A Surfeit of Wondrous Things: Sean Michaels Interviewed by Tobias Carroll

On writing a mixed-media novel, the precarity of middle-class artists, and the unique weather systems of each project.

The Wagers

When I read Sean Michaels’s debut novel Us Conductors, I wasn’t necessarily shocked to find that music was at its center. Michaels first made a name for himself as the founder of the music blog Said the Gramophone. But I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting to encounter a novel that simultaneously chronicles the invention of the theremin and is a decade-spanning love story.

Now, Michaels’s second novel, The Wagers (Tin House), is out in the world, and it too defies easy expectations. At the heart of the book is Theo, a comedian with a stagnant career who leaves his family’s business behind to pursue a job at a high-end technology company, and eventually becomes embroiled with a group of thieves whose target is a physical embodiment of luck. Tonally speaking, it would fit on a “weird noir” shelf beside Jonathan Lethem’s A Gambler’s Anatomy—not bad company to be in. I spoke with Michaels about the process of writing this novel, the sharp differences between his two books, and his own affinity (or lack thereof) for comedy.

—Tobias Carroll

Tobias Carroll With The Wagers, you have a book that begins as this multigenerational family saga, evolves into a tech-world satire, and then turns into a magical realist crime novel. I’m curious, how did all of these ideas come together into one book?

Sean Michaels I knew I wanted to stretch myself and develop a new toolkit to challenge myself. With every book I write, it’s really important to me to try and learn new skills or to write differently than I did before. With The Wagers, one of the things that really interested me was exploring the way that some of my favorite writers can tell a very naturalistic, grounded, character-based story. I wanted to write scenes where the action happened in the ping-pong of real human characters talking to one another, to give into these naturalistic family scenes.

But at the same time, I wanted to write a book that was, at times, a tightly plotted adventure story, a novel that has switch-backs of plot and little twists. Those two modes are in conflict. I was really tickled by the idea of having a book that begins in a very realistic, domestic sphere, or a mercantile sphere, and then gradually gets further and further off the rails.

TC How did you determine the right level of realism or stylization to write about something, whether it be Canadian literature or a tech company that is tracking different variables for betting, or the grocery store business?

SM One of the strange theses of the book is this idea that there’s a wondrous mess to the details in our lives. It seems very ordinary until you start realizing that a surfeit of wondrous things are around us all the time. There were moments in the book that I really wanted to let ordinary spaces become almost Technicolor by highlighting how much beauty and humor is threaded through the landscapes of our lives.

On the one hand, I had this impulse of almost overdoing it, because I wanted to recognize this aspect to Theo’s and our own reality. At the same time, I wanted to pull back narratively and also have sequences where I really carefully and deliberately guide the reader and show them what I want them to see, or what I want them to understand, without becoming too distracted by the background.

It’s a bit like telling a joke, or telling a good story among friends around the dinner table. You want to give enough detail to bring the story to life, and to give it a certain splendor, but at the same time, you don’t want to distract from the thrust and parry of what the story is really about.

This book is full of nods and winks and tributes to the city I live in and the art I admire, but I wanted those to feel like they were provoking the reader, to remind them of how much richness there is to life from all these different directions.

TC  I noticed various character names that seemed to allude to other writers: a character named Sebald and a horse named Pinkwater, for instance.

SM They’re both nods, absolutely.

Daniel Pinkwater and W.G. Sebald are both writers that really delight me in completely different ways. As I was writing this, I was trying to think of people like Paul Auster or Donna Tartt or Ben Lerner, utilizing all these different techniques, which in very disparate ways gift me pleasure, with the turns that their sentences or their chapters will take.

TC The Wagers largely follows Theo in third person, but then there are moments where the narrative includes excerpts from letters and a novel. How did you decide on when the novel would shift into those sections and break away from the tone you use for most of the book?  

SM I love a book that is full of little trapdoors. I love books where you’re in one space, and you grow comfortable and accustomed to the stage, to a scene, to a world—and then a trapdoor opens up and you realize that there’s another floor underneath. And hopefully with this book, you’re not quite certain where you might fall into in the next chapter.

I love that, whether it’s work by David Mitchell or Siri Hustvedt or W.G. Sebald—and I drew inspiration from them. I wanted to try writing a mixed-media novel, where you can tell a story using these mixed-media pieces. More importantly, I wanted a reader to take as much enjoyment as I do from reading those kinds of books. So, you have a third person narrative, but you’re reading letters or you’re reading a novel within a novel.

Or you are meeting somebody for the first time—you’re in Daniel’s head—or towards the end of the book, the surprise of finding yourself back with Inspector Sovrencourt from the beginning of the novel, behind his eyes.

It does go back to that, that hope and delight and surprise.

TC  Did the idea for The Wagers begin germinating while you were still working on Us Conductors? Or was it more of a case where you sat down and began working on this after finishing the earlier novel?

SM  No, I had been working on this book before Us Conductors. The more fantastical, magical elements of it were still in the nascent stages. Us Conductors won the Giller Prize here in Canada, which is the biggest literary prize in Canada and is one of these career transformational awards. I mean, the award show is broadcast live on the CBC, like the Oscars.

It’s unlike any other literary award, at least in North America, in that sense. After I won the Giller, I was turned upside down for a year. It comes with a pile of money and all these things, and I would say the experience of this good fortune that tumbled into my lap—a jury of writers who had chosen my book from hundreds of others, randomly like a bolt from the blue—really rewrote or reconfigured some of the book that I was writing.

You spend your whole life trying to inoculate yourself to chance, to the idea that you don’t just get what you deserve, you know? Things happen randomly. And yet when something like winning the Giller happens to you, you can’t help but think that you’re up against the opposite idea, which is, Oh, you deserve this. This isn’t random.

And so, this book is in some ways, trying to find an equilibrium or an understanding of that conflict.

Sean Michaels Credit Julie Artacho

Photo of Sean Michaels by Julie Artacho.

TC  Financial instability seems to be a constant throughout the novel. There’s a sense of inequality, of living in the wake of more wealthy, powerful people, across the different settings.

SMWhether you’re an artist or you’re anything else in the world, there’s this question of why are you doing this? How do you know if you’re on the right track? By what measure do you know if you should be doing what you’re doing and whether you’re succeeding at what you’re doing? We live in this capitalist, maybe post-capitalist stage, but money certainly seems to be at the forefront of how we instinctively evaluate our standing. In various moments of the story, the characters are really confronted with the magnitude or meaninglessness of wealth, and how much one’s fortune is or isn’t dependent on income or cost.

TC  You are a music critic and much of the writing I’ve seen lately about the industry has dealt with the decimation of the middle-class tier of musicians—and of artists, more broadly. Did that factor into The Wagers at all?

SM  This book was based on the hundreds of conversations I’ve had in the past ten to fifteen years with artists and musicians here in Montreal. As you say, there really was a sense for a long time that if you were an independent musician, you weren’t going to become rich, but there was this lower-middle class of music that you could see your way through. And it’s just disappeared.

I’ve had so many conversations with musicians who have been doing it for a long time and that are successful at making work that connects with hundreds of people, thousands of people, and yet, they’re asking themselves, Should I do this? Should I continue? And so, for me, I very much wanted to write a story of an artist who was asking themself that question: Why am I doing this? Should I continue? And not someone who was a secret genius where the reader could tell, Oh, they’re destined for greatness.

There was something self-conscious to me about seeing how his great dream that was never quite to be … was essentially being profiled by—not by a New Yorker writer, but a writer who went on to write for The New Yorker.

TC What led you to choose stand-up comedy as Theo’s preferred form of creative expression?

SM I like that stand-up is a shabby, unpretentious art. It lacks any of the pretension and pretensions of grandeur that poetry or literature or even music have.

I really found myself struck by something that I heard the comedian Marc Maron say more than once on his podcast, which was this tension between wanting to invent and improvise and discover new material while on stage versus the impulse or the need to repeat the jokes as told, and refine them and make them better. I thought that was such a fundamental artistic dilemma: the artist that wants to reinvent themself or challenge themself.

I feel like I can take weeks or months or years to shape a story and work out my relationship with my reader or with myself, whereas comedians go up, and, as I say in the book, test the premise over and over every night that they get on stage. I think that’s really a delicious analogy.

TC When you are, say, a musician or comedian, you have that ability to test new work and see how it works so many times, whereas as a writer, you’re not necessarily going to read a short story at a reading and think, Okay, this might be completely awful, or this might be completely flawed.

SM You really do spend years rearranging sentences in a giant Word document, and finally you say, How does this look? How is this? 

You hope there’s one crazy soul in the back of the room who laughs at your long jokes.

TC Do you have a sense of where your next work is going to take you?

SM Well, I didn’t. I just started something, and it’s very different. I’m conscious of the fact that several of my favorite writers are the ones where every book has its own weather. They’re linked to each other by the voice and the spirit of the author, but they really have their own systems.

At this point in my career, I understand that’s the type of writer I am or hope to be, at least for the moment. It’s not just that each book is necessarily a reaction to the next, but as I write, I really find myself waiting until I have a sense of whatever the new weather of the work will be before I can begin working on it.

TC The Wagers deals in part with comedy, and you started out as a music writer. Is there anything from either of those fields that you’re really enjoying these days?

SM I’m bizarrely uncomedic. I’m much more drawn to British comedy than North American comedy. I don’t know that I have anything much happening in the comedy world for me. 

Musically, I was joking that in the new year, I feel like maybe all I’m going to do is listen to Brahms. But that’s not quite true. There’s a lot of jazz happening in my life recently, especially artists like Horace Silver, The Jazz Messengers. Jazz just feels perfectly right for the glacial, really freezing and snowy Montreal winter at the moment. Also, this morning, the new Selena Gomez album became available to me as a music critic. And boy did that sound good. So, it might be the year of Brahms and Selena Gomez.

Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel Reel and the story collection Transitory. His next book, Political Sign, will be released in September as part of the Object Lessons series.

The Wagers is available for purchase here.

Simon Van Booy & Siri Hustvedt
Simon Van Booy