Alum Steven Rowley’s new book, The Celebrants, was a New York Times best seller within days of being released on May 30. The novel is about a group of college friends — so naturally it begs the question: Did his Emerson days influence the book?
“Yes and no. The book is about a group of college graduates, but they go to [University of California] Berkeley,” said Rowley ’94. “[Berkeley] has a similar spirit of Emerson, but it seemed a lot bigger. The spirit behind those friendships is based upon my friends and Emerson, and I’m in there as well.”
The Celebrants, Rowley’s fourth novel, centers around friends reuniting after the loss of a former classmate. Rowley said in recent years he lost a close Emerson friend to breast cancer.
“There’s something about losing a close contemporary for the first time. It makes you look at your own mortality and appreciate your longstanding relationships,” said Rowley. “We had youthful dreams and didn’t know how life would turn out, where we’d live, who we’d marry – and some of us couldn’t legally get married [when we attended college]. Then you see who you turned out to be, and what your life became. Sometimes those longstanding relationships help you reconcile with those two versions of yourself.”
Rowley also credits Emerson with teaching him to be funny, which led to winning the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his 2021 novel, The Guncle.
“It was really a great place to learn how to be funny. I appreciated my time at Emerson. Some think it’s really difficult to be funny in these [politically correct] times,” said Rowley. “I learned how to be funny, but with kindness. You don’t need to sacrifice kindness for humor. There’s an importance to punching up with humor.”
Rowley is currently on a 17-stop national book tour, and he’s enjoying talking to readers in person, something that wasn’t possible during the pandemic.
“Reading can feel like a solitary endeavor and there is great joy in getting together with people who read the same book and discussing it,” said Rowley. “It’s been energizing surrounding myself with book lovers and readers, especially during this precarious time when banning books is on the rise.”
Rowley said he wasn’t aware of any of his books being banned, but was targeted in an orchestrated Twitter attack after Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But the attack only solidified his belief that as an author, he can show how queer people can offer empathy and encourage children to accept themselves.
Another great feeling was learning his book was a New York Times best seller. Rowley’s first book, Lily and the Octopus, was published when he was 45, and the achievement is not lost on him. He had toiled as a screenwriter for years and held down other jobs to pay the bills.
And coincidentally, The Celebrants was released on the same day as his husband, Byron Lane’s book, Big Gay Wedding.
“I wish we were smart enough to coordinate this. There was no way to arrange that. We have different publishers, agents, editors,” said Rowley. “There’s no way to coordinate this, except to say a lot of queer-themed books are released around Pride month.”
Rowley said having a novelist husband is a secret weapon. Not only can they talk about writing together, they can also navigate the process together.
“It’s helpful to have someone understand the process and bounce ideas off,” said Rowley. “When we read each other’s work, we have to decide which hat to wear. If I’m being just a spouse I’ll be encouraging, or if he’s asking me as another writer, then I give more substantive notes with a gentle touch.
“The art is solitary. I have many friends who are novelists, but I don’t see them do the job. I’m not asking them ‘What is the relationship with your editor like?’ said Rowley. “We talk more about the artistic side, not the business side. It’s fun to see someone going through the process and we can talk ask, ‘Hey how did you handle this?’ It’s like having an ace in the back pocket.”
Rowley’s background in screenwriting also led to writing the script for The Guncle, which is being produced by Lionsgate and directed by Jason Moore (director of Pitch Perfect and Sisters).
“I gleefully embraced everything I could do in novel format. Screenwriting has to be visual, with dialogue and action,” said Rowley. He said Lily and the Octopus was very internal, taking place mostly in the imagination of one character, and involved an octopus and a battle at sea. He said it would be harder to make it into a film. “For The Guncle my writing is still cinematic, but it’s dialogue driven, the scenes are alive on the page.”
Rowley offered advice for aspiring novelists. He said there isn’t one path to finding an agent or a publisher, but it is the writer’s role to connect the dots. Rowley found the Writer’s Market, the annual resource book for writers looking to sell their work, to be incredibly valuable. He looked at publishers and agents to see what genres they focused on. He studied submission guidelines. He said working with a freelancer editor also has been fruitful.
“The more ready your book is for publication, the better chance you have of getting an agent,” said Rowley. “You only have one chance to be read first and have your material as strong as possible. Having a freelancer editor is better than having people who will say what you want to hear.”
He suggested that writers should learn how to talk about their own writing.
“If you cold-call an agent and say, ‘Do you want to read my book about an octopus stuck on a dog’s head…” said Rowley. “But if you say you’re writing a book about attachment and how difficult it is to let go and it’s a tentacular tale about the constructs our mind creates in order to not face what’s in front of it. In my real life, my dog had a brain tumor [shaped like an octopus]…That’s where the octopus came from.”
Like man’s best friend, his Emersonian friendships continue to help him prosper.
“The most important thing that came out from Emerson is the people I met there, including the network of alumni I’ve leaned on and met in my Hollywood career,” said Rowley. “And writing [The Celebrants] and reflecting on the depth of relationships I made there. I’m still best friends with my Emerson friends. I’m 52. They helped me along the line of my career and fueled my art as well.”