Author of Sea Above, Sun Below novel George Salis discusses his book and his story “Nuclear Mysticism” (Three Crows Magazine #7), if there are “right” ways to read stories, relatable characters, and what’s next for him.
Let’s get to know you – who is George Salis?
I’m a bibliophile, a linguaphile, a mythopoeist who often prefers reading what I like to call “invisible books.” That is, works that have been wrongly neglected by the gatekeepers of literature and others. Such authors include Rikki Ducornet, Alexander Theroux, Wendy Walker (not the bestselling author of the same name, of course), Joseph McElroy, Luisa Valenzuela, Patricia Eakins, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, and many more.
I also have a virtual labor of love called The Collidescope in which I publish fiction, poetry, and more that pertain to my preferred aesthetics. My wife, the wonderful poet Nicole Melchionda, edits the poetry with me, naturally.
I’m thankful for all of the great readers and writers I’ve connected with because of that online publication.
Tell us a bit about your story “Nuclear Mysticism” – where did it begin and how did it develop? Did you make a plan beforehand? Or did you play with it as you wrote it?
The idea of “Nuclear Mysticism,” if I had to pinpoint a distant impetus, was the title itself, which comes from Salvador Dalí. I wanted that title to be a story, and of course the concept of anything nuclear is tragically connected to Japan’s two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But what about the mysticism? I proposed the possibility of the bombs falling in slow motion, over the course of years, and then followed that concept toward a realized reality. Not only would the bombs fall slowly but I decided they would have to explode in slow motion too. This environment, this polluted atmosphere of paranoia and fear and radiation, seemed like a mutantly fertile way to explore human psychology.
However, because I’ve been working on a mega-novel, of which this story is but one part in a cosmic mosaic, I allowed the concept to mentally gestate for a few years while working on other parts, echoing the sluggish drip of the bombs themselves, and when it came time to write the story, the bulk of it originated through real-time coincidence and subconscious revelation, two of the major joys of writing. For instance, when I realized the bomb could look like a keyhole in the moon at night, I followed that concept to fruition and created the thief Hitomu, likewise with the fisherman Yousuke when I described the bomb as a fish against the sun. The sumo wrestler Taichi was simply born from the fact that, as with much of Japanese culture as a whole, I’m fascinated with the sport and wanted to learn more about it. That’s the thing with writing; I don’t write what I know, a ridiculously limited scrivener’s platitude. Rather, I often write what I want to learn about. This story gave me an excuse to do in-depth research into Japanese culture, the history of the bombs and the people they murdered, and more. Out of all the research I conducted, reading Hiroshima by John Hersey was particularly powerful and helpful.
Research, though, can be fickle. I believe there’s such thing as too much research and so when I find the right amount of material that can give me the confidence to tell the stories, then that’s when begin, though I usually supplement the fiction with more specific research here and there if I find that it’s necessary or if I have certain questions about a phenomenon or practice, etc.
How should the reader approach it? Is there a “right” way to read it?
No, I don’t necessarily believe in a right way when it comes to reading fiction. Though I do think that more readers need to approach fiction with a more open mind, a willingness to meet the story on its own terms. Not every story needs an arc and a bowtie ending. Not every character needs to be relatable. And perhaps most importantly, the beliefs and actions of characters shouldn’t be misconstrued as the author’s beliefs and actions.
Why do you think modern publishers are cautious of publishing stories like “Nuclear Mysticism”?
Cautious is perhaps a cautious way to put it. I’d say that most publishers are completely opposed to such stories for a variety of reasons.
One reason is the mistaken belief that a writer should only write within their ‘race’ (a concept that has no biological basis—we are all homo sapiens) or their culture, for instance.
I believe the art of fiction, and specifically the art of the novel, is capable of so much more than telling a simple and familiar story.
Culture is an extremely fluid concept that never stops mixing melding meshing. To put an illusory border between various cultures and beliefs is to limit the imagination, to limit understanding and communication, and to limit art. Wanting to keep a culture ‘pure’ by censoring perspectives, remixes, collaborations, etc. has an almost acrid Aryan flavor to it. The late great astronomer Carl Sagan told us to look at the picture of the pale blue dot, Earth, where landmasses have no true borders, and the same can be said about humanity’s imagination, along with a great many other things, including, for instance, our DNA. There’s no such thing as ‘people and animals.’ It’s only accurate if you say ‘people and other animals.’ The interconnectedness of people and other animals, belief and art, even stars and atoms, is something I want to reflect in my fiction, particularly in the novel I’m working on now.
The other aspect to consider is the style in which my story is written. It’s an endangered style that can be traced to writers such as Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, and others, an encyclopedic style that contains verbosity, wordplay, run-on sentences, exhaustive lists, stories within stories, digressions, hysterical hyperbole and hyperboles of hysteria, and more. In short, maximalism. It’s not necessarily a style that the average or casual reader would readily enjoy. It’s a style that, depending on how much experience you have, can take some effort to read.
The hope is that the effort is paid off with a story more rich than if it had been written simply and safely. These days, the dominant style of fiction is minimalism: short, declarative sentences, sparse vocabulary, soft-spoken prose. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that style other than it doesn’t speak to my literary soul as much as the opposite. What is disconcerting is that there are so few platforms for the maximalist form, with many publications, for example, setting their word limit for submissions at around 3,000 or thereabouts. This is not nearly enough, especially considering “Nuclear Mysticism” is over 13,000 words, and so I’ve been forced to take ‘paragraphs’ from my stories in order to get them published (as an example, readers who’d like to read an epilogue to “Nuclear Mysticism,” titled “Country of Dolls,” can click here, or they can wait however many years or longer until the full novel is finished and published). There’s something to be said about the act of using few words to tell much, but it can take just as much skill, if not more, to write a 13,000-word story that can sustain a high note throughout and juggle multiple narratives.
I believe the art of fiction, and specifically the art of the novel, is capable of so much more than telling a simple and familiar story, but many people wouldn’t necessarily know that if all they read are New York Times bestsellers.
Tell us about your book Sea Above, Sun Below?
If “Nuclear Mysticism” is a radiated nightmare of awful beauty and mutant clairvoyance, then Sea Above, Sun Below is a fever dream of Matryoshka doll-structured tales related to each other by genealogy and overlapping metaphor.
It’s my first novel yet I’ve been gladdened and surprised to hear several writers and readers describe the book as accomplished in such a way as to totally obscure the young age of the author. While the novel’s voice might seem accomplished, I know that I can do better, otherwise I wouldn’t be spending years writing a mega-novel. However, having reread it for proofreading purposes, I was able to enjoy it as unbiasedly as possible and it is a very curious and earnest novel, worthy of its ink and paper.
Rather than attempt to summarize the novel, or copy-paste the marketing lingo, readers can watch a video review by Chris Via of the YouTube channel Leaf by Leaf. Chris is one of the most diligent and inspiring readers out there.
But I will say that the novel has revelation-inducing skydiving, inverted lightning that bores through heels and gives the afflicted astral scars on their foreheads, an Alzheimer’s-produced poltergeist, a molting priest, and more.
It was published by River Boat Books and can be purchased here.
What’s next for you?
As it happens, what’s next has already been going on for around 4 years or so.
My next novel will be a mammoth titled Morphological Echoes. I have a few more years of work ahead of me, maybe more. 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, 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….
I’ve spent almost a year and counting on the ancient Egyptian section alone. It’s my hysterical (in both meanings of the word) and disturbing version of the Egyptian plagues, whittled down to 6, the hexamorphic plagues, and it’s full of wordplay and wrathful gods and goddesses and esoteric rituals and scatology and mummified anatomy turned inside out.
I love books that one can live inside if not be totally subsumed by. Morphological Echoes will be one of them.
Interview by Alex Khlopenko
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