My name’s Sean. I was born in Scotland and raised in Ottawa, but I live in Montreal.
Why don’t you have a Scottish accent?
I did, but I lost it.
Like an umbrella.
I’ve never lost an umbrella. But like you lose a bet; like you lose a game.
You wrote a book called Us Conductors. It’s about lovers, inventors, musicians, and spies. It’s about the theremin, a musical instrument you play by moving your hands through the air. What else is it about?
Responsibility, deception, the power of untrue love. Maybe it’s about the ways we’re connected and the ways we’re alone.
Is it exciting?
There are two murders. There is kung-fu. There are dancehalls and speakeasies and Sergei Rachmaninoff. And a man named Bigfoot.
Do you do any impressions?
[does an impression of the Siberian taiga]
[does an impression of a swinging pendulum slowly slowing]
What about accents?
I can do Karl Ove Knausgård. He’s Norwegian.
I guess that works.
[in an exquisite Oslo accent] “There is only one thing children find harder to hold back than tears, and that is joy.”
Let me run something by you.
In Montreal, pain aux noix means “nut bread”. In Paris, pain aux noix means “walnut bread”. The general is suddenly specific. It’s like if “tree” meant a particular species of tree, or if “city” were our word for Moscow.
If “man” referred to a specific guy. Albert.
Yeah, or Howard. Or Bluebeard, or Francis Brunn.
“Hey man!” And it’s always Al or Howard or Bluebeard or Francis Brunn.
“A man stood under a tree in the city and ate a nut.”
Francis Brunn and a spruce, in Moscow with a walnut.
So why did you want to tell me about this?
Well now that you’ve written a book I wondered if the word “book” makes you think of Us Conductors.
Does “book” make you think of any particular book?
No. I mean, maybe. I guess. I guess there’s a word-association.
For me, the bookiest book is The Trouble with Trumpets, a children’s book I read as a kid. That’s what I imagine.
Maybe James Joyce’s Ulysses?
Your bookiest book is Ulysses? Didn’t you hate that book?
I didn’t hate it.
Yes you did. What about fruit. What’s your fruitest fruit?
Playin’ it safe, I see. Day of the week?
Rhino?! Really? Are you fucking with me? Rhino is what you think of when I ask you to imagine “an animal”?
Yeah, rhino. Rhinoceroses are so… corporeal. Wild and deliberate at the same time. Unfathomable.
How about “song”? Or “park”? Or “love”?
I see where you’re going with this. Each of these words evokes something specific – a sound, a place, a face. And they’re all so personal, so autobiographical. They’re telling and full.
Does it work the other way? What happens when you consider a specific word, like “Montreal”?
It’s as if you’ve fired a barrage. My heart full of buckshot.
Like someone shot you?
Yeah. A montage of flashing overtones, associations, recollections. I guess this is semiotics, poetics; it’s how literature works, at least for me. Every word and sentence summons another set of images and feelings, and these figments all dance with the story on the page.
There’s another interaction that happens, too, between the reader and the complete novel. It’s subtler. The shape of the plot, the narrative’s atmosphere and lessons, the characters’ triumphs and failures – these things evoke as well.
Yes. Those associations are even more powerful, I think. But it’s harder to feel them working on you – they happen nearer to the level of dream. The way a book meets you, the way it stirs and intersects with your private spirit – it’s like smoke meeting smoke. One story diffuses through the other.
Can we feel it happening?
I actually think this is where taste comes from. Mostly. When taste isn’t based on intellectualized theories or overt social allegiance, it’s from this strange junction. The way the text has interacted with your…
With your shadow, maybe.
As an author, does it intimidate you that your book is going to have to reckon with the shadows of all these readers?
No, that’s the exciting part. You’re sharing a piece of your shadow, bringing it into the room with a stranger’s. You’re letting some sublimated part of yourself go roaming in the libraries.
What about the people who don’t like your writing?
That’s a kinda brutal question.
Art plays for keeps.
I know journalism can be a frustrating profession but you don’t need to take it out on me.
I apologize. It’s hard, trying to be interesting and funny, irreverent and true, all at the same time. Lately I feel like I am spending all day, every day, talking to myself.
It’s OK. I understand.
So talk to me about people hating your dumb writing.
[deep breath] Well, the stuff we’ve been discussing actually makes criticism easier to deal with. You have to remember that each reader brings some of her or himself to the page. Maybe they get bored in your hedge-maze, maybe they get lost, maybe they’re enchanted. Technically I believe it’s known as a “crap-shoot”.
I think we should end there, with the word “crap-shoot”.
I think we should end with a song.
Montreal’s SEAN MICHAELS was born in Scotland in 1982. A long-time music journalist for outlets including The Guardian, McSweeney’s, CBC and Pitchfork, he founded the mp3blog Said the Gramophone in 2003. His debut novel, Us Conductors, is out now with Tin House Books/Random House of Canada. He can be found online at Twitter and Facebook.