Colin Meloy’s dark, wild fantasy

Decemberists' lead singer continues his venture into children's fiction

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

When you think the name Colin Meloy, you think The Decemberists, the Grammy-nominated indie-rock band he has fronted for a decade. You think catchy, theatrically crafted songs and folk-rock that actually has an edge.

But an arguably equal part of his band’s enormous success is his lyrics, which arguably might even overshadow his songs. There’s a creeping darkness in his lyrics, not just in the explicitly violent scenes of tunes like “The Rake’s Song” but also in the blood and guts imagery of the upbeat and cheery “July, July.” The author of such couplets like “And I’ll say, ‘Your camisole was a sprightly light magenta’ / When, in fact, it was a nappy bluish grey” clearly has an inclination towards words (and, not surprisingly, a degree in creative writing), and the visceral storytelling of certain Decemberists songs is part of what makes the band so fun.

So it’s no shock that Meloy, who in 2009 wrote a rock opera, Hazards of Love, would eventually turn to fiction, and given his band’s theatrical leanings, that the book ended up being in the fantasy genre. But what is surprising is Meloy’s target audience. His books aren’t for bespectacled hipsters with a fleeting appreciation of Baudrillard; they’re for children.

And that’s how we get The Wildwood Chronicles, Meloy’s series of fantasy books for pre-teens. The first volume came out in 2011, and on Sept. 25 we got the sequel, Under Wildwood.

It turns out that writing fiction was always a pipe dream for Meloy and his wife, Carson Ellis, who pens the detailed, full-color illustrations that appear throughout the book. Back in the early 2000s when The Decemberists were just starting out as a band, Ellis and Maloy were living together in a warehouse, “super excited” about sharing “a common aesthetic,” as Meloy puts it. Meloy was writing songs and Ellis was designing merch and doing web design, but the couple knew they wanted to do more. They wanted to write a book. (The couple will sign books and read at the Boulder Book Store on Saturday, Sept. 29.)

“We started writing a kind of folk tale, fairy tale-inspired novel back then that was going to be really long and heavily involved and weird, and be heavily illustrated,” Meloy tells Boulder Weekly. “We started writing, and we got 80 pages into it and then our other lives kind of took over, and The Decemberists got really busy. … But we always knew that we wanted to come back to it, and this is the fruition of that.”

Meloy appropriates his longtime home, Portland, Ore., as the setting for the books. Portland’s lush, 5,100-acre jewel, Forest Park, becomes the magical Impassable Wilderness, accessible only by those with the proper birthright, and he sprinkles local color, like St. Johns (a Portland neighborhood) and the Willamette River, throughout.

The books detail the adventures of two middle schoolers, Prue McKeel and Curtis Mehlberg, who get sucked into adventures in a fantastical world of magical forests, shape-shifting fox assassins, talking rats and roguish bandits. In the first installment, Prue ventures into the Impassable Wilderness to save her kidnapped brother Mac, ending in, as is appropriate to Portland, a dramatic bit of heroism taking place on Prue’s single-speed bike. She returns home while Curtis opts to remain and start a new life as a bandit.

The second book finds Prue miserable in her seventh grade classes, while Curtis’ parents and two sisters struggle with his disappearance. After her woodland friends discover a plot to kill her, Prue is forced to take shelter with Curtis and the bandits within the Impassable Wilderness. When Curtis’ parents hear their son might be in Eastern Europe, they drop everything to investigate and board their children at the local Dickensian orphanage. Of course, it’s actually a slave-labor sweatshop owned by a cartoonishly evil titan of industry, who reads magazines like Industrialist Weekly, DUMP! and The 1% Journal, and forces the children to make machine parts in his factories.

The darkness evident in some of Meloy’s Decemberists lyrics makes its way into the books as well, as children deal with being abandoned by their parents and the deaths of their friends, and child slavers force orphans to chant, “Machine parts make machines. Machines make convenience. Convenience is freedom. Freedom is family.”

In fact, the books were almost written for adults, Meloy says.

“I think that it just made sense, you know,” Meloy says of the decision to write for the middle school age group. “We wanted to do this thing that had a really strong footing in folk tales and fairy tales, and I think we just wanted to do that genre right and not just write it for adults.

“It just felt like from the outset, we were kind of like, ‘Should we make this a niche-y thing that’s for adults but is an illustrated fairy tale?’ But I think we wanted to do it the right way and actually have it be legitimately for kids.”

Writing comes naturally to Meloy, but even though you might think songwriting and novel-writing come from the same creative place, Meloy says there are significant differences.

“I think you can really get rolling writing prose in a way that you can’t with writing a song,” Meloy says. “Once you finish a song, there’s no jumping from that song. You can’t build on that song, it’s kind of like a thing and you put it away. You’re like, OK. Now you start the really challenging part all over again, which is formulating ideas and getting something that works.

“Whereas if you are working on a book, you’re just living in that one single idea over the course of however many months, and there’s something really enjoyable in that. But then it takes months, where a song could take 10 minutes.”

Meloy has been writing at a breakneck pace, which he says is part of the game when writing for children.

“You have a younger audience, is the idea,” he says. “You want to try to keep them before they get too old.”

It’s a pace Meloy is not sure is “sustainable at the enjoyable creative level.” Looking forward, Meloy wants to finish the trilogy he had planned and then work on other projects, including possibly a musical.

“Yeah, actually, I’ve been talking to some folks about doing something with the theater,” he says. “It’s been kind of a longstanding dream of mine, and I have been talking to people for the last seven years, just trying to find time to do it and coming up with a good idea, meanwhile all these other things have happened. I think that’s definitely on the docket.”