While musician Colin Meloy may be best known for his long-running stint as frontman of the indie-rock band The Decemberists, he’s also an accomplished middle grade author. His fifth novel, The Stars Did Wander Darkling, which is set in 1987, hearkens back to Spielbergian adventures of the ’80s and classic Stephen King, as four friends in a small seaside town in Oregon battle a mysterious evil force. PW spoke with Meloy shortly after the culmination of The Decemberists’ latest tour, about his new book’s origins, his relationship with horror stories, and what drew him to writing for children.
What was the genesis of this story?
It was Halloween 2017, and I was out on the street with my kids, and my youngest at the time was four. The new movie adaptation of It had just come out, and there were all these Pennywise the clowns walking around, and it was kind of horrifying to see these older kids dressed up as him. I was surprised that there were all these eight- and nine-year-olds who not only recognized Pennywise, but knew his name. It reminded me that kids that age have an appetite for horror, but are often shielded from it. I recalled my own childhood, as a 10-year-old and being really enamored of horror, but I had a hard time finding horror novels that were accessible to me. Thankfully, I had parents who kind of let me do my own thing, and I ended up finding Stephen King when I was in sixth grade. I just thought that there needed to be more horror books for those kids who recognize Pennywise, and they need to be genuinely scary, not silly, but without all the baggage and adult content that comes with King’s novels.
Besides Stephen King, what other influences speak to your writing style?
Another big touchpoint for me as a kid was Ray Bradbury. I think he often gets lumped into sci-fi because of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, but I really loved his short stories, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man. In some ways, he’s squarely a horror writer, and so I wanted to imbue that same kind of vibe into this story.
Would you say that this story is also a callback to ’80s adventure movies?
As a kid, I actually visited the Oregon coast the summer The Goonies came out. I was really into that movie and enamored of that area. That whole summer was a particularly fertile time for my imagination. So in some ways, this book is the book that young me wanted to read that summer.
In The Stars Did Wander Darkling, you reference vintage horror and fantasy movies, both real and fictional. How did you approach that process?
I was drawing a lot from my own childhood and my own childhood obsessions. So of course these kids would be in love with all kinds of genre movies, like horror and fantasy. I also felt it was important to include certain archetypes in the book, with one of those being the idea of the Sage, who’s an archetypal ingredient of any hero myth or fantasy story. I thought it would be funny to have it be a guy who runs a video rental store, which could also act as my heroes’ headquarters. And in my hometown when I was young, there was a video store that really picked their side of the format battle, and were exclusively Betamax. So the first VCR my father brought home was Betamax because that’s all the store offered.
This is your fifth book for young readers. What initially drew you to writing middle grade?
When I initially conceived of the Wildwood series, it felt squarely middle grade. I really wanted to work with my wife Carson [Ellis] and have it be heavily illustrated, and it just had that feeling of a children’s book. I’ve just been drawn to writing for that crowd. I feel like you don’t have to worry about a lot of the rules that either younger, like chapter or picture books, or older, like YA or adult novels, put in for you. I feel like middle grade novels can exist outside of genre, that there’s no real genre ghetto for them, that they dance in and out of the various kinds of stories. There are fewer rules about what middle grade is supposed to look like and what it’s supposed to do.
I like writing for readers that age because it’s a super fertile, exciting time for young readers. In my experience, that’s when I discovered my own love of reading. Initially, I even pushed HarperCollins to see if we could label Wildwood as all ages, instead of the requisite 8–12, but it didn’t stick.
What are you hoping your audience will take away from this book?
First and foremost, I hope they get scared. That was my intention from the outset. I wanted to scare kids in just the right way: that kind of excitement, that thrill of being so scared you have to shut the book before you’re really done reading because you felt like it was getting a little late. Maybe it brings some unquiet dreams that night but you’re drawn back to it the next day. And ideally, when you finish it, you’re excited and you want to pass it along and be like, “Read this, it’ll scare you.” That’s the best thing that can possibly come out of this book.
How do you balance being both a writer and a musician? Do those roles ever overlap?
I find they’re a nice break from each other. They both satisfy an itch I have as a creative person. I find that if I’m stuck with songwriting, I’ll be drawn to a book idea and vice versa. If I’m feeling frustrated or overburdened by the idea of writing, sometimes just sitting down and working on songs can be the right change of pace.
What’s next for you in your various pursuits?
I’ve got various writing projects in different states of work and completion, but nothing I can really speak about. I am, however, interested in trying my hand at writing for adults. It won’t be straight literary fiction, but whatever it is, it’s gonna be weird. And I’m also working on a musical project, and some songs for The Decemberists. I think we’ll probably find our way into the studio in the next year or so.
The Stars Did Wander Darkling by Colin Meloy. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 Sept. 13 ISBN 978-0-06-301551-7