For years, author Steven Rowley felt that he’d found a comfortable niche in writing heterosexual romantic comedies. There was only one problem: He wasn’t heterosexual himself.
Rowley was my guest recently on The Sewers of Paris, a podcast about entertainment that changed the lives of gay men. He reflected back on his cultural influences, and the inspiration for the unlikely book he wrote that was only supposed to be a short story written for himself — and wound up becoming a best-selling novel.
As a child, he was drawn to the movie Tootsie, and particularly loved the line from Dustin Hoffman about how, when dressed in drag around a woman he cared for, he felt like a better man as a woman than he ever was as a man. Rowley was a fussy kid, precise and meticulous; he quit a soccer team once because he didn’t like that the grass on the field was wet and made his socks squishy.
Finding His Calling as a Writer
“I was born gay,” he recalls.
It was when his dad built him a desk that he suddenly found his calling — there, he could sit and compose stories all by himself, and for the first time he felt like a real writer.
In high school, he was determined to explore the arts, and worked as hard as he could to work his way up in Drama Club so he could get the lead as a senior — only for the advisor to choose The Diary of Anne Frank as that year’s play. He had a close relationship with another boy that became physical, but Steven rationalized it in a letter to the boy, explaining that they could mess around because he was just so comfortable in his heterosexuality.
But he couldn’t stay closeted for much longer. He went to college at Emerson in Boston, and was ready to come out when all of his classmates started beating him to it. Every time he felt ready to open up, someone else would burst out of the closet and he felt too awkward to do the same.
When he finally did come out, it felt a bit like the big reveal—spoiler alert—at the end of Tootsie, when Dustin Hoffman’s character rips off his wig and everyone gasps. But in Rowley’s case, there were no gasps. Everyone shrugged; they’d guessed already.
How a Dog and a Boyfriend Made His Debut Novel Possible
Years later, Rowley was working as a successful writer in Los Angeles, though he worried that the rom-com trend which earned his scripts acclaim would eventually dry up. His companion for over a decade in Los Angeles was a little dachshund named Lily (so named because she was “little,” which got shortened). She was Steven’s trusted sidekick for most of his adult life, and when she passed away a few years ago, he was devastated.
And so he did what he’d always done: set pen to paper to understand his feelings. He wrote a short story about Lily, and included a character who was a reflection of himself, an openly gay man seeking love. He showed the story to a man named Byron he’d just started dating, and Byron told him to keep going. That startled Steven, as writing more of that story was never part of his plan, but he did, and with Lily’s inspiration and Byron’s encouragement, soon a novel had sprung forth.
When he took Lily and the Octopus to a publisher, this time it was with a new determination that the story would be completely, unchangeably gay.
Listen to more of Rowley’s story—including the publisher’s emotional reaction—at The Sewers of Paris.