A pastry chef and her nonbinary kitchen manager find viral fame—and love—in Alexander’s debut, Chef’s Kiss (Atria, May).

Simone’s antipathy toward social media contrasts Ray’s camera-ready extroversion. Why these attitudes?

I worked in social media for years, and that experience informed Simone’s and Ray’s attitudes. I’m of two minds about social media: on the one hand, it’s a chance to connect with folks you wouldn’t otherwise meet, especially in the queer community. On the other hand, social media gives some of the worst elements of human behavior a chance to thrive unimpeded—or worse, with enthusiastic encouragement. So Simone inherited my healthy distrust of that space, I think, while Ray took on that other side of it, which is a genuine desire to connect with people on the other side of the screen.

You write about food so vividly. Tell me about your culinary background.

I grew up working in a restaurant my parents ran. I did every kind of job: washing dishes, restocking buffets, waiting tables—everything except actually cooking. I didn’t have that experience of learning at grandma’s knee, not that I would have wanted to. Sorry to put my grandma on blast, but her signature dish was that pot roast you sprinkle the Lipton soup mix over, you know? When I got to college, I realized I needed to learn how to cook for budget reasons. Food had to be cheap and filling and, most importantly, communal. For me, cooking is how I show I care. Love is stored in the food. I hope that comes through in how I write about it.

How did you develop the dynamic between grumpy Simone and sunshiny Ray?

Grumpy/sunshine is such a top-tier trope because it lets us see a hard-hearted, no-nonsense person gradually soften as they fall in love. I knew from the start that I wanted Simone to be the grumpy one. Though I’m not a woman myself, I understand there’s much for women to be grumpy about. Ray is more of an optimist because they have to be—a sense of humor is essential for Ray to navigate a world that isn’t built with nonbinary people in mind. The events of the book allow them to switch places at times as they get closer: grumpy one goes soft, sunshiny one gets a bit dark. That’s growth, baby!

Did the lack of nonbinary romantic leads influence the way you wrote?

First I’d like to acknowledge all the authors in self-publishing spaces who are creating stories with nonbinary and gender-nonconforming leads. But historically, most stories involving trans and nonbinary characters in mainstream media have been tragedies and cautionary tales and punch lines written by and for cis people; we didn’t get happy endings, let alone happily ever afters. I think that all helped me focus on what was really important to get across to the reader: yes, there are struggles, but we are loved, we are desired, and our happiness, to borrow a rallying cry, is real.