I'm Sean (hello, how are you?) and this is my website. I'm the author of two books: the theremin novel Us Conductors, first published in 2014, and The Wagers, a novel about luck, due out later this year. I also founded the pioneering mp3 blog Said the Gramophone.
Some of the other places my writing has appeared include The Guardian, The Believer, Pitchfork, Internazionale, Rolling Stone, The Walrus, The Observer, Hazlitt, Gizmodo, Kinfolk, Wire, in columns for McSweeney's and The Globe & Mail, and in the zine IT LASTS FOREVER.
I was born in Stirling, Scotland, in 1982. I used to speak with a Scottish accent but I lost it (sorry!) after coming to Canada in 1987. I didn't lose my enthusiasm for porridge or Cadbury fruit & nut bars.
When I was 18, I moved from Ottawa to Montreal, a city I adore, and where I mostly have lived ever since.
The Wagers is my second novel. It's about luck! And life! And groceries! And a gang of magical thieves!
The Globe & Mail called it "a literary fireworks display." It's the story of Theo Potiris, a grocer and would-be comedian, who throws it all away to start making bigger bets - with burglars and mathematicians, lovers and billionaires.
Jackpots happen. Adventure unfolds. A novelist gets robbed. A rainbow macaw comes fluttering out of a flue. A woman rolls six sixes on her dice.
There’s a book-within-the-book, about saints' bones and farmland. There are detectives and stand-up comedians, diners and sand dunes. Also: moonlight, a Rihanna song, and a Silicon Valley mogul in search of enlightenment.
It's my clumsy way of writing about making art and the meaning of life—in a Pinkwatered version of the city that's my home.
Scotiabank Giller-winner Sean Michaels is back with his widely anticipated second novel, The Wagers, a deeply satisfying story of long odds, magical heists and the dizzying gamble of life. Where does luck come from? What is it worth? And how much of it do you need to be happy?
Theo Potiris is a grocer and a comedian who never repeats his jokes. After 15 years of open mikes, he's still waiting for his break--bicycling to the comedy club at night, stacking plums at his family's grand and ramshackle supermarket by day. His girlfriend is halfway around the world, searching for enlightenment with a patron who happens to be the richest man on Earth, and when two other loved-ones get struck by bolts from the blue, Theo decides he can't keep chasing his old dreams any longer. He resolves to trade his wishes in, pursuing a bigger score.
Here Sean Michaels' novel takes a surprise left turn, away from the price of milk and into a shabby, beautiful, imaginary Montreal where peacocks strut on street corners and gamblers bet on sunny days. Theo uncovers a mysterious association of sports-obsessed mathematicians, The Rabbit's Foot, which is turning probability into riches, and the vigilante No Name Gang, who steal luck from those who have taken more than their fair share. Bursting with sheer story-telling pleasure and stylish prose, The Wagers carries you along on wave after wave of invention--a literary motorcycle chase that soon has you wondering about the randomness of good fortune and all the ways we choose to wage our lives.
Praise for The Wagers:
This novel is like a literary fireworks display, an explosion of joke-filled energy that manages to be a novel of ideas, but one delivered as if it were a caper story, including offbeat characters in the manner of Oceans 11 or an episode of Mission: Impossible.The Globe and Mail
The Wagers is a work of great poise and maturity. But it’s also just plain fun, gloriously unafraid to play and laugh and throw jokes out into the room to see whether they land.The Montreal Review of Books
A wistful and wondrously inventive novel.Booklist
My first novel was a fictional reimagining of the story of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, the inventor of the theremin, and Clara Rockmore, its greatest player. It received the Giller Prize, Canada's most important literary award, in 2014.
Us Conductors was a #1 bestseller, and editions have appeared with Random House (Canada), Tin House (USA), and Bloomsbury (UK/Aus). The novel has also been translated into French (Québec/France), Czech and Italian, and there is an Audible audiobook.
"I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you."
Locked in a cabin aboard a ship bearing him back to Russia and away from the love of his life, Lev Sergeyvich Termen begins to type his story: a tale of electricity, espionage and the invention of the world’s strangest instrument, the theremin. He recalls his early years as a scientist, forging electric marvels, and of Lenin's dream that these inventions might infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – against a backdrop of Prohibition and the 1929 Crash, the inventor fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist.
Amid wild nights out, kung-fu tussles, brushes with Chaplin and Rockefeller, and a mission to Alcatraz, the novel builds to a crescendo: Termen’s spy games fall apart and he is forced to return home, where he’s consigned to a Siberian gulag. In the face of all this, his love for Clara remains constant, passing through the ether like the theremin’s song.
Steeped in beauty, wonder, and looping heartbreak, Sean Michaels’s debut novel explores the lies we tell, the truths we imagine, and the lengths we go to survive. What else is love but the greatest invention of all?
Praise for Us Conductors:
What a debut. . . . A continent-spanning historical epic.The Globe and Mail, Favourite Debuts of the Year.
One of the most striking, lyrical and original literary debuts in recent memory.The Montreal Gazette
Both the voice and the stories it tells transcend the dusty contrivances of much historical fiction, resulting in a novel that feels both fresh and timeless.Kirkus starred review
It is a wonderful book. . . . His story is so extraordinary and so beautifully and deftly told.The Guardian
Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the QWF/Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Kirkus Prize, the Canadian Authors Association Award, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses Firecracker Award, the Vine Award, and the International Dublin Literary Award. Catherine Leroux's wonderful French translation, Corps conducteurs, was nominated for the Prix des libraires du Québec and received the prestigious John Glassco Literary Translation Prize.
In the lead-up to the book's publication, I called in all my best favours and created three really strange webpages. They're still online:
Later that week, Graham Hughes headed down to Café Olimpico, where I wrote much of the book, to ask the baristas about it.
Another favourite interview was this one, with Vish Khanna's Kreative Kontrol podcast, before the novel had even come out. Speaking of highlights: the time I was interviewed by Nardwuar the Human Serviette!
This is a piece about the ways JRR Tolkien inspired the novel.
This is the original website I designed for Us Conductors. It's not as good as the one you're looking at.
Sometimes people ask me to recommend theremin videos on YouTube. Here are three picks: Clara Rockmore performing "The Swan," Rob Schwimmer doing the theme from Vertigo, and Pamelia Kurstin's marvellous TED talk. I have had the honour of appearing with Schwimmer - and other theremin virtuosi like Lydia Kavina, Thorwald Jørgensen, Dorit Chrysler and Carolina Eyck - while touring with the book. It has been fascinating - and occasionally very moving - to watch how all these players hold their hands.
Said the Gramophone is a music blog I founded in 2003. It was one of the first mp3blogs, which means that you can listen to the songs it posts about (at least until I take down the files). The goal was to choose wonderful songs - from any genre and era - and then to find the words for them. That's meant straightforward music criticism (and an annual Best Songs list), but also more original, experimental, literary and infrequently disastrous forms. Personal essays, stories, prose poems - as well as posts that feel more like accounts of what a song might dream (if songs could dream). Said the Gramophone's not for everyone, but I'm so grateful for the readers it's found - and to its contributors, Other Said the Gramophone contributors have included Dan Beirne, Jordan Himelfarb, Emma Healey, Jeff Miller and Mitz Takahashi. In 2011, we were chosen by Time magazine as one of the 25 best blogs in the world.
I've collected some of my StG highlights on this page.
Motto is not a book, it’s not a film - it’s a playful ghost story brought to life by the one-of-a-kind way you see the world. Published in May 2020 by the National Film Board, it's an interactive novella you can read/play free on your phone. Six chapters that tell a story about friendship, memory, loss and meaning - an interactive novella and intimate treasure hunt created over the course of three years by me, Vincent Morisset, Caroline Robert and Edouard Lanctôt-Benoit.
The Seers Catalogue (Website currently offline; trying to rescue it!) is a work of immersive interactive fiction - a sort of choose-your-own-adventure short story - which I made in 2016 with the cartoonist/illustrators James Braithwaite and Pat McEown, and a coder named six. It was commissioned by the Banff Centre Press and I like to describe it as "if Thomas Pynchon ran National Geographic," or "if Haruki Murakami edited Cat Fancy."
From 2015 to 2017 I wrote "Heart Beats," a Saturday column for The Globe & Mail. Every week, I gathered some reflections around a series of interesting songs. It was a pleasure and a privilege, and I was sad when they decided to end it. Some favourites: listening to Gaspar Nali and his gigantic babatoni; Chance the Rapper on Ellen; Billie Holiday in Taiwan; when my friend M discovered punk-rock; Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the days after the Trump's election; a lament for Elfin Saddle; "Despite Everything"; Québec's happy birthday song; Taipei's garbage-truck music.
I'm still really proud of "The Lizard, the Catacombs and the Clock," my investigation into the secret society UX and the catacombs under Paris. Although now archived at Gizmodo, it was first published in Brick and appears in The Brick Reader and Best Canadian Essays 2011.
"Dull Incredible" is a 'Ryeberg', or YouTube essay, about awe and online videos.
For seven years I attended Sackville, New Brunswick's peerless SappyFest Music Festival and for seven years I penned Sappy Times, a daily journal, printed on real paper, documenting what I saw. It was a great, bleary-eyed honour. I had to stop when my son was born but I hope to go back one day. In 2010, the Dawson City Music Festival invited me up to the Yukon to create something similar for them: The DCMF Listener existed for two issues and two issues only.
A review of the Tragically Hip's final concert.
The best part of "Knights of Griffintown," a story I wrote for Maisonneuve, might be the accompanying photo by Marc Rimmer and Anna Minzhulina (of me in cardboard knight's armour).
In 2012, I interviewed co-songwriter Josh Ramsay about Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe."
"Sean Michaels Listens to Music in Montreal" was a column I briefly wrote for the McSweeney's website, with bits and pieces on topics like Leonard Cohen, Sister Suvi, Buraka Som Sistema and Pop Montreal.
I occasionally accept commissions for band bios and liner notes - these have included liner notes for Wolf Parade and Partner, and texts for artists including Leif Vollebekk, Basia Bulat, Owen Pallett, Arcade Fire, Frog Eyes, Clues, John K Samson and Alvvays. For Young Galaxy's 2011 album, Falsework, I collaborated with the band to write a companion short story, included with the vinyl edition.
Six of my little micro-stories appeared in the inaugural issue of The Arkansas International, and you can read three of them here.
It's been ravaged by time and some broken links, but I'm still very happy with this essay I wrote for HTML Giant, over-analyzing a video of a bravehearted and heartbreakingly cutest little girl from Kyrgyzstan.
In April 2018, after years of nudging from my friend Jeff Miller, creator of the legendary zine Ghost Pine, I wrote-and-taped-and-photocopied my own little pamphlet: IT LASTS FOREVER is a zine about Montreal's improper springtime. Get in touch and I can mail you one - or listen to me talk to CBC Radio about it.
Finally, here's an essay about my second Father's Day as a father.
Literacki Sopot Festival (probably virtual appearance)
Read for the Cure with Samra Habib, Anita Rau Badami and Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld
Read for the Cure with Robyn Doolittle, Emma Straub and Johanna Schneller
• See past live dates.
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