Books·How I Wrote It

Sean Michaels: How I wrote Us Conductors

Sean Michaels explains how he wrote a novel inspired by the Russian inventor of the theremin.
Sean Michaels won the Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. (John Londono/Random House Canada)

It's not surprising that music plays such an important role in writer and music blogger Sean Michaels' debut novel. Us Conductors, which won the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, is inspired by the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian inventor of the eerily beautiful theremin, taking him from the rambunctious New York clubs of the 1930s to the bleak gulags of the Soviet Union.

In his own words, Michaels talks about the sounds that set the tone for this melodious book, as well as the unlikely Canadian writer who inspired a kung fu scene.

Moving words

"It was mostly written at a coffee shop near where I live, where I go every day to work: Café Olimpico (in Montreal). It's a landmark and I've been installed there every day for years now. It's a busy place, the coffee's good, and it also thrums with a certain activity. I don't really work that well in a quiet room with no music playing and nothing to distract me. I need mini distractions. I'll be working on a sentence and then I'll look up and see something, and when I look down at the page again the words have wriggled a bit. I can then put them together in a new way."

Hip hop to indie rock

"I listen to a crazy wide variety of things (when I write). I work as a music critic professionally so there's a lot of new music that comes in my door. There were moments when I was writing sections of the book that I was listening to vintage jazz or classical music or even to modern noise and ambient electronic that really fit what I was writing — but other times it completely didn't match at all and I'd be listening to hip hop from Ghana or indie rock. It was also important for me to try to find beautiful theremin music to listen to, and there were times when I was definitely listening to that in order to distill it in the words I was composing."

Michael Ondaatje, action hero 

"Back when I was in university, I was reading the Michael Ondaatje novel In the Skin of a Lion. There's a great scene with a terrorist. It's sort of an action movie scene in a really poetic and beautiful meditative book, and I was really struck. I loved the idea of an action movie scene in an unlikely place and I made a pact with myself that one day I would write a book that seemed like a meditative poetic novel but had hiding in it a chapter where someone was a cat-burglar or something. One of the things that became an engine for my decision to write this book was the day I realized 'Oh, I have an idea for an action scene that happens in the middle of a story' and that gave me a laugh. So there's a scene around the middle of the book that has some kung fu and some violence. It feels a little bit like a scene from a Tom Clancy novel."

Sean Michaels' comments have been edited and condensed.