Montreal-based writer Sean Michaels made headlines last year when he won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his debut novel, Us Conductors. This year, he’s done it again as a shortlisted nominee for the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award.
But those are far from being his only accomplishments. Michaels is also the founder of the MP3 blog Said The Gramophone and recently started a music column for The Globe and Mail. He’s won two National Magazine Awards and is even a jury member for the Polaris Music Prize. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to talk about his experience writing the novel, his life since winning the Giller, and his opinions on journalism today.
Did you find that your blog helped you with the publishing of your novel?
Said The Gramophone was really the springboard for my music criticism career. It was, and continues to be, an incredible gym to kind of work through my routines and practice for writing in general. In terms of the book, the blog helped me in some cases to get publishers or agents to look at it. Ultimately when you’re selling a book it’s more than anything about the book. Especially as a first time novelist, your reputation can’t get you that far. It contributed more creatively to my process than materially to the progression of the novel from manuscript to published work.
What are the main differences in writing fiction and non-fiction for you personally?
I like to write my non-fiction from a similar place that I write my fiction. I’m someone who really likes stylized prose, image, metaphor and all that poetic junk. I like creative non-fiction that feels personal and you can sense the authors spirit in the words on the page or screen. I think we understate the impact of money and labour on writers, so it’s much easier to get compensated in some flimsy way for writing non-fiction. Fiction is very hard to get compensated for; you have to write a whole book before you can sell it. When you’re writing fiction you’ve got to be doing it for reasons other than just paying your rent and keeping a roof over your head, you have to have something you want to stress or take pleasure in the craft. I think there’s a very big difference in the motivations to do it and the things you have to hold in your heart while doing it.
A month ago on Twitter you praised Rookie Magazine as “the bravest site in the entire world.” As a prominent Canadian writer, what direction do you think journalism or even literature should be headed in?
I think all people in the industrialized world need to get real about the need to pay for writing. There’s going to have to be some kind of shift where we start paying for it again or else it’s going to go away. I feel that suddenly we’re at this wonderful tipping point where enough people have grown up with the internet that the systemic barriers to entry work much less. People can just get their work directly out into the world and writers from visible minorities, women, trans—voices that aren’t me—suddenly realize, wait, I can do this just as well as they can. It’s suddenly woken up the market to the power, accessibility, and presence of these voices and there’s this great opportunity now for the people who are on the inside who have this power to break down these unjust systems and make our newspapers and magazines much more diverse and representative.
What’s your advice to young aspiring writers?
Start things and finish them. If you really want to be a writer, be smart about the way that you spend money and the things you spend money on. Try to understand that you’re not going into this line of work to be able to load up at Costco on 24 packs of Crispers, you’re going into this work for the way that it sustains you every day and inspires you to write a thousand words and feel like you’ve accomplished something magical. So yeah, stay in Montreal, keep your finances in order, be conscious, be deliberate, and don’t slide into a lifestyle that you can’t support.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new book, and lots of new opportunities have appeared since the Giller. I have a new column in the Globe and Mail on Saturdays writing about music. Because of this window where I’m allowed to do whatever I want [since] I’m momentarily famous before I shuffle back into obscurity, I like the idea of taking that opportunity to experiment with the ways we can do music criticism in a daily newspaper, and try to push the form a little bit. I hope that I get to keep doing that.
Why did you choose Montreal as your base?
I love being in a city where—particularly the community that I’m a part of in the Mile-End—I’m living among so many artists who are all struggling. I don’t mean struggling to succeed, but I mean that they’re not just taking jobs at advertising firms and editorial jobs at newspapers. It’s so inspiring and sustaining to feel like there’s a community of people like you who are just fighting through, particularly when you cross the line into your late 20s and 30s where a lot of people start giving up. Montreal’s full of those people who are secure, and while the Giller makes me feel secure, even before that I didn’t feel insecure in my life choices.
Since winning the Giller Prize, what’s been the most surreal thing to happen?
Being recognized on the street and in foreign cities. As a writer you assume that will never happen to you. You realize that Canadian lit is this powerful enough cultural force here and that there’s this tiny sliver of the population that actually might recognize your face; that’s bewildering and surreal.
The full interview will appear in Scrivener Creative Review’s Spring issue.