Published Nov 07, 2014With his first novel Us Conductors, a fictional novel based on the life of theremin inventor Lev Termen, being shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize (which is being handed out on November 10) alongside acclaimed authors like Miriam Toews and David Bezmogis, Sean Michaels has made an impressive transition from running a music blog to acclaimed author.
Not that the music blog was insignificant. Michaels is the creator of the acclaimed blog Said the Gramophone, known for its ornate prose and thoughtful approach to music writing, but it turns out that Michaels was attuned to writing books all along.
"I have always been a fiction writer," Michaels tells Exclaim! from Montreal. "Fiction writing came first. I've been doing that since I was kid and a teenager. And then literally what happened, I was still in school I started Said the Gramophone about 11 years ago. I was more interested in music and writing about music and I wanted to find a way to write creatively about music. And then lo and behold I was in the right place at the right time with that blog and it got me some attention and bit by bit I became a professional music critic."
With Us Conductors, Michaels has found a way to marry his passions for both music and writing and his own questions surrounding the veracity of true love. After seeing a documentary on Termen's life (1994's Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey), Michaels felt it was an intriguing conduit into the issues he wanted to explore. Michaels arranges the novel in the form of letters Termen is writing to Clara Reisenberg (later Clara Rockmore), his prodigious New York student of the Theremin and great unrequited love — who would actually go on to become a world famous theremin player — in different periods of his life.
Michaels' vivid, engaging and immersive prose revels in historical name-drops and inserts historical figures from Gershwin to Lenin. Yet while it traverses the glamour and glitz of New York in the jazz age of the Roaring Twenties, it also renders the unforgiving frigid brutality of the Siberian gulags.
"In Us Conductors, it's really like what gets Lev [Termen] through catastrophe, his time in prison, his untrue true love and that was a really interesting idea to me," says Michaels. "And then combined with the theremin itself, which as a music journalist I'd always been really interested in — the way that it's a really peculiar instrument — because it feels like a metaphor for the way music works on people generally: this weird invisible thing that appears in a room, it's almost like this force. There are musicians playing, but once they've finished playing the music, it seems to have its own kinda spirit that's separate from the musicians that played it."
A similar air of intangibility intuitively directed Michaels to take a fictional approach as opposed to penning a non-fiction biography of Termen.
"If you are writing a non-fiction book, you'd be a detective trying to find out all the clues to what really happened," says Michaels. "Whereas what I was interested in doing was how can this story serve to illuminate questions I had about life and love and that kind of stuff. So I really wasn't interested in working as a detective trying to figure out the actual impulses and intentions, I was more interested in using this really fascinating story to paint a picture of what would be moving, or cause people to reflect on in their own lives and so that was the priority. And it was a priority from the start. There's a certain kind of story I wanted to tell. How can I use these pieces, how can I use the silhouette of Termen's life to communicate that?"