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'Wildwood' author and illustrator go back to the woods
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Most writers of children's books and fantasy novels create their alternative worlds out of whole cloth.

Colin Meloy and illustrating partner Carson Ellis created their own alternative world, but looked through the windows of their hometown in Portland, Ore., for inspiration.

For the married couple's best-selling book Wildwood, the city's Forest Park, a 5,100-acre stretch of woods, became its setting, with St. Johns Bridge a route into another world through the cast of a magic spell. Prue McKeel is the young girl who must find her little brother, Mac, before he's sacrificed to the forest's supernatural ivy by Alexandra, a malevolent governess intent on revenging everything in the forest after she's exiled.

Meloy, best-known to music fans as the songwriter and frontman of The Decemberists, creates a world where coyotes act as soldiers, crows carry off babies and everyone is either of the wood or outside it.

The sequel, Under Wildwood, which will be released on Tuesday, extends Prue's adventures and suggests that Meloy crafts stories and songs with equal aplomb. After positive reviews by New Yorker and The Atlantic, the saga caught the interest of Laika Studios, the Oregon stop-motion animation studio behind "Coraline."

The woodsy urban Forest Park was also the locus used by Portland novelist Peter Rock for his 2009 book My Abandonment . How might you have cast the book differently if this place didn't exist?

The whole genesis of this was something my then-girlfriend, and now wife, collaborated on in 2001, then we ditched it because life got too busy. Then it got weird. At first, we had some ideas for the story that would have been inappropriate for a children's book. We took weekly walks in the woods when the idea came to us. Some form of story would have existed without Forest Park, but it wouldn't be the same one.

What were some of the initial elements you had second thoughts about?

A 14-year-old protagonist who gets pregnant and gives birth to a rabbit. While I still think that's an interesting idea in another context, some ideas just have to be jettisoned.

Your sister Maile Meloy is an accomplished literary writer and Guggenheim fellow. Does she read your work?

I had a love for writing from an early age. I've always been more exhibitionist. I always read my work aloud during [family] dinner. [Maile] always kept quite, which is admirable in its own right. To be honest, I never mentioned my work to her before it was about to be published. I really need to do it on my own. She's complimentary of the books Carson and I have put out, but beyond that we don't really talk about our creative lives with each other. We mostly talk about family stuff.

Which came first, Carson's illustrations or your story of Prue McKeel?

The story. We worked on major elements of the books together, such as plot points. It was very collaborative, but I'd say the story ideas just came together with the art. She was sketching, while I was working on the book. It did lead to some conversations about clothing design for the drawn characters, but details like that weren't necessary to writing the book.

What was the most difficult part of crafting Prue McKeel as a character?

Trying to create an authentic voice. Not being a 12-year-old girl myself, I had to displace myself a bit. I'd talk to Carson about some of her memories as a girl. Knowing her well, and knowing her childhood stories, these filled in the lines a little bit. Carson spent a lot of time alone growing up and had a love for animals and historical drawings. Without Carson, I would have written a different version of Prue.

What of the critics who snarked at elements of the first book, Wildwood, who complained that it was "too Portland," with its recycling bins, bikes and cork flooring?

I was only trying to create as authentic of a world as I could. That's the world Portlanders live in. In that it's set in Portland, it's sort of a love letter. Portland is an important facet of the story, that's for certain.

At 542 pages for Wildwood and now 566 pages for Under Wildwood, a cynic might ask how many children or young readers will have that kind of reading fortitude. Tolkien wrote long, of course, but that was in the days before video games.

I have a lot of faith in young readers — young readers who read avidly and aren't intimidated by length. For those who don't or can't, I don't really have much of a response for them.

bfulton@sltrib.com

Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis

A reading by the author, the lead singer of the indie band The Decemberists, and his wife, illustrator of Under Wildwood, the newest release in a series.

When • Thursday, Sept. 27, 7 p.m.

Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Info • Free. Call 801-484-9100 or visit http://www.kingsenglish.com for more information.

Books • Indie-rock frontman Colin Meloy and illustrator Carson Ellis take another storytelling trip in "Under Wildwood."
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