You couldn't get away with writing a plot like this one – too unrealistic, too happy an ending. Sean Michaels, 32-year-old music blogger, publishes his first novel – a fictionalized account of the life of Lev Termen: inventor of the theremin, Russian scientist – and spy. Us Conductors is published in Canada in April, and in the United States in June. Then, in November, the quirky gem of a book beats out Canadian literary powerhouses, such as Miriam Toews and David Bezmozgis, to win Canada's most prestigious literary award – the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Marsha Lederman reached Sean Michaels in Montreal, where he lives, to discuss his big rookie year.
What prompted the novel – was it something you'd wanted to do for some time? Did the subject matter demand it?
I've always wanted to be a novelist; as a kid that's what I dreamed of being. The way I originally kind of erected my adult life was to find paying work that would afford me the ability to also work on fiction at the same time. For several years, I had sort of secretarial jobs, and then, for about six years, I've been working as a professional music critic. I kind of fell backward into music criticism unexpectedly, finding it could be a paying career before my fiction brought me any stability.
Did you listen to music while you were writing the book?
Yeah, I listen to music almost all the time when I'm working, but I certainly wasn't listening to theremin music, mostly. I listened to just about absolutely everything. I listened to music with words, music without words and I also like to listen to music that's against tone. So, if I'm writing a really soft, melancholic scene, I'll turn on some hip hop or something like that. It's nice to use a soundtrack to kind of imbue a contrasting energy to what you're working on.
Tell me about the time around the book's publication. Were you busy doing interviews? Book signings? Readings?
I was very preoccupied with organizing my book launches in Toronto and Montreal. I remember that, in March, all I seemed to be doing was stressing out way too much about how important this launch felt. Because, in some ways, I felt like this was going to be the only moment that the book would have; it would be the only real occasion to celebrate the book. Because, once it was out, that would be it. And that it would also be the only chance to garner some press as well, was that launch time.
Did you ever entertain any thoughts at this point that you might be up for the Giller; win the Giller?
No, no. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. No. Just no. No. I remember my mother, before she had even read the book, saying something about the Giller Awards, looking at the timetable for awards season, and it was just like, no. This was a first book and I worked very hard to keep my expectations as realistically low as I could.
As someone who critiques the work of others, how did it feel for you once the book was out there to have your work critiqued?
I've spent a lot of time talking with musicians over the years or with other critics about the role of criticism and about kind of negotiating it or reckoning with it, but when I was actually finally in that position, I did find it harder than I expected – not to have somebody criticize my work and to hear other people interpret it differently or misinterpret it, but the kind of like creeping dread that somebody's criticism of your book could torpedo your chance to continue making art. And I never thought about that; the kind of material consequences of criticism that an artist can be fearful about. That enough bad reviews happen and you're over, and no one's going to ever let you publish another book or put out another album or take a chance on you. I felt like this was my first chance and there was a certain fear that I could blow it.
Has it made you more cautious as a critic?
Yes. I used to be more casual about it.
Getting back to the Gillers: Your mother knows when awards season happens; you don't want to hear anything about it. And then you're long-listed and then shortlisted for the prize. Tell me about those days.
The long list wasn't marked in my calendar but on the morning it was happening – in Montreal, in fact – I was on the computer working and I saw people tweeting that they were on their way to the unveiling. And so I immediately logged off, and just did some work. I didn't want to be constantly distracted with what I expected to be a quiet disappointment with the long list. A disappointment not because I expected it, but you're like, who knows? Maybe. Then I logged on and my editor had tried to call me and there were a couple of e-mails, including one from my mom. I was so excited and I ran home from the café and came into the living room where my partner was doing some work and I said I was long-listed for the Giller Prize. And she was like, great; remind me which one that is? It definitely wasn't like we were busting open the Champagne and screaming in the house.
A month later, when the short list was announced it was our first wedding anniversary that day. Again, I kind of went offline. This time we were completely caught up about what this could mean. I had seen the explosion of press interest after the long list announcement. But I was also extremely skeptical of being shortlisted. With the long list I really felt like I'd won the jackpot. I had a conversation with my partner where I remember telling her that, with absolute honesty in my heart, I was completely satisfied with the publication and the success that this novel had had; to feel that it had gone out into the world, had made it into some hands, and then to be on the radar for the taste makers, being long-listed for the Giller, that was enough for me. Certainly, I felt fulfilled. I was offline so I found out [when] my dad sent me a text saying congratulations. And we shrieked and laughed and celebrated.
Giller night: You're a first-time novelist walking into that room as a finalist. How does that feel?
It felt [like] the whole month did – bewildering. We had events in Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver. And at all these events, VIP cocktail things for Scotiabank patrons, we were hanging out with bankers and being picked up from the airport in private cars and driven to swanky hotels. It's just so far away from the life of the writer. There was a moment in Halifax where there was a reading and panel talk and [at the end] the audience in the darkness in this theatre – they were applauding; just clapping and clapping and clapping. The applause kind of went on and on and on for the six of us, and I started to kind of laugh and part of my body kind of also wanted to start to cry because it just felt so unreal and absolutely indistinguishable from a dream. And a lot of the Giller process was like that. Walking into this room on the night of the Gillers felt absurd – looking at all these glitterati from across Toronto, and older people and beautiful younger people, and then you realize that you're actually the V-est of Ps ; you and the other five literary novelists are suddenly the centre of attention at this bash. It was so weird.
And then you win. What did that feel like?
It felt like someone had just taken off the ceiling from the room. The dimensions of my life felt suddenly changed in a strange way. I remember when they called my name, I thought, okay, you have a speech, right? Remember that you have to quickly say it, because there was a strict time limit and a giant clock at the back of the room. So my lizard brain turned on while part of me had just left my body and it was this kind of mechanical part of me that knew, okay, get on stage. I look at the videos now and I see this weird robotic aspect of me as I come on stage and start talking. It's only about halfway through that I think my spirit returned to my body. And I knew: Okay, say this thing, don't screw this up, you're on television, and then it was done.
The win comes with tons of publicity, a pretty much guaranteed boost in book sales and a chunk of cash. What does that mean for you? For your career, for your writing?
It's really the gift of time – four, five years of stability in a career that is understandably, notoriously and inevitably precarious. Writing is a hard and uncertain profession, and the Giller helps with both of those things in the kind of medium term for me.
You know this as a music writer; the sophomore album can be tricky, especially when the first album is so huge. Do you approach novel No. 2 with trepidation?
I'm starting work on another novel. I want to get my head right going forward. So, the attitude I'm trying to cultivate toward this next work is, it doesn't matter what happens now. Honestly, if I just peaked on Nov. 10, that's fine. I will take a lifetime of backlash for five years of being able to do this without freaking out about it. That seems like a fair exchange. The thing that makes me happiest is being able to do the writing that I find fulfilling, and any resentment or claims that I'm overrated already – that's fine; I'll take it. I'm willing to take that on. Just let me keep doing this.
This interview has been condensed and edited.