George Salis: Sea Above, Sun Below
Author George Salis has just published his first novel with River Boat Books. Sea Above, Sun Below is described as containing the following elements: ‘Upside-down lightning, a group of uncouth skydivers, resurrections, a mother’s body overtaken by a garden, aquatic telepathy, and a peeling snake-priest’. Read on to get a taste of this oneiric world.
Your original new novel Sea Above, Sun Below is coming out with River Boat Books. Could you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind this work, your first full-length work of prose?
If I could pinpoint the impetus for writing Sea Above, Sun Below, then it is my love for the myth of Icarus, and in a way my novel is a roundabout interpretation of that myth. But myths do not exist in vacuums. The fall of Icarus echoes the fall of Satan which echoes the fall of Man which echoes the fall of Finnegan which echoes the recurrent falls of the skydivers in my novel.
The structure features stories within stories, connected on a thematic level. There are three main parts; but depending on how you count, there are ten tales that weave into each other to form a tapestry. My inspiration for the structure can be traced to The Thousand and One Nights and Cloud Atlas, to name a couple of examples.
Sea Above begins with an epigraph from a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’. In what ways do you feel you work within or expand the genre of magic realism?
An early reader of the novel commented on a general uneasiness that pervades the stories, a sort of subterranean vibration signifying that something is not right. There are reports of upside-down lightning rising from the ground, boring through the heels of men and women, then stamping their foreheads with astral scars.
I think fiction is one of the best mediums in which metaphors are made flesh. In Kafka’s famous story a starving artist is literally a ‘hunger artist.’ In Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, the holocaust wasn’t just like turning the clocks back on moral progress, the clocks literally turned back. In my novel, a bully morphs into a bellowing bull, like the labyrinth’s own.
Magic realism, as it says in the name, is an estuary of the literal and metaphorical. I do feel that I work within this genre, although not strictly. I’ll let the readers decide if and how I expand it.
Do you feel close to weird or slipstream fiction?
I feel close to any genre or medium that explores the world of dreams and mythology, which are intimately connected. I sometimes hear people repeat Henry James’ warning, ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader.’ But perhaps such a reader is worth losing because dreams, whether we remember them or not, acknowledge them or not, constitute about half our lives. I don’t believe dreams can predict the future, except through coincidence, but they can ‘postdict’ the past, as it were, and tell us not only deeper truths about ourselves but truths about our culture, our humanity, which ultimately does have a bearing on our future. We ignore them at our peril.
To what extent does genre have any bearing on the way you write?
Genre has no real bearing on the way I write. Like biological taxonomy, the existence of genres can be helpful when talking about a writer’s work, but it can also be unproductive or antithetical. In some paradoxical way, the best works know themselves without knowing themselves, because while genre can aid in situating a project on the macro level, it can be debilitating and constrictive on the meso and micro levels.
One way of defying this is to combine genres as one sees fit. I prefer to read works that are singular in their profusion of influence. This is what I hope my writing reflects, but I don’t make a conscious effort to defy genre, only cliché, although genre and cliché are somewhat correlated.
Your prose is learned yet poetic. Do you feel that the contemporary novel tends to be a little too prosaic?
Arundhati Roy recently said that, on the whole, contemporary novels are losing their wilderness, and I have to agree, although of course there are exceptions. Somewhat ironically, it is usually up to the small presses to take financial risks by publishing ambitious, artistic books.
When I read something that might be described as polished and tightly structured, it often feels too timid, too safe. But I do think there is merit in soft-spoken prose consisting of carefully chosen words. It depends on the type of story being told or the way in which an author wants to tell it. I believe my first novel contains a bit of both temperaments, whispers and wails.
The tutelary writers that mentor a particular work can vary from one book to another. Which writers presided over the writing of this novel?
For better or worse, I did not have a mentor as such while writing this novel, but my wife, the poet Nicole Melchionda, supported me throughout the process as an editor, a proofreader, a confidante, a muse, and more. I am grateful for her luminous existence.
Additionally, there were literary spirits that both haunted and animated me. Some of their origins are pinpointable, others more mysterious. From the very beginning, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses informed my work as an example of an ideal masterpiece. That novel’s prose, its magic and reality, its interwoven tales, all of it is ensorcelling. The beginning of my novel is a nod, in a way, to Rushdie’s. Like his protagonists, mine too fall from the sky.
About halfway or so through the writing of my novel, I read Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. His uninhibited imagination mesmerized me as I commuted to and from work in a rust-plagued, Communist-era tram while I lived in Bulgaria. His novel taught me that I can do anything I want in fiction, that a novel is my own paracosm. It seems like an obvious conclusion, but certain truths need to be repeated before they are fully subsumed, especially when it comes to writing one’s first novel. There was something about the style of Okri’s novel that finally did it for me.
Do you ever experience writer’s block or the anxiety of influence?
I may have experienced mild versions of these phenomena when I was just starting out, but I’ve since learned how to mould morsels and mountains to my own vision, and so I welcome influence from any and all sources. I read widely, watch films and TV series, and travel when I can.
I think the phenomena in question is generally a symptom of a fearful or insecure writer, and I’d say excess and indulgence might be a solution to these problems. Writers crippled by insecurity should write more, even if it’s not related to the project at hand, and read even more than they write, read with the gusto and gluttony of a gourmand and engage with the works on an investigative level. What resonated with you and why? What didn’t and why? What would you do differently and how?
Your book is deeply biblical. Does this come from your own faith or do you use the Bible mostly as a source of myth, or what John Barth called ‘mythotherapy’?
I’m an infidel who is interested in the effects and machinations of faith. I hope that your question is an indication that my exploration of such a memetic phenomenon was neutral and balanced in a way that at least masks propaganda. For, like Orwell said, ‘All art is propaganda.’ I can only attempt to limit my biases, not eliminate them.
Evelyn, a character from my novel, was partly born of my desire to explore the psychological repercussion of religious indoctrination, specifically a belief in hellfire, which is the reason why some people who discard their religion have to go to therapy. They see the flames in their dreams, even in their waking life.
I do think many Bible stories are rich despite or because they are connected to earlier myths, which is why you will also find in my novel allusions to and versions of Greek myths. Sea Above, Sun Below has mostly exorcised my interest in biblical myths, but I will always lie full fathom five in the sea of stories. Even now I’m writing a cosmic, encyclopaedic novel of dozens and dozens of stories connected across time and space by the rearrangement of schizoid atoms.
In the distant future, my third novel will give the same obsessive attention to Greece that Joyce gave to Ireland, or at least that will be my intention. There is no escaping the multiverse of mythology, but why would I want to?
Interview by Erik Martiny.
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