Guncle to Guncle
I read Steven Rowley’s third novel, The Guncle, with my 8-year-old niece in mind. After all, his book makes a case for how parenting extends beyond a child’s actual parents to include uncles, aunts, friends, grandma, grandpa, babysitters…. Rowley’s book explores the bond between guncles and their nieces (and nephews) with astute, heartwarming observations, while illustrating how the term “parent” expands beyond traditional mom and dad roles.
In the book, Rowley’s character Patrick is a gay man who spends his days in Mr. Turk caftans, soaking up the Palm Springs sun. He’s no longer the sitcom star he once was, so he’s got some time on his hands. That is, until his life is turned upside down when Maisie and Grant, his niece and nephew, lose their mother, also one of Patrick’s dearest friends and his sister-in-law. Suddenly, Patrick becomes the children’s temporary guardian. Just one who happens to love a draping caftan.
Rowley spoke to me from Palm Springs, where he lives.
Because of my relationship with my niece, I really identified with this idea of how guncles can be an escape for the nieces and nephews in their life and can offer some stability when they need it most. Can you talk about that in terms of this story?
I have five nieces and nephews. I don’t have children of my own, but I felt I had things I wanted to say about kids. My nieces and nephews, they don’t quite have a grasp on my life. They’re all on the East Coast; I live in Palm Springs. I have a house with a swimming pool. I don’t go to an office the way they see other adults go, and so they don’t quite have my life pegged. It was truly fun to celebrate the specialness of these relationships.
Like Maisie and Grant when they visit Patrick, do you recognize a special level of excitement when your nieces and nephews come see you in Palm Springs?
For sure. The idea of having kids here and seeing this lifestyle that’s very different from what they’re used to seeing—that’s where I had some fun, particularly in creating JED, the gay throuple that lives just over Patrick’s wall on the neighboring property. Putting them in a situation where they might see different relationship models and types of families was fun to play with.
I love that you come at family structure from different angles.
It’s a slight echo of who an uncle is, the “it takes a village” kind of attitude about raising kids. It does take more than just parents sometimes. And that more than two people would be in a relationship is really scary thinking to a lot of people. So, it was fun to play with people’s expectations about who this throuple might be and divert those expectations a bit by making them very family-minded with legitimate things to contribute to the conversation.
What do your nieces and nephews think of the fact that their guncle has written a book?
They’re still a little young. But I’m sorry for anyone who happens to be related to a writer (laughs). We do tend to lift things. But the book is dedicated to the five of them, so to the extent that I may have borrowed from their lives, I hope they will forgive me.
In the acknowledgements, you also say that your editor, Sally Kim, recognized this story before you did. Could you talk about that and how it developed?
It stemmed from a week where my brother brought his two boys to visit. He’s an attorney in Boston, and he was here with the boys for a week, but after about 12 hours here he got called into court to represent one of his clients. He had to leave, and I suddenly was left with the two boys. I felt like an understudy being thrust into the lead role. I documented the whole thing on Instagram. My editor was watching me flounder that week, and she said, “You know, I think there might be something to write about here.”
So, some of this is based on your own experiences.
It’s a combination of a number of things. One is, I’ve had a long fascination with Auntie Mame and other magical caregiver stories: Mary Poppins, Maria from The Sound of Music. It seemed fun to me to create a queer entry in that genre.
How else do you explain this relationship between guncles and their nieces and nephews?
I do make a joke in the book. Patrick says to the kids, “You know, I have a swimming pool with no natural heirs. You should be nice to me.” I think there’s an absolute acceptance of them for who they are. I think they respond to that energy. ▼
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.