In The Decemberists' "The Mariner's Revenge Song," Colin Meloy sings about two shipwrecked survivors trapped in the belly of a whale whose ribs are "ceiling beams" and guts are "carpeting." Meloy is known for such stories of adventure and whimsy, and over the past couple years he's applied that romantic lyricism to a series of children's books called the Wildwood Chronicles. The story begins when the smart little protagonist, Prue, watches a murder of crows fly away with her baby brother. ("And it had been such a nice day," Prue quips.) We learn she lives in Portland with her family, but the quest to find her brother takes her into a wilderness on the edge of the city called Wildwood, which is occupied by, among other creatures, coyote soldiers and mystics. The fantastical series is illustrated with detailed color plates by Meloy's partner, Carson Ellis, whom he met while they both attended the University of Montana. The third book of the series, Wildwood Imperium, came out last month. We caught up with the artists to talk about precocious protagonists, Montana wilderness and staying young.
What are some of your favorite children's books or folktales?
Carson Ellis: My favorite books when I was a kid were the Chronicles of Narnia, which I read over and over again. I loved books about horses and I loved Charlotte's Web and The Secret Garden. As a grown-up, I think I gravitated more toward the folktales. I especially like Russian folktales like Pushkin's Baba Yaga [in the poem "Ruslan and Ludmila."]
Colin Meloy: I was into Tolkien at an early age as well as Roald Dahl. And Ray Bradbury—I really loved his short stories. That was sort of the fantastical stuff I was reading at the time.
There are several books out there—The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie comes to mind—that focuses on precocious, smart and smart-ass girls as the main character, and that's true of the Wildwood Chronicles with your main character, Prue. Tell me how she evolved in your mind.
CM: Well I think what you said is proof that the Prue character is a bit of an archetype—the smart-ass protagonist girl. You need someone who is intrepid if she's going to accept the challenge that is presented to her when her baby brother is kidnapped by crows. A more practical kid would maybe just go to the police or something like that. But for this book to have any legs, she's got to go after him, so it does require a certain amount of steely precociousness.
CM: Yeah, moxie. So she seemed to make sense for the story.
Carson, how did you get your start in illustration?
CE: I've wanted to be a book illustrator since I was a little kid but wasn't particularly ambitious about it. I wanted to go to the University of Montana and, as you may know, they don't have an illustration program there but I thought I would just go there anyway and wing it. So I went to [UM] and got a painting degree and then I graduated and thought, "Well, now I'll just be an illustrator." But I really had no idea how to do that. So I spent a long time not doing that. I spent a lot of time working as a painter and bartender and a cocktail waitress.
When I was in my mid-20s I moved to Portland and was hanging out with Colin a lot ... We were doing lots of collaborating on things related to his band, The Decemberists, and all of that was just kind of for fun. But when more people started noticing the band, they started also seeing the art on the albums and on the website and on the T-shirts. I started getting jobs from art directors and that all snowballed into an illustration career. It happened very organically. I was very lucky because it was what I wanted to do but I really had no idea how to do it.
Colin, your lyrics for The Decemberists are so rich in imagery and often dramatic, and I think that's what appeals to people. The Wildwood stories don't seem far flung from your usual style, but were there challenges in going from lyrics to writing novels?
CM: They're really different processes and I feel like you have to use different parts of your brain. I'd like to think that I brought a lyrical approach ... to the writing of the books. You don't have quite as much freedom when you're writing books—you really need to tell a story, and it needs to be clear, especially writing for children. With a song, anything goes, a little bit. But there's a whole new world of structure and clarity with writing a book that is not often applied to songwriting, even though so many of The Decemberists' songs tend to be narrative.
Can you trace back any of the ideas about wilderness in these books to your time growing up in Montana?
CM: I grew up in Helena and definitely spent a lot of time in the woods. I guess having grown up there I took a lot of the Montana landscape for granted. It was just what I was born into. In retrospect, it was great to have woods and hills and mountains just in our backyard to explore. It really helped develop my imagination, I think. I probably would have done the same thing had I grown up somewhere else, but having all of that at your disposal in Montana is pretty awesome.
A lot of magical books occupy made-up lands, but Wildwood takes place in Portland. Is Portland a magical place to you?
CM: I always liked books that took recognizable landscapes and recast them in a more exciting way. So that's sort of what I was trying to do.
CE: The wood in the story is based on Forest Park, which is a real park in Portland—a 5,000-acre forest criss-crossed with trails, but there's nothing else there. It's basically in Portland, pressed up against all of this high-density city and, in real life, it feels like you're stepping into another world when you cross into it. It wasn't hard to imagine a world that was a lot like Portland but where Forest Park is actually an enchanted place that you had no way of leaving once you had entered it.
Did you both have a similar vision for the book or did you have to do some negotiation?
CE: We had a lot of disagreements in the beginning about medium and palette and how characters should look. The first book has coyote soldiers that initially were in medieval armor but they ended up being in Napoleonic armor. There was a lot of fine tuning and going back and forth. But ... when we got to the third book it was kind of a telepathic thing.
In both writing and illustration Wildwood feels romantic and antiquated. No one's looking at their cellphones, for instance. Was that an aesthetic you deliberately chose?
CE: Yeah, because if you're going to create a world, why not put in it only the best things? Like the coolest old cars. We never really decided it would take place in a certain period in history, which freed us up to have there be square-rigged tall sailing ships, but also cars. And even in one of the books, there's a computer, but still kind of an old, antiquated computer. There's nothing very romantic about cellphones. I don't think there are any cellphones in there, are there?
CE: Even though in real life we never don't have our cellphones two feet away from our faces.
Are there more Wildwood stories to come?
CM: This is it for Wildwood Chronicles for a bit. I think we'd like to come back and do some stories in the future. But for now there are some other books we're going to be working on that we're not quite ready to talk about.
In my experience, reading magical books like this keeps you young. Did creating these books help you recapture your youth or do you always live that way?
CE: We kind of always live that way.
CM: Yeah, I'm sort of a man-child and I've never really quite kicked it. But at least this makes it seem like a livelihood, which is nice.
CE: We are a children's book illustrator and a guy in a rock band, so if ever there was a case of arrested development, it's probably us.