Long before Colin Meloy became the frontman for the long-running Portland rock band The Decemberists, he wanted to be a writer. Then hearing bands like R.E.M., Husker Du, The Replacements, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, took him on another path. But he soon realized his love of music didn’t have to replace his love of storytelling.
“I was enamored with songwriters like Shane McGowan of The Pogues and Robyn Hitchcock who created these worlds inside of their songs,” he recently told me at an event for his new middle-grade novel, The Stars Did Wander Darkling. “These stories and narratives seemed to perfectly collide my love of storytelling that I had as a young age with this music that I was discovering.”
And so, despite getting his creative writing degree at the University of Montana, he moved to Portland and started a band. Even then, he tried to make time for creating stories with his now-wife, illustrator Carson Ellis, all while they both worked in the service industry and got their respective music and art careers going. “When she first moved to Portland in 2000, we’d just hang out and just make up stuff together,” he said. “We decided we’d make this story about this young girl who is abandoned by her parents basically and has to go out into the world to discover the missing cog in a mechanical boy prince.”
It would be more than a decade later that the story would become Meloy’s first fantasy novel for kids, Wildwood, with illustrations by Ellis. He’s since released two sequels, along with another children’s book The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid. The Stars Did Wander Darkling is his fifth book and has a more distinctly horror vibe that won’t surprise anyone who’s ever listened to The Hazards of Love.
“I think that there’s sort of a fearlessness of the world that comes along with being a teenager, that wants to be challenged,” Meloy said. “There’s a temptation to explore what it is to be scared. Middle graders want that too, but there’s less for them.”
The story takes place in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s when a group of four 12-year-olds are confronted with supernatural strangers swapping out all the adults in their small town. “I think all successful middle grade novels, the parents have to check out one way or another,” he said. “That’s a time-honored thing going way back to Alice in Wonderland. It makes for a sustained drama. I think all kids do suspect that their parents don’t have their stuff together and like the idea that there’s something exciting and scary to have those parents checked out—but also to have this invitation to be more independent.”
Meloy has enjoyed his own sense of freedom that comes with writing for middle graders that he says he would have felt writing chapter books or young adult novels, or even fiction for adults. “There’s something about being a 12- or 13-year-old, at least in my experience, that I felt like I had one foot into childhood and one foot into adulthood,” he said. “You have this newfound independence and freedom, but you’re still living in this imaginative word—that’s important to me. And I think the two of those together is a very powerful environment to live in, where things like magic are still possible but you’re becoming your own individual.”
In all of his writing, though, he doesn’t soft-pedal for his younger audience. Adult readers will recognize some of the themes that appear in his songwriting. “I had this idea in my head as a kid that this stuff that I really loved—if it was music or movies or books—only really succeeded if somebody really fell in love or if somebody died. And that was sort of a mark of success. Those two things made something feel really important. In Decemberists songs, there’s a lot of falling in love and a lot of dying—sometimes in the same songs.”
While Meloy grew up in Montana, there’s also a lot of his own childhood in this new book—and of himself in one of its protagonists, Archie. The group of friends go camping together, where they experience the first of their big scares. “On weekend days, it was just riding your bike out the door and finding whoever else was available and going out into the woods. And that was the first time we were out camping out by ourselves, just kind of hiking into the woods behind my friend’s house and camping out. That independence, that we could go do this by ourselves, was incredibly fun.”
While The Stars Did Wander Darkling just came out last month, Wildwood will soon be getting a new life as a stop-motion animation film from Portland-based Laika, the studio behind Kubo & the Two Strings and Coraline. The all-star cast includes Angela Bassett, Carey Mulligan, Awkwafina, Jemaine Clement, Mahershala Ali, Richard E. Grant and Tom Waits. The studio optioned the novel before it came out, but has only recently begun working on the film.
“I’ve gone to the studio and the puppets they’re making are incredible and the sets are phenomenal,” he said. “It’s so cool—if they were making a CGI animation film, you wouldn’t be able to see these practical things—they’re making clothes with little rivets. But they work so slow—it’s like three seconds of film a week, so I don’t think it will be done anytime soon.”
In the meantime, The Stars Did Wander Darkling is out now from HarperCollins and available at your independent bookstore.