Debut novelist Sean Michaels has won this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize for Us Conductors (Random House Canada). The award was presented Monday night at a gala at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. Michaels received $100,000, the largest purse in the literary award’s 21-year history.
Although the 32-year-old Montreal music journalist was clearly shocked by the win, he delivered an eloquent acceptance speech, saying, “I feel like a whale who has found a whole city in his mouth.” Michaels ended his speech by referencing recent allegations of sexual assault and harassment in the arts community: “As we’ve been reminded in recent months there are people in our little corner of culture who behave monstrously. We have to reckon with that and change it. Each of us does. We must believe women and men too, mostly. We must tell good stories and buy every book.” He then quoted a line from Montreal poet Sina Queyras’ 2009 collection Expressway: “Go forth and undo harm / go forth and do.”
Us Conductors fictionalizes the life of Russian scientist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, who invented the theremin, an electronic instrument performed without physical contact from its player. During his book tour, Michaels – who referred to the instrument as “magical” with a sound that “rises from nowhere” – tracked down theremin players to perform at each stop during his book tour.
Jurors Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose, who read 161 titles submitted by 63 publishing houses, selected Michaels from a shortlist that comprised David Bezmozgis for The Betrayers (HarperCollins Canada); Frances Itani for Tell (HarperCollins Canada); Heather O’Neill for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (HarperCollins Canada); Miriam Toews for All My Puny Sorrows (Knopf Canada); and Padma Viswanathan for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao (Random House Canada). Each finalist received $10,000.