Five Questions for: Sean Michaels

Photo: Julie Artacho

Posted on: 17 July, 2023

Category: Featured Member

Sean Michaels is an internationally bestselling novelist from Montreal. He is the author of Us Conductors, which won the 2014 Giller Prize, and The Wagers, published in 2019. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Believer, Pitchfork, The Walrus, Wire, Rolling Stone, The Observer, Hazlitt, and Kinfolk, as well as in music columns for McSweeney’s and The Globe & Mail. He was also a mentor for the 2023 QWF Mentorship Program. His new novel, Do You Remember Being Born?, will be published this September.

QWF Communications Officer John Wickham spoke to Sean about his new book, what inspires his work, and his experience as a mentor in the QWF Mentorship Program. Here are five questions for Sean Michaels.

1) First off, congratulations on your book! Without spoiling too much, what can readers expect from Do You Remember Being Born?

It’s the story of a famous poet, named Marian Ffarmer, who accepts a commission from a Big Tech company to write a poem with their new AI, Charlotte. She says yes because she wants to help her middle-aged son buy a house. The novel slips between present and remembrance, and it’s itself “infiltrated” by AI: I used tools like GPT to compose some of the prose, and a lot of the poetry. But Do You Remember Being Born? isn’t just a book about technology: it’s about labour, art-making, community, and inheritance. 

2) The timing of this book is impeccable. You started it in 2019, three years before ChatGPT existed. Now, ChatGPT is on everyone’s minds, and the potential of generative AI to disrupt industries, culture, and education is regularly brought up as a cause for concern. What prompted you to write such a book?

I was inspired by details from the life of the 20th-century poet Marianne Moore, who wore a tricorne hat and went on late-night talk shows (as my Marian does). In 1955, Moore accepted a request to try to help Ford Motorcar name their new sedan. She offered suggestions like “Pastelogram” and “Mongoose Civique.” I was curious about what happens when a creative person is lured into a relationship with the commercial, but also by the intersection of poetry and technology. I received access to an early version of GPT and was often startled, unsettled, etc. by what it was able to express.

3) Are you optimistic about the future? Why or why not?

I have a seven-year-old son, so I think I’ve resolved to be optimistic. Humans have an extraordinary resilience, and our planet does too. Every epoch demands a different kind of mourning; there’s a lot of grief ahead of us, but also a lot of invention, experiment, and joy.

4) In addition to your work as a novelist, you also maintain a music blog, which you founded in 2003. How has music influenced your work as a writer?

After all these years, I find I keep returning to the idea of metaphor. The way literature is about writing one thing that means something else, or something more—several different thoughts using the same words as hinge. At Said the Gramophone, I experimented with many different ways of expressing music in words—and also my experience of music, distilling that into scratches on a (web)page.

5) Earlier this year, you were a mentor for QWF’s Mentorship Program. Can you tell us a bit about your experience?

It was my pleasure meeting Dinu Mahapatuna—reading her work, talking with her, thinking about my own writing through a different lens. She’s so talented.

One of the themes of Do You Remember Being Born? is the way that writers, as their careers go on, can seclude themselves in a room of their own construction: just one’s work, one’s habits, one’s preoccupations. As if the solitude will protect it somehow. But a spirit needs sunlight and water—it needs new thoughts, questions and provocations. Programs like the QWF’s Mentorship Program benefit the mentors as much as the emerging writers they support. 

Sean Michaels’ Do You Remember Being Born? will be published in September and is now available for pre-order.