Set in Palm Springs, ‘The Guncle’ offers a fresh, fun take on family and loss – Desert Sun
June 13, 2022
What do you get when you cross a self-isolating gay former TV star, a dead best friend slash sister-in-law, a niece and a nephew, plenty of caftans and cocktails, a next-door throuple and Palm Springs?
You get “The Guncle,” a laugh-out-loud and occasionally dab-your-eyes page-turner by desert dweller Steven Rowley, which was released last year, became a best-seller and recently came out in paperback.
Called “light and sassy and warm — like an Aperol spritz atop a pink flamingo floatie” by KMUW-NPR, the novel — Rowley’s third — is a fun and moving tale of family, love and grief with plenty of over-the-top campy moments and more than its share of heartbreaking ones.
Patrick O’Hara, who possesses a sharp tongue and a jaded heart, is a former TV star who never got over the tragic death of his great love. When his other great love, his best female friend from college who later married his brother and became his sister-in-law, dies, he is tasked with taking care of his niece, 9, and his nephew, 6, for the summer while their father goes to rehab.
Though initially reluctant, Patrick — who the kids call “GUP” (as in Gay Uncle Patrick) — eventually gives in and takes the kids to his home in Palm Springs. Surprise, surprise, he soon realizes he’s in over his head, so he enlists the help of his next-door neighbors, a threesome he refers to as JED (as in John, Eduardo and Dwayne), and slowly but surely, he and his “wards,” as he calls them, begin to connect. It’s then that Rowley throws a wrench into the situation in the form of Patrick’s older sister, Clara, who shows up unannounced, misinterprets various things and decides Patrick is a terrible influence on the kids.
It turns out all the main characters in “The Guncle” are experiencing some sort of loss, and one of the book’s major themes is the various ways people deal — or not deal — with grief. Eventually Patrick finds a way to help his niece and nephew work through theirs, which then forces himself to confront the unacknowledged pain of his own not-so-recent loss.
Though not autobiographical, Rowley says the idea for the story stemmed from an actual incident.
“I am a real-life guncle to five, and the inspiration came a couple of years ago when my brother brought his two boys, who were ages 3 and 5 at the time, to visit me here in Palm Springs,” he says.
“My brother was here for about 24 hours before he was called back to the east coast on a work emergency. And he left me with his two boys. I do not have children of my own, so I was wildly unprepared and felt like an understudy being shoved into a lead role.”
During his week-long adventure with his nephews, Rowley included the boys in some of his Instagram posts. His editor saw them and suggested there might be something to write about there.
“I would say we have a lot in common in terms of our personalities,” Rowley says of the traits he shares with his protagonist. “I think our senses of humor and our pop cultural references are in line. But he’s sadder than I am. He’s been through some things. But personality-wise, we have a lot in common. I think of all my lead characters, Patrick’s probably closest to myself and the way I look at the world.”
Rowley admits the novel’s success took him by surprise. “‘The Guncle’ was really embraced by readers in a way I wasn’t prepared for,” he says.” The one thing an author has absolutely no control over is the state of the world when his book is released.”
Nonetheless, he is incredibly grateful for the wide range of people who have written to say they loved the story and its characters.
“It’s gone beyond a queer readership,” he says. “It’s gone beyond a California, Southern California or desert readership. I feel very proud at this moment in time when the LGBTQ community is so much under attack. We are under the boot of a lot of people who are trying to grab political power by crushing our spirits, so to write a book that celebrates what gay people have to offer, particularly in raising families, beautiful families, is something I’m very proud of.”
Hopefully that celebration will continue sometime soon onto the big screen. The book has been optioned by Lionsgate, and Rowley has already adapted it into a screenplay.
“We are looking for directors and a star right now,” he says. “Things are rolling along. I would absolutely love to see that go into production in the next year. Fingers crossed. But these things move at their own pace.”
Rowley also reads the audiobook version of the “The Guncle” — a first for him.
“Actor Michael Urie had read my previous novels for audio, and I had an idea that perhaps I wanted to give this one a try myself, but the publisher had me audition. They weren’t so sure it was a good idea.”
Given the go-ahead, Rowley took a leap and discovered he was a natural. “I had such a great time doing it,” he says. “They rented me a little recording studio right on Palm Canyon Drive. I didn’t even know it was there. And I spent a week doing that. The hard part though, is that you have to turn off the air conditioning while you’re recording, because that will be picked up by the mic. So, I would do an hour, sweat profusely, come out, take a few deep breaths and go back in again.”
Books take readers on a journey. And often the authors as well. What Rowley gained from the creative experience of writing “The Guncle” was invaluable in sorting out his relationship with his own younger family members.
“It was really great to stop and take a breath and realize how much my own nieces and nephews meant to me,” he says. “We have these wonderful relationships, but I perhaps took them for granted a little bit before writing this book. Now, it’s nice to stop and reflect on those relationships and how deeply meaningful they are to me.”
“The Guncle” is available wherever books are sold.
As the philanthropy and special sections editor at The Desert Sun, Winston Gieseke writes about nonprofits, fundraising and locals who give back. Reach him at [email protected].