Colin Meloy, best known as the frontman for literate indie rockers The Decemberists, has put his music career on hold to pursue an ancillary passion: literature. He released his debut novel Wildwood last year, a fantasy adventure aimed at readers between the ages of eight and twelve. It told the story of Prue, a precocious youngster from Portland, as she searches for her kidnapped brother in the magical, forested realm of Wildwood. The novel featured illustrations by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis, and spent two weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller list.
The sequel to that novel, Under Wildwood, picks up where book one left off: Prue has returned to everyday life as a middle-schooler after rescuing her brother Mac from the clutches of the Dowager Governess. The tranquility is quickly shattered, though, when she is forced to return to Wildwood to help her friend Curtis quell political unrest, all while fending off the attacks of shape-shifting assassins. A parallel storyline introduces two young sisters, Rachel and Elsie, and their plot to escape from an orphanage run by a malevolent industrial conglomerate.
I spoke with Mr. Meloy about his new work. Read the interview below for his thoughts on the book’s weighty themes and his inescapable association with Steam Punk. (Minor SPOILERS ahead).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What first got you interested in young-adult fiction?
COLIN MELOY: I guess, technically, it’s middle-reader fiction, and I know that that’s something that the publishing industry has placed a structure around. It’s its own part of the bookstore. But I do think that there’s kind of a difference. Young-adult novels tend toward themes that are more appropriate for teenagers, and as such you see a lot of paranormal romance pop in. But I do think that in the middle-reader world there’s a little bit more freedom. I don’t think there’s an expectation put on the writer to make something that is saucy enough to appeal to the teenage reader. I just feel like you have more room to toy with folk and fairy tale archetypes that don’t necessarily have a place in YA, but is given free reign in the world of middle grade. And from the beginning, I think both [my wife] Carson and I knew that we wanted to do these books and collaborate on these books, what we were shooting for was an illustrated novel that was really rife with folk and fairy tale archetypes. And so it fell into the middle grade world.
What got you interested in writing fiction in the first place and breaking away from your music career?
Well, it was kind of my first love. It was ‘Plan A’ right out of college. I had my degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, and moved to Portland with the idea that I would be biding my time getting life experience, as my faculty advisers all advised, before going back for my inevitable MFA. And while I was getting that life experience, the music became part of that life experience, and that life experience became my life. And so I never looked back. To a certain extent, this is kind of me returning to that and getting back into writing. You could say that music has been the tangent from writing all along.
As an English major myself, I can understand all of the advice you were getting.
Yeah, and it’s good advice, and sometimes that may lead into something else. Certainly my ‘Plan A’ wasn’t that solid. I think between music and writing, either one being ‘Plan A’ or ‘Plan B’ — it didn’t really matter, they were both terrible careers.
Neither would be on a top-10 list of the most lucrative careers.
I think ‘Plan C’ was just the service industry for the rest of my life.
What inspired the world of Wildwood? I’ve read that it’s based partly on the forest outside of Portland, but what about the world itself?
I think I drew a lot from the books that I loved and that Carson loved growing up. And the ones that involved a world that was both alien but also a little bit recognizable. It would defy logic in that technologies would exist, walking that thin line between having a place be separate from the world and yet also be anchored to it. You think of stuff like Wind in the Willows — I mean Tolkien is sort of the far end of that — but things like Phantom Tollbooth. All these books that we loved that involved crossing over into another world. Certainly the Narnia books were really part of the inspiration of writing these books.
Did you intend for the city of Portland to play such a prominent role?
Yeah, I think that stems out of spending a lot of time walking around in Forest Park; something that’s kind of crazy about the park is that it’s so bang up against the city that there are places where it does feel like you’re crossing over into another world — so distinct is that environment different from the urban landscape. So it made sense just to create it here and have Portland be the city that creates the tension between this organic and magic world and then the urbane realities of Portland.
In Under Wildwood, the villains are titans of industry, while the protagonists are looking for a sort populist uprising. Was any of this inspired by events such as the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street?
To be honest, when I was first formulating it, I was playing more on just general — since Dickens — kind of the industrialist archetype, and I feel like you don’t have to go very far to find great villains in books and movies that are industrialists, or CEOs wanting to gobble up natural resources for their own ends. I honestly didn’t necessarily want it to be a populist or an environmental scold. But with events being as they are, and wanting to keep it current, throwing in a few jokes about the one percent — some of the language that I think has become more current since the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street — found its way in there as a way of modernizing what I feel like is a very old archetype. But I’m not indicting industrialists, so much as just playing with archetypes. That’s how I feel. And then as far as the populist uprising, I mean that’s just, like, an orphan riot. I think it would be a stretch to say that — it’s just people freeing themselves from bondage. But I guess maybe that could be read that way, which would be fine. People read things in very different ways.
Corporal Donalbain, the wolf, when he admits that he has sold out the protagonists — was that episode modeled on Judas? He goes mad, he rants about having blood on his hands, and he says that he’s sold out his friends for the price of poppy beer — I couldn’t help but notice a parallel there.
Again, that’s also an archetype going way back. He’s the betrayer. I don’t know that I was thinking of Judas. But I do think of him as being a fairly tragic. There’s a lot of tragic figures. Even [Joffrey] Unthank, who you would say is the antagonist — he’s very cruel, and does evil things — I think there’s something sympathetic about him, in that he and Desdemona are both having to deal with the consequences of bad choices that they’ve made along the way, and being stuck in this position, and have become villains despite themselves almost. And I would think of Donalbain in a similar light, as being a tragic figure who is just a slave to his own addiction, and clearly feels awful about it. But sort of made his bed.
Did you ever think that these themes might be too heavy for the demographic you’re shooting for, or that some of it might go over their head?
Well I think you can recognize it. I think that there’s enough there, it’s just trying to create an interesting and captivating character. And maybe it will challenge them. I feel like the villains aren’t all necessarily cut-and-dry, except for Darla, the shape-shifter, who is just evil. But she’s an assassin, so that’s pretty clear. But as far as Donalbain and Unthank and Desdemona, similarly, I think there’s themes in the first book that deal with this. But having kids, forcing them to parse out, ‘Well what is evil, and what makes them bad?’ And maybe you can have sympathy for these characters, and recognize the circumstances that led up to them making these decisions and behaving in these terrible ways. And I don’t think that’s beyond your average 11 or 12-year-old, and I would say even a nine or 10-year-old would be quick to recognize them. I think that while some people are quick to point out that these books might be too challenging for the age group, I think that that’s kind of crazy. You meet a lot of 10-year-olds who really have their shit together in a crazy way.
A lot of smart 10-year-olds.
Yeah, and I think it’s not a new thing. I think kid’s lit, for a while now, there’s been this fear of corruption that started in the ‘80s and blossomed in the ‘90s, and made for a tepid few years of overprotective parenting, and also safe choices being made in publishing. Gone are the days of [Maurice] Sendak and Roald Dahl, and you think, ‘Would those books be published now?’ And I’m not sure they would be.
I was a big Roald Dahl fan growing up, and a lot of what he was writing was comparably very heavy for the age group.
Yeah, Harriet the Spy, even books like Eloise, all these books that were done in the ‘60s, ‘70s. Now I think that there would be, ‘Wait a second, are we suggesting that these kids can make it on their own?’ We can’t portray parental neglect, because won’t that be awful for kids. It’s been a weird road for sure.
Tell me a little bit about your ideas behind the Periphery.
For one thing, it’s just kind of a mechanic of the world, this boundary. Trying to create a world that’s not just like walking through a wardrobe into another world; there has to be some kind of boundary that’s connecting it to the real world. And I had this idea of a boundary that you walk through and you get lost in. I think in the second book, like a lot of the stuff in the second book, having an opportunity to explore the ground rules a little bit more, as they had been established in the first and delving into them deeper. I feel like in a lot of books you might just establish a boundary or a magical force field that people couldn’t cross and that would be the end of it. But as I was trying to figure out the details, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny to play with that archetype?” That saying that crops up in books, ‘what does happen if you get stuck in that between world?’ So I had this idea of people setting up a home inside of it. But then I think it also, in the end, speaks to arrested development to a certain degree, or to people who hold onto childhood, and it becomes like that Island in Pinocchio where you can go and be the boy you always wanted to be. Something about the dangers of having your way all the time as a kid. And also, I think these kids understand that growing old is a good thing. Leaving childhood behind is something that we have to do. And that by staying here and being 10 for the rest of your life would actually be a fate worse than death, even though it seems so attractive.
I thought the moles were very funny; they were an interesting concept. Out of curiosity, who would you want to voice these moles should Under Wildwood be made into a movie? I read it the entire time with Sir Ian McKellan in mind.
I think Ian McKellan would be a fantastic voice for the job. Patrick Stewart? I think they tend to go together. It’s all about grandiloquence and loud proclaiming and everything is a proclamation to the moles. I guess I wanted, by putting it all in caps, to create a kind of interaction with the reader, where it forces you to really think of the way they’re speaking in a different way. I have to admit, I kind of stole the idea from that John Irving novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, where he speaks all in caps. I think their voices would be really different. I don’t think that these guys’ voices would sound much like Owen Meany’s voice.
Throughout the novel you make references to pop culture, like music and A Prairie Home Companion. Was it hard to balance reality and fantasy?
I think it’s always a challenge. When Carson and I were setting up the rules of the world, and drawing the map, and deciding what kind of world it would be, as far as the technologies that would be in the world, we decided it would be arbitrary. We wouldn’t pick one era but instead whatever piece of technology it was, be it a building, or a ship, or clothing — it would just be from whatever era we thought was the coolest. So you do have cars, but I expect you would have four-masted ships and people wearing Napoleonic-era uniforms and fighting with cannons and swords.
There’s definitely a steampunk vibe.
Unfortunately, that’s what you get for having any kind of Victoriana in your book. You fall prey to some steampunk ideas. I think we wanted to stay as far away from that as possible. We were sort of poking fun at the fascination with that kind of outfit, and Victoriana. I mean I’ve certainly made hay with Victoriana in my career.
Why is Victoriana so appealing to you?
I think it’s mostly Edwardiana, if such a thing could exist. I never thought of it so much as exploiting the Victorian era as being fascinated with that kind of stuff. The Victorian stuff also played into psychedelia of the ‘60s. Early psychedelia, ’66, ’67, you think of like Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s, and Monty Python; I feel like so much ‘60s psychedelia is about lampooning Victoriana, so I play into that. And musically, that was always fascinating to me.
This is obviously the middle of the trilogy; the conclusion isn’t much of a conclusion. What can we look forward to in the third book?
You can expect that it gets weirder and more blown-out. I want to think of these books as becoming less tidy as they go along. I’m working on it now, and hopefully it will be more adventurous, both in the action that takes place and in the way that it’s structured. Things will resolve and there’s an arc to the entire series, but I like to think that it will just get weirder as it goes along.
Under Wildwood, published by Balzer & Bray, hits stores Sept. 25.
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