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Interviews

We Chatted with Giller Prize-Winning Author Sean Michaels

We spoke to Giller Prize-winning author Sean Michaels about finding English speakers in the backwoods of Russia, driving around Magadan listening to A Tribe Called Quest, and the weird world of theremin enthusiasts.
November 26, 2014, 4:15pm

Sean Michaels accepts the Giller Prize. Photo via Giller website

​A couple of weeks ago, Montreal-based writer Sean Michaels walked away with the 21st Giller Prize, Canada's prestigious annual award for fiction. Full disclosure: I know Sean Michaels. I've hung out with the guy at parties and danced at his wedding, and I consider him a friend. Still, the night that I heard that he had won the Giller, I was shocked. Not because I doubted his talents: he's a superb writer and his prose is imbued with humour and energy. Rather, I was shocked because his book ​Us Conductors was about something kind of weird—a fictionalized account of the life of Russian-born inventor Lev Sergeyevich Termen, aka Leon Theremin, creator of the ghostly electronic music instrument the theremin—and I thought to myself: He won't win. Nothing good and weird ever gets recognized in Canada.

I'm happy to say I was wrong.

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Sean deservedly walked away with the prize, and now that it's one of the ​top-selling books in Canada​, people are beginning to understand exactly why he won. His book breathes new life into the already-strange tale of Termen's travels as an inventor, a lover, and a Soviet spy from East to West. Michaels manages to flip effortlessly from the speakeasies of Prohibition-era New York to the gulags of Stalinist Russia with writing that injects a freshness, a vibrancy into each place and moment. I recently called Sean up to chat about his win, his troubles finding an English-speaking fixer in Russia, and how even in the tiny world of the theremin there are haters.

VICE: First off, were you surprised that you won?
Sean Michaels: I was shocked. I was really discombobulated by the turn of events.

Your win surprised a lot of people. The Toronto Star called it an "upset victory." What do you think Us Conductors winning the Giller says about the state of writing in Canada?
I think it speaks to the curiosity of the jury that selected it. But I also think that it's a reminder that Canadian literature is not the same kind of hoary tales of sadness and wheat fields that we think of as "Can Lit." Certainly Us Conductors isn't, but even having read most of the rest of the nominees—and I read a lot of Canadian literature—there's such a wide variety of voices. But it still feels like a little bit of an outlier on the list of Giller winners.

Let's talk 
about your research for the book. Why was it important for you to go to Russia?

A lot of the research was to fill out the details of the book. I was not that interested in the detective work: the facts, places, and times. You know, facades of buildings, every little detail… But at a certain point, as I was editing the book, I really felt strongly that I wanted to be true to the ambiance, to the big picture. Particularly of the Russian scenes. And, ironically, that was one of those areas where the big picture was harder to be truthful about than the little picture.

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You know, you can read books and get street addresses, and things. But I had never been to Russia; I didn't have a sense of really what it felt like to be walking along the river in Moscow, or over a bridge in St. Petersburg—there's quite a lot of scenes that take place in the gulag and I just had no picture in my head. I mean, I had pictures from books, but I had no real, vivid picture in my head of what it felt like. What does it look like when the sun is going down, you know? What's the feeling? And so I felt strongly that I wanted to go.

Was it tough to find a fixer?
I started searching, struggling to find English speakers in Magadan, and someone suggested that I try couchsurfing.com. Not because I needed a couch to surf on, but because I could find English-language profiles. So I found this couple, and we corresponded, and they offered to put me up. And when I arrived, it turned out they didn't speak English and they had just been using Google Translate for the whole correspondence. But still, they showed me all around the city in their little hatchback, playing A Tribe Called Quest out of the stereo, and it was fun.

Tell me a little bit about how this all started. Do you remember the first time you heard a theremin, and was that the spark for the book?
Somebody turned me on to the story of Lev and Clara about six or seven years ago. Just kind of, "Oh, have you ever heard the story of this guy? He had this crazy life." The greatest theremin player, he fell in love, and then he left. And that was rattling around in my head for a long time. And it definitely started to rattle in kind of harmony with this experience I had a few years before that. I was in the car one night, my parents' car, home for the summer or something, driving, and I turned on the radio, and this beautiful aria was playing. It was a soprano singer, a beautiful piece of music. I didn't recognize it or anything, it was just one of those beautiful music moments. And then at the end of the segment the presenter said that I'd been listening to Quebec thereminist P​eter Pringle playing on the theremin. That hadn't been a singer at all. And that was my first experience. And still, most people haven't even had that experience, the beautiful theremin. I realized the story of Lev and Clara doesn't need to be the story of a goofy, mad scientist with his crazy contraption. Actually the contraption itself can contribute aesthetically to a story of love and distance.

I've played a theremin before, and if you're not good with them, it's a fucking nightmare. Most people who just approach them create this horrible noise. But they're really sort of magic. What do you see as the relationship between science and the magic?The theremin happened at this really odd moment, where it was invented in the 20s, just after the dawn of this electric age. And it was really this moment where scientists were making some huge breakthroughs. Really, like, civilization-changing, civilizational breakthroughs, but at the same time people were dreaming. Ideology was also making these breakthroughs. People were breaking further into democracy, and all this stuff was going down. And you know, the theremin came after the electric lightbulb, so there was kind of evidence of electricity's capacity to change things substantially. So much like the radio, it was really happening at the intersection of this dreaming future and this scientific, pragmatic, industrialization present. And so for me, Termen was a scientist, experimenter, into gases, and whatever else, yet he decided to make a musical instrument. I just had to see him as someone who embodied that kind of moment where scientists and people's curiosity about science was crossing a line with their ability to reimagine their own lives.

Do you think a guy like Termen could exist today?
Yes. The best recollection I have is this guy Dean Kamen, the guy who invented the Segway like 10 years ago. I remember before he announced his invention, just that kind of rhetoric about how it would transform everything. And he had this pedigree—people thought he actually was a genius. And I think that in the same way, people were kind of imagining, like—I remember articles like, "What could the invention be? How could our world be transformed?" So I think there is capacity for a really charismatic and brilliant inventor to kind of force people to imagine things. Maybe even that guy from Tesla. People just want to imagine that technology, an invention, could transform everything.

I suppose the other similarity between Kamen and Termen is that both of their creations were failures.
Well, yeah. So I mean, could there be someone like Termen? Yeah, because he was ultimately a disappointment.

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There's tons of disappointing scientists in the world!
We also forget, I think, now that technology is everywhere, the kind of disorienting experience of the truly new. So the theremin was, for tens of thousands of people, their first time not just seeing music played in the air, but their first time hearing synthetic music, that weird, electric noise… I tried an Oculus Rift a month or two ago. And I was also, like, "Holy crap! This is actually something I've never experienced before."

In a way, this innocent yearning for discovery sort of explains steampunk—these people with a boner for an older, authentic, wondrous, yet simple time…
…With wooden cabinetry.

Exactly. I know you from living in Montreal, I kept noticing the names of familiar Montreal places like "Green Room," and "Nouveau Palais." And then there was one name that popped up: Andre Markov, who was both a Russian mathematician around the time of Termen but also a defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens…
No, that guy was definitely named after the hockey player.

[Laughs] That's great. How much did Montreal influence the writing of the book?
When I was kind of conceiving the book, I really didn't like the idea of writing this dry, stuffy, historical novel—because up until now I've only ever written contemporary stuff, never historical fiction. And I remember reflecting quite strongly, on the trailer of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, where she used New Order's "Age of Consent" as part of the soundtrack. And I really love that idea, the reminder that these past times have the same kind of thrilling energy as our contemporary times. I decided at some point that I wanted to use new wave, post-punk music, and cold wave, as a secret soundtrack for the book. So the chapter titles are all nods to music from that era. I was trying to give it this up-to-date feeling from this musical side, but also at the same time, I think I was also very deliberately imbuing it with my Montreal experiences of the past 16 years. That feeling of going out partying on those endless nights, I wanted to kind of capture some of my own experience of that, filtered through the electric 1980s, and then filtered through the Prohibition-era New York.

In terms of the idea of taking someone else's story and fictionalizing it, was there any internal struggle in terms of doing these people's story justice, or changing it?
Yeah. Well, I feel very strongly about the ethical dimension of being a fiction writer, or being a writer in general. I did spend a lot of time thinking about it. I eventually came to the decision, "It's fine. Do whatever you want." So long as I'm being very, very explicit and clear that this is a work of fiction. But I did think about it a lot. But I'm not now struggling with it.

Are there surviving relatives? Have they read the book?
There are. I don't know if anyone's read the book, though. When I was going to Russia I reached out to Termen's grandson, who was furious to hear about my book. He was instantly cranky. And then he asked me what my source material was for the book, and I mentioned that I was using this Glinsky biography, and he was like, "Oh, that's a terrible [book]!" He hates that book. I feel like the family really has kind of turned those ancestors into saints, as these perfect people, when the evidence is clear to me that—not only is nobody perfect, but in Termen's case in particular, I think he was a bit of a jerk. But I do know a thereminist who liked my book a lot was going to meet them this fall, to see the Termen family. So I don't know if he'll help the discussion. I met Steve​ Martin, not the actor, but the filmmaker who made the Theremin docu​mentary, and we had a very nice chat in Los Angeles. And then he went home and blasted me online. It was one of the cruelest moments I've experienced.

Really! What do you mean he blasted you?
Well, I remember that he called me a "slob." He was like, "And that smug, asshole slob." He just doesn't like that I was "lying." He thought my book was full of inaccuracies. The theremin really is this world where there's this small amount of turf, and there are a lot of people who really try to have that be their turf.

Theremin beef. Well, hopefully this Giller will shut those people up.
Yeah. "Let's see your prize cabinet."

​​@katigburgers