I'm really excited to be here today with Steven Rowley. Steven is the best-selling author of Lily and the Octopus. His second novel, The Editor, comes out April 2nd. He has worked as a freelance writer, screenwriter, and newspaper columnist. A graduate of Emerson College, he currently lives in Los Angeles.
Welcome to Steven. Thanks for being here.
Steven Rowley: Hi. I'm so thrilled. Thank you.
Zibby: The Editorwas fantastic. I couldn't put it down, really. I'm not just saying that. That was really great. The Editor revolves a lot around the fictious relationship with Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Mrs. Onassis in the book, and your narrator, James Smale. I was wondering how you picked her as the focal point of this interaction and how you came up with the idea for the whole book.
Steven: It’s a little bit of an unexpected follow-up for those who read my first book, Lily and the Octopus, which was about a man reckoning with the impending death of his dog and grieving that relationship. In order to understand The Editor, we have to backtrack and talk about Lily for one moment.
Zibby: Please, as long as you want. Let's talk about Lily.
Steven: That was a book that I wrote never expecting to publish it, let alone it becoming a best seller or translated into nineteen languages. Now, there's a movie in development. That was just a small project, I thought, when I was writing it. As a writer, I was just putting words on paper to try to understand. There was a real dog named Lily, a dog that I had. I lost her to a brain tumor in 2013. I thought I was intellectually prepared for this loss. Writing’s a very solitary occupation as it is. I didn't realize how much I'd come to depend on the companionship of this friend. I knew dogs don't live as long as people do. I thought I was prepared for this. I was left spiraling from the loss of her daily companionship. I sat down to write just to try to understand. An octopus entered the picture. To me, it became very clear what I was writing about was attachment and how difficult it can be to let go. There was something about having a tentacular metaphor that made sense to me. As I continued to work on it, this is a small, strange project that I thought I was writing mostly for myself. It was very autobiographical. I put in a lot of emotional detail that I might not have put in the book had I known from the outset that it would be published in a major way.
The journey to publication was interesting. If you want to hear crickets on the other end of the phone, call agents and say, “Would you like to read my book about a dog with an octopus stuck to her head?” You don't get anywhere fast. I remember trying to pitch it once as a cross between Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, which I love, and Moby Dick, which is not two books you should ever say together in the same sentence. That didn't get me anywhere either. It was an interesting path to publication. I was actually going to self-publish it at one point. I'm proud of it as a piece of writing, but perhaps this isn't going to speak to a larger audience because of how personal it is. When it did connect with readers in a very exciting way, I had a few moments where I was like, oh no, what did I actually say in the book about myself and about other people?
Zibby: Going back to your road to publication for a second. I thought I read an interview with you where you said you had actually given up on it, but then sent it to a friend and you published it without an agent, right?
Steven: Yeah. I'm old enough to know this is not how it works. This is a little bit of magic. I can't help but thinking there's a little, friendly dog spirit up there helping, pulling some strings. I spent two years trying to get it published. I had given up on it. I hired a freelance editor in New York because I was going to self-publish it. Self-publishing is a wonderful tool for writers, but it runs the gamut. There's great self-published stuff. There's very schlocky self-published things too. I wanted, at least, for it to appear as professional as possible, so I hired a freelance editor. It was through that editor that she was able to pass it along to someone she knew at Simon & Schuster. That snuck it in the back door. They usually don't look at unagented things.
Zibby: Wow. Do you ever want to call some of those editors who passed and be like, “Ha. Look what happened”?
Steven: I will say this. For aspiring writers out there who are in the process of looking for an agent, it can be very fraught, the agent search. If you have an offer for publication, you kind of get to choose. I could go back to the people who had passed before and be like, “Maybe take another look at this.” I was very lucky to have that happen. I had changed the names. There's some fictious things. I never really thought there was an octopus on my dog. I had changed the names of all the characters. Some people, it’s hard to disguise them. Mom comes to mind. Somehow, eagle-eye readers cracked that code. Ultimately though, it was a very good, positive experience for me.
I understood immediately that what I wanted to write about next was something similar, a character where they write something very autobiographical and it spirals beyond his control. The actual events of how it happened to me was not interesting enough to sustain a novel. All apologies to Mrs. Onassis, as I call her in the book. I was looking for the octopus, that additional magical element that could elevate a simple story into the depth that a novel requires. Actually, of all things, I had seen a Project Runwaychallenge. They did a Jackie O Project Runway challenge in season seven or eight. It was a while ago, but it always stuck with me. They showed a lot of pictures of her throughout her life. Designers gravitated towards a very Chanel-like suit that she might have worn as first lady or a gauzey drape thing that she might have worn on a yacht with Onassis or something.
There was this one image of her walking down the streets of Manhattan with her face buried in a book. For those of us who have lived in New York before, I was like, who's that woman? That's someone I relate to. That was the most interesting version of Jackie to me. I immediately wanted to know more about her. I knew that she’d had this career in publishing, but I didn't know the particulars. It started me down a road of being interested in her. I read a few biographies on her at the time. I don't know what the exact moment was I folded these two stories together. Once I did, I realized I had something special.
Zibby: That's so neat. It felt so real. Are you allowed to just do that with any historical character? I know that's a silly question. Can you just make it all up? Is it okay? Do you ever get in trouble?
Steven: I know, right? That was my first question to my agents, particularly. She's enough of a public figure that, yes, I do have the right to do that. Also, it’s not slanderous in any way. I am a huge fan. I greatly admire this incredible third act that she had to her life that not a lot of people know about. I wanted to say when she was done with men, but she wasn’t. She had a long-term relationship with Maurice Tempelsman, who was a Belgian businessman who stayed in the background. Jokingly, they called him Mr. Kennedy Onassis because she was finally front and center in her life.
This career that she had, she worked for fifteen years as a book editor editing just over a hundred titles, I believe, over those fifteen years. It’s such a fascinating thing. It’s not the first thing we think about, unfortunately, when we remember her. Mostly, I think by design, she was done with the spotlight. She had enough of that. She only granted one interview in her entire career to Publishers Weekly. I didn't entirely make it all up. I did a lot of research. There's some wonderful books on her publishing career that people can check out if they are interested in knowing more. There is that little bit of magic where I had to fill in the gaps a little bit. This is kind of a wish fulfillment. It’s a little bit of a fantasy. How much do we all wish we could have a friendship with someone like that? I wanted to lean into the fun of it too.
Zibby: I loved how in the beginning of their interaction you were talking about how people stayed away from Jackie a little in the hallways of the editing because they just didn’t know how to interact. It took this one lunch lady who said, “Jackie, what do you want?” and everybody was more relaxed. Did you make that up?
Steven: No. I didn't. That's a wonderful little detail that I pulled from a biography of her called Reading Jackieby William Kuhn. That actually happened. There was a lunch lady who broke the awkwardness in the office.
Zibby: Another really cool element of your book, in addition to weaving in this element of historical fiction, is you have this book-within-a-book situation, originally called The Quarantine, then called Ithaca, which you explain in the book. When I finished reading the book, I then wanted to read the other books.
Steven: You wanted to read the book within the book?
Zibby: Yeah. I wanted to read the book within the book. Maybe there's a little sliver you could write of that.
Steven: Yes, I've thought about it. Yes, I've probably written a little bit more of it than appears in the book that sits in a file on my computer. For the moment, I think I'm done torturing my mother. I think she would prefer that I find another subject matter other than mothers and sons.
Zibby: You had this great quote about your mother in the book when she had helped facilitate this cake-building contest between James and his dad. You wrote, “As the bridge that spans the widening gulf that exists between my father and I, my mother sometimes seems feeble. The cables that keep her suspended feel tired and frayed, but tonight as she turns back to smile at me before patting my father on the leg, she seems fully made of steel.” That's nice. It’s not all bad.
Steven: No, it’s not all bad. It’s complicated. There's great beauty in complication sometimes. My mother is probably my biggest fan right now, which is very sweet, despite the fact that I'm sure she wishes I wrote about other things other than mothers. She comes from a family where people were not emotive in the same way or not exploring of feelings, I think probably is fair to say. As a writer, I always want to get in there and poke and get it all out in the open. It’s just my writer’s curiosity. I think of it as a life’s work is to talk about the messy parts. There is a little bit where we butt heads sometimes. Ultimately, she's very thrilled for her son. Nothing tickles her more than going into a bookstore and seeing her son’s book on the shelves.
Zibby: I'm sure. It’s every mother’s dream. Kids, please write books so one day I can go to a bookstore and kvell over you as well. You had such great details. I wonder if these were from your own life. One time you cut yourself shaving and called your mother. “I can't stop the bleeding.” Even as an adult, you turned to her for that.
Steven: There are moments that happen to you in life, and it doesn't matter how old you are, that you still want that motherly comfort. It doesn't matter if we’re five years old, fifty years old, or into old age yourself when your parents are long gone. There's always something where you yearn for that safety. Some of those details I pull from life. Some are made up. Sometimes, I’ll do a scene that feels like something that happened to me in real life as long as the emotional truth is the same. Sometimes the actual details, you can fudge a little bit.
Zibby: I did the same thing. I broke a spoon in college and sliced open my finger trying to scoop some frozen yogurt, which at the time I thought was so healthy. I remember calling my mother and her being like, “I'm not sure. What can I do?” I related to that.
As the book goes on -- I won't give anything away -- you have it end in a way that I personally was not expecting it to go. When you started mapping out this book, did you start knowing all of the events that would unfold, including the ending? Did you take it as it came? Do you outline? Do you just flow with the characters? What's your process like?
Steven: I do outline, but I don't know everything. I'm not a rigorous outliner. I know some writers have the whole book mapped out. Writing, to me, is a journey. It’s the same even when I travel. I have the few highlights I want to hit, the few points of interest. I like to leave some room open to discover things that I didn't know until I was in the thick of it. There are a few surprises along the way. When I wrote Lily and I decided on using an octopus, I knew immediately the book needed to be written in eight parts. Each part would have an octopus theme. One of the sections is called Ink. Then I can map out, there's a bit about a [indiscernible] test in there and a tattoo. I laugh now thinking about that particular example because an octopus is an invertebrate. I was thinking that gave me a skeleton for the book.
With The Editor, it’s the same way. It’s written in five parts. They're not quite each a novella, but they have a distinct flavor to each one of them as well. I knew where the book would end. I also wanted to play with certain surprises in the book as well. Clearly, the titular editor is Jackie Onassis. I started to think of the ways in which the mother could be editor as well over the facts of James’ life and a little bit how James could be an editor over the audience. The book is told in the first person. He’s not always the most reliable narrator either, which leads to a surprise that comes later in the book too. I really wanted to think in ways in which they were all editing the experience of this story.
Zibby: You did a really beautiful job describing same-sex relationships, especially as the men were getting older. You had this beautiful scene outside a movie theater where one man is straightening the tie or some little detail of his partner. Then in the book, you have James think, “Is this what my relationship with my current partner is going to be like? Are we going to grow old together?” You go into quite graphic depth of some of their interactions, which I thought was great. I feel like I don't read that enough. Was that intentional? Did you scope the landscape and see what you wanted to add? You did a really beautiful job of portraying all of that intimacy.
Steven: Thank you. Now, to have Jacqueline Onassis be a character in this book -- she obviously passed away in the mid-nineties, about twenty-five years ago -- the book takes place in the early nineties. That's an interesting time period in terms of gay relationships, gay rights, what was happening for gay men, particularly with the AIDS crisis. I tend to remember it as more of the eighties, but there were more fatalities in the first half of the nineties. It was really a very different time. We forget how quickly -- gay rights, gay marriage, society has changed so fast. Usually, it takes generations for these types of changes to happen. It was very interesting to go back and take my lens of today off and remember what it was like.
For me personally, that's around the time that I came out myself, in the early nineties. I never thought I would see gay marriage in my lifetime. That model of relationship just was off the table. Additionally, there was an entire generation of men ten to twenty to thirty years older than me that was kind of wiped out. They were missing. To see an older couple together like that was not the norm, or they had learned to live a closeted life and so they weren’t as visible. There's a real haunting sadness to that idea. When I spotlighted an older couple in the book, I really thought that was such a beautiful moment and a powerful thing for particularly young, gay men at the time to see. It doesn't have to be aspirational, but it does lay out this is one path that is available to us if we want it. It’s interesting to think how gay relationship models have changed so quickly in twenty-five, thirty years.
Zibby: Was that vignette something you actually saw or another part of your imagination?
Steven: Not that particular vignette. I do remember always being taken aback when I saw moments of affection at that time as a young man just coming out. Also, I lived in a city in college when I came out. You'd always be scared. It was scary. Even today, we’re having a slight backtracking in our current political situation and climate. You worry about holding hands in public or kissing in public sometimes. Particularly then, it was a little bit dangerous. When you see a moment of intimacy -- this is really just a man helping another man with his tie, but it’s done with such love. I remember seeing some moment like that that was shocking to me. I always was able to clock it. Those things, these little, tiny acts stay with you.
Zibby: You wrote the whole book in such a visual way, which is probably why it’s on its way to being on screen. That scene in particular to me, when I flip through in my mental images of the book, is one that is particularly crystal clear. I just loved the way you wrote that.
Speaking of screenplays, what's the latest on turning this into -- with Fox, right? This one’s with Fox, or the other one’s with Fox? What's the story? You have so much going on in Hollywood.
Steven: Fox is merging with Disney at the moment, so there's a little bit up in the air. I'm working with director Greg Berlanti, who did Love, Simon last year and has quite a TV empire, to bring The Editor to the big screen. I am writing the adaptation, which I'm very excited about. Casting Jackie has been a fun parlor game between my friends and I. What's exciting, two things. There's two great roles for women who are about sixty in this movie, the mom and Jackie. There's so many actresses who are underserved for material. I'm very excited to see a doubleheader with two strong women. I grew up with Terms of Endearment or Steel Magnolias, or those types of movies.
Zibby: That was one of the first movies that I realized I could cry because of a movie harder than I could because of my own life. You know that feeling? Tearjerker of all time.
Steven: As someone who writes sort of tearjerkers now, it’s interesting. Secondly, I'm excited because as pervasive as Jackie is in our pop culture, we've never seen her portrayed at this age. There was HBO adaption of Grey Gardens where she showed up for a few minutes. She was probably forty, forty-five in there. We've never seen her represented in pop culture at this point in her life. I'm excited to be a part of that.
Zibby: That's excellent. Lily and the Octopus is also being turned into…
Steven: Also being adapted into a movie by Amazon Studios. I did not write that. Interestingly enough, I was working as a screenwriter. When I decided to write Lilyas novel, I took off my screenwriter’s hat entirely. If I'm going to make it a novel, how can I lean into the strengths of what novels can do, what I can't do a screenwriter? It’s very internal. It takes place largely in one man’s imagination. There's a big battle at sea. There's a dog and an octopus and all this stuff. I was snickering when I was writing because I could hear a producer saying, “We’re not doing that. We can't even do that. No one’s going to give you the money for that.” When there was movie interest, I thought, good luck to whoever you hire to write it. It was a wonderful writer who adapted it. Moving forward, slowly but surely. Also, because it was so deeply personal to me, I just didn't think I would be the best person to adapt it even if knew how, which I did not. [laughs] With The Editor however, it’s a little bit more of a straightforward adaptation, compared to Lily at least. I'm very excited to be at the helm of that.
Zibby: Is it fun working -- the screenplay, you have a whole team that you're working with, a collaboration?
Steven: Novel writing particularly is a very lonely endeavor at times. It’s a double-edged sword. I remember the first time I sat down with my book editor forLily. She was giving me a few notes and said something like, “But I defer to your creative authority.” I almost fell out of my chair. In fifteen years of trying to pursue screenwriting in LA, no one ever deferred to the screenwriter’s creative authority. A film, it’s a director’s medium. There are many cooks in the kitchen. Having spent, now, several years working on these two books and a third, I really welcome working with a team, especially when you assemble the right team. I'm very lucky to be working with the people I am.
Zibby: What's the third book?
Steven: It hasn’t been announced yet. It’ll be out next year. I'm not really allowed to talk about it.
Zibby: You finished it?
Steven: I did. Well, finish is a word on a sliding scale. Still tinkering, but a draft is done.
Zibby: That's exciting. Fiction still?
Steven: Fiction still, yeah.
Zibby: Is this also about a struggling writer?
Steven: It is not.
Zibby: Okay, good.
Steven: I didn't even think of that. I didn't even put together that I've now twice written about struggling writers. I guess I'm not a struggling writer.
Zibby: I don't think you can write about struggling writers anymore. That's it. You’re done. You have to move on to, now, a successful writer.
Steven: Now that’s it’s my full-time profession. Interestingly enough, the third book does have a character who was very successful and walked away from it. I'm not considering doing that because I've waited my whole life to be this busy. I'm just putting that together in my head now.
Zibby: You have more ideas for after that?
Steven: I hope so.
Steven: It’s so funny. You spend two years writing a book that people can read in two days. When’s the next one?
Zibby: I have faith. I'm sure you will think of more great stuff. Do you have advice to aspiring authors?
Steven: Don't try to copy anybody else's style or voice. The greatest thing you can do is discovering your own voice and sticking to it. It helps develop a brand later on. That's probably bigger thinking. In the moment, it’ll really serve you to find your way as you stumble through darkness, which is what novel writing is. If you have a story inside you and you don't see yourself portrayed or represented and you have a story, write it. Be the one to write it. Don't wait for someone to give you permission to do it. Just do it. You'll be surprised where the journey can lead.
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Steven: This has been a lot of fun.
Zibby: Can't wait to see all these movies. Waiting for the third book. You're booking my entertainment quota for years to come.
Steven: We’ll try to leave room for others.
Zibby: I’ll try. Thank you.
Steven: Thank you.