Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis — indie rockers and acclaimed illustrators aside — are collaborators at heart.
Reading passages of their illustrated novel Wildwood to a sold out audience at the Decatur Book Festival’s keynote address on Friday, the gathering took on a book club atmosphere with the subtlety of fame in the room.
The AJC Decatur Book Festival is an annual event featuring authors who read passages from their works, hold panel discussions or give talks to audiences.
This year marked the first time Emory University Libraries was a Gold-Level sponsor of the event and set up its own Emory stage — containing books of faculty members — at the Decatur Presbyterian Church, where attendees were able to listen to some of the festival’s featured authors.
Alexis Muir, fourth-time attendee, said he traveled to Agnes Scott College for the address for several reasons.
“I’m a huge fan of The Decemberists, so I’m excited about [Wildwood] just by association,” she said. “I have a son who has Asperger’s — like Colin and Carson’s — and that really speaks to me. He can create things in his mind but can’t translate it on paper, so he has an imagination made for Wildwood.”
The Portland-based husband and wife duo, whose names are known most notably for their ethereal lyrics and mystical posters of Meloy’s band The Decemberists, met at the University of Montana during their undergraduate years.
While Ellis and Meloy were learning the techniques of writing and art that would catapult them to large-scale success, the two writers and artists harnessed similar “obsessions” that would make their work more intimate.
“The spirit of our collaboration was really pervasive from the start, and when she wasn’t designing flyers for the band, I’d hang out in her studio and hover over her shoulder, telling her what to paint,” Meloy confessed to the giggling crowd. “I suppose I tried to be an ‘idea man’.”
Wildwood, published earlier this year by HarperCollins, traces the story of a young girl named Prue, and her mysterious journey through Portland’s impassable wilderness in order to save her baby brother Mac from a murder of crows.
Prue’s encounters with coyotes bedecked in Napoleon-era uniforms and a fantasy forest with its own personality weave a coming-of-age tale of independence and give life to the intricacies of sprawling landscapes through maps.
Inspired by Narnia, Middle-earth and Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, Meloy and Ellis explained their mutual love for the more artistic side of making books a visual medium.
“There’s a spectrum of realism to total absurdism in these photos,” Meloy said, flashing black and white images of downtown Portland from years past that caught their attention throughout the creative process.
Ellis also suggested that the otherworldly images of boats docking next to cities inspired her artwork.
“Some of the books we saw as the most creative were extremely detailed as well, featuring their own languages, forests and cities, which we both wanted to capture,” Ellis said.
Meloy and Ellis acknowledged their unique and intimate bond throughout the conversation, especially as it pertains to writing and illustrating novels.
Discussing her affection for greener hues and his for more “negative space” in illustrations of Portland, as well as their volleying between editors to keep images and passages, both emphasized the tireless labor of love in publishing.
“This scene is totally inconsequential to the book,” he said, showing an image of a badger hoisting a rickshaw to the crowd. “Our editor said not to [run the image], but I refused, principally because I knew Carson loved the drawing. So we fought for it, and it stayed in the book.”
Meloy also commented on the prevalence and convenience of Kindle books, but expressed his desire for readers to make Wildwood a more tangible approach.
“That’s not the best technology for coming to our book,” he said. “The book’s aesthetics are the best technology in this case.”
Both author and illustrator left the audience with a final takeaway as it relates to the publishing industry. To Meloy, “middle grade” books, purposefully marketed to children ages 8 to 12, is not a term he cringes at, but rather embraces.
“While it seems arbitrary, I actually don’t mind that designation,” he said. “That period was such a fertile time for Carson and I imaginatively, in writing and illustrating, before the cynicism of adulthood. It’s such a magical window, and I feel like that age is something that I’m pulling from this day.”
At the festival were also Emory authors who read from their own literary works, including Joshilyn Jackson, a creative writing instructor and author of Backseat Saints; M.L. Malcolm, a distinguished alumna and author of Heart of Deception; Allen Tullos, American studies professor in Emory’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts and author of Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie; Sally Wolff-King, English professor and William Faulkner Scholar and Kevin Young, creative writing professor and curator of literary collections at Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Library.
— Contact email@example.com">Amanda Serfozo.