by Melissa Bull
Author, journalist, and music critic Sean Michaels’ first novel, Us Conductors, a story inspired by the life of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy, Lev Termen, won Canada’s most prestigious literary award in 2014, the Scotiabank Giller Prize and I couldn’t be happier about that fact. Not just because the book is wonderful (it is), but also because Sean’s a friend of mine; we’ve been in a writing group together for a few years (the other two members are the excellent Anna Leventhal and Jeff Miller. In this (shortish) interview, Sean and I discuss his book, why the theremin never really made it, and what it’s like growing up in a literary family.
Melissa Bull: Hey Sean, thanks for doing this interview about your novel, Us Conductorsfor Cosmonauts Avenue. By the time I joined our writing group a couple of years ago, you’d already sold the novel. It’s been so great to watch your awesome journey of benchmarks and successes with this book. (And by great I mean I was so excited I holler-swore repeatedly at my computer then happy-cried watching you give your acceptance speech at the Gillers.)
Sean Michaels: Thanks Melissa. I feel like I’ve spent the past few months staggering around like a drunk.
Bull: Did your music writing for The Guardian and your longtime music blog, Said the Gramophone figure into the creation of this book? What made you want to talk about music from the perspective of the inventors and players of instruments?
Michaels: I didn’t set out to write a book where music features prominently. A story either seizes you or it doesn’t—in this case, I couldn’t get Lev and Clara out of my head. So I think it was a coincidence that my debut novel is so tied to music. At the same time, Said the Gramophone and that other work taught me so much about that kind of writing: Us Conductors couldn’t have happened without it.
Bull: Why did you choose to deviate from a strictly historical retelling of Lev Termen’s biography? Tell me about some of the fictitious flourishes you added to his story. What are the stakes when you write fiction about real people? Does it relieve any pressure when you know you’re not creating a kind of literary portrait of an infamous character?
Michaels: I think in my heart there was a certain story I wanted to tell—about true love and lying true love, deception and illusion and coincidence—and Lev’s biography became the cloth I could use to sew together that story. I didn’t start with his biography and deconstruct it—I started with that other story and then tried to find the history and details that could fill it in. That was very clear to me: there was nothing to “get right” except the story I wanted to convey. I couldn’t fail or betray the real Lev Sergeyvich Termen: I wasn’t writing about him. So in that sense the stakes were low. (On the other hand, trying to write a good book, that feels true: the stakes there are high.) Facts from Lev’s biography had more or less an equal footing with images I had collected or stuff I completely made up, from his kung-fu practice to many of the characters who people Us Conductors‘ pages.
Bull: What or who are the conductors in your novel?
Michaels: The basic scientific principle at the heart of the theremin is that the human body conducts electricity. That relationship becomes a metaphor for all the other forces and feelings that pass through the air from one body to another, to the way we conduct our own lives or are conducted. And the title is also an allusion to the conductor at the front of the orchestra, her or his hands lifted in the air.
Bull: Why do you think the theremin never made it as an official orchestral instrument?
Michaels: There are a million reasons. The Great Depression killed the theremin, patent issues killed the theremin, and the theremin killed the theremin—it was devilishly hard to teach. But I think the reason it didn’t catch on with orchestras was simply its narrow range: other electronic instruments, like the ondes martenot or the keyboard synthesizer, had wider sonic palettes. An instrument can only become popular if composers continue to find new ways to use it.
Bull: You went to Russia on a recog odyssey for Lev Teremin. Did that trip help inform your story?
Michaels: The trip to Russia was crucial for this story. Not for researching tiny details—I didn’t visit any archives or libraries, wasn’t wandering the stacks for answers. But so much of Us Conductors takes place in that country and I wanted to be clearer in my sense of it. Sights, smells, the ambiance on the street or in the taiga; Saint Petersburg’s parting bridges, Moscow’s towers, nightfall in a Siberian mountain valley. The feelings and atmosphere you can’t fully understand from a book.
Bull: You come from a bookish family. Your aunt is the celebrated Canadian poet and novelist Anne Michaels (the author of, among other works, Fugitive Pieces). How much has your family’s culture shaped your desire to write?
Michaels: I think I’m like you, Melissa: because there was a writer in my family, it always felt like a career or a dream that a person could pursue. A real thing, not a fairy tale. And the rest of my relatives knew that too. So from that place of privilege, it was easier to commit to writing. (What remained, as always, was: the work.)
Sean Michaels is a writer, music critic and founder of the blog Said the Gramophone. His work has been published by outlets including The Walrus, HTML Giant, The Believer, McSweeney’s and The Observer. Sean’s debut novel, Us Conductors, received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.