As the head of the Portland-based folk band, Colin Meloy is known for his brainy lyrics. But he recently put his musical career on hold to pen a series of young adult novels. His Wildwood fantasy series — think Narnia goes to Portland — has already produced one best seller. Now Meloy’s aiming to repeat with Under Wildwood, the follow-up, due out in September. Meloy spoke to TIME about escaping to new worlds, working with someone he loves and channeling his inner 12-year-old.
How does book writing differ from songwriting?
They are coming from the same part of the head, but writing books is like looking at a giant stack of firewood that you have to deal with piece by piece. There is a certain joy in that regularity: Every time you sit down, you’ll have something concrete by the end of the day. With songwriting it’s about waiting for something inspirational to come and catching it before it’s gone. I don’t think any amount of “I’m going to do this for six hours today” will really help you. So they are very different, but I find joy in both of them.
Both books in the series were illustrated by your wife, Carson Ellis. What was it like working with her?
This type of collaboration is a not a very common way to work on a book. Typically the author and the illustrator are very separate. When we began the Wildwood Chronicles, it was the first time either of us had worked so closely with another person. We made up the rules as we went along, and there were definitely some tensions on the first book. We didn’t agree on the color palate, for instance. By the time we started Under Wildwood, we were a well-oiled machine. Carson was able to start the illustrations earlier. We were more confident in the direction our story was going, too.
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Wildwood was a New York Times bestseller that both kids and adults enjoyed. What do you think so many people connected with?
I wanted to create an immersive world, one that was complete. I’m hoping readers were able to get lost in it and maybe see themselves in the main characters.
Speaking of that the main characters, Curtis, the books’ leading boy, is pretty adventurous. Did you model him after yourself?
For a guy in his thirties to write about a 12-year-old, you have to do some imaginative traveling. I invariably pulled from my own childhood to create Curtis. It made him easier for me to write about. Similarly Prue, the leading girl, is based on Carson as a child. Our early experiences provided a good base. As a kid, I was desperate for escapism. Curtis is living that fantasy. He not only goes into another world; he decides to stay. I definitely identify with that urge.
But he wasn’t always so fearless. How have you seen your characters evolve?
I’ve loved watching Curtis grow and become a brave soul. I’ve had the opportunity to create a more complex character in Prue. In Under Wildwood, I explore more about her bull-headedness, her dissatisfaction with the outside world. I think it’s conspicuous that she doesn’t have any other friends. And of course the third main character that pops up really is the city of Portland. Prue and Curtis spend a lot more time outside the Impassable Wilderness — the fantasy world — in the second book than in the first.
You had been working on the idea for the series for quite some time.
The concept of the book is actually 10 years old. Carson and I wanted to make an illustrated novel together, and we are still drawing on those original ideas.
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Where did you come up with the idea for the evil orphanage where the children work in a machine shop in Under Wildwood?
From my dad. He grew up in a very loving household in Montana — where I was also raised — but he told me a story of how in the ‘50s if you were leaving town and didn’t have anyone to take care of your kids, you could board them in a local orphanage. He has memories of walking to school everyday with his siblings from an orphanage while his parents were on vacation. I always thought that was a funny, old-timey idea that would work great in the book.
What’s next for Prue and Curtis?
We’ve created this world, and now we want it to grow with our characters. The books are moving to a more hallucinatory bent, becoming a little bit more unhinged. The first book is pretty linear and that’s a great way to build the foundation. But hopefully I can expand and continue to develop a more complex and dynamic world in the next book.
What children’s authors inspire you?
I draw from many of the works I love: J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, anything by Roald Dahl. I’m trying to marry some of those — the expansiveness of Tolkien with the humor of Dahl.
So in a battle between Wildwood’s Curtis and Prue, the Narnia kids and Sam and Frodo from Lord of the Rings, who wins?
Sam and Frodo, no contest. They travel with swords. Curtis and Prue have to get by on their wits.
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