Upside-down lightning, a group of uncouth skydivers, resurrections, a mother’s body overtaken by a garden, aquatic telepathy, a peeling snake-priest, and more. Sea Above, Sun Below is influenced by Western myths, some Greek, some with biblical overtones, resulting in a fusion of fantastic dreams, bizarre yet beautiful nightmares, and multiple narrative threads that form a tapestry which depicts the fragility of characters teetering on the brink of madness. Within you will find flashes of immolation and mutilation, transubstantiation threaded through thematic and genealogical membranes in a literary voice composed of whispers over wails.
Karl Haag: Along with a quote from a Márquez story, you also use the Bible as an epigraph: “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth….” How does this relate to your novel?
George Salis: In a way, the two epigraphs form a prelude to the novel that continues into the opening scene in which the protagonist falls from the sky. Jumping, falling, rising. These actions are the metaphorical crux of the novel because the Icarus myth and the biblical story of the fall of Man are interwoven within the tapestry of my narratives. While Sea above, Sun Below features a group of skydivers who fall from the sky, Icarus fell from the sky, and Lucifer too, ad infinitum, even Peter was crucified upside-down, thus suspended in a perpetual fall. Falling is the quintessential motion that relates to experiencing life. My characters fall from grace or rise through a sea of dreams or get ejected through a windshield during a car accident or get struck in the heel by inverted lightning—electric Achilles! To a degree, my novel is magical realist in nature and so it explores these physics while also turning them upside down and inside out and around and around, like a fractured fractal.
KH: I found a lot of poetry in your prose. Do you consider yourself a poetic writer?
GS: Doubly and indubitably! I’m conscious of the look and sound of words—etymology as anatomical dissection—an inclination which is shared with the best of poetry, no? As Alexander Theroux put it, a writer has a choice to write “To be or not to be” or simply “Should I live or should I die?” The former phrase is much more musical and evocative, it’s the kind of writing I love to read and so naturally it’s also what I attempt to write. You could even reduce that phrase to “Should I kill myself or not?” Why not just grunt once for yes and twice for no? Simplistic and prosaic writing has its place, but it’s not what I look for in my novels. For me, style and language is as important as the content. I yearn for the linguistic fireworks of a writer wrestling with their imagination, nearly snapping their synapses, as can be found in the works of Angela Carter, James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, and others.
KH: Is research important for your craft?
GS: Of course, but I think research is only important in so much as it allows me to feel comfortable in the realm of whatever I’m writing about. Depending on the subject, I will research, whether it’s investigative or academic or both, until I reach that level of comfort, then sometimes I will do more research for extra, enhancing details or further inspiration. Salt and gestalt as needed.
For example, I thought I would have to read stacks of books on skydiving in order to write about it accurately, but that initial thought proved to be unnecessary. I read articles, watched videos, and even ended up skydiving in the name of research even though I’m afraid of heights. After skydiving, I discovered that my description of it was surprisingly accurate despite it being based solely on my imagination, and I ended up including one or two extra details after the experience. This lesson taught me that imagination can be a powerful force even in the absence of research, and that I should put more trust in it. Not all of us can be like William T. Vollmann and travel to every jungle and tundra and brothel in the world.
KH: What is the most satisfying aspect of writing?
GS: It’s one thing to empty my head of all these ideas and see them realized on the page, that’s immensely satisfying, but the regular epiphanies large and small that occur in the act of writing, the imprecision of extra exorcisms, are even more satisfying. There are times when the bulk of a story is made from coincidental ideas that were not expected and only came about when I was at the keyboard. That is one benefit of forcing myself to sit down and write even though I may not feel like it at the time, although I still believe in the importance of hesitation and, as it were, marination. Microcosms and macrocosms can bud and blossom in the brain even while in bed or while mentally staving off boredom during a bowel movement, all of which can be incorporated into the project at large. I don’t even bless people when they expel mucus from their nostrils but I suppose for now I’ll use the word ‘blessing’ in the context of these quotidian loomings of illumination.
Playing with words, fondling and mutilating and electrocuting them—are writers lingual molesters and literary torturers?— evoking images that make even dreams seem tame, exorcising my mind of stories that had been stored there for months or years, all of that contributes to a fulfilling, if not spiritual, experience.
KH: Your novel is described as a tapestry of interwoven tales. Which story from that tapestry do you wish you could experience firsthand?
GS: The stories are dark, even if they are colored with phantasmal dream imagery, so it would not be easy choosing one, if any. There’s a chapter/story titled “Flora” in which the protagonist, Adam, visits his catatonic mother after not having seen her in a long time. She is bedridden, covered in dust from lack of movement, and outside, through the sliding glass door, Adam sees his mother’s garden growing wild with life even though as a child he remembers it being barren, recalcitrant when his mother tried to tend to it. I think the story’s ending is both nightmarish and beautiful, tragic and peaceful. As someone who is estranged from his mother, such an ending, strangely, might bring closure.
KH: What’s something you wish you could master?
GS: In some ways, my writing is an attempt to master the English language, but that’s like trying to pin down a deity who is omnipresent and shapeshifts. Language is both too amorphous and sharp to fully control, too sacred even, and the only way to ‘successfully’ control it is to kill it (like in most bestselling fiction). When teaching abroad, sometimes my colleagues or students would ask me if I plan to learn their native language, Polish, for example, and I would jest with them and say that I’m still trying to master the English language. It’s a joke with truth in it, though, because there are so many words out there beyond the quotidian ones that Hemingway constricted himself to (see Darconville’s Cat), so many grammatical rules that are begging to be broken and mended or metamorphosed altogether (see Ulysses). However, I’m not proud of my monoglot self and I lash myself with the whip of words, although I do plan on learning Greek as I write my third novel, which will be a project dedicated to my ancestral home, its language and mythology and history and culture. I can die happy having become bilingual. But let’s not forget that each word contains a history, so when I write in English I’m still connected by however many degrees to Greek, Latin, French, Italian, etc. Language is the antithesis of loneliness.
KH: I won’t ask about your daily writing habits. Rather, tell me about your reading habits?
GS: I read often for pleasure and because I think it’s one of the most important ingredients of writing, at least for someone who is not a veteran writer, but what I read tends to be scattered. What I mean is, while reading one book, I usually have set intentions regarding what I will read next, yet I’m almost always sidetracked and end up choosing another book when the time comes. I have books that I’ve been meaning to read for years. But there’s a hydra effect when it comes to reading that I’m sure most readers can relate to: cut the head off one book and two or more take its place on your to-read list. The ungraspable infinity of literature makes choosing the next book more important than we may realize.
I mostly read novels, especially novels that have been neglected or ignored by literary culture. I write a column about once a month called Invisible Books, which aims to put a spotlight on the unknown treasures of literature. Right now I’m reading Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed and it’s historically erudite and blasphemous toward godly American figures, such as Lincoln, so it’s funny and goofy too.
KH: What have you been working on since your first novel?
GS: I’m chest-deep in a novel titled Morphological Echoes. I have a few more years or so of work ahead of me. It’s a book that contains a universe of stories, connected across time and space by the rearrangement of schizoid atoms, the transmutation of the laws of physics. It’s a polyphonic, multilinear, omni-temporal epic with thematic and syntactic echoes, taking place in 1940s Japan, 9/11 New York, medieval France, ancient Egypt (this section alone is longer than my first novel), Neolithic prehistory, and more, with a broken family at its kaleidoscopic core. The novel begins with a myth, a truth: the moon gives birth to a boy and when he grows weary of life on the landscape of his mother, he yearns for a strange planet called earth. After quarreling with his mother over the course of years, she eventually concedes with sadness, and she breathes in with the elasticity of a balloon, causing the moon boy to sink with her surface, and she breathes out, a supernal sigh that sends him on a trajectory straight toward the earth….
Karl Haag is a critic and book lover. There are over 2,500 books in his Bavarian flat.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.