New Brunswick·Q & A

Sean Michaels, Us Conductors author, talks about his inspiration

CBC's Jonna Brewer interviewed author Sean Michaels about writing his Giller award-winning book, Us Conductors.

Giller Award-winning author appeared at Moncton's Frye Festival this week

Sean Michaels was in Moncton this week at the Frye Festival. His book, Us Conductors, won the Giller Prize.

For people into the music scene in Canada, Sean Michaels needs little introduction. His music blog, Said the Gramophone, is considered one of the go-to blogs for music reviews of every genre.

So for those who know and appreciate his writing style, it came as no surprise when his first novel was published last year.

While music is a theme in Us Conductors, the instrument at the heart of the story is not all that well known. It's the theremin, invented about 100 years ago by a Russian scientist, Lev Termen.  

Us Conductors is a story about love, music and espionage and it won him the Giller prize last fall.

Sean Michaels was in Moncton this week as part of the Frye Festival.

Information Morning Moncton host Jonna Brewer caught up with him at Mathieu-Martin high school after he spoke to some students.

Here's a portion of that interview.

JB: You've said you were drawn to write about the theremin because you felt it was misunderstood. Could the same be said for Lev Termen? 

SM: Yeah, I think that he is one of these historical figures that people don't really understand but then again when you say that question, it kind of makes me laugh because I think one of the functions of my book was to deliberately misunderstand or tell my own story inspired by his life and so it's definitely a process of where I'm making things up and diverging from the truth very deliberately

Michaels's book is about an unusual musical instrument called the theremin, which was invented about 100 years ago by a Russian scientist, Lev Termen.
JB: What would you say you admire most about each of them, the instrument and the inventor?

SM: Well, Lev Terman was such an industrious person and he was endlessly coming up with ideas for new inventions; not just different revisions or refinements of the same idea, but ideas just seemed to pour out of him.

His notebooks and his stories are full of all these other roads that he didn't even follow, from ways of communicating wirelessly, you know inventing email 100 years early, to ideas for solving mortality or even male impotence was something he was interested in, so he had all of these.

I really admire that, someone who can just generate ideas and then just quietly and industriously work on them. It's really an inspiration for all of us.

The theremin to me is an even more interesting, abstract idea. It's this weird machine that seems to embody something that all of us know but don't articulate very often. It's this instrument that we interact, we play it by kind of standing before it and acting upon it and there's nothing connecting us to it, unlike all these other instruments. You bang on things, or rub things or blow into things.

The theremin, you're standing with it, kind of sharing space and so much of our lives are spent in these relationships where we're not really doing anything, I mean we're sharing space with other people but so much flows, so much is charged between two human beings, whether they're lovers or friends or enemies or family members and the theremin really kind of makes that idea visible or audible, there's a power that can cross that empty space between two entities, in this case the person and the theremin but that is something that is happening between each of us sitting next to each other or staring at each other across the room.

Michaels has won the most lucrative literary prize in Canada, the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, for his debut novel, Us Conductors.
JB: The success and Giller aside, what has this novel done for you, as a writer?

SM: I feel that as a writer, you have to be vigilant for all of these things. At a certain point, every day, it's like when you practise meditation, at a certain point when you're back on the mat, when you're back on the block, you sit down and everything is back to zero and as a writer, no matter how many books you've written, you have to imagine that when you're sitting in front of that blank page again, we're back, it's back.

Writing a book doesn't do anything for you in those moments where you're still working from the same place of zero, so that's really interesting.

So when I think about what this book has done for me it really is mostly all those physical, real life practical things where it's given me more of a name, more financial stability, it's given me all these things that allow me to be less anxious when I'm sitting alone with that blank page but in the long run, that blank page isn't going to change.

About the Author

Jonna Brewer

Host, Information Morning Moncton

Jonna Brewer has done many jobs at CBC Moncton, from reporter to executive producer, since joining CBC in 1988. She is currently the host of Information Morning in Moncton.