The Story Behind Wondertown by Mac Follows

The first time I tried to write Wondertown, I was around twenty years old. I’d written a collection of related songs, but the story behind them was still a bit fuzzy, so I tried to pull the songs together with a screenplay. A few years later a dramaturgist in Prague set me straight.

Wondertown“Very amateurish,” he said. “The story sounded much more intriguing when you explained it. Reading it was quite a disappointment, to be honest. You clearly have no understanding of screenplays or production values. Why not try writing this Wondertown as a book.”

I asked him if he thought a book with songs made sense. He shrugged and said that in any case, it couldn’t be much worse.

I came to Prague by a series of unfortunate events. I was hawking a 4 track demo of the songs of Wondertown to record companies in Europe thinking I might generate some interest in my musical screenplay. I started in London, where I was rejected half a dozen times, after which I headed to France. I crossed the English Channel on a hovercraft then strode through Calais at nightfall like I was intent on pushing back the Germans. I wound up in the French countryside, hitchhiking blindly at the side of an on ramp. Neither the rain nor my humungous backpack earned me any sympathy with the locals and after a few hours I gave up and pitched camp in a nearby field. After partially heating a tin of ravioli on my portable stove, I lay in my sleeping bag without an air mattress to shield me from the frozen ground. I remember doing push-ups to raise my body temperature until I was interrupted by a few stray French dogs that found my ravioli can and proceeded to run barking around my tent until I gathered up my things and cleared out. I tramped wearily back to town and waited three-and–a-half hours in the pre-dawn chill for the seven-thirty express to Paris. At some point — I think it must have been when the dogs were chasing me — I’d overrun what were, to my mind, the bounds of acceptable failure. In the train station in Calais, sitting alone on the platform, I began to think that maybe my musical screenplay wasn’t such a good idea.

Still, I carried on as people invariably do when they are unable to either turn back or sit still. I went to Paris, where I received two more face-to-face rejections, then took a night train to Munich, where I received another three. After that I hitchhiked through Austria to Italy, passed the night in an olive grove outside of Verona, then plummeted clear to Brindisi in the south of Italy. I waited two and a half days for the Mediterranean to flatten out, then sailed first to Corfu Town, where I logged another rejection, then to mainland Greece, where I collected two more. Then I rode a bus to Thessolaniki, a series of cars to Beograd, and a train to Vienna, somehow managing to be rejected four more times along the way.

After leaving Calais, I’d wandered through the bottom half of Europe without a map or any clear sense of where I was heading and the trip had long since started to feel like one long, U-shaped push into the ridiculous. But just when I was ready to return home and give up on my dream, I met an old Hungarian man on a park bench.

I told him I’d had my fill of Europe and he responded by hiking up first one pant leg then the other to show off his many scars. “The western view of the world is funny, like a Western movie,” he said. “Central Europe, on the other hand, is like an Eastern movie, if there is such a thing. And I’ll tell you something else.” He tucked his pants back into his boots. “It isn’t funny at all.”

He asked where I was from. When I told him I was from Canada, he said, “You have no hate in your country. In Europe, a man is defined by his hate. It is not only acceptable, it is who he is. That is what makes me Hungarian and another Russian. It is not the language or the culture. These things are not in our blood; they are not in the ground. You understand?”

I didn’t.

“You should go to Czechoslovakia.” He clearly disliked the word, heaving it out of his mouth like it was covered in mold. “Prague is a mysterious place. It hides itself from visitors like a shy housecat. But if you stay long enough, the ground will speak to you. They hate each other, you know.”

“Who does?”

“The Czechs and Slovaks. They’ll split like the Red Sea the moment the dust has settled.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Trust me. The Czechs and Slovaks will divorce each other the same way they divorced the Russians: Muslim style, with words.”

“I have heard that it’s pretty cheap right now,” I offered.

“Prague? Not for the Czechs.” This fact seemed to satisfy him. “But for you it must certainly be.”

I thanked him for his counsel; I knew where I was heading next.

“Prague survived Hitler because of its beauty,” he called after me. “It even survived Stalin and his crazy ego. But it won’t survive this Letna Hill, mark my words. Prague is like a woman — freedom will ruin it completely.”

I could hear his rumbling laughter as I rounded the corner. It was as if God himself were laughing at me for the plans I was making.

Stepping off the train in Prague’s Main Railway Station with my screenplay and 4-track demo in the midst of the second winter of Vaslav Havel’s velvet presidency, I found Prague’s social fabric less like velvet and more like sackcloth. I was appalled to see men and women of my generation with their children in tow soliciting tourists to come home with them as paying guests. One man said he was a doctor, another an engineer. A drunken man who said he was Prague’s most famous living artist was offering his studio for five dollars a day. There was no warmth, no glow to liven the bleak colours of a society worn to the bone. The city was on life support, its spirit bleeding out.

I imagined that I was an impressive sight with my face unshaven, my hair unraveling, my gloves torn at the knuckles and worn through at the fingertips and my jeans still reeking and sullied from the nights I’d passed in the frozen forests of Bavaria. However, my boots gave me away. The latest in hiking boot technology, my two hundred and fifty dollar Gortex footwear made it clear that I was only passing through… and that I had no intention of getting my feet wet.

I landed an apartment on the outskirts of town, which is where I met the dramaturgist who set me on the path to my first musical book. It took me quite a few years before I got around to writing Wondertown as a novel, but in the end, it was clear that he’d been right. I never saw the dramaturgist again, nor have I returned to Prague since. But every time I hear the songs of Wondertown I am briefly reminded of the place where they found new life and the man who helped me free them into the world.


Mac FollowsReclusive writer and composer Mac Fallows first began pitching the idea of a musical book for teens and adults to music and book publishers in the late eighties. But without the technology to support his vision, he didn’t get far.

So instead, he set out to travel the world in search of new challenges . . . and stories. He went on to write and produce over 100 songs in a dozen languages in places including Dakar, Mumbai, Prague, and Santiago for singers including Youssou N’dour, Shankar Mahadevan, Pape and Cheikh, and Kavita Krishnamoorthy.

Along the way he lived with taxi drivers and their families, camped in farmers’ fields, butchered bulls, sold tea, raised chickens, translated travel contracts, worked as a session musician, a construction worker, a teacher, and toured the biggest festivals in Europe as a member of one of Africa’s most celebrated bands.​

Wondertown is the first true musical story he’s published. It includes a full-length fantasy novel, 12 related songs and 17 illustrations.

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