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Thursday, July 3, 2014

A conversation with 'Us Conductors' author Sean Michaels

Posted By on Thu, Jul 3, 2014 at 3:10 PM

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  • JOHN LONDONO
With his first novel, Us Conductors, music journalist Sean Michaels crafts a fictional biography of Leon Theremin (Lev Termen) and the love of his life, Clara Rockmore. Theremin is celebrated as the inventor of the Theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. His true life’s story is filled with mystique, spy intrigue, and imprisonment. Ultimately, Us Conductors is a love story, for better or worse. Michaels’ rich imagination fills in the blanks with all sorts of details that are no stranger than Theremin’s real life. Michaels celebrates the release of Us Conductors tonight (Thurs., July 3), with a reading and Q&A at Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge. Duet For Theremin and Lap Steel also performs.

Free. 7 p.m. 644 North Highland Ave. 404-874-5756.

The name of the book is Us Conductors, and it's sort of historical fiction — Would you call it that?
Yeah, it's weird, imaginative, historical fiction in that I wasn't trying to just represent everything 100% accurately. In some historical fiction, the most important thing to the author is the accuracy of the details, and that was far from my priority.

I'm familiar with Leon Theremin’s story, but I'm not super familiar. I assume that he wasn’t really into kung-fu. Is that you’re imagination taking over?
Yeah, the kung-fu is completely made up. That was actually one of the first things that I decided to include in my head. I wanted to bend and twist the story to suit my own interests, and I landed on him being a kung-fu practitioner. It was a way that I could really wave a red flag to signal that this was made up, and that I was bringing in other elements.

But he really did work as a Russian spy.
It is believed so. He has said that he was working in some capacity with the Secret Service in Russia while he was in the West. What exactly he was doing, the degree to which he was collaborating, is a matter of speculation. But yes, he was working as a spy in some capacity.

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You come from a a journalism background, correct?
I've always written fiction, but professionally I work as a music journalist.

Editors are always saying “show more, tell less.” Do you think of Us Conductors as that kind of exercise pushed to the nth degree, and was it cathartic for you to be able to do that with your experience as a music journalist?
Well I kind of stumbled backwards into music journalism. My first real work was just on my own blog, Said the Gramophone. I had the luxury early in my career when all I was doing was occasional pieces where people wanted me to write something just because they knew my style. I was doing what we were talking about here — just kind of dreaming and reflecting back on my own personal, subjective experience with music, and the weird stories and dreams that music provokes. The more and more professional I got, I was kind of lowered into a box. This book all along has been liberating, like this is my natural way of working.

Are you a musician yourself?
I'm not a musician, but I do have a Theremin I got back in December. So I've been slowly trying to figure something out. I can kind of terribly play it.

I wanted to ask you about Clara Rockmore. In the book, she's very metropolitan. As I was reading it, I wondered how much of her character did you invent and how much do you think the character in your book really reflects what she was like?
There are simple things, like as an older lady, I've heard interviews with her so I know that she maintained her accent even though she moved to America at a very young age. Ultimately, I never met her and I had very little exposure to her. I have to assume that the real Clara is very different than the one in my book. I wasn't trying to represent the way she truly was. So I think she was probably very different. On the other hand, when you put the same ingredients in the machine, you see what else could be made from it. I was very curious with this book. The Theremin documentary kind of paints this strange picture of an unrequited love story between Lev and Clara. I think one of the reasons I decided to write this book is a feeling of suspicion I had for this love story, sensing that kind of lie within it. Although the book in broad strokes describes their relationship, this is not a book about how they truly, truly have this true love that never happened. I think my book is more of an interrogation of what happens when true love is a fiction, and how useful that untrue “true love” can be in times of trouble.

It is a love story from a peculiar point of view.
Exactly. It's a story of their love for better or worse.

Why did you write this book?
I've always been really drawn to stories that feel like they have to have been made up, like these pieces of real life that sound like they're fiction. In the same way, I'm attracted to lies that feel like truth. When I began hearing this story, the bits and pieces of the story of Lev being a scientist in Russia, coming to America, all the excitement he found here, the love affair, the espionage, then returning to Russia … It's just one of those stories that feels like it had to have been made up. Also, the Theremin itself has always been bewitching to me. The first time I heard it, I was really bewitched and struck by how this clumsy-looking electrical machine could make such a human sound. I like the idea of a book where the instrument, at its heart, is really a metaphor for the searching and asking and invisible connections between people.

Do you remember where you were the first time you heard a Theremin?
I had this strange experience where I was in the car driving one night. I turned on the radio, about 13 years ago, and there was this beautiful opera, and I heard this fragile and kind of otherworldly voice. It was so perfect and melancholy and beautiful. At the end of the segment, the radio host explained that I had not been listening to a voice, but a Theremin. I was like, “What? That wasn't a singer, but a stupid machine?!”

What kind of stuff do you like to listen to, naturally?
I come from a background of listening to a lot of hard rock and indie rock and experimental music, as well as classical and jazz and hip-hop. I listen pretty widely. But in this book, there's kind of a secret influence. The chapter titles are all song titles. And they're all song titles from the new wave era. Music that's really beautiful and noisy — that was the kind of feeling I was trying to carry through.

In a lot of those new wave bands, you don't get the complete picture. Your mind has to connect the dots, and I see a similar kind of dynamic with your book here.
That's a really good insight into the book. A lot of people have wondered why Clara herself is featured relatively little in it. There's a lot of Lev thinking about Clara, but not that much about the actual person. Some people have criticized this, but for me that was a very deliberate choice. I was trying to gesture to the way that we have these one-sided relationships with all sorts of people. Some of the most important people in our lives we carry around an idea of. We kind of send these invisible feelings through the air at them, then try to imagine that we're feeling these invisible feelings coming back through the air to us. But there's nothing really there.

In many ways, that's exactly how a Theremin works, mechanically speaking.
Yeah! Exactly. There's nothing really connecting you. You're just kind of trusting that it's hearing what you're doing.

There's kind of a romantic transformation in the book. When he first meets Clara, it goes from first-person narrative to third-person. I thought that was fascinating in the text. How did that come about?
When you're searching to find the narrative voice, you kind of need to lock into that. I experimented with doing the whole book in third-person or first-person. I realized that it could be from Lev to Clara as a sort of letter, and the reader standing in as Clara. You're sort of implicated in one-half of this relationship, but you don't really know who this Lev guy is. So I like the way it implicated the reader in the story, and also alienated them with the feeling that something may not be quite right.

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