Author Steven Rowley is having a moment and says he’s trying to fully appreciate the unexpected highs while hoping the other shoe won’t eventually drop.
In April, Rowley won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his 2021 bestseller The Guncle. Rowley’s fourth novel, The Celebrants, was released May 30, the same day — coincidentally, he says — as his husband Byron Lane’s novel Big Gay Wedding.
The Celebrants appeared on multiple lists for top reads for summer and Pride month and became the June pick for Jenna Bush’s book club on NBC’s Today show. Bush described the story about the importance of friendships, focusing on a reunion of college pals, as “the perfect summer book”: “It’ll make you cry on one page and laugh hysterically on the other.”
Rowley’s Today appearance happens later this month, near the end of a 17-stop, four-week cross-country book tour that, on June 11, will bring Rowley to East End Books Ptown.
“It’s overwhelming, but in all the most lovely ways,” Rowley says. “As an artist, you have ups and downs, you work very hard, and there are many lean years. When you have one like this, you appreciate it that much more.”
It’s been a while since Rowley, who lives in Palm Springs, visited Provincetown, and he’s excited to return, especially for a book talk with his friend, author Christopher Castellani (Leading Men). “To come there during Pride month for a book that’s about celebration — it just seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up,” Rowley says.
He worked for years as a columnist and screenwriter before finding success at age 45 with Lily and the Octopus in 2016. Then came The Editor (2019) and The Guncle. With The Celebrants, Rowley has had three books as a top choice of librarians nationwide, elevating him in April to the Library Reads Hall of Fame.
The Celebrants is being promoted as “a Big Chill for our times.” The 1983 movie, about a reunion of friends after a funeral, inspired Rowley to write his book. He thought about his Emerson College friends — bonded since the first night of sharing a dorm hall — and the loss of one to breast cancer. He dedicated The Celebrants to her.
“It’s important to have people who knew you before — before you were married, before your career, before life turned out the way that it did — knew who you were when you had dreams and also know who you are now,” Rowley says. “Those friends help bridge the gap between those two versions of yourself, so it’s important to get together and to stay connected.”
For The Celebrants, he created Jordan, Jordy, Naomi, Craig, and Marielle, who make a pact to throw each other future pre-death “funerals” to celebrate their lives and lift each other up. While the characters are fictitious, Rowley says, an early scene — as Jordan sees sometimes-amusing signs of aging in the others — was inspired by a gathering of his own friends after a funeral. “I had this outpouring of love for them in that moment,” he says. “I like these versions of ourselves better because we have stuck together and thrived and survived.”
Like The Guncle, about a semi-retired gay uncle who becomes the guardian of his elementary-school-age niece and nephew after their mother dies, The Celebrants deals with grief. But it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, a balance Rowley says is challenging but vital.
“What do friends do when they’re together if not laugh?” he says. “After the past few years, we’ve all lost something. It may not be a person, but it’s time, it’s togetherness. So, we’re all grieving. Laughter is truly the way through.”
The Celebrants helped Rowley with his own grief. “Writers write to understand something,” he says. “It helped me not only accept the loss of my friend but also some of my own feelings about aging — that embracing that is a true privilege.”
NBC/Universal has picked up The Celebrants for a TV series, Rowley says, and he hopes to write the pilot episode. He’s also the screenwriter for Lionsgate’s movie of The Guncle, due to be directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect). The timing for both projects is unknown, he says, as work has stopped in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America strike.
Celebrating The Celebrants
The event: Author Steven Rowley talks about his new book with Christopher Castellani
The time: Sunday, June 11, 6 to 7 p.m.
The place: East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St.
The cost: $5 for in-person or virtual tickets; see eastendbooksptown.com