Sean Michaels, novelist, journalist, music critic (born 1982 in Stirling, Scotland). Sean Michaels is best known for his Giller Prize–winning debut novel, Us Conductors (2014), and as one of the founders of the music blog Said the Gramophone.
Early Life and Education
Sean Michaels was born in Stirling, Scotland, where his father was completing a PhD in Psychology. The family moved to Ottawa when Michaels was five years old. He attended Agincourt and Woodroffe elementary schools, then went to Hopewell Avenue Public School and Glebe Collegiate. During this time, Michaels developed an interest in music — the first instrument he learned how to play was the clarinet — and also in literature and writing. “The author I most wanted to be was J.R.R. Tolkien,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Ottawa Citizen. “I loved the mixture of this incredible world-building, and the depth and sense of wisdom ticked into the stories about wizards and elves.”
After high school, Michaels moved to Montréal, where he studied Cultural Studies at McGill University. It was here, in 2003, that he launched Said the Gramophone, one of the world’s first MP3 blogs, which has remained popular and influential. Said the Gramophone was voted by Time as one of the 25 best blogs of 2009. As a music critic, Michaels was one of the first to write about Arcade Fire, Beirut, Feist and many other now-iconic bands and musicians.
After graduating from McGill, Michaels continued to work as a music critic and magazine journalist. He was nominated for a National Magazine Award for his music criticism in Maisonneuve. In 2010, he won a gold medal National Magazine Award for his essay, “The Lizard, the Catacombs, and the Clock,” about the underground labyrinths of Paris, which was published in Brick, a Canadian literary magazine. In 2012, Michaels won a second National Magazine Award, together with photojournalist Roger LeMoyne, for “Ringmasters,” an exploration of Montréal’s Tohu circus published in The Walrus.
Michaels remained heavily involved in the Montréal music scene, and in 2013 he was a member of the Polaris Prize grand jury that selected Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! as best Canadian album of 2013.
In 2014, Michaels’s first novel, Us Conductors, was published by Random House Canada and Tin House Books in the United States. Mostly written at Café Olimpico in Montréal’s Mile End neighbourhood, Us Conductors was inspired by the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the theremin, an enigmatic electronic instrument built in the 1920s. Told as a long letter from Termen to the musician Clara Rockmore, his “one true love,” Us Conductors tells the story of Termen’s extraordinary life, from the glitz of 1920s New York to his incarceration in a Soviet gulag. Although the novel is based on historical subject matter, Michaels’ writing places much more weight on the poetic capabilities of fiction than on an attempt to be faithful to historic fact. “Factual stories and their authentic details seem no more true than the best kind of lies,” Michaels wrote in a 2014 essay in Quill and Quire about his inspiration for US Conductors. “I’d rather invent than report.”
Us Conductors was the winner of the 2014 Giller Prize and the 2014 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and a finalist for the 2015 Canadian Authors Award for Fiction and the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award.