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Colin Meloy: Frontman for the Decemberists, debut novelist

By Amy Sutherland
September 25, 2011

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Long before Colin Meloy became the frontman for the Decemberists, he studied creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. He has returned to his roots with his first novel, “Wildwood,’’ a tale for young adults illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis. He appears at the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Wednesday at 6 p.m.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

MELOY: I have a bedside book and a downstairs living room book. The bedside book is “The River of Smoke’’ by Amitav Ghosh, which I managed to get my hands on before it’s published this October. The downstairs book is “Jamrach’s Menagerie’’ by Carol Birch, which was just short-listed for the Booker Prize.

BOOKS: Do you mostly read novels?

MELOY: Yes, but I’ll dig into nonfiction occasionally. I just read Patti Smith’s memoir. I liked it, but as far as rock-star biographies go I think Keith Richards’s might be the best ever. Having read a lot of books on iconic ’60s and ’70s musicians who often make a big deal about that culture revolution, it was really refreshing how he was very dismissive of it.

BOOKS: Were you always interested in musicians’ biographies?

MELOY: I’ve always dabbled in them. They are a little bit like empty calories to me. I try not to read too many of them because I don’t feel like I’m working when I read them. I like to feel like I’m working when I read.

BOOKS: How do you mean working?

MELOY: Stuff that’s challenging, just like, in an endurance sort of way, like reading “Infinite Jest’’ by David Foster Wallace. It’s pretty fantastic but it requires some real fortitude. Or challenging by finding more obscure things. I just read “Stone Upon Stone’’ by Wieslaw Mysliwski. It is gorgeous. He’s well known in Poland but fairly unknown here.

BOOKS: Does your reading relate to your taste in songwriting?

MELOY: My interests in music often have to do with how the modern world and the old world intersect. And so I tend to like reading books that highlight that. “Stone Upon Stone’’ has that sensibility. Similarly “The Painted Bird’’ by Jerzy Kosinski. Thatwas mind blowing. I had just moved to Portland, Ore.

BOOKS: Did that move change your taste in reading?

MELOY: Maybe. I was living in Missoula, studying creative writing, surrounded by the Western greats, such as Denis Johnson and William Kittredge, who was my professor. Everyone in the writing program wanted to be Annie Dillard. I was immersed in it so [I] read a lot of it. Moving to Portland freed me from that.

BOOKS: How did your reading open up?

MELOY: When I first moved to Portland I was on a real maritime jag. I read the Hornblower novels, Patrick O’Brien novels, and the Harry Flashman books, which I still really love.

BOOKS: Do you read much on tour?

MELOY: Yes. We drive overnight while everybody’s sleeping, pull into the venue early in the morning and are there all day. It’s nice to park a lawn chair outside of the bus and read. My bandmates like to read brainless stuff. Not that I read Proust all day but I don’t mind reading thicker books. Something more immersive makes the day go by faster.

BOOKS: Have you ever met your match with a book?

MELOY: I’ve tried to read “Mason and Dixon’’ by Thomas Pynchon three times. I think it’s beautiful but I only get 100 pages into it before I fall away.

BOOKS: What is on your upcoming list?

MELOY: Oh my god, it is giant. “Skippy Dies’’ by Paul Murray is one. The new Denis Johnson, “Train Dreams.’’ As soon as I had an income that allowed it I became a book-buying fiend. I instituted a policy that if I go into a bookstore, I have to leave with a book. I have amassed quite a few unread books.

AMY SUTHERLAND

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