FLR: Of course we want to talk about Wildwood, which has been announced as the first in a series. We understand that Forest Park in Portland is inspiration for this series. Are there any specific features about it that were particularly inspiring? Did either of you have places similar to this to visit and explore when you were young?
CM: I think the thing that was so compelling about Forest Park is the really immersive feel of the park. It really does feel like you've stepped over into another world when you enter it. The trees and vegetation so encompasses the horizon that if it weren't for the distant hum of traffic (which, in some places, gets all but drowned out) you'd think you'd been transported to some distant wood, far away from the city.
CE: I agree. It's a magical place. We were walking in Forest Park yesterday and we came upon a cat – a little black house cat with a collar hiding in a hollow tree – and it was so startling and weird. I guess there were probably houses around, but the woods are so thick there and you can walk for a few hours in the north part of the park without seeing a soul – it's easy to forget that civilization is nearby. As for special, wild places of my childhood, I had lots. I was in the woods all the time as a kid, catching animals and playing out various woodland fantasies.
FLR: What is your process for working together? Do you find it different to work with each other than when you work with other writers or musicians?
CM: Having not really closely worked with other illustrators, it's hard to say. When the Decemberists got going, I was drawn to map out our aesthetic in the tradition of some of my favorite artists – the Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock, Guided By Voices – all of whom had created a visual feel for the band that was always present, always consistent. I thought that would make a more compelling world for the band. It just seemed to make sense. Also, Carson and I have long shared fascinations. It's rare that one of us thinks something is cool and the other doesn't. That has only grown with time – we've been influencing each other's obsessions for as long as we've known each other. It makes it fairly easy to work together when that happens.
CE: Yeah, there's a sort of telepathy that happens between us because we're married that makes collaborating a lot easier. We can anticipate what the other will like because we're often liking and talking and thinking about the same things. So that's different from working with other authors. Also, there was a lot more genuine collaboration that happened working on Wildwood than on past books I've illustrated. Typically, in my experience, an illustrator starts with a finished or near-finished manuscript and there's not really an opportunity or invitation to be involved in its creation or to offer feedback. Plus I haven't had much interaction with other authors once I've begun working on the illustrations, so I'm not sure if they're getting a chance to offer me feedback. If they are, it's being relayed to me by an editor or art director. But when we worked on Wildwood, we were always collaborating. Colin read his progress to our son and me at the end of every day and we told him what we thought. He came into my studio and looked at illustrations every day and told me what he thought. We drew the initial map of Wildwood together and we talked through the story's ever-changing outline while walking in the woods. It was also hard working together sometimes – we bickered over things in a way I never would with anyone else – but mostly it was great.
FLR: Do you have the story for this series already mapped out or is it evolving as it is written? Do you know how the third book will end? Do you find that the illustrations can lead the story? We have heard that Carson thought the cover was the hardest to illustrate. Is this true? Why was it done before the interior illustrations? Is that usual?
CM: The series is mapped out – roughly – through the next few books, with the more distant books a little more fuzzy in the picture. The second one is coming into nice focus right now. I feel like Wildwood, the first book, is a lot of world building and character developing – I'm excited to take that foundation and run with it in the subsequent books. I'm hoping to make the whole series weirder and more immersive and hallucinatory as I go along. Regarding the cover, I defer to Carson on that one.
CE: Yes, the cover illustration was really hard. We (Colin and I and our editor, Donna Bray) wanted it to be a lot of things: classic-looking, epic-looking, sophisticated but also endearing to kids, funny, scary, mysterious. It was just a tall order. The cover design went through twenty-something revisions and I'm still not sure I accomplished all that, but I did my best. On past books I've done the cover illustration last and I think it's easier that way but HarperCollins wanted a design early on for Wildwood and I obliged. It gave me something to work on last summer while Colin was finishing up the book.
FLR: Can you share why you chose the names Prue and Curtis for the characters? Are any of the characters based on yourself or people you know?
CM: Prue is roughly based on a girl we know, a friend's niece. She's got an amazing independent streak that we've always admired. It was easy to use her as the blueprint for a heroine. But I do feel like a lot of Prue's inner world is drawn from Carson's childhood. Curtis, definitely, is more like me as a kid. I was a Kurosawa fan and an avid reader. And I desperately longed to be taken away to another world.
CE: A long time ago we were out to breakfast and saw a photo of a cute old lady in the paper. She was beaming and sweet-looking and the caption underneath said her name was Prue something. That was the first time I saw that name and we both liked it. It stuck with us. As for Curtis, I think I rattled off the first names of people in my email contacts until we came to that one and it worked. The Curtis in my address book doesn't bear any resemblance to Curtis Mehlberg, but the name seemed appropriately innocuous.
FLR: Carson, you've mentioned that Colin included the badger pulling the rickshaw in the story because he knew you would like to draw it. Is there anything else like that in the book? Did you draw something because you knew Colin would like to write about it? Are there differences between illustrating books, picture books and album covers?
CE: There were a lot of things in Wildwood that I was excited to draw. I'm not sure if Colin actively had me in mind when he wrote them in, though. We just like a lot of the same things. I did convince him to change the coyote soldiers' garb from medieval armor to Napoleonic military uniforms because I wanted to illustrate the latter more.
As for differences between those sorts of projects, yes, there are many. Designing an album cover is a pretty abstract process. You start with the music and what the musician feels like he or she is trying to say through it and from there you can go in any direction. There's so little convention to it. Illustration in books serves a different purpose and has a different tradition. There are rules. And illustrating a middle-grade novel like Wildwood is very different from illustrating a picture book. I find the former a lot easier. It involves picking out the most illustratable scenes – a thing I'm always doing when I read regardless – and drawing them. Picture books involve a lot of carefully balanced relationships – between the text and images, between the spread that comes before and the one that comes next, between the story told in words and the one told in pictures. It's very hard work to make it all work together in a brilliant way.
FLR: Were both of you Narnia fans as children? What kinds of books did you read as kids? How have your childhood reading experiences affected the Wildwood Chronicles series, Carson's art, and Colin's music lyrics? Has parenting affected your thoughts on children and reading?
CM: Carson's really more of the Narnia nerd than I am. I read the first couple books when I was kid – but was more of a fan of the Tolkien/Alexander worlds of fantasy. I was also an avowed Ray Bradbury buff. The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, etc. Roald Dahl was beloved of the whole household – The BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Witches were real favorites. I also plowed through the Xanth novels of Piers Anthony as a kid – in many ways, that idea of a world within the real world and the implausibility of the whole enterprise was a direct influence for Wildwood. Parenting has had a huge influence on what we do, mainly because our son has one of the most unfettered imaginations of anyone I know. He's a constant inspiration.
CE: Yes, I was a big Narnia fan. I read through all seven books again and again. Reading-wise, they dominated my childhood. I also loved books about horses – Misty of Chincoteaugue, Black Beauty. Also, The Hobbit, the Madeline L'Engle Books, The Phantom Tollboth, Nancy Drew. Of them all, The Chronicles of Narnia were the biggest influence on the art for Wildwood. I pored over Pauline Baynes' illustrations and I can't imagine those books without them. If one kid feels the way about the illustrations in Wildwood that I did about those illustrations in the Narnia books, I'll be happy!
FLR: Carson, who are your favorite artists and how do they inspire you? Do you think children react differently than adults to art? How would you encourage others to produce creative works?
CE: I love Ben Shahn, Alice and Martin Provensen, Tomi Ungerer. I think everyone reacts to art in their own way, regardless of age. My son, who's five, loves to look at maps. Of all of Wildwood's 85 illustrations, the maps are the most interesting to him. I think some adults would feel the same way, while others would be drawn to illustrations featuring animals or illustrations in color. We all have basic preferences for what draws us in visually, including children. The nice thing about illustration is that it doesn't require sophisticated art knowledge to understand and enjoy it (or not enjoy it). It's there for everyone – kids and grandparents and librarians and art snobs alike. It puts art in front of everyone's eyes indiscriminately and I love that. As for encouraging creative work, I would say: delve deep into something that you love to do. Gardening, cooking, sewing, writing, drawing – find the thing that makes you happy and do it all the time. Get great at it.
FLR: Colin, how does writing a book differ from writing lyrics? The book contains a few songs; are there melodies for these lyrics?
CM: I think of book writing as more of a 9-to-5 sort of job – the time suck is incredible, compared to the relatively bizarre and disjunctive process of writing songs. It feels more like real work; writing songs often feels like a massive waste of time with a few moments of real epiphany sprinkled in. That said: I did not write melodies for the songs in the book. For one thing, it wasn't necessary. The reader will provide his or her own melody. And I must say it was nice to write a couple songs without any thought towards how well the lyrics would work in the structure of a melody and chord progression.
FLR: Was there any particular music you listened to while working?
CM: I have a hard time listening to music with words while I write, so it was a lot of instrumental and classical music. In between writing time, though, I was listening to tons of music: Joanna Newsom's record "Have One On Me" was on repeat, I recall, during the writing of the book. Also plenty of old folk music: Anne Briggs, Nic Jones, and June Tabor. It fit the mood nicely.
CE: I listen to music all day when I'm drawing. On heavy rotation over the past year has been: Michael Hurley, Kanye West, S.E. Rogie, the Staple Singers, The Grateful Dead, Laura Veirs, The Decemberists (duh) and Sibylle Baier.
FLR: Any talk of a Wildwood movie? Any planned projects you can share with us?
CM: We could tell you that, but then we'd have to sacrifice you on a plinth and feed you to the ivy.