Skip To Content

Writers Fest: Us Conductors is a wonderful novel

By April Laramey on April 21, 2015

The Ottawa International Writers Festival is taking place from April 22-28.  Apartment613 is previewing some of the authors who will be speaking at the festival in a series of special posts.

Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes for Canadian fiction, Us Conductors is Sean Michaels’ first full-length novel.  Combining science and music with love and espionage, Michaels gives us the fictionalized story of the very real Lev Teremin, also known as Léon Theremin.

Theremin invents a musical instrument that is played via the manipulation of electricity, handily called the Theremin.  The invention skyrockets him to fame and eventually sends him to the United States where he makes friends with the elite, including a young woman named Clara.

The book is written as one long letter from Theremin to Clara as he passes his time in Russian prison, and Us Conductors is the story of how he gets from such a leisurely life in America to serving eight years of hard labour.

Conductors is beautifully written and it’s easy to see why Michaels won the Giller.  He captures the voice of a man who is desperate, in love and who wants to share his story with the woman he loves the most.

Michaels gets us into Theremin’s head with his deft use of the first person narrative, and while this allows us to know the man’s more personal thoughts, it leaves a hole as far as other characters are concerned.  For example, we never really get a sense of what Clara feels for Lev.  Does she return his love?

“I wanted the reader to ask this question but not for me to definitively answer it,” explains Michaels, who grew up in Ottawa but has lived in Montreal since 2000.  “In real life, none of us get to understand the full both sides of any relationship.  In Us Conductors I wanted to confront this issue head-on: Lev doesn’t know what Clara is thinking, and the reader feels that absence very, very clearly.”

Photo of Sean Michaels courtesy of John Londono

Photo of Sean Michaels courtesy of John Londono

Clara’s feelings are not the only thing left to the reader’s imagination.  The reasons for Lev’s arrest and imprisonment are left unsaid, although there are plenty of actions throughout the book that could have led to that point, as he is hardly an innocent.

“It’s a question of responsibility: do you consider yourself a conductor, responsible for your own actions, or something conducted, led by an outside force?” says Michaels.

“I’m less interested in judging Lev’s relativism than I am in challenging him to take responsibility – for his crimes and his betrayals, as well as his acts of love.”

Us Conductors skillfully weaves together connections between electricity and music, electricity and love, and further again between love and music.  It will drive you to ask yourself about the various conductors in your life, including yourself.  It is highly recommended.

Sean Michaels will be speaking at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Friday, April 24. The event starts at 6:30 pm and will take place at Christ Church Cathedral (414 Sparks Street).  Tickets can be purchased online and are $15 in advance ($10 reduced) or $20 at the door ($15 reduced). Writers Festival members can get in for free.