Fans of the Decemberists’ bookish folk-rock know that front man and songwriter Colin Meloy has long delighted in burying and drowning characters in the band’s songbook. It's a playful and slightly macabre sensibility that also lends itself well to children's literature. (See also: Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, Maurice Sendak.)
For the past three years Meloy and his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis, have collaborated on the Wildwood Chronicles, a series of children's novels that follows the adventures of seventh grader Prue and her geeky classmate Curtis into the Impassable Wilderness, a sort of darker, deadlier version of Portland's Forest Park. On a rescue mission to save Prue's baby brother from kidnappers (a murder of crows), the duo discovers a world teeming with magical plants and talking animals, border wars and a murderous Dowager Governess—less a Disneyland, more a Narnia. It's the kind of children’s literature that adults keep on their bookshelf.
Before Meloy and Ellis read from their second installment, Under Wildwood, on October 10, Meloy and I chatted about his writing life and some of his more twisted ideas.
Since you’ve finished the second book, do you still consider this children’s literature or is it more mature now, more YA fiction?
I still think of it as children’s literature. From the outset, when we were creating the idea, we wanted it to live in folk-fairytale realm, so the lessons it teaches might be best digested by children. I think it’s really intended for all ages.
You’ve spoken a bit about Portland’s Forest Park informing Wildwood. Do you find that you and Carson are in the stories? Are you Prue and Curtis?
Yeah, I think when I was writing Wildwood and knowing few 12-years-olds…not that that would be that important. I’m not sure somebody who spends all day around 30 12-year-olds would have a better grasp on that. Maybe they would. I think anybody having been a 12-year-old is just as capable of writing those characters. It’s just a question of becoming attuned with that mindset. I think it’s still inside everybody. I still feel kind of like a 12-year-old. I was drawing a lot from my own experience and digging into Carson’s past for some ideas for Prue.
Did you debate whether you’d have a hero or a heroine?
I think we landed on Prue because I felt like the idea of a kid—a sibling being abducted by crows and brought into the woods—it felt more interesting to me to have a sister go after him. Maybe that’s because I myself am a younger sibling to an older sister. I wouldn’t say that my older sister has a maternal instinct very often [laughs], but there’s something about that that made more sense to me. I think we were also borrowing from other archetypes, particularly Maurice Sendak’s really great kids’ book Outside Over There, which involves a baby brother being abducted by goblins. The protagonist, who’s his older sister, has to go out the window backwards into Outside Over There. I think that was a theme we wanted to borrow.
In Under Wildwood there's this great subplot where Curtis's parents leave his sisters at an orphanage while they travel. Where'd you get that idea?
Funny you should ask that. It was actually sort of based on a story my dad had told. My dad grew up in a perfectly loving and functioning family, but in the ’50s or early ’60s he remembers when his parents, my grandparents, went on a trip once and a common option was to board your kids at the orphanage. They would set them up in a dorm; they’d get fed and taken care of, and they could go to school still, but they were effectively orphaned temporarily. I thought that was so fascinating and would be an interesting plot device.
You studied creative writing in college. Do you feel more attuned to being a writer or a musician at this point?
I don’t know. I feel like I spent the last 10 years...so much of my creative identity is wrapped up in music, that that's where I feel like I’m mostly based. For so long writing was my main goal, and music became this kind of tangent I went on as I was between undergraduate and an MFA program. That’s how I assumed things would pan out. Sometimes these things happen for a good reason. I tend to think I’m a better songwriter than a prose writer, but I also feel like I’m new to this. Coming back to it has been like rediscovering an old passion and I feel like I’m getting better at it. The feeling of getting better at something you love is really powerful. In some ways, it feels better to be writing prose now than songs. That’s a really longwinded response.
Have you made any course corrections on second book? Fixed any bad habits?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve learned a lot. Wildwood was the first novel I’ve ever written. I think once I’d broken the 100-page barrier it became the longest thing I’d ever written, and certainly the most involved thing. I feel like I didn’t have that much practice; I just kind of dove into it. Which is fine, but I know that it’s got its hiccups and it was nice to amend some of those personal failings [laughs]. I do feel like the second one is a better book.
Do you read these books to your son Hank?
We do. Wildwood I would read the pages when I was done at the end of the day, skipping over the more graphic parts. He was a five-year-old when that was being written; he’s now almost six and a half. I think Carson has been reading him Under Wildwood before bed, similarly skipping over the graphic parts.
How does he respond? Does he give you feedback?
Notes? [Laughs.] Not so far. He’s an interesting audience. He really goes into the battle bits... We hope he doesn’t find it wanting.
Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis: Under Wildwood
Oct 10 at 7, book signing and reading, Fremont Abbey (hosted by University Book Store), free