Book Review & Author Interview: Sweet by Alysia Constantine

A couple months ago I tweeted @alysia-constantine, asking if she’d so an interview on my blog about her first novel, an unconventional romance novel called Sweet. You see, I had read an earlier version of it as she’d posted it online and fallen in love with the humor and joie de vivre in her narrative voice. The publisher’s summary captures it well:

Jules Burns is a lonely baker mourning the loss of his husband Andy. Teddy Flores is a numbed-to-the-world accountant who accidentally stumbles into his bakery and, with the help of a mouthy baker’s assistant, some good pastry, and Jules himself, rediscovers his deep connections to pleasure, to the world, and to his own heart.

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, yes, but a story that reminds us that love is never quite what we expect, nor quite as blissfully easy as we hope.

Alas, life got in the way. I left the country for a few weeks. I came back with a to-do list longer than to-do lists ought to be. Then I got the stomach flu. Oh joy.

Or perhaps, given my earlier use of French, I ought to say joie.

But I am back, and ready to internet.

Alysia was a blast to speak with. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

[Interview below cut.]

You were a poet before you started writing fiction. When did you start playing with fiction and why? What’s the difference between writing fiction and poetry? And which do you prefer now?

I guess it might be like asking a chef when she started baking cupcakes and why now she bakes cakes instead.  It’s all language—there are just different standards for what you do with it, different ways of using it to tell a story or make an experience.  I still find fiction difficult because the form usually asks you to sustain an emotional arc over a much longer period of time or number of words than a poem or an essay.  Brevity has always been my inclination (she says, laughing at this long answer).  Poetry the way I wrote it felt more natural to me because the arc was generally shorter, and the form allowed me to highlight and experiment with language and imagery (instead of events/plot).

Now that I’ve been away from college writing programs and the Poetry Scene long enough, I’ve come to realize what a brainwashing in a very particular style of poetry—and fiction—I received, how limited my thinking has been.  The American poetry scene is really centered on lyric poetry–that’s what gets privileged as “poetry.“  I dropped out of the “scene” because it started to feel too limiting and too smug (the scene, I mean, not poetry)–my own work and a lot of the other work I read started to feel  resistant to it, because it seemed like the ONLY acceptable form.

Now, I don’t really think about genre so much, since I was so wrong about the genres in the past.  Now, I’m much more interested in what writing can do, what each instance of writing has to do to convince or work.  I think more in terms of techniques or approaches than in terms of form.  It’s gotten interesting for me again.

What was the original inspiration for Sweet? Did it start with the food, or the romance, or something else?

In early chapters, the inspiration was primarily a friend who suggested the general situation and plot points as I went, and I tried to find a way to jump through the hoops she held up (of course, I am pigheaded by nature, so as soon as she held up a hoop, I started trying to figure out how to look like I was jumping through it while somehow not jumping through it … okay, you’ve just witnessed the death of a once-good metaphor).  Her encouragement was also the original inspiration, combined with my restlessness and desire to write something.  Her idea was for a story in a bakery; my natural response (having been a baker, and having the writing tendencies I do) was toward some sort of sensuality, and connection through food.

I’m afraid the narrator and the bent towards magical realism came from stubbornness on my part—those were my reactions against the requirements of typical American form, the result of my own teaching about performativity for so long (and thus, about expectations, anticipation, form and genre, and how what we think we know informs what we come to see), and a bit of a stubborn streak (hence, my resistance to fulfilling expectations).  Plus, I’d been a baker for a caterer in the past (writers and academics tend to have all sorts of interesting jobs to make ends meet—one is never “just” a writer), and a vegetarian for so much of my life that cooking/baking for myself was a bit of an obsession (there was a time, kids, when veggie burgers were not available in supermarkets or restaurants … if you wanted one, you boiled the beans and mashed them up and fried the patties and drove the forklift required to get them to the plate yourself).

How did your characters grow?

I think, as I wrote, the characters became familiar, and thus more complex and surprising.  Jules, Teddy, ‘Trice (especially ‘Trice) were all sides of me, narcissistic extensions of my own impulses, at first.  As I kept writing, though, I began to discover that it was their differences from me, not their similarities to me, that made them interesting to write. I think a character who is created to simply function as a puppet of the writer is called (in typical sexist fashion) a “Mary Sue.“  I probably began that way, and then lost control.

Writing is dangerously wish-fulfilling.  One must resist, I think, in order to make writing that’s interesting, even to oneself—writing that is about fulfilling my own wishes, about the “Mary Sue,” has a place, but I don’t think it works as art.  (This may be true in the way that keeping a journal meant for others to read is very different from keeping a diary meant only for you.) I actually don’t want a mirror.  I hate looking in mirrors, but when I walk past a mirror, the tendency is always to look at my own reflection anyway.  It’s a little schadenfreude, a little curiosity, a little narcissism. That stuff is always there when one tries to write. But if you’re writing for an audience, you have to resist, to remember that your aims and responsibilities are different from those impulses.

Your narrator tells us there’s no such thing as magic or fate, and yet supernatural things appear to be happening, e.g., in Jules and Teddy imbuing their arousal into their baking, in their haunting by a ghost from Jules’ past. What’s going on here?

First, this narrator is kind of a power-drunk jerk who should not be trusted. In part, the novel is about the narrator, about how stories get told and what one expects from a story. So as soon as the narrator insists that there is no magic or fate, one might start to suspect that there probably is.  Besides, one of the concepts with which I was concerned as I wrote is the role of belief.  Belief goes a long way toward constructing what’s “real” (the play version of Peter Pan encourages all the kids in the audience, in order to revive Tinkerbell, to “clap your hands if you believe in fairies!” Honey, I AM a fairy …).

It might be telling that this question was formulated this way—the narrator says A, but the story does B—rather than the other way—the story does A, but the narrator insists on B.  I think perhaps that suggests the depths to which we as readers are inclined to trust the narrator to be in control of the story, to be an authority (that’s got the same root as “author”).  Authors are supposed to be, by definition, authorities. A narrator is typically assumed to be the same as the author, a stand-in.  I guess this is me playing with Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, poststructuralism, all that academic stuff I teach, but trying to take it out of academia and make it “work.” A narrator is just a character who assumes the authority to tell the story, and we generally trust that the narrator should do so. But I want to stir up a little distrust of authority—it’s just someone TAKING that authority, and without even having to subject him/her/hir/itself to being a character. I mean, it IS an election year for the American president, so a healthy distrust of authority may be a very timely thing to develop.

Fiction—reading it, writing it—is so much about control (having it or giving it up), isn’t it?

In any book, there’s a tension between what the reader might expect should happen, and what happens. Your narrator makes this tension explicit and really plays around with it. Why did you want to tell this kind of narrative, particularly in a romance?

I wanted to make explicit the forms of control that are usually at play when one reads.  Basically, I think you hit the Why-I-Felt-Like-Writing nail on the head. For me, this—not the narrative itself, but how it gets told, how it gets read, how it gets used—was what interested me, particularly in any “genre,” because genres are all about expectations and rules. When I was in an undergrad writing program, we were forbidden from writing “genre fiction” (there were still a couple resistant guys who insisted on writing “vampyre” stories and printing the stuff out in Gothic font on pink paper)—the justification was that too often the rules of the genre eclipse thinking about the story itself. Genre rules let people sometimes avoid considering the real impact of their writing. “Romance” (roman=French for “novel”—novels were, initially, romances) doesn’t have to mean a love story between people, though.  A “romance” is a flight of fancy, an indulgence in what one adores. One could have a romance with cupcakes, or ideas, I think.

When we first spoke about doing this interview, I said I was going to ask you about how to communicate sensory experiences through writing. So consider yourself asked. 🙂

I don’t know that I’ve solved this “how to” yet. I do think one needs to think past rules—of grammar, of genre, of structure—to do it. Part of my training as a poet dictated that meaning (including emotional meaning) is generated by form, word choice, sound as well as by the things to which we normally attribute it (plot, etc). Perhaps it’s the old saw of showing, not telling—creating an experience, rather than simply telling one. I am interested in how things get done with words (OK, J.L. Austin, I’m thieving from you)—meaning comes through language in many more ways than the denotative value of words.  “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” right?  I’m thinking Magritte thought about how meaning isn’t only tied to direct representation.  Representation has limits—one can only represent for someone what that person already knows. But to generate a response in that person, to call forth a reaction (when it was “pity and fear,” Aristotle called it “katharsis”) … I think good art of all kinds does that—creates an experience, rather than simply representing a feeling.

Does writing about eating and writing about sex require pretty much the same approach?

The short answer is “yes,” but the truer answer is that such a sensory approach applies to writing about a car engine, or digging a garden, or filing paperwork. Eating and sex seem more readily to speak about the sensitive body, but I’d like to privilege that kind of approach to all things. It’s more about a way of looking at the world as a sensory exercise than it is about the particular part of the world at which one’s looking. Okay, not merely “looking”—how many of our metaphors for thinking are visually-based? I guess my point, which I just unconsciously undid, is that thinking is not just about the visual (“I see what you mean,” we say, or “she saw the light,” or that person is “enlightened”)—that’s a bias we have toward vision and against other ways of knowing in most of Western culture.  But using only one sense to understand the world limits you, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s in part a political effort, to insist that “knowing” is not merely visually-intellectually-based. I can know through taste or touch, or by connecting with another living thing’s needs and pleasure. That said, eating and sex are both unabashedly about pleasure, though different folk have admonished us that both activities should be more utilitarian. Sluttony is a sin (I just made that up—it’s “slut” and “gluttony”).  Yeah, I vote for sluttony.

Subject change: Any projects you’re working on now that readers can look forward to?

Right now, I’m beginning work on a new hopefully-novel. It takes place in a traveling circus, and it’s a love story between two of the performers. One performer runs away from her husband and family to join the traveling circus and become a fire-eater. The other is a trapeze artist and acrobat who was raised in the circus, and whose parents disappeared during a trapeze performance while she watched. There are other performers, too, who somehow are important to the story: a fat lady, a pair of twins who pretend to be mermaid/man lovers, a strong man … I don’t know much yet, because I haven’t really been able to start writing in earnest (I have to wait until the semester ends in May). It’s my chance to really revel in the subjects on which I work as an academic: freakery, bodies, performativity … It’s probably going to have the same dilettante-fascination with magic realism as Sweet.  At least, it does so far.  I’m supposed to have it to the publisher by August, which means it should be published in early (February?) 2017.

This feels jinxy to talk about. Forget everything I just wrote. (Did that work?)

Anything I should have asked that I didn’t?

I would like you to ask, “Would you please accept this million American dollars?” I would totally say yes.

I would too, if you asked me. I’d squirrel it away and live off its fat, and I would no longer be able to avoid writing by saying, “I should go to work.”

* * *

Buy Sweet.

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