Venture Into a 'Wildwood'

Scenes from Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis' BookPeople stop

Ellis (l) and Meloy
Ellis (l) and Meloy (Photo by Rod Machen)

With their newest novel, Wildwood Imperium, recently released, Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis welcomed a large crowd of excited kids – and not a few bearded hipsters – to BookPeople Wednesday night for a reading and remembrance of things past.

The frontman for lit-pop band the Decemberists and his wife/collaborator held court before a packed house to talk about their new book, as well as older work, both musical and literary.

After a reading from the new work, Meloy and Ellis took the audience on a journey into the past via the only available time machine: a slide show.

A young Colin Meloy showed off his 1980s bona fides in a picture that showed him sporting not only moon boots but a "Breakin'" T-shirt. Well played, young man. This precocious youngster wrote a completely self-unaware letter to Ray Bradbury, referring pointedly to his career as a writer. We'll never know if Bradbury actually read it, but even Meloy gets a kick out of it now.

He even read from a piece of juvenilia entitled "The Killer Marshmellow." The punctuation was post-modern, and the plot straightforward. A career was born.

While Meloy was in Montana blossoming, Ellis was farther east, being raised by hippie parents in Westchester County, N.Y. She, too, embraced her artistic gifts early, illustrating picture books with wild animals and cowgirls with names like "Sindy." Too cute.

They met in college in Missoula, Mont., and after reconnecting in Portland, Ore., Ellis became the illustrator for all things Decemberists, as well as Meloy’s wife. While Meloy sang, strummed, and toured the world, she continued to illustrate, gaining notoriety for The Mysterious Benedict Society, among other works.

The two had always wanted to collaborate on a book, and when the Decemberists were put on hiatus few years ago, the Wildwood Chronicles were born.

The beginnings of this work actually go back several years before, to a trip the two took to Russia, taking the Trans-Siberian Railway to the northernmost part of the country. This experience led to a never-published piece called "How Ruthie Ended the War," in which many of the themes of Wildwood were first presented.

In the years leading up to the first book, Wildwood, the pair had become enthralled with Forest Park, a 5,000-acre tract on the northwest side of Portland. They created their own fictional version which would make its way into the stories as the Impassable Wilderness. This was to be their own Narnia, Middle Earth, or even Hundred Acre Wood, a place where wild and amazing adventures could be had by a host of characters.

With Wildwood Imperium, the series is in its third – and for now final – installment. Ellis said they are very happy with the way they wrapped everything up, and fans will have to be content with that. Future books could very well be made down the road, but at the moment, other projects beckon.

The biggest of these is a new Decemberists album. Meloy said the band is getting back into the studio to record new material and complete its record deal. Hardcore fans will surely rejoice.

Meloy’s funniest moment of the night came when he answered a fan’s question about “The Apology Song.” Yes, there really was stolen bike. Yes, it belonged to his friend Steven. Yes, he sang the song to Steven over the phone. What the song doesn’t mention is that Meloy later found the bike, returned it to its original owner, but then ran it over in a car a few weeks later.

Seems like stories follow him about wherever he goes. Those will now make their way into his new musical work, but the audience Wednesday night can’t wait for the next time he takes his talents to the page.

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