By Jane Butler
Sean Michaels is a music journalist and blogger based in Montreal. He recently won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize for his debut novel, Us Conductors. A fictionalized tale of the life and passions of Leon Theremin, inventor of the theremin, a mysterious musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the player, Us Conductors is a major accomplishment for the 32-year-old Glebe Collegiate Institute graduate. I spoke with Sean in early December.
JB: Sean, your book is wonderful! You write beautifully, like someone with much more experience, yet with a real freshness. Which is obviously why you won the Giller!
SM: Well, thanks. You are very kind.
JB: I want to talk with you about your connections to Ottawa and the Glebe. I understand you were a student at Glebe Collegiate Institute.
SM: Yes, I didn’t live in the area but because of the vagaries of the school system, I ended up at Glebe.
JB: You’ve mentioned Robert Godwin (English and media studies teacher) as being an influential teacher.
SM: Yes, he was certainly one of them but there were others who have since moved on, like (English teachers) Skip Riddell and Sheila Meggs. At Glebe I was starting to write short stories that I hoped could get printed in magazines.
JB: Had you decided by then that you wanted to be a writer?
SM: I don’t know if I had actually decided but it was certainly my dream. For as long as I can remember, it was the thing I wanted to do.
JB: You’re doing rather well at it! Compared to people like me who aspire to it but never quite put in the effort!
SM: (Laughing) Well, yes, the biggest challenge is the persistence, the perseverance of it.
JB: So how did this book come to be? Did you just flat-out write it or were you working on other things?
SM: Both. I had been working on my own, on articles and other long fiction projects for quite a while. I had only recently been able to support myself as a music journalist, essentially a full-time freelance music journalist, and every day I was doing other writing. But the time came when I said to myself, OK, enough, it’s time to start a novel. It took some time for my ideas to coalesce but they did and then I said to myself, it’s time to write this theremin book. But of course, with fiction writing, you write the whole book before you even talk to someone about selling it. So there were many years of trying to fit my novel writing around my other paid assignments.
JB: So, back to Glebe. Tell me about your experience there.
SM: Well, I have to say that one of the things I really liked about Glebe was that although it was a great school academically, it also cut across a fair number of cultural and economic groups. It wasn’t just the guys in their neckties with their calculators. There were also the tough kids smoking at Door 9. (Laughing)
JB: You’ve talked in other interviews about Ottawa being a great place to grow up. What kinds of things did you particularly like growing up here?
SM: I lived a bit further out, in a more suburban area, so I liked wandering around what I thought of as the downtown: the Glebe, over to Billings Bridge, and also a little bit of the actual downtown. I liked the fact that with a bus pass or a pair of boots, you could tramp around, spend an afternoon by the river with a friend, watch the swans and talk, and then take a bus to Chinatown for a meal. It felt very human-sized. Growing up in a big city, I imagine, would be really exciting for other reasons but you are just this tiny grain of sand in a much, much more ambivalent, larger city.
JB: Do you visit often?
SM: Well, my parents still live in Ottawa so I try to visit but I don’t get there often enough. It is always interesting, when I do come, to see what changes and what stays the same. A week or two ago I took the Greyhound Bus to Ottawa and it was the same old Greyhound, pretty much the same old bus station. But then I went from there to the Governor General’s residence, Rideau Hall, for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. It was a mixture of “oh, I am just taking the bus to my home town,” and “here I am, going off to a black tie dinner at the Governor General’s.” So that was a bit different!
JB: Now that we have a sense of why you enjoyed growing up in Ottawa, are there things you would change?
SM: Without speaking ill of the place, I do think Ottawa lacks some courage in the cultural sphere. I also think that … well, I moved to Montreal in my 20s, as a young artist, trying to find an arts scene … Ottawa seems to have a habit of everyone going to bed, tucking into their homes early in the evening. It’s not that I needed a nightclub-party scene but just to feel that there are people to run into, that there is a kind of creative energy to tap into. It’s not something I found in Ottawa but I am sure it does exist there, for some people.
JB: What about upcoming projects? Will Ottawa make an appearance in your next book?
SM: I am thinking of setting my next book more contemporarily, in Montreal, so there could well be a visit to Ottawa, who’s to say?
JB: Any comments you would like to address to Glebe students?
SM: There is only a short period in your life when everyone really wants to help you succeed, when they are really excited to introduce you to anything you are curious about, or encourage you at anything you might have a talent for. And that period is in your teens. By the time you get out into the world, people are not so interested in helping, in fact they may even be competing with you. So high school is a time, if you are lucky, when you have lots of people helping and encouraging you, and I would say to Glebe students, don’t squander it, take advantage.
JB: Thanks Sean. All the best.
Jane Butler, a resident of Old Ottawa South, is a freelance writer and editor. Contact her at