Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Sean Michaels

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Sean Michaels' desk

Sean Michaels is the 2014 Random House New Face of Fiction, arriving on the scene with Us Conductors (Random House Canada).

Us Conductors tells the story of Lev Termen, creator of the theremin. Lev is by turns inventor, scientist and Russian spy in this deftly-woven tail of music, passion and intrigue. The narrative moves from 1930s New York City to freezing gulags and framed as a letter to Lev's unrequited love and the world's top theremin player. A novel which has been called "amazing, addictive" and "of this world and magical at the same time".

Today Sean joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers speak about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

He talks with Open Book about the noisy Montreal cafe that serves him as an office, how distraction can transform words and how appealing chaos made its way into Us Conductors.
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Although I have a home office — although I sometimes while away the hours with a laptop on my knees, watching snow slip past the window — almost all of Us Conductors was written at the café a few doors down the road. Montreal's legendary Olimpico, "Open Da Night", where the coffee is strong and the service is emphatic, where the radio rages and Italian soccer flags shine down from the angled, latte-coloured walls.

Olimpico is not a refuge. It is the furthest thing from an isolated farmhouse studio, where the writer sits in precious silence. It's noisy and crowded, with so-so lighting and uneven ambiance. It isn't hip: no Queen Anne armchairs, no Danish modern lamps, no Third Wave cortados or artisanal hot chocolate. Nor can I work undisturbed: Olimpico is a clubhouse for neighbourhood regulars, with a procession of my friends passing through its doors.

Of course that's the point. I'm a writer who likes distraction. Not to get up and pace through the house, washing the dishes or re-alphabetizing the record collection, but to be constantly looking up from his dumb, glowing word processor. As I write a sentence I look up, stare around the room, watch a little story unfold. I eavesdrop on a conversation or imagine a stranger's secret drama. Maybe I greet a pal. And when I look down again at my laptop's screen, the words lie differently than they did before. They're easier to coax.

Occasionally I do reach a kind of writing trance. Then the paragraphs flow out of me, like ice-floats down an underground river. Then, I do not look up. My friends know not to interrupt. Café Olimpico is all around me but I am not in not in Café Olimpico.

I listen to music as I work. This is almost always true. While the Olimpico radio clamours and thumps, I listen to a private racket on my headphones. They're not isolating or noise-cancelling headphones — I hear the outside clatter as well. It adds up to cacophony — it's crazy, really — but the din is somehow useful. Layers of chintzy din, full of words, and me trying to weave my way. Sometimes I think it's the equivalent of therapeutic white noise: enough shouty sonic colour that finally my mind may lie still.

Thinking in this way, I begin to realize Olimpico's hidden impact upon Us Conductors. Not just the practical things — it is where I wrote, where I self-caffeinated — but the way the café's clinking chaos affected my characters' dreams, longings and memory. This is a novel about noise and silence, reverberations, the recollection of sound. The theremins at the story's centre rely on invisible electrical fields and send out invisible audio waves. Us Conductors' narrator, Lev Termen, and his lover, Clara Rockmore, feel these forces working even when they are miles and miles and years away.

I would never say that this is a book about Café Olimpico's frantic energy. But the wild hubbub of that place — and the recollection of it, when you've left — is as good as any metaphor for the way we fumble through our noisy lives, almost unaware of the tumult; until later, with imagination or regret, when we reach back to remember it.

And did I mention the coffee's good?

— Sean Michaels

Sean Michaels was born in Stirling, Scotland, in 1982. Raised in Ottawa, he eventually settled in Montreal, founding Said the Gramophone, one of the earliest music blogs. He has since spent time in Edinburgh and Kraków, written for the Guardian and McSweeney’s, toured with rock bands, searched the Parisian catacombs for Les UX, and received 2 National Magazine Awards.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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