Q&A: Carson Ellis is In Your House

The Decemberists' style maker and children's book artist pens a new picture book on "homes"—from beehives and birds’ nests to undersea palaces and space stations.

By Ramona DeNies February 26, 2015

Carson Ellis and Colin Meloy. Photo credit: Autumn De Wildehares.

Carson Ellis rocks by more than association. The spouse of Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy, Ellis has earned her own fame as the award-winning children’s book illustrator, collaborating with writers including Lemony Snicket, Trenton Lee Stewart, and Meloy (with whom she wrote the bestselling Wildwood series).

Home, released this past Tuesday from Candlewick Press, marks Ellis's first foray as both illustrator and author.

Other than pocketing your own copy, the next two weeks offer a couple ways to cozy up to the stunning picture book, which explores concepts of home including "beehives, birds’ nests, wigwams, undersea palaces, and space stations." Right now, you can view an exhibit of Ellis’s original art at SE Portland gallery Nationale (thru March 16)—and come next Saturday, you can hear from Ellis in person, at a book reading at Powell's. 

We knocked on Ellis's door (erm, called) and invited her for a chat.

Portland Monthly: Your book launched this Tuesday—do you have a tour in the works?

Carson Ellis: I’m signing books at Nationale, [where] the proprietress is exhibiting art from the book. Next week I go up to Seattle for a few days, then the Powell's event, then I go on tour with my husband for ten days, do readings at stops along the way.

Image credit: Carson Ellis

PM: What is Home's origin story?

CE: I’ve been illustrating books for ten years, and this is something I’ve always wanting to do. It was a matter of time; I just needed to find the idea. I’d been scrapping them for years. Home is about fantastic homes, my home, other homes, the environments that people create. There are no large blocks of text; it’s like a poem—spare. It describes a sampling of evocative homes and asks the reader who might live there. There are homes around the world, but it ends up in my own studio.

PM: Who did you write the book for?

CE: I wrote it for kids, is the simplest answer. But I like to think of it as meaningful for all of us. In some respect I wrote it for my own children, particularly my oldest. Throughout the book are things that we’re really interested in; my son is interested in terraforming planets, I’m kind of a Russophile. There’s a tour bus, where I’ve definitely spent time. I had my son in mind, even though he thinks he’s too old for picture books now.

Image credit: Carson Ellis

PM: For Home, you’re both author and illustrator. What was different about this for you (process, experience, feelings)? 

CE: I wrote the manuscript really, really quickly, in like 20 minutes! I’ve illustrated a lot of books for other people. A five hundred page book is very different than this; you have to think about how to tell the story in pictures, what you can add. For this, I could see the pictures in my head as I wrote.

PM: On the topic of homes, you and your family made a recent move?

CE: I used to live right across the bridge from St Johns and I loved it. Now I’m kind of south of Portland on a farm. It was my decision, but it took a while to get used to: it’s a lot of responsibility, and when we moved here I’d just had a baby. I thought id made a horrible mistake. But now I have a great studio space, lots of animals. My son goes to a school in Wilsonville—he loves it, but it was about a hundred miles of driving a day [before the move]. The move was a small sacrifice to make for your child’s happiness.

Image credit: Carson Ellis

PM: Lots of animals, you say?

CE: I have lots of chickens, some goats, llamas, cats—those are all my pets. Then there’s a family of barn owls that live in the cupola of my hayloft. There are lot of frogs in my ponds, and a stray cat. The owls are pretty dreamy; the babies tend to sit on this little beam and watch me.

PM: So what’s next? More collaborations? More solo projects? Both?

CE: I do have another picture book I’m working on—that I wrote—and two more collaborations with Colin: a novel and a picture book. I’d really love to do fine art, have a gallery show once in a while; it seems like once every five years I get it together for something like that. I’d love to do a giant series of oil landscapes. Someday.

Carson Ellis
Saturday, Mar 7 at 2 pm, Powell's City of Books

Carson Ellis: Home
Thru Mar 16, Nationale

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