Colin Meloy is the lead singer and songwriter of The Decemberists, and the author of several children’s books, including the bestselling Wildwood series. Shawn Harris is an artist and musician as well as the illustrator of award-winning children’s books, including Her Right Foot and What Can a Citizen Do?, both by Dave Eggers. In their forthcoming picture book comedy, Everyone’s Awake (Chronicle), Meloy and Harris team up for a story about a family’s late-night antics. We asked the duo to interview each other about their collaboration and their shared passion for music.
Shawn Harris: My illustrations have long had a relationship to music—my first illustration work was mostly album art, merch, and posters for touring bands (though never yours). Maybe because of this, I imagine my illustration having a similar relationship to a book’s text that a band or orchestra has to a song’s lyrics. Pace, tempo, tension, and harmony are all musical terms that also apply to illustrating a picture book—I remember reading a great Maurice Sendak essay called “The Shape of Music” about the musical quality of (good) illustration. I wonder, how is sitting down to write a song different and/or the same for you than/as sitting down to write a book? (Especially a book in verse.)
Colin Meloy: I’ve always said that writing books and writing music, while ostensibly coming from the same part of the brain (I’m guessing here, I’m no neuroscientist), could not be more different. Maybe writing a picture book in verse is like a kind of middle distance? I ended up using a lot of the same processes that I use in songwriting, when it comes to the editorial end of things—finessing rhymes, counting out the meter and rhythm. I wrote a few songs in Wildwood that had no music to them and there was something strangely freeing in that. It’s like doing a puzzle with a cheat mode—there’s just one less stricture dictating the boundaries of the piece. Similarly, writing a book in verse is easier than writing a song—at least I don’t have to worry about melody and chord progression!
Harris: You reference a lot of music in the book (Prince, jazz, Sinatra, the song “Clementine”). Were you listening to an insanely eclectic playlist while writing this?
Meloy: I love listening to music while I write, but it has to be completely lyric-free, instrumental music. Ambient music is ideal, so I end up with a lot of Brian Eno in my writing playlists. I’m not sure what I listened to while writing this. I don’t think I listened to anything, because there was a lot of tapping out meter, which any kind of music—ambient included—would’ve interfered with. I’ve always envied you illustrator-types. Not only can you listen to lyric-based music while you work—you can listen to whole podcasts and audiobooks! The multi-tasking possibilities really boggle the mind. You don’t know how good you got it. So, Shawn, how much of your reading list did you get through while working on Everyone’s Awake?
Harris: Well, on the page where you wrote, “My brother’s making laundry lists of every book he’s read,” I actually got to include my recent reading list of middle grade, YA, and graphic novels for our observant older readers. (The list is cascading down a pile of books, so you’ll have to flip the book upside-down to read it.) And while I was sketching this book, I read Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, which probably influenced some of the mystical, fairy-tale-ish liberties the illustrations took, like the plague of frogs, or the ghost ship rising from the lake.
One of my favorite things about starting a new project is curating a new reading list—both picture books and books for adults—to influence me. I think serious writers call that research? Of course, I only get through a fraction of the pile before I have to sidle up to my desk and start making deadlines, which reminds me of a line you wrote in the book about productivity as it’s related to the family’s lack of sleep: “We all at least are getting some things done.” How is that a reflection of your own use of non-circadian work habits? Are you good at keeping a schedule, or does your creativity more often appear in the form of the narrator’s imagination’s less-than-convenient timing?
Meloy: I wish I could be as blasé about sleeplessness as the characters in this book. They really make short work of their to-do list during their insomniac hours. Me, I’m too paranoid about bad sleep hygiene. I’m resigned to a pretty narrow group of activities when I’ve given up on sleep—reading, looking at my phone. Sometimes I’ll take a shower, but that’s about as active as I get. I think the characters in Everyone’s Awake are aspirational to me, in that they’re embracing their sleeplessness in a way I don’t think I could. What about you? What happens in the Harris household when no one’s sleeping?
Harris: There is a bird that roosts outside my bedroom window, don’t ask me what kind, I have never seen it—it only chirps in the dark an hour before sunrise. We used to pound the window and run outside imitating the sound of rifle fire with our mouths, but my wife and I have since resigned ourselves to its existence and have now affectionately named the bird “Surf Bird.” When it wakes us up, we get up in the dark, throw our boards in the truck, and paddle out for a sunrise surf.
Speaking of partners, what was it like to not live with/be married to your illustrator for a change?
Meloy: Ha! Carson [Ellis] and I have worked on so many projects together over the years that it’s always a nice break for both of us to work with other collaborators. Carson might be my most steadfast creative kindred spirit, but working with other creators on projects is a necessary part of our working relationship, I think. I tend to feel refreshed coming back to work with Carson after having done a project with someone else. Also, Shawn, you and I don’t have to argue about who’s picking up the kids—so that’s a plus.
Harris: What’s the worst thing that’s ever come of your having stayed up too late?
Meloy: Oh God, I hate to think. I’ve done television shows on zero sleep and I’m always terrified I’m going to muck things up majorly. So far, so good. I’ve managed to push through.
Harris: And the best thing?
Meloy: In my high school, just after graduation, the school would host a “senior all-night party.” I suppose it was to deter kids from celebrating in a more illicit way. If you left the party, you weren’t allowed back in. They were drawing names for prizes all night long, culminating in a grand prize at like five in the morning. I made it to the bitter end—and my name was drawn at the end! I won a thousand dollars, which was a lot of money for an 18-year old. I mean, I still think that’s a lot of money. I think I bought an amp with it.
So I got to know your work through your collaborations with Dave Eggers, specifically Her Right Foot. All of that stuff was done using cut paper, right? And this book—you basically made yourself a human Photoshop, doing all the separated color layers by hand. I wonder what draws you to unconventional mediums in your work.
Harris: I guess I recoil from mediums that have a process that is “correct” by some sort of scholarly consensus. When I work in more traditional mediums like pen or paint, I’m constantly worrying my technique is unaccomplished and that my work will look amateur, but the thought never crosses my mind that I might not be collaging right. There’s a freedom I get from playing in more philistine mediums that makes me recall making art as a kid.
In Everyone’s Awake, I drew original art for each printed color separately—each illustration uses three colors—so the outcome of the combined colors remained a mystery to me until I was finished with all three drawings. This hindrance is what created the warbly, offset look of the book. Misusing the printing process freed me to be loose and playful, and not worry about whether I was doing things right. I’m sure I wasn’t!
Meloy: I know you got started doing illustration work by doing flyers for your band. There’s a real history behind that, bandmembers doing their own design and illustration work. Was there a particular band or scene that influenced that?
Harris: Yeah, each music scene sort of has its own visual language, and I don’t know that an outsider can show up and immediately communicate with the bands and fans the way someone deeply entrenched and invested can, even if the outsider has more skills and training in art and design. Punk rock especially embraced a DIY visual language, so I guess I was especially (overly?) comfortable dropping out of art school, calling myself a professional, and asking for art jobs from all of those bands.
Meloy: Which was your first love, illustration or music?
Harris: Definitely writing and drawing. I was illustrating my stories as soon as I could talk—my mom would transcribe my dictation. In elementary school, I started to like music, but I nearly put myself off of it completely by learning the flute instead of a songwriting instrument. The flute is a terrible instrument to use if you want to write a song with lyrics. To sing, you have to stop blowing into the flute, which of course stops the music. Once I figured that out, I picked up the guitar, and thankfully, my love for writing and music got to coexist.
Everyone’s Awake by Colin Meloy, illus. by Shawn Harris. Chronicle, $17.99 Mar. 3 ISBN 978-1-4521-7805-9