Luke Rolfes: Prose writer George Choundas has just published a new book from Eastover Press called UNTIL ALL YOU SEE IS SKY---a collection of smartly written and inquisitive essays that explore ideas of place, heritage, history, the pandemic, and parenthood. Thanks for taking some time with us today, George! I always start holistically with these interviews. Can you give us a sense of how this project came to be? Walk us through its creation?  
George Choundas: Luke, thanks so much for having me. Those are kind words. Over a few years, I published some essays in journals. Some of these were favorites of mine. They had a hold on me. Writers sometimes claim their pieces are like children and they don’t pick favorites. I don’t agree. Pieces are like children in that they’re misbehaved and poop everywhere until they learn not to. Otherwise not. And I’ve got favorites. And I wanted some kind of second life for them. 
LR: Did any particular books, movies, songs, or works of art inspire or serve as companion pieces to this collection? 
GC: There were definitely a few albums I depended on during the writing. Like Chris Thile’s Thanks for Listening and Solange Knowles’ When I Get Home. They got heavy play. 
The collection includes a few COVID-themed pieces. During the first year of the pandemic, I decided to read the autobiography of General Ulysses Grant. I don’t remember why. It took me nearly all that year to finish. It’s got seventy chapters and I was busy doing things like bleach-wiping groceries. What I enjoyed most was all the things that went wrong. Grant’s generals constantly did the opposite of what he commanded. And took forever to decamp and do whatever he’d commanded. And prematurely called for reinforcements like bozos even before they’d done what he commanded. His life was exactly as suck as the lives of those of us who didn’t have our pictures on currency. That was good to know. 
LR: I love the chances you take in this book. Many of the essays within play with traditional form and structure. Your essays are often nonlinear and move/unfold in interesting ways. As well, your story collection THE MAKING SENSE OF THINGS won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize from FC2 Press, and I know they publish a lot of nontraditional and experimental writing. I’ve never been too keen on putting labels on people’s work, but do you consider yourself to be an experimental writer? Why or why not?  
GC: Too much of my life is have to do. Writing is get to do. It’s supposed to be the thing I answer to nobody about. So, if, while writing, I feel the slightest stricture, the slightest compunction, the slightest self-doubt, I usually then feel a spasm of indignation, disproportionate and arguably unhealthy, that barrels me even harder into the same weird and potentially off-putting and probably ill-advised direction that caused the feeling in the first place.   
I like your word, though. Experimental. We’ll go with that. 
LR: Since you publish in both fiction and creative nonfiction, I’d love to hear about the differences in your approaches to these genres. Does one genre come more naturally to you than the other?  
GC: Writing nonfiction is like breathing out. Writing fiction is like holding my breath. That about captures the relative challenge, at least in my experience. Fiction needs stamina and a conviction that nonfiction doesn’t call for. 
The obvious reason is that fiction is twice the workload. You’re creating both the subject and the account of that subject. With nonfiction, you’re creating just the account. Obviously, the latter can demand a lot. But you still have a halfway head-start.  
The non-obvious reason is that in fiction there’s usually a relationship between the subject of your fictional account and some subject in the real world, and the relationship in your head between those things can complicate the artistic process. If you’re writing about a family, say, a family that’s not your family, but for which you’re obviously drawing on your own interactions with and recollections of your own family, you may find yourself, even if only subconsciously, making choices for fairness or accuracy reasons that shouldn’t apply at all, if it’s really fiction work, you’re doing. That disturbance roiling underneath your creative effort can tire you out or sap your confidence without you even knowing it’s happening. 
LR: Let’s take a look at some of these essays. The opening piece contemplates Payless ShoeSource in Tampa and your particular affinity for a pair of Adidas Stan Smith shoes. This is such an interesting and playful piece to start the collection. It’s funny to me how the things that stick with us from our past are not always the most glamorous or profound, yet they are ingrained in us, nonetheless. What gave you the idea to craft an essay around a discount shoe shop and your past life in West Tampa?  
GC: My sister still lives in Tampa. She called me up one day. She said our childhood shoe store had closed and that she’d been there during the liquidation chaos of its second-to-last day.   
I felt two things, very sharply, at the same time. Sad that yet another thing had died. Pissed that I had to pretend that yet another thing dying was normal and part of the way of things and not completely unacceptable. I started writing the piece immediately after getting off the phone. I needed some way to vent those two exhausts. 
LR: So many of these essays, like the Payless piece, encapsulate place and time.  A technique you often employ is listing (or using a list). One of my favorite essays is called “I [Hard-Clenched-Knuckle-Forward Fist] New York.” The essay begins with the sentence “This city is full of fights.” And then it goes on to list a number of fights you’ve encountered in NYC. Another essay entitled “Dead Now” walks us through a list of people (and ideas) from your past that are no longer alive. Other essays use various forms of listing, as well. Can you talk about the list as a form and why it appeals to you? How do you decide that a list is the right choice to express the ideas you want to express?  
GC: Growing up, I collected miniature cars. We didn’t have a lot of money. Most of my acquisitions were what I found in the schoolyard. Then I moved to coins. That was easier. My father ran a hot dog truck, all cash, and the coins people paid with ran to the bizarre. My holdings included an 1895 Liberty Nickel. And then I started with the matchbooks. That one flourished into obsession. I couldn’t walk or ride my bike without eye-scraping the ground.  
I’ve always had a completist urge. Honestly, I think the lists in my pieces may be ways to scratch that itch. It’s an instinct that can backfire when it comes to wordsmithing, though. Three modifiers are occasionally perfect. But mostly they will smack of writerliness, in the same way that a collection spotlights the effort of the collector. Worse, they will sound like lies, like three excuses from the employee who shows up late instead of one from the employee who really was in a car accident. 
LR: I was drawn to the pandemic pieces in this book, particularly “In the Covidium.” The monotony of your life stuck inside with your family (and how every night becomes “movie night”) juxtaposed with your cousin in Italy who treats Covid patients and is hospitalized with Covid herself is incredibly poignant. I know a lot of writers, including myself, who tried to write about the pandemic as it was happening. There wasn’t a lot of distance between us and the acute phase of the pandemic, and that made it hard to map these experiences to a larger context. Can you talk broadly about writing during the pandemic? Looking back now, were there things you simply couldn’t see due to the closeness of the event?  
GC: You are absolutely right, Luke. There was no forest. Only one massive tree in the face, one at a time, one after another. The sister-in-law just lost her job. The ventilated kind doesn’t work. The next-door neighbor just lost his brother. The kids need passwords in case both of us you know. 
My only way of writing during that kind of intensity was to write without regard. I wasn’t thinking about what I’d like to read, or what someone else might like to read. I was writing like a mindless and defiant excretion. I think that’s a good mode anyway.  It came more naturally when there was no mood room for any level of presentational fuss.  
LR: One thing I noted when reading this collection is your usage of diction and word choice. You have a wide-ranging, lyrical vocabulary, and you really let the words sing. I’m flipping through the book and randomly landing on this: “wears an overcoat’s worth of brushed blanket, green and sumptuous, the hues shifting and mottling as the fabric’s tendrils furl and shiver.” Can you give us a sense of your process? How much do you think about diction and word choice when you write?   
GC: Constantly. I was talking two weeks ago with a writer I admire. She has decades of experience and a great intellect. I’d mentioned that I’d spent part of the day revising. I’d also mentioned that it felt like eating candy, that it was so much easier than creating text out of thin air. She agreed, adding that she preferred revising to not just drafting but also editing. Revising versus editing? I didn’t know the difference. I asked her what it was. She said something like, revising is changing how things go, reworking them, and editing is changing the words. My brain broke. All I could think was, the words are the things! The words are the things that go! It made me woozy trying to apprehend this distinction that seemed so plain to her.  
It then occurred to me to feel very bad for beginner writers. I now understand they must always be having these alien law-like pronouncements spat onto their heads by more experienced practitioners and, feeling how wrong they are, must always be thinking to themselves, well, I guess I’m not a writer yet. They should instead be thinking to themselves, Fuck what and fuck ever. You do it your way; I’ll do it mine. 
LR: The closing piece of this collection is called “The Middle of the Center.” This is a place essay that takes readers on a walk-about through Midtown Manhattan. The images and micro-scenes in this essay are vivid. They are at the same time disparate yet woven together in the larger tapestry of the city. I’ve never read an essay quite like it. I’d love to hear about the construction of this one. Did you actually walk around the city and witness all these things on a particular day?  
GC: Thank you, Luke. It’s great to know you experienced that essay just as I’d hoped, like a walk together. That piece was an assemblage over time. I cataloged these moments, more or less as they happened, and noted their locations. Midtown Manhattan is a place I love. It’s like a really good friend. It’s also like Disney World and Die Hard and Daphne du Maurier. So easy to disparage them. They’re not subtle enough. They’re too entertaining. They’re too obvious about what they want from you. It sets me off when people run my friends down. Same with Midtown. Maybe this is a kind of revenge piece.   
I’m now realizing how many times in my answers I’ve referenced pugnacities like anger and defiance and indignation as writing motivations. Like, for three or four of your questions. Maybe all my writing is grudge writing? Maybe all writing is grudge writing?        
LR: What’s next for you and your work? Are you going back to fiction, or will you stick with creative nonfiction?  
GC: Luke, I’m in fiction mode right now. Probably will be for the next several months. I can’t wait to see what worlds fall out. Because, and I know you know how it goes, they’re a total mystery to me until they’re pretty much finished. ​​​​​​​
LR: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, George. Best of luck to you and your writing!   

Bio: George Choundas's work has appeared in over seventy-five publications, including The Best Small Fictions. His story collection, The Making Sense of Things (FC2), was awarded the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, as well as shortlisted for the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, the St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction, and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. He is a former FBI agent and a Cuban- and Greek-American.

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