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Giller Prize winner visits campus

Equipped with his whirring theremin, the winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Sean Michaels, visited campus on Friday.

Sean Michaels performs a short song on his theremin. (University Communications)

Mr. Michaels, whose debut novel Us Conductors received one of Canada’s top literary prizes, kept an audience at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre riveted with a lecture, reading and question and answer period. He even gave a brief performance on his theremin, an instrument that plays a central role in Us Conductors.

The novel tells the mostly true story of Lev Termen, the Russian scientist, inventor and spy who created the theremin, as he rises to prominence in the Soviet Union and moves to the United States to promote his new electronic instrument and perform espionage for the Russian government.

Though not a musician himself, music has been important to Mr. Michaels’ career. He created one of the internet’s first mp3 music blogs, Said the Gramophone, and the creation and performance of music runs throughout Us Conductors.

“I guess I took the easier path, in that I wasn’t particularly gifted in performing music and I didn’t take that much pleasure from it,” Mr. Michaels says. “Playing music never clicked that strongly, whereas writing does … To me [making music] is less fun than being alone with my adjectives.”

That preference for writing has served him well, making him only the second debut novelist ever to win the Giller Prize, something he’s still in disbelief about.

“The Giller feels like something that happened to me, rather than something I actually did,” he says. “I’ve always wanted three things from my writing career: to produce work which I feel is good, to connect through my writing to other people, and to be able to have enough of a readership that I can support myself to write. The Giller’s made the third one that much easier.”

Mr. Michaels’ visit was facilitated by the Department of English Language and Literature, which has hosted the recipient of the Giller Prize annually for eight years.