Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy will be in Nashville on Monday to discuss his second children’s novel, Under Wildwood. The book is the second installation in a fantasy series aimed at junior high readers. Both works are a collaborative effort from Meloy and his wife Carson Ellis. The latter has designed album covers, posters, and T-shirts for the Decemberists and has illustrated many other books, including Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead. Ellis and Meloy’s first novel Wildwood became a New York Times bestseller. This weekend we spoke to Meloy as he prepared to arrive in Music City. Ellis and Meloy will be at the Nashville Children’s Theatre on Monday night (October 1) to discuss Under Wildwood. Tickets to the event are free and can be reserved here.
CM: Years back, Carson and I had always wanted to collaborate. We were collaborating on a few things at the time. She was doing T-shirt designs, poster designs, and record cover designs for my band, but we knew that we wanted to do a closer collaboration, and it seemed like an illustrated novel would be the best form of that. So we actually started working on something back in 2011. I wrote about eighty pages of it, and she did a handful of illustrations, with no real publishers interested or in mind. We were just writing it and doing it because we really liked working together. But then the other things in our lives got busy. The band got busy. And Carson’s career took off doing illustration of her own. So we kind of had to put it on the back burner. In 2010 we realized we had an opening and decided to start working on something in earnest.
NAM: The novel is aimed at a junior high reader. How did you choose that particular age group?
CM: As far as the age group goes, we knew wanted to do something that was illustrated and that had folk and fairy tale archetypes in it. So we really had two choices. We could either do that for adults or do it for kids, who are really more the intended audience for that kind of stuff. It felt truer for us to actually do it for kids.
NAM: Your songs have a narrative quality. They tell stories. How is writing a novel different from writing your songs?
CM: I feel like the process is radically different even though they come from the same places in your brain. There tends to be a little crossover, like just working with language. But that said, the processes are so different. Songwriting tends to be a little more elusive, and it’s a challenge to fit narrative into songs. With writing the novels, it’s more labor-intensive, but you have a little bit more freedom in the outcome.
NAM: Do you have different rituals for songwriting versus writing prose?
CM: With the songwriting, it really just depends day-to-day whether something is going to happen. You don’t have very much luck forcing it. It’s kind of the same with prose writing, in that you have to know when to throw in the towel. But I feel like there’s more leeway to push through that initial reluctance if you’re not feeling it. I feel like you have to be more sensitive to that when you’re working on songs.
NAM: What is it like to work with your wife?
CM: It’s great. I feel like we have really similar fascinations and sensibilities and aesthetics. So it’s great having a partner in this. And I really feel like we crafted the whole thing together, which is nice.
NAM: Did the choice to make an illustrated novel arise naturally because you are a writer and Carson is an illustrator or were you both intentional about offering readers a visual experience?
CM: We wanted to make a beautiful object. We have been avid readers since we were kids, and we are both just lovers of the form. Also we really appreciate, especially when it comes to illustrated novels, that the thing itself plays such an important role in the experience–the way that the book invites you in. So, yeah, we were really mindful from the outset that we wanted to make an object that was beautiful.
NAM: Since Under Wildwood was your second novel, was it easier to write than the first?
CM: I think it was easier. I had a little more confidence. Wildwood being the first novel I had ever written, there was a lot of not being certain that what I was doing was good. Also there had been so much work leading up to it since we had been talking about doing this for ten years. It felt really loaded when I was doing it. With the second one, it felt more old hat, which is nice; it buys you a little bit more room. I feel like I was just more confident and comfortable writing the second one.
NAM: Did having your son affect your decision to write the novels?
CM: I guess ineveitably having a kid makes you look at your own childhood and reminds you of your own fascinations as a kid.
CM: I was a public school kid from the get-go. I’m a product of the public school system. But it really depended on the teacher, and I feel like a lot of the stuff that kind of got me going and fired my imagination were things that I found outside of school. That said, it helped just having teachers who were creative and flexible, so if a student like myself wanted to write a play independent of any project that was going on in the day-to-day class time, that they were open to that–if it wasn’t interfering with class, that they were somehow able to make room for it. Because I just don’t feel like kid’s creativity follows the typical structure of a school day, and you have to have teachers who can look at each student and see their passions and interests.
NAM: Your songs and your novels are filled with imagination. Were you always a creative person?
CM: Yeah, I was kind of lost in another world most of the time, sometimes to my parents’ dismay. I was kind of a hyperimaginitave person as a kid. Thankfully, that’s paid off in my adult life.
NAM: What would you like for young readers to take away from the novel?
CM: I think I would most like them just to get lost in it. And really be immersed in it. And just be entertained. I think that’s the main goal. Beyond that, I hope that maybe they would use it as an inspiration to explore their own nearby parks and wild areas. And that it would invite them to reimagine their world in a fantastic way.