To Sell Books Nowadays, You've Gotta Rock
Author Jon Mooallem tours with a Decemberists side project to make his writing sing.
It's possible that every journalist secretly wants to be a rockstar. More than a few probably fancy that they're not far off. But Jon Mooallem, the magazine writer whose quirky and invariably surprising work includes the recent book, Wild Ones, has done one better: He got himself a band. Starting Wednesday, Mooallem is shaking up the lonely book-tour paradigm and hitting the road with Black Prairie, a Decemberists side project that recorded a Wild Ones companion album. It's called Wild Ones: A Musical Score for the Things That You Might See in Your Head When You Reflect on Certain Characters and Incidents That You Read About in the Book.
The Wild Ones Live! tour, Mooallem told me, tells the true story of William Temple Hornaday, an "eccentric, blustering taxidermist who winds up helping to invent modern environmentalism as we know it" alongside tales of "turtles and polar bears and a man dancing with a bird." Mooallem reads and Black Prairie scores the reading, resulting in what Mooallem and Black Prairie cofounder/dobro player Chris Funk describe as a mashup of radio, opera, musical, and rock and roll show. Wild Ones (the book) unpacks our odd and evolving relationship with the natural world and our often-Herculean attempts to preserve it—Mooallem zooms in on three species: the polar bear, Lange's metalmark butterfly, and the whooping crane. But in the end, the book is more about us than about the animals. (Maddie Oatman writes more about it here.)
"When you're reporting something and living through these things, you have an emotional response, and you use the writing to try to create that in people reading it," Mooallem says. But with the band behind him, "it's almost like a left-brain, right-brain thing—I'm telling you a story, then you're getting all these emotional cues from the band."
As the telling unfolds, Mooallem and the musicians rotate in and out of the spotlight. "It evokes old-time radio theater, in the sense that there are these character voices," Funk says. "It's an impressionistic way of bringing a book to life."