Sean Michaels’s first novel Us Conductors is an utter original, and when can you legitimately say that in 2014? It’s a love story, a spy thriller, a mystery, a meta-meditation on loss, and a musical history of the theremin, with lots of crazy kung fu thrown in for good measure. If you’ve never heard the theremin, it’s a wonderfully strange instrument.
I chatted with Sean about the book in person at The Booksmith in San Francisco, as well as over email.
The Rumpus: One character in the book says, “I feel like an explorer who has only just glimpsed the outline of a continent.” And that’s what writing a novel feels like. Can you walk us through the book you set out to write, the evolutions along the way?
Sean Michaels: I don’t think I really decided to write this book until I had a pretty clear idea of the book I could write. By the time I started a first draft, a first chapter, I had that silhouette in my mind: the story I wanted to tell, the way I would tell it. In that way it was unusual for me—that it didn’t proceed by iterations. The true history of Lev and Clara had been swimming around in my head for years; I learned it a long time ago, and I’d think of them as I experienced certain changes and twists of my own life. When I finally decided to begin it was that I had figured out what to use their story for—a book about the power of lying love—and how to tell it—with a slightly swoony, unreliable narrator, who changes in the second half of the novel.
Rumpus: I’m glad you mentioned “how to tell it.” This book has an interesting take on meta-fiction, in that the narrator is writing the book, but from two different points in time. I’ve never seen that before. Can you tell us how it functioned, and why it was necessary to have such a moving target?
Michaels: With Lev’s story I wanted to have my cake and eat it too: to have a narrator who is starry-eyed, lovesick, a little deluded; and then also to have a narrator who is wrecked and different (and still, perhaps, deluded), after his time in the Gulag. If I were writing in the third person I would just track the character’s progress moment to moment, as they change. But Lev’s voice, writing to Clara—I could already feel it, hear it, in the first person. So I looked at the story, saw the way it might split in two: in America / after America; a prisoner here / a prisoner there. And by breaking Lev’s tale into two parts, I could lay a canyon between them: a sort of flash-forward. And I love flash-forwards, from Atonement to Battlestar Galactica, like stepping out of a wardrobe and into an unexpected new land.
Rumpus: That’s one of the things I admire most about the book: your whimsicality on the page. That sense of play really comes across to your audience. But even with this “messy meta”—trademark pending—a book within a book written in two different points in time—the real magic here is characterization. Animating the great Lev. Can you tell us about him, his flaws, and how you sought to engage the reader’s empathy during the narrative journey?
Michaels: I’m glad you feel that way. To me, Lev seemed instantly likeable: a brilliant and irrepressible scientist, with a sense of humor, a sense of poetry, a soft, sentimental side. Also, he does kung fu. I took care not to make him too precious, too quirky, but for me the work wasn’t to inspire readers’ empathy—it was to challenge it. The way I imagined Part 1 was to introduce the readers to a character they liked, then gradually to make them question that value judgment: Do I really like this person? Do I believe in them? The turning point is a section where he meets an old friend in New Jersey. I wanted a small reveal there, a pivot. So by the end of Part 1 the reader thinks, perhaps: This guy’s an asshole. I hope he gets what’s coming to him.
And then, well, he does. Probably more, worse. I wondered if readers would feel a little regretful, later, that they had wished ill on him.
Rumpus: That’s a great answer, Sean. And it makes me think about the love story in the book, Lev and Clara. I might be stretching here, but I think there’s a parallel to be drawn between their one-sided affection and the theremin itself. The theremin is an instrument that the performer plays without actually touching, and so is most of the book’s love story—Lev doesn’t touch Clara, not really, and yet he holds her in such esteem. Can you speak to that?
Michaels: All of music’s like that. This invisible sending, pushed out into the air. A musician strums or bangs on or blows into a device, hoping or trusting that the listener feels something, that the listening crowd all feel the same thing. And us with our lovers, too: we send out these weightless signals, desires and dreams, and long for them to be received.
The theremin falls somewhere in between. An invisible, asking sound; but without even that banging, strumming, blowing. Just raised hands.
Rumpus: It’s cool to see how your background in music has informed the book’s motifs, its worldview. Were you consciously leaning on anything from all your work with Said the Gramophone? I ask because describing music on the page is such a difficult task, and it’s made double-difficult in Us Conductors by the odd sounds of the theremin.
Michaels: Nothing conscious, I don’t think. But I have definitely spent many years experimenting with different ways of writing about music.
Rumpus: The book has a postscript at the ending. Can you tell us about that structural decision? Why is it a PS and not just its own chapter?
Michaels: The postscript came out of a conversation with my agent, after Us Conductors had already been through several drafts. The novel deliberately falls away in its final pages; it was important to me that Lev’s last sentences feel unanswered, kinda unfulfilled. But I decided there was a value to adding something more—a breath, a pause, a few piano notes to take us out from the past and into our present, where the reader is left when the book is done. Also maybe to preclude the reader’s immediate spellbreaking Wikipedia-ing of “What happened next?!”
I knew this couldn’t be from Lev’s perspective—that would be too syrupy or on-the-nose. So: a postscript. And an attempt to make the postscript’s ellipses more important than its text.