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Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis: The Powells.com Interview

Colin Meloy and Carson EllisColin Meloy, lead singer of the band The Decemberists, and his wife, Carson Ellis, an acclaimed artist and illustrator, have collaborated to create Wildwood, a beautiful middle-grade novel set in a fantastical version of Portland, Oregon. The first in a series, Wildwood details the journeys of 12-year-olds Prue and Curtis into the Impassable Wilderness (which is based on the real-life Forest Park). They're trying to rescue Prue's baby brother, Mac, who was abruptly kidnapped by crows. Along the way, they meet up with a coyote army, a kingdom of birds, a tangle of bureaucracy, bandits, mystics, and even a rickshaw-driving badger. Michael Chabon lauds, "Dark and whimsical, with a true and uncanny sense of otherworldliness, Wildwood is the heir to a great tradition of stories of wild childhood adventure. It snatched me up and carried me off into a world I didn't want to leave."

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Jill Owens: The book opens with a startling and dramatic image and such a great first sentence: "How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries.""How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries." Did the book always begin that way?

Colin Meloy: I messed around with a couple of different beginnings, but I knew it was going to begin with the abduction of Mac. It was just a question of how immediately was that going to happen, and I decided after the third or fourth shot at the first page that real immediacy was the best way to start it.

That idea was one of the first parts of the story that we had developed. In Irish mythology, there's actually a kind of ghost called the sluagh that sometimes comes in the form of crows and abduct babies.

Carson Ellis: I thought that the sluagh were also coyotes, and maybe initially coyotes were going to steal Mac.

Meloy: Yes, but the sluagh would come in the form of crows.

Ellis: They would?

Meloy: Yes. I think so. I'll have to do some research. [Laughter] The idea was also a tip of the hat to Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There, in which there's a baby abducted by goblins, and his sister has to go after him.

Jill: Crows certainly seem like they could abduct a baby, if they got together and decided to.

Meloy: Yes, they're pretty scary.

Ellis: They're pretty sinister animals, and a group of them is called a murder, which raises the scariness level.

Jill: In the author note at the end of the book about you, Colin, it says that you wrote to Ray Bradbury as a kid and said, "I consider myself an author, too." And you got your degree in creative writing. How was writing this book different from earlier fiction you'd written, as well as your 33 1/3 book on the Replacements?

Meloy: I went to school at the University of Montana, in Missoula, and I was in the undergraduate writing program there. While it's a fairly well-renowned writing program, the main style that they teach is the Western writer. Not Western as in cowboys and Indians, but like Bill Kittredge, who was one of the faculty members there. They teach in the style of those great Western writers like Dick Hugo and Wallace Stegner and Ivan Doig. Missoula, Montana, was sort of ground zero for that style. The faculty members espoused that, and I think most people there wanted to write in that style.

I felt like I never quite fit in there, because while I wasn't writing fantasy, I was more into experimental fiction and more fantastical or magical realism when I was trying to write in college. The things that I wrote were probably me trying to do that kind of Western fiction and nonfiction in a way that I was never very comfortable with, although I think it's something that my older sister, Maile, has nailed.

I graduated from college and was really bummed out about writing and wasn't into it. I think a lot of that had to do with me feeling like I was a square peg in a round hole. So, I fell away from it, writing. Before I started working on this book, I didn't know that I could do it. I thought that I would struggle with it.

I had also struggled with the 33 1/3 book. I didn't like writing it. In fact, that was one of the least enjoyable writing experiences of my entire life. [Laughter] I thought that I would like to do it, and I ended up hating it.

Jill: I haven't read it; I love that series, and meant to read it awhile back, but I forgot about it until a few days ago.

Meloy: Don't read it. [Laughter] Forget about it again.

Ellis: You know what, it's totally good.

Meloy: No, don't read it. [Laughter] I was trying to write nonfiction, and I'm just not a nonfiction writer, and I really struggled with it.

Anyway, I thought Wildwood would be similarly like pulling teeth, even though I had this real desire to do it and this idea that I felt was pretty solid. But actually, it was a joy every day to write it. There were some challenges, but the challenges felt like joyful challenges.

Jill: I had read that Maile helped you with the 33 1/3 book at one point...

Meloy: Yes — I think it was a crisis point. I didn't know what to do with it, and I sent it to her, and she said, "I don't know what to do with this, either." [Laughter]

Ellis: Really?

Meloy: I think so. I think she said, "Maybe you should tell them you don't want to do it." [Laughter]

Ellis: I remember that really well, how grueling and awful it was, and it was the only thing that I had seen you write. I was a little nervous, because we had this book deal, and you had to finish this long book and then write two more, and my only previous association with you writing was...

Meloy: Me sitting at the dining table scowling. [Laughter]

Ellis: I thought, Is that going to happen again? That can't happen again. [Laughter] But it didn't happen that way at all.

Jill: So, after all that, how did this project come about?

Meloy: We had been talking about doing a collaboration of this sort since we had known each other, practically — since shortly after we met each other. I moved to Portland in 1999, and Carson moved up in 2000.

Ellis: We were friends from college, so we knew each other from farther back.

Meloy: And she had done flyers and artwork for my band in college. We moved into this warehouse in Southeast Portland, and I think it was just the environment — there were a lot of artists living there, and people doing artful things while they were working crappy jobs. Everyone felt this desire to do something creative with each other. Carson and I would sit around and sometimes I would tell her what to draw. I was excited to be an idea man for Carson's art, because I was a fan of her art.

Ellis: You were excited to boss me around. [Laughter]

Meloy: Yes, I was excited about that, too. [Laughter] And she was sometimes willing to go along with it. We decided to collaborate and come up with a crazy, elaborate long-form story, and because of its nature, because it was kind of folktale-ish and fairy tale-ish, we figured it would be a kids' book.

Ellis: But we knew that it was not really going to be a kids' book, at some point, because there was so much that was wildly inappropriate for kids in itBut we knew that it was not really going to be a kids' book, at some point, because there was so much that was wildly inappropriate for kids in it, but we did have this idea from the beginning that we would try to get McSweeney's to publish it, because they publish things without audiences all the time. [Laughter]

Jill: And they also publish wildly inappropriate kids' books.

Meloy: It would have been a kids' book for parents who were okay with giving their kids a wildly inappropriate book. [Laughter] Maybe it wasn't wildly inappropriate.

Ellis: It was! There was a 13-year-old who gets pregnant in it.

Meloy: That's true. The protagonist did get pregnant, and gave birth to a rabbit. I thought that was okay, though, because it was a rabbit.

Ellis: But still she would have had to have sex, to get pregnant.

Meloy: Yeah... Okay.

Ellis: She also gets really drunk in the first scene.

Meloy: Which is what Curtis does in Wildwood.

Ellis: Yeah... I guess they're both kind of coerced, so maybe that makes it okay. [Laughter]

Meloy: But we're getting off track. So, anyway, we started building this story, and it was very elaborate, and there were no boundaries to it. There was no book deal, at that point, and nothing really holding us in. On nights off, if nothing was going on, we'd say, "Let's work on the book." I would write, and she would sketch.

Ellis: We really did a lot of work on it at that point.

Meloy: We did. I wrote around 80 pages, and Carson did a lot of illustrations, and then we both started doing other things. The Decemberists started happening, and that took up a lot of time.

Ellis: Yes, all this was around 10 years ago.

Meloy: That was the seed, and then Carson started doing books, and her agent, Steve Malk, asked her if there were any other projects she'd worked on or was interested in working on. I said, "You should talk to him about Ruthie," because the book was called "How Ruthie Ended the War." I think we even sent her agent the 80 pages that we had.

Ellis: We did.

Meloy: He said, "Hmm, yeah, you got anything else?" [Laughter] But I think he also always thought that it would be a good thing, for us to work on something together. At some point later down the line, we had the idea to turn Forest Park into this kind of alternate-reality country, and map it in such a way that it would be a reimagined version of the park. We thought that would be not only a good setting, but also give us some good boundaries to work within. We mentioned that to Steve, and he was into that. So, we started working on that, building on that, and that was probably four or five years ago. Four years ago?

Ellis: We mentioned it to him awhile back, but we didn't actually start talking about the story in any kind of organized, concrete way until maybe three years ago. Or even less.

But when we bought this house three years ago [Ed. note: Their house is very, very close to Forest Park], there were three very competitive bidders on this house. We told the woman who was selling it, "Oh, we love Forest Park. We're actually working on a book about it," which was not strictly true. [Laughter] We had been thinking about working on a book about it. But certainly it was on our minds when we moved in here.

Jill: You have the book to thank for this house.

Ellis: We do. Actually, she said, "Yes, you can buy this house, but you have to send me a copy of the book when it comes out." I remember thinking, I hope that we actually write this book. [Laughter] But we did! And now we can send her a copy.

Meloy: So, that was three or four years in the making. I guess the takeaway idea from all that is that I ended up reappropriating a lot of the ideas I liked from Ruthie. There were things that were imagined and drafted out but not really part of what I had written, and we ended up using a lot of those ideas in Wildwood. In some ways, this book predates even the Decemberists, and our collaborations there.

Jill: That's a long gestation period.

Ellis: It is. During that time we weren't even thinking about or talking about it or actively working on it at all, which was a long period of time. Ten years ago, for a year we worked on it on and off, and then for six or seven years we didn't really do anything. But during that time, we were just kind of gelling our common interests and fascinations, and then when we finally emerged from all this work and touring and had a window to work on it, I feel like we were so ready to collaborate.

Jill: How did you decide to include other real parts of Portland and Portland landmarks in the book? Those make it really fun to read as a Portlander.

Meloy: Yes, I think that was the idea. I didn't want to create a whole new universe. There are different kinds of fantasy, and I wanted what we were doing to be as anchored in the real world as possible. Not only because I think that's more interesting, the tension of the contemporary real world against this kind of ancient, imagined, fantastical country, but also because I thought that that would hopefully be more inviting to kids. They could see it and think, "We could totally go there. We could go and have adventures there." Not only Portlanders, but anybody. Even if you don't live here, you would know it's a real place, and you could look on Google Maps and see how there's a big, green spot, where there aren't even any baseball diamonds or pools or roads, or anything like that. I wanted to try to make the suggestion that this fantastical world really existed as real as possible.

Jill: The Powells.com office is in the part of the map you call the Industrial Wastes. [Laughter]The Powells.com office is in the part of the map you call the Industrial Wastes. [Laughter]

Meloy: If you look at that area, making this world doesn't take that much imagination. The vista of Northwest Portland is kind of crazy. Looking north over the Fremont Bridge, there's the river and then there are all these crazy, big tanks and buildings...

Ellis: And the railroad tracks...

Meloy: And then there's this huge, lush hill that's filled with trees. It doesn't take much leaping to get to where we ended up, I don't think.

Jill: The descriptions of the crows at the beginning, circling like that, reminded me a bit of the swifts, going down into the chimney at Chapman School.

Meloy: Yes, absolutely. Though I don't know if crows even do that. [Laughter] I made a lot of stuff up. But I assumed that if there were enough of them all together that they might act like that.

Ellis: I did do an early sketch of them on the playground with a cloud of crows, and I was thinking of those swifts, for sure. They were a big mass coming down to a funnel point.

Jill: I haven't read that many middle-reader books, but one thing that really struck me about Wildwood was how chapter-oriented it was — I get now why they're called chapter books. How did you think about that in terms of pacing?

Meloy: I haven't read many either. I read them when I was younger, but I haven't read many now, as an adult. It felt like a classic form, to do it in these steady increments that were encapsulated thoughts that could be read aloud. I felt like you could read one out loud each night before bed, and it would be a satisfying chunk and still leave you wanting more. In my mind, that was the standard for the chapters. I don't know if I was doing it totally consciously, but that's how it ended up.

Jill: It is a middle-reader book, but there are definitely some dark undertones in it. Children don't get pregnant, but there is death, for instance. The first time I read the book, I thought that darkness didn't really come in until later, but when I reread it, I realized it's there as early as page two, in tone, when Prue's trying to imagine what her mom might be knitting: "Was it a sweater? A tea cozy? A noose?" [Laughter]

Meloy: Yes, I think that darkness is there from the outset. I think that Prue, as an imaginative kid, is not afraid to go to the dark places a little bit. As much as that's trying to define her, it's also trying to set the tone, so that it's not too much of a shock when you get further into the book, and it isn't so rosy.

That said, I think that kind of darkness is important. I think it's a darkness with a sense of humor, though, and I hope that kids get that. I think that kids, above all, have that sense of humor. I think that adults can be protective, and don't necessarily understand or trust the capacity of kids not only to have that complex understanding of humor and darkness and the macabre, but to be able to process it really well, early on.

I feel like my kid, who's five, gets it. He's fascinated by the things that scare him. And I think that's a really positive and important part of development as a kid, to embrace that to a certain degree.

Ellis: I would add that those were the kind of books that I liked to read, as a kid. I think even the Narnia books, which I loved so much, are so sardonic, and they're totally dark and scary in a lot of places. There's a lot of super frightening evil in them. Wildwood is the kind of book I'd have wanted to read when I was 10.

Jill: What were some of your influences? The book does feel really classic, to me; it shares elements with a lot of the classics. I was reminded of various things at different points — the A Wrinkle in Time series, the Narnia books, and the Oz books, particularly because of the politics and geography of Wildwood.

Meloy: All of that stuff comes into play. I never read the Oz books as a kid...

Jill: They're really good. They're worth reading.

Meloy: I would like to dig into them.

Ellis: My friend is obsessed with them. She's read them all.

Meloy: I'd like to read them. And you know, Oz influenced The Lord of the Rings, and I was reading Tolkien, and Tolkien influenced the Lloyd Alexander books, which I loved as a kid. Hopefully, Wildwood is our attempt to be a part of that tradition. So, there are certain archetypes, just like how Lord of the Rings kept to certain archetypes that Oz had set up, and, likewise, C. S. Lewis hearkens back to that and Lloyd Alexander and all those people that followed. It's all fairy tale; it's updated and elaborated fairy tale. I think that's what we're really trying to do.

We sat down with Wind in the Willows, too. We wanted to tap into that tradition, especially since you're dealing with anthropomorphic animals and how they relate to the world.

Ellis: Those books are really excellent. We were talking a lot about building that world, and what the rules of it were, and whether or not it would be the kind of fantasy world with a lot of rules, or whether it would be willy-nilly, like Wind in the Willows. Those are talking animals, and sometimes when they run into people on the road, they just converse with them, or Toad will go and buy a ticket at a train station from a person and get on a train. But other times, they're having to hide from people because they're not supposed to be seen, and there's not really any explanation as to why sometimes they don't coexist with people and sometimes they do.

Meloy: I think you have a whole spectrum. On one side, you have Lord of the Rings which has a lot of realism, and on the other side you have The Phantom Tollbooth, where everything is just thrown out.

Ellis: Oh, my God, I love The Phantom Tollbooth. It's totally psychedelic.

Meloy: Wind in the Willows is more on that side of the spectrum, but it's enough in reality where there's this actual mapped-out environment and landscape. A toad can't drive a car, for instance. So, that was one of the original conversations we had: Well, we have this coyote army. Are they a special breed of coyotes with ripped muscles and hands? [Laughter] And we thought, No! We don't want to do that. The enhanced coyote! Because some biochemical firm was doing experiments... Then you have to do all this ridiculous backstory. So, we thought, No, they're just coyotes, and they hold stuff, and they stand up, and big deal.

Ellis: They don't need opposable thumbs. [Laughter]

Meloy: I hope we were able to strike the balance of creating a really immersive world, where you feel like you can understand its rules to a certain degree, but also throw a lot of those rules out the window, and not necessarily need to explain everything, and have a bit of it be irreverent, you know? Kids can recognize that coyotes standing up or even an owl wearing a fez is irreverent, and you don't really need to explain it.

Ellis: It is irreverent in that storytelling is about using your imagination. If you're making up too many rules, you can get far away from that. Wind in the Willows is so great because no matter how little sense the world they live in makes, their relationships to each other are what drive the story. Those are so great, and the dialogue is so great.

Jill: Yes. I'm thinking of when Prue comes across the squirrel in the forest shortly after getting to Wildwood, and she asks it, "Do you talk, too?" [Laughter] She's also having to figure out the rules as she goes along.

Ellis: Yes, exactly.

Jill: Going back a bit to the politics and bureaucracy, why did you decide to include those aspects?

Meloy: I think I just liked that as an archetype. While it's a magical country, there's still a very human aspect to it. I feel like that kind of comical bureaucracy is sort of fantastic.

Ellis: Like Brazil.

Meloy: Yes, and it's Kafka-esque.

Ellis: It all goes back to Kafka. [Laughter]

Meloy: I think kids like to see that, because the inner workings of the adult world, even to adults, are totally confusing. If you can portray it as this funny machine where human beings, or living things, are cogs making it work, and it's a delicate tentative thing where if one thing gives in then everything collapses — I think that's kind of funny. Writing about the government was an attempt to inject that into the book.

I also think that having different countries gives more of an expansive feeling to that world and gives it more of a history.

Ellis: It makes the world multicultural and more dynamic.

I love the part where Prue is trying to have an audience with the governor, and the person she meets is complaining about the backwards bureaucratic system. He says, "Is it like this in your world?" She says, "I don't know. I'm 12!"I love the part where Prue is trying to have an audience with the governor, and the person she meets is complaining about the backwards bureaucratic system. He says, "Is it like this in your world?" She says, "I don't know. I'm 12!" [Laughter] She thinks about having to wait a long time to check out a library book.

Jill: There's that moment and another more somber moment, before Prue goes home the first time, when you remind the reader that Prue is only 12. She's having to deal with things that are pretty far out of her league, and those moments are well-placed to remind you that she is still just a child.

Meloy: That was an important point, that they don't become adults when they go into this world. They, too, have to still be reminded that they're children. So, that moment was important, but tricky. Even in this magical world, she ends up running into the fact that she is a kid. Though it turned out that she was just fine, she was in the place she needed to be, it was a moment for her to have a kind of a failing in her confidence.

Jill: One of the more troubling things in the book is the parents' passivity.

Meloy: Yes. Those are the old fairy-tale parents, who are bumbling and helpless adults. I think that's a bit of Roald Dahl darkness, there.

Jill: I wrote a letter to Roald Dahl when I was a kid.

Meloy: Did you really?

Jill: Yes. He wrote me back, too. Something fairly generic, I think, but I was excited.

Meloy: I've heard he was a bit of a difficult personality.

Ellis: I read a great article recently about all of the various difficult personalities populating the history of kids' literature. J. M. Barrie, for example. Kenneth Grahame, who wrote Wind in the Willows, wasn't difficult, but he did have a really sad life. His son committed suicide.

Jill: There were definitely some words and images that made me think of Decemberist songs in the book. Did working on this bleed over into your music at all, or vice versa?

Meloy: Yes, definitely. I was writing the book at the same time that I was writing a lot of the songs for the new record, so inevitably there are things that end up in both. The record is a lot about the natural world, and I think it's a lot about Forest Park and Portland, because that was what I was living in, not only literally, but also when I was working on the book, my head was in that place. So, I talk about loam and ivy and things like that. [Laughter]

Ellis: And there's lots of crossover between the book and the last record, too, which featured an evil forest queen.

Meloy: That's right. To me, I think of this as an extension of the writing that I've done for the Decemberists. It's in a different medium and targeted to a different crowd, but it feels like it's as much a part of the lexicon of the songs as anything.

Jill: It's wonderfully visual, the writing, and I was wondering how much you did that to give Carson specific things to illustrate.

Meloy: A lot, definitely. I think we've always pushed each other into places we were inspired by, and certainly Forest Park has always been Carson's love. I've come to love it through her, to a certain degree, so I felt like working on this would play to her best abilities, to give it this setting.

A lot of the time as I was writing it, though maybe not always consciously, I knew that there were certain things she would enjoy drawing, so I'd think, It would be fun to put that in there — like the badger in the rickshaw, which doesn't really need to be there. [Laughter] In fact, the editor tried to cut it, but I insisted it stay there, because I thought it would look so awesome if Carson drew it.

Ellis: I was so excited to draw it.

Jill: I liked that element, actually.

Ellis: I did too! That's one of the moments when the story seems really stream-of-consciousness. Prue pops up out of a manhole, and a badger comes by with a rickshaw and gives her a ride free of charge, and it's like, why not? It's such a great image.

Jill: And it's on his way home, anyway. [Laughter]

Meloy: Yes, I thought it was funny, and I also thought it would look good, drawn. Similarly, when I'm describing going into South Wood, when they see all the shops, I knew that Carson would like drawing that. It was a nice thing, to know and understand your illustrator so well that you could play to their strengths as you're working.

Ellis: Though it's interesting — the story takes place in Forest Park, which is so nice because I do love it so much, but of all the places I could try to draw, it turned out to be the most difficult for me. Partly because I'm so attached to it and spend so much time there, and I felt like I didn't know how to do it justice, and also because it's so busy-looking. That's not really the way I draw. The way I draw, everything is sort of delineated. Everything is its own little shape and has an outline. So I would look at Forest Park and be completely overwhelmed.

Actually, we would kind of bicker about it a little bit. I remember we had a fight about green. Do you remember that? I did one drawing that I thought had finally captured it, and it was bright green. Colin was like, "That green! It's straight green. I've never seen you use that green." And I was like, "It's what I see when I look in the woods!" But eventually I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn't capture them in the way they looked to me; I had to capture them in a totally different impressionistic way — how they felt to me rather than how they looked to me. So, there isn't really any green in the book.

Jill: I noticed that, actually; I just saw the color illustrations a few days ago, for the first time, and noticed a lack of green.

Ellis: There are blues; there are greenish colors. But it wasn't ever a color I had used in my art. I work with a kind of dusty palette, so it was hard to make it feel like something I would draw and at the same time make it feel like the woods.

Jill: A few months ago a friend was at my house and saw the cover of the galley from across the room and said, "That's Carson Ellis! What is that book? She's so good; I hate her." [Laughter]

Ellis: That's so sweet. Tell him thank you for hating me. [Laughter]

Jill: But I was reading that the cover actually went through over 20 different versions.

Ellis: Twenty-six revisions, yes. I've never had that happen before. For one thing, I think it took a really long time for my editor and I to get on the same page. This was our first undertaking. Normally the cover would be the last thing you'd do. Once you'd done all the interior illustrations, and you knew what they felt like and looked like, and what medium you were using, and what the characters looked like — then you do the cover. So, to do the cover before all the illustrations was disorienting.

Also, we wanted it to be so many things. It had to be classic, and epic. It had to look like it was for kids, to engage kids, but we also wanted grown-ups to be able to see it on a bookshelf and think it looked beautiful, too. That was important to me. I wanted my peers to think, That looks good. And I hate to say it, but I may have overthought it a bit. Twenty-six revisions is definitely too much. It just is.I hate to say it, but I may have overthought it a bit. Twenty-six revisions is definitely too much. It just is. You can't help but lose the thread a little bit when you get that far into the editorial process with any piece of art. As a consequence, I like the cover, but I can't really tell if it's good or not. I'm so far removed from my first handful of initial instincts about it. But I am really stoked about the cover of the next book. [Laughter] I think I've got it figured out now, and I know how to move forward from here. But, yes, it was an ordeal.

Jill: What's your favorite illustration from the book? Both of you.

Ellis: The badger is my favorite. It's so simple.

Meloy: My favorite one... I have so many. It might be the vista of the North Wood, when you see all the people coming up and the fire tower.

Ellis: Oh, yes. I like that one, too.

Meloy: That one was really cool. I like it because it's drawing so much from that kind of classic '60s and '70s illustration. I associate it with the Tolkien illustrations from the edition of The Hobbit that my mom had.

Ellis: It was inspired by a similar vista in The Hobbit. We had talked about that illustration, and I said, "I want to draw this, but I kind of suck at landscapes." That kind of vista where you're looking straight out to the horizon — I thought, That's so hard. I want to fit a bunch of things in there but I'm not sure how to do it. Then I looked at the Hobbit illustration and thought, Maybe I don't have to do it that well. [Laughter] Maybe it can be a bit more stylized.

I'm glad you like it.

Jill: In the video you made for the book, you mention that you think of yourselves as being somewhat like Prue and Curtis when you were 12. Carson, did you do what Prue does, and "graduate" from drawing superheros to things in the natural world?

Ellis: I never drew the superhero stuff, but I drew really fantastical stuff. When I was Prue's age, I was into Salvador Dali, so I would have sketchbooks with pages upon pages full of dripping things and checkerboards. [Laughter] Then, when I was a sophomore in high school, I did get really into naturalistic watercolor paintings. So, at my parents' house in Vermont, they have all these watercolor paintings of, like, wolves howling at the moon. [Laughter] Also bears walking by rivers catching fish.

Meloy: That was something I was very conscious of as a kid, that moment where kids started being a little more self-conscious. You couldn't be so open about your love for nerdy things like comic books and superheroes any more, or playing Elfquest at recess. [Laughter] There was a shift, where it was suddenly like, people aren't doing that any more. They're playing basketball now.

There was a part of me that witnessed that and mourned it. Even though I fell into it, too; I started being more secretive about the fact that I played Dungeons and Dragons. You had to be careful, and I went out for the basketball team, and did things like that. But I remember being very mindful of it and realized that this is a trapping of adulthood, sublimating all these childhood imaginative pursuits for more adult things.

Maybe to some people that's natural. To me, I felt like I was having to deliberately put them away. Even though I did still read comic books, I couldn't be like I remember being in fourth and fifth grade, which was out-and-out constantly lost in my own world. My friends were, too. As soon as we were out of school, we walked into the woods and set up forts and figured out who was the king and the queen. I think that's what Curtis is trying to come to grips with in Wildwood, and he gets to make the decision that I always wished I could have made.

Ellis: When I was a kid, I was so much more of a loner. I was a hard-core loner, I think. I always had one or two friends that I spent some time with, but my drawing stuff and my imagination stuff, and even the time I spent in the woods — and I was always in the woods, catching crayfish in nets, and I would house lots of wild animals in my bedroom at my parents' house — I did all of that stuff by myself. So, I don't feel like there was a point where other kids grew up and went on to play sports and be into boys, and I was left behind. That part of my world, my sketchbook and animal-ensnaring world, was always a solitary adventure, and it really stayed that way up through high school. Even though I did have friends and did a lot of social stuff during high school, my more creative world stayed very solitary.

I do relate to Prue that way. I see the day she spends with Mac, and they're sort of companions, but really she's just doing her own thing. She's drinking coffee and sketching in her sketchbook. She's way cooler and more well-rounded than I was when I was her age, but I totally relate to that alone time she's comfortable having.

Jill: I wonder if it's different now at all for kids, if the culture has changed in such a way that doing nerdy things isn't so uncool these days.

Meloy: I think things have changed. I think there's a greater acceptance for nerd culture now.

Ellis: It is the age of the nerd.

Meloy: I think that's great, and I think it's because all of the nerds have come into power. [Laughter] They're the ones writing and making video games and making movies, so people realize, Whoa! This is okay. There's nothing wrong with this.

Jill: What was the most surprising part of this whole process?

Ellis: That it worked, maybe?

Meloy: That it happened. [Laughter] It was this germ of an idea, and, while Carson certainly had a foothold in the book world, it was unexplored territory for me. It had a lot to do with Steve, Carson's agent, mentioning the idea to him, and him saying, "Why don't you do a little proposal?" I wrote out an overview, and then to have him say, "That's great. Let's see 30 pages." And I had to write 30 pages, and he was really enthusiastic about it. I think it just went from being this totally unknown quantity to thinking, Okay, this is something that we could do. That was surprising.

Ellis: It's definitely surprising that it's changed the shape of our life over the next few years, too. I've been illustrating books for five or six years, but never one that asked me to go on a book tour. The visibility of this book is so different than what I'm used to. Well, kind of — I have worked on some pretty exciting books. But having Wildwood be considered more of a collaboration than past books I've worked on, that's been pretty awesome. And, of course, it feels more like a true collaboration, because we have been working together around the clock on it.

On August 18, I interviewed Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis at their house in Portland, a stone's throw from the Impassable Wilderness.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Replacements: Let It Be (33 1/3... Used Trade Paper $8.00
  2. Outside Over There (Caldecott... Used Trade Paper $4.50
  3. Wildwood
    Used Hardcover $6.50
  4. The Mysterious Benedict Society...
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  5. The Composer Is Dead
    Used Hardcover $4.50

2 Responses to "Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis: The Powells.com Interview"

    Mike C September 7th, 2011 at 6:53 am

    I was absolutely captivated by the interview. Excellent questions and such an engaged response from Colin and Carson. I've now lost a whole afternoon reading it, and will no doubt lose an evening tracking down a copy of Wildwood! Time well spent, me thinks!

    GooseRats September 8th, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Wow...that was fast. Looking forward to the film.


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