Steven Rowley, who has no kids of his own, drew inspiration from Auntie Mame.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
It’s All Relative
In his hilarious new novel The Guncle, Palm Springs-based author Steven Rowley conveys the challenges of unexpectedly inheriting a pair of children.
There are several reasons bestselling author Steven Rowley decided to set his latest book, The Guncle, in Palm Springs, but one is foremost. “There’s something irresistible about how people grieve against the eternal sunshine that the city offers,” he says of the perpetually bright locale of his just-published third novel. “It’s also not a city that I associate with kids, so there’s that incongruency.”
Although his knowledge of Palm Springs’ denizens might seem intimate, it isn’t native. Rowley, along with husband and fellow novelist Byron Lane, moved from Los Angeles to the desert full time in November 2019 after being weekenders for years. He says he’s had “a longstanding love affair with the city.”
This affection comes through in The Guncle, which Rowley filled with equal amounts of heartache and witty bon mots. It also makes vivid use of local landmarks and legends, such as Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Lulu California Bistro, and Suzanne Somers. The story follows Patrick O’Hara, a former sitcom star who moved to the desert to self-isolate from society after the death of his partner. Soon, another unexpected tragedy strikes, and the protagonist must assume custody of his young nephew and niece for the summer. In true Auntie Mame style, the kids’ gay uncle — the portmanteau that inspired the book’s title — introduces them to his unorthodox lifestyle and everyone finds a way to move past their grief.
The story’s parallel to our post-pandemic world is hardly lost on the writer. “We were all grieving a year of our lives lost,” he says of the isolation. “It made me appreciate the character and what he’s endured.”
Still, Patrick’s avoidance of unnecessary human contact proved coincidental, as Rowley finished writing the novel as news of COVID-19 became public. “There’s a bit of kismet that the book accidentally speaks to this past year.”
Although Rowley, an uncle to five, hesitates to describe the book as autobiographical, he did glean events from his own life, including the death of his best friend from college. “Patrick is a slightly heightened version of me,” he shares. “Not having kids myself, I’ve always thought of them as little adults, and that’s where a lot of the book’s humor comes from.”
He drew further inspiration from Patrick Dennis’ 1955 classic novel Auntie Mame, which was adapted into the much-loved movie three years later. “It got me thinking about so many closeted writers who, instead of being able to write authentic queer characters, had to disguise them as bawdy women, which the gay community has come to embrace, but they were stand-ins,” Rowley says. “The idea of being able to reclaim a role as it might have been intended if society had been more open was irresistible.”
Rowley’s life has had its own circuitous journey. Born and raised in Portland, Maine, he attended Boston’s esteemed Emerson College, where he studied film. He arrived in L.A. the day after the 1994 Northridge earthquake to pursue a career as a screenwriter. “I had a modicum of success,” he recalls. “You can have a long career as a screenwriter without ever having anything made.”
During this period, he sometimes worked as a paralegal and in publicity but also tried his hand at crafting a novel. “I have several novels sitting on the shelf that will never see the light of day,” he reveals. “They were bad ones I needed to get out of my system.”
The agonizing death of his beloved dachshund inspired him to write the surreal Lily and the Octopus, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim, impressive sales, and a movie deal with Amazon Studios. So was his next novel, The Editor, which features Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a lead character.
There’s already interest in film rights to The Guncle, as well, Rowley says. He skipped the opportunity to write the screen adaptation of his first novel as it was too personal but wrote the screenplay for his second, which could go into production at Walt Disney Studios this year. As for the third, it’s too early to decide.
Lately, Rowley says his toughest decision is whether to have a fourth cup of coffee or his first glass of wine.
“There’s a sameness to each day here,” he says of Palm Springs. “There’s an ease and pace to the life that I really love. It has a very creative community, and there’s some overlap with Hollywood. All of these elements come together to create this magical place.”
Searching for Home
In Christina Clancy’s Shoulder Season, a Playboy Bunny’s coming-of-age tale begins in Wisconsin and ends in Palm Springs, where “the best is yet to come.”
By Maggie Downs
The desert is a place of reinvention.
It’s apparent in our seasons, the dramatic transition from summer’s scorch to the crisp and radiant fall. You see it in the landscape, how the sun-bleached desert bursts with new life every year. Most of all, you see it in the people.
There’s space here. Space to shed the old skin. Space to peel away the layers from who you’ve become and discover who you want to be. This is a place of promise.
And so it is with Christina Clancy’s novel Shoulder Season, out next month from St. Martin’s Press, a captivating coming-of-age story for anyone who has ever desired more.
Shoulder Season follows the perfectly imperfect Sherri, who leaves her provincial Wisconsin town to work at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club, an actual resort that existed from 1968 to 1981. It’s a story of sex, drugs, and bunny tails, sure. But Sherri’s real goal is freedom: She’s determined to save enough money to leave her hometown behind, buy a car, and drive until East Troy is a dot in the rearview mirror, to have some agency over her own narrative.
The book opens later in Sherri’s life, long after she took off her Bunny ears and moved to Palm Springs full time. Though Sherri is rooted in her life here, she also vividly recalls events of the past — like the time she hiked the Cactus to Clouds Trail, 40 years earlier, wearing nothing but a bikini and flip-flops, completely sauced.
To be clear, Shoulder Season is a work of fiction, but it was informed by the lives of real-life Bunnies that Clancy interviewed while researching the book — like Pam Ellis, who splits her time between Lake Geneva and Palm Springs.
Like the main character in Shoulder Season, novelist Christina Clancy found a home in Palm Springs.
Ellis worked at the Playboy Club from 1976 to 1980, donning a special silver bunny bodysuit to serve posh keyholders and rub elbows with the occasional celeb, like Sonny Bono and Lee Trevino.
So that ill-advised hike up the trail? It happened.
“My boyfriend had a conference in Palm Springs, and he flew me out,” Ellis says. “We were staying at the Riviera and thought it would be fun to hike the trail. It was just the kind of thing you did. But I remember there was this sign that said, ‘Danger! Danger, rattlesnakes!’ And it was May and it was so flippin’ hot, and I looked down at my feet and thought, ‘Wow, this is not a good situation.’”
But it is a great story.
Shoulder Season is full of moments like that, taking the reader down a rabbit hole of boozy parties, rock star encounters, and casual lovers, while also going behind the scenes where some things are anything but glamorous. There are intimate moments in the Bunny dorms — friendships are forged, vulnerabilities revealed, and life gets very real.
“I tried to take the lens of the camera away from [Playboy founder] Hugh Hefner,” Clancy says, “and showcase the women who lived this.”
The book’s female characters occupy a contradictory space, walking the line between naughty and nice, all while wearing satin pumps.
“I was really drawn to this idea about how hard it was to be a woman. You had to be as nice as the girl next door and you have to be as sexy as the Playboy bunnies,” Clancy said. “It’s this weird balance of empowering and diminishing, and that’s true whether you’re in a bunny costume or not.”
Clancy sold her debut, The Second Home, as part of a two-book contract. On deadline for the second manuscript, she knew she wanted to draw from the well around her home in Wisconsin.
“We have a cabin on Lake Beulah, so I had initially envisioned a Big Chill, reunion-type story set there,” she says. “But in that area, you hear stories about the old Playboy resort — they call it The Land of Milk and Bunnies — and it’s something I was always curious about and wanted to explore in writing.”
While Clancy was working on the book, she began spending more time in Southern California, so when she was searching for a place for Sherri to ultimately land, Palm Springs felt right for the character.
“I kind of feel like she’s here,” Clancy says, laughing. “And I think she’s flourishing here. The best is yet to come for her.”
Turns out it was right for Clancy, too. She and her husband recently purchased a condo in the Araby Cove neighborhood.
“I think a lot of us come of age not when we’re 30, but when we’re older,” she says. “Maybe we never fully come of age. We keep becoming.”