Please welcome Alysia Constantine and
Not every love story is a romance novel.
For Jules Burns, a lonely baker, it is the memory of his deceased husband, Andy. For Teddy Flores, a numbed-to-the-world accountant who accidentally stumbles into his bakery, it is a voyage of discovery into his deep connections to pleasure, to the world, and to his own heart.
Alysia Constantine’s Sweet is also the story of how we tell stories—of what we expect and need from a love story. The narrator is on to you, Reader, and wants to give you a love story that doesn’t always fit the bill. There are ghosts to exorcise, and jobs and money to worry about. Sweet is a love story, but it also reminds us that love is never quite what we expect, nor quite as blissfully easy as we hope.
"Speakerphone. Put me on speaker so you can use your hands. You're going to need both hands, and I won't be held responsible for you mucking up your phone. Speaker."
Teddy set his phone on the counter and switched to the speaker, then stood waiting.
"Hello?" Jules said. "Is this thing on?"
"Sorry," Teddy said. "I'm still here."
"It sounded like you'd suddenly disappeared. I was starting to believe in the rapture," Jules said, and Teddy heard, again, the nervous chuckle.
Their conversation was awkward and full of strange pauses in which there was nothing right to say, and they focused mostly on how awkward and strange it was until Jules told Teddy to dump the almond paste on the counter and start to knead in the sugar.
"I'm doing it, too, along with you," Jules said.
"I'm not sure whether that makes it more or less weird," Teddy admitted, dusting everything in front of him with sugar.
"It's just like giving a back rub," Jules told him. "Roll gently into the dough with the heel of your hand, lean in with your upper body. Think loving things. Add a little sugar each time—watch for when it's ready for more. Not too much at once."
Several moments passed when all that held their connection was a string of huffed and effortful breaths and the soft thump of dough. Teddy felt Jules pressing and leaning forward into his work, felt the small sweat and ache that had begun to announce itself in Jules's shoulders, felt it when he held his breath as he pushed and then exhaled in a rush as he flipped the dough, felt it all as surely as if Jules's body were there next to him, as if he might reach to the side and, without glancing over, brush the sugar from Teddy’s forearm, a gesture which might have been, if real, if the result of many long hours spent in the kitchen together, sweet and familiar and unthinking.
"My grandmother and I used to make this," Jules breathed after a long silence, "when I was little. Mine would always become flowers. She would always make hers into people."
Teddy understood that he needn't reply, that Jules was speaking to him, yes, but speaking more into the empty space in which he stood as a witness, talking a story into the evening around him, and he, Teddy, was lucky to be near, to listen in as the story spun itself out of Jules and into the open, open quiet.
When the dough was finished and Jules had interrupted himself to say, "There, mine's pretty done. I bet yours is done by now, too," Teddy nodded in agreement—and even though he knew Jules couldn't see him, he was sure Jules would sense him nodding through some miniscule change in his breathing or the invisible tension between them slackening just the slightest bit. And he did seem to know, because Jules paused and made a satisfied noise that sounded as if all the spring-coiled readiness had slid from his body. "This taste," Jules sighed, "is like Proust's madeleine."
They spent an hour playing with the dough and molding it into shapes they wouldn't reveal to each other. Teddy felt childish and happy and inept and far too adult all at once as he listened to the rhythmic way Jules breathed and spoke, the way his voice moved in and out of silence, like the advance and retreat of shallow waves that left in their wake little broken treasures on the shore.Only his fingers moved, fumbling and busy and blind as he listened, his whole self waiting for Jules to tell him the next thing, whatever it might be.
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We had a chance to ask Alysia a few questions...
Do you have pictures that you use for your characters? Can you share them with us?
I only have mental pictures. My images of the characters are usually Picasso-like collages of aspects of people I know. There’s usually a little bit of me in many of them, because I am a narcissist, or a bit of my partner. Some of the details of the relationship between Andy and Jules, for instance, are based off my own relationships, though I decline to say which details or which relationships, because I would like to stay on everyone’s good side for now, exes and current loves included.
What kind of book would you like to write that people would see as a huge departure for you?
Depends upon which people we’re talking about. People who know me as an academic would see Sweet as a huge departure. People familiar with the novel might think that a collection of essays about being ill (on which I’m still working) is a weird sideways step. But both of those texts come from me.
Have you ever killed a character? Was it traumatic for you? If you haven’t killed one, would you ever consider it?
I have never killed anyone. I’m saying that in writing. However, one of the characters in Sweet does die before the novel starts, and he is a ghost in the novel. Because I really only started thinking about him after he’d died, it wasn’t too traumatic. However, when I was writing about his death from his lover’s point of view, I admit, I got a little sad. Which I’m a bit embarrassed to admit. Let’s just say I’m glad my office has a door on it, because I’d really not like to share the picture of me sitting alone at my computer, sobbing and typing like a crazy person.
Favorite location you’ve ever written about?
I love New York. I was born in New York, spent my childhood here, and returned here about 20 years ago. When I came back to New York, of course, it was really different. For starters, it was no longer the 1970s. Also, I could live in the city, not in Ossining (yes, where the prison is). But I’m really a city person at heart. I don’t need a yard as long as there is a park; I don’t need quiet as long as I have 30 restaurants able to deliver vegetable samosas at 9pm. New York is such an iconic city; what I like is to write about the parts of the city that only a New Yorker knows about or can appreciate.
I don’t care much for the touristy parts. I like the grit, the weird, the blind corners. I like the inconvenience, the noise, the exhaustion. My partner and I often think of moving out of the city, but I know that if I do, I’m going to miss it. Even though I’m disabled and this city is one of the least disability-friendly cities there is. I will probably even miss that, how hard everything is. But I think it’s a grand city, pretentious, romantic, terrifying, and so diverse… it makes a great character in a story.
What’s your favorite season and favorite activity for that season?
As a professor, I should prefer summer—things slow way down, I don’t have to grade or prep classes, so I have time to work on my own things. But it gets too slow, depressing, and people with Multiple Sclerosis like me don’t do very well in the heat. So I kind of hate summer. I really do like fall, when everything seems to be starting. I know it looks like things are dying, but it’s hard to have that perspective when school is starting a new year, and I often imagine that things aren’t dying so much as they’re revving up to do new things in the spring.
It’s an entire season about potential energy. The weather on the east coast is usually pretty good, too, crisp and cool and sunny, without too much rain or snow or heat. The parts of New York that are far enough from car pollution, like in the parks and on the campus where I teach, are really pretty, full of color and movement. It’s kind of a glorious time of year, a faith-restoring time, for me. Spring’s too showy and obvious for me; fall is when things are getting ready for winter and spring. It’s more interesting, more compelling.
More about the author:
Alysia Constantine lives in Brooklyn with her wife, their two dogs, and a cat. When she is not writing, she is a professor at an art college. Before that, she was a baker and cook for a caterer, and before that, she was a poet.
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