The Making Sense of Things by George Choundas is a collection of twelve stories that pulse with memory, magic, and myth—all our favorite ways of trying to make sense of things.
Winner of Fiction Collective Two’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, Choundas’ stories are filled with vivid and unforgettable characters. A fiercely independent woman puts the man who loves her to unconscionable tests, never guessing that arson, suicide, and canine obesity will yield a magical kind of happiness. A honeymooner in Venice, addled by fever and second thoughts, commits by dumb error a double murder. A brisk lawyer founders when a car wreck claims his son and ex-wife, then discovers that the desperation of grief is a kind of hope.
The following is an interview with Choundas conducted by UAP intern Simran Mahbubani.
As a corporate litigator and former FBI agent, were you always interested in writing or did the practice sneak up on you?
My mother’s a reading teacher. On weekdays she taught reading at P.S. 27 in the South Bronx. On weekends she taught a love of reading to her son. He, in turn, spent thousands of boy-hours spooning up peanut butter with one hand and pages of Treasure Island with the other.
Now, you may be a person who worships books. You may think of reading not as pleasant or edifying or comparable to any number of nice things like swimming and stapling things together, but as central. If you’re that sort of person, then what verb is big and strange enough for how you feel about writing? Authorship for the book-lover is a heady and ridiculous notion. It’s not totally comprehensible. And because the best parts of life are the absurd ones and the impossible ones, I guess writing seemed to me like something to take a crack at.
Put another way, reading’s a kind of magic. A writer sitting at a sauce-smeared kitchen table puts words on a page. That page detonates thoughts and feelings in a perfect stranger miles away. How do you do one end of that experience and not say about the other, Me want try that?
Have any experiences from your FBI days found their way into your stories?
Not yet. Maybe some day.
Your stories are a wonderful mix of sci-fi, mystery, and fairy tale with a dose of realism. What works and authors inspired you to write in such diverse genres?
“Wonderful” is a nice word. Thank you.
Spanish was my first language. (My reading teacher is Cuban.) In college I read a lot in Spanish by a trinity of very special authors: Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Julio Cortázar.
At around the same time, I took a course in American contemporary fiction. I read a lot in English by a different trinity: Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Ethan Canin.
This bilingual bunch of authors merged and crackled and did something permanent to my head. Ever since, when I read fiction, it’s like I’m snooping over the author’s shoulder. A sweet-ass modifier will distract me for three pages when I’m supposed to be paying attention to the plot. I’ve got this deep, other-level admiration for writers who can do it all—you know, the kinds of writers who can push into fantastical settings and dare us not to believe what they’re telling us and then, because the storytelling is perfect and the wordsmithing is awesome, make us feel it anyway.
Like Katherine Dunn and her novel Geek Love. That is a freaking decathlon of a book. Anything you can do she could do better. And then she did some things you wouldn’t dare. There’s a special clutch of books that, at least for me, risk more than seems possible and then don’t just pull it off but spray up a cloud of awe as you nose through the pages: like Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica and Homer’s Iliad.
From where do you glean material for your works, specifically “John Tan Can’t Play Classical Guitar”?
A lot of these stories poked out of some random seed of an everyday experience.
“Troth” was born when I grabbed a coffee one afternoon in the basement of my office building. It abuts Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan. I strolled over for a moment to the windows that look onto the rink and watched as the skaters cleared and a young man dropped onto one knee and presented a woman with a ring. When I returned to my desk a few minutes later, I felt like I’d been away on a two-week vacation.
“Kennedy Travel” features a thirtieth-anniversary dinner aboard a docked ship in Portland harbor. The idea came when my sister and I treated my parents to a fortieth-anniversary dinner aboard a docked ship in Portland harbor. As we looked over the menus, my mother harangued my father about whether he had considered the options thoroughly enough in anticipation of ordering. My father counter-harangued with suggestions that my mother mind her own business. That’s when my sister turned to me and said, “Dinner and a show.”
“Pleasantville” came about when I was trying to write on my front porch. A pair of woodpeckers were just going to town on my neighbor’s eaves. I couldn’t think straight for all the racket. I resented these birds for ruining a weekend writing session and for vandalizing my neighbor’s house because Gary’s a nice guy who hands out full-size candy bars at Halloween and looks at the night sky with a telescope. At the same time, I counseled myself not to resent the birds when I was resenting them for being birds. These contrary impulses intensified into a knot of frustration that I unwound by sketching rapidly over the next hour what eventually became the story. Stupid birds. God bless those birds.
“John Tan Can’t Play Classical Guitar” is maybe the strangest of the stories and maybe the least original. Here’s what happened: I once took classical guitar from a dwarf with an incontinent dog. So, yeah.
What led you to give your own spin on Little Red Riding Hood out of all the other fables?
I was listening to a telling of Little Red Riding Hood somewhere. After knocking on the door, Riding Hood says, “Hello, Grandma.” Grandma replies, “Hello, Little Red Riding Hood.”
When I heard that, I thought to myself, “What kind of bullcrap is that? Grandmothers don’t go around calling their granddaughters by their full names. That is some kind of bullcrap.” For whatever reason, the implausibility of the exchange left me pretty vexed.
Now, you might say there’s no percentage in getting pissed off at fairy tales for a lack of verisimilitude and real-world coherence. That’s fine, I get it. But you might as well try to convince me that we should give woodpeckers a free pass, the demented bastards.
Incidentally, “The Girl Who Not Once Cried Wolf” is dedicated to my daughter. Her name is Claire. I taught her how to play chess when she was five. During our fourth or fifth game, I noticed that each time I threatened one of her pieces, she tried to think of ways to counter-attack. Most kids and most beginners—and certainly most beginner kids—can only think about how fast and far to retreat.
I looked at her with pride and said, “You’re pugnacious.” She looked back at me and said, “I’m not pugnacious. You’re pugnacious!”
I said only a pugnacious person would say that.
She snarled at me.
If you could live in any story in The Making Sense of Things, what story would it be? Would you choose to be one of your characters? If so, which one?
I’d like to think I’m living in “John Tan Can’t Play Classical Guitar” right now. But as the father not the son. Because that story features a fundamental truth. It’s that parents have no idea. They don’t have a clue. The son in the story is wrapped up in all kinds of confusions and preoccupations and maladaptations. And the father doesn’t know that. He’s oblivious. He can’t guess at—let alone address—the thoughts in his son’s head. But, in the end, none of that matters. All that matters is setting a noble example and showing real, consistent love. Parents don’t need to be pharmacists. They can just be lodestars. Doing something as simple as living right goes a long way to shaping our children and helping them find a good path.
When my son was two-and-a-half years old, I walked into the kitchen for breakfast. Peter, already at the table, looked up at me and said, “Hello, good big Daddy!” In my life I have never been called anything better. In my life I will never be called anything better.
The Making of Sense of Things is now available from UAP.