma. I also try to write about gay men in middle age now too, because I’m missing that generation above me, for those who are sort of five or 10 years above me. We’ve lost so many of those beautiful voices, so I’m also trying to create examples or work through what it’s like to age, hopefully gracefully as a gay man.

Called a Big Chill for our times, The Celebrants focuses on a group of college friends through decades-long friendships and promises to each other and to themselves, reunited to honor a pact to throw each other living “funerals,” celebrations to remind themselves that life is worth living – that their lives mean something. Rowley does not glamorize these characters – they are each flawed, they fight, they love, they cry, they feel defeated, they feel reborn … all of these nuances culminating into a deeply emotional connection between reader and story. You feel like these people are your friends, you understand them, you are them.

I had great fun concocting this particular group of characters. It’s my most diverse because it’s an ensemble and I wanted the friends to be as diverse as my friends are in real life. But that meant truly writing characters, for the first time, that were different from me and my perspective.

I’ve heard some pushback from readers, like, well they fight, and they squabble and it’s like, why are these people friends? Well wait, you don’t fight with your friends a little bit? I mean, there’s something particular about longstanding friendships. Those people who knew you before you were married or before you had your career and you were full of hopes and dreams, and you didn’t know what life was going to be and still know you in love. Now those are really special friendships because I think those are the people that you can let your guard down with them. You don’t have to present as your most perfect self around those people, which means you can be messy sometimes.

These were particularly difficult characters to say goodbye to. And I did have a moment because I also narrated the audiobook. I remember the audio engineer looking at me as I finished recording the last page. He was like, oh, look at you, you’re crying. And I’m like, I’m not crying. I’m sweating. But I thought, oh wow, that’s going to be the last time I’ll probably ever read this book from cover to cover. There was a real sort of moment of having to say goodbye to these characters that I came to love so much.

Rowley’s last book, The Guncle, really put him on the map. Telling the story of a gay uncle, living in Palm Springs, who is unceremoniously given guardianship of his niece and nephew after tragedy took their parents. The book was an instant success and proved that mainstream readers will in fact read a book centered around a gay character. It was about family, love, and grief – regardless the sexuality. For Rowley, not being published until he was in his mid-40s had its advantages in telling stories with gay characters.

I wasn’t publishing books in the 1990s when I was first starting writing. At that time, books were sort of relegated to a section in a bookstore or only at queer-owned bookstores. They certainly didn’t have the ability to break out in the mainstream. I certainly wouldn’t have been talking about them on the Today Show. It was just a fortune of the moment in time when I broke through and also the culture had changed enough.

But there’s a real backlash now to that too. The Guncle is a book that has been embraced broadly and read widely. However, since we have ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills and stuff popping up in Florida, I can see the evolution. The Guncle came out in May of 2021, Don’t Say Gay in 2022. I had no problems for that first year. Then suddenly once that policy passed in Florida, I was the victim of a targeted Twitter hate campaign because the book is about a gay man being the caretaker for young children. All sorts of insults were hurled at me for daring to write a book that celebrated everything that the community can offer children, from empathy and understanding and love of self and total acceptance of self. It’s a tough moment in the culture, too. I’ve gotten both sides of it.

A truly beautiful part of Rowley’s real life is his husband, Byron Lane, a writer himself who just released his sophomore novel, My Big Gay Wedding, also to critical acclaim. How do two novelists exist in the same household?

Not only do we exist in the same household, but we also had the same publication day for our new novels. It really is something that a lot of people would assume was a nightmare. But I think we’re good at it. One, our house is quiet, which is nice. Byron might have a different answer because I type too loudly. I’m a loud, loud typist. But we each have an understanding of the job. Novel writing can be a very solitary endeavor, most novelists don’t get to see anybody else do the job.

Like, how often do you talk to your agent or to your editor? Or what does your cover look like? Or what do you do when you don’t like it? All these sorts of behind-the-scenes things and now we can see each other and help each other through that and give each other advice to navigate the publishing process, which can be very emotionally fraught. In terms of the craft too, even when we’re just writing, we are each other’s first readers. I think the challenge is just knowing what he’s asking for at the moment. Is he asking me to read something as a spouse? In which case I just want to be encouraging. Is he asking me as another writer and looking for notes? So, it’s just to be sensitive about the role that we’re wearing at any given moment.

Each of Rowley’s novels is being worked on as an on-screen treatment in some form or the other. With the current writers’ strike, that is paused and he is already at work on his next novel, for release already next year. Not able to give any details, he simply said that his fans will be very, very happy. A Guncle sequel? Hmmm …

His Pride message to the community is in line with his writing.

Stay strong. Celebrate, right? I wrote a book with the theme of celebrating; celebrate the people in your life who mean something to you. We’re all good with a catty comment and a funny line at brunch and sometimes undermining our friends. It’s part of the language, it’s part of how we show our affection, but there’s nothing wrong with balancing that with some genuine thoughts about how important our friends and our found community are to us as well. If anything, I’ve come through Covid a bit of a mush now and through writing this book. I tell my friends too much maybe now how much they mean to me. They’re like, we know. I’m like, all right, all right, just making sure. Time is limited – and it goes by really fast.

The other message I have is that life is sort of cyclical right now and we gain rights and there’s a step backward and we feel like we’re in real danger for steps backward. We must be vigilant for the most vulnerable members of our community right now, and that is the trans community. We cannot forget everyone’s rights as we move forward.

You can follow everything Steven at

The Celebrants is now on bookshelves or available to order online.

Last modified: August 1, 2023