Giving herself a voice, in other words

June 21, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

WASHINGTON — Washington--Acting was fine, Meg Tilly says. She made good money and she could express herself artistically. But what she really wanted to do was . . .

No, not direct. Half of Hollywood's actors and actresses may think of themselves as budding directors, but a few years ago, Ms. Tilly was obsessed with the idea of writing fiction. And so she did.

The result is "Singing Songs," the story of a troubled working-class family in the Pacific Northwest as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Recently published by Dutton, the novel has earned Ms. Tilly some surprisingly good reviews (as well as a few real zingers -- more on that in a minute).

Now Meg Tilly, whose previous major claim to fame was an Academy Award nomination for her role in "Agnes of God," is living large as an author. She is doing a national tour promoting her book, appearing on radio shows and sitting down with the literary press. She is giving readings. And she is loving every minute of it.

"I feel so much pride and excitement," Ms. Tilly said during a recent interview on her promotional tour. "When my movies come out, I never go to see them afterward. Once I've created the role, that's it for me.

"But with the book, I've got so much more involved," she said, clasping her hands around her knees as she gently rocked back and forth in her chair. "I've gone with my three children to bookstores to check on how many copies of 'Singing Songs' are in stock. A few days ago, I said, 'Let's go see if they have more books.' And the kids just said, 'Oh, Mom!"

Dressed this day in a flowing yellow print smock, her black hair brushed back behind her ears, Ms. Tilly looked less like a well-known actress than, perhaps, a graduate arts student. Her speech is decidedly Left Coast (she lives in Los Angeles and British Columbia), peppered with New Age phrases and delivered with a somewhat dreamy breathiness.

Take her reaction to an extremely nasty review of "Singing Songs" in Entertainment Weekly, which called the book "oppressively ugly" and a "new species of kiddie porn." When the review was mentioned, Ms. Tilly nodded and said, with no apparent ill will: "I figured some people will love my book and some will hate it. But either way, it's eliciting an emotional response."

But didn't being called a writer of kiddie porn offend her? Whom was she kidding?

"I don't want everyone to like this book," Ms. Tilly insisted. "That would mean it's terribly bland, like instant, badly cooked mashed potatoes." She shrugged. "Some people like Japanese food; other people, Italian. Anyway, I'm not the Taste Police."

The New York Times was kinder to "Singing Songs." The reviewer acknowledged that she was expecting a badly written book but concluded, "Far from humiliating herself with her first novel, 'Singing Songs,' Ms. Tilly has managed to meet some serious literary challenges with an instinctive flair." In other words, at least you didn't stink, kid.

Ms. Tilly said she had read widely as a child, and still does, but never considered writing until about four years ago, when she was acting in a television movie about child abuse. She began to write interconnected short stories with abused young children as the chief protagonists. Her children, who range in age from 3 to 9, helped her with the dialogue. "I'd ask them, 'Is this how you would say something?' They were a huge help."

A classmate of one of her children provided an indelible image. "There was this young boy whose family didn't have anything -- they were a very poor family. But he always seemed so full of energy, full of life," Ms. Tilly said.

"But one day I went to pick up my daughter and the boy had a split lip and a black eye, like he had been beaten. And his older sister was comforting him, cheering him up. That stayed with me a long time, and I used that image in my book."

"Singing Songs" is narrated by Anna, who begins the book as a 4 1/2 -year-old and concludes it as a world-wise junior high school student. Along the way, she is sexually abused by her stepfather and a stepbrother. Other siblings are abused as well.

"Those scenes were very, very hard to write," Ms. Tilly conceded, her tone becoming more somber. "My acting training helped me there because I could be dispassionate about writing the scenes. But when I was done writing them, I would be shaking with anger."

After completing the manuscript, Ms. Tilly sent it to two publishers under an assumed name in order to get an honest assessment. She received two rejections, but the letters were encouraging. "That convinced me that it was good enough to be published," she said. So she instructed her agent to send it out again, this time under her real name.

At Dutton, editor Carole DeSanti liked the manuscript right away. "I liked the cinematic quality of it -- the vignettes were so vivid and unpretentious," Ms. DeSanti said. "Her writing was completely refreshing, free of many of the conventions of writing. But she has a profound literary sensibility.

"Meg is an enormously intuitive and talented writer. She was always very clear that she wanted this to be a literary enterprise and that she wanted to be treated as an author and not as a movie star."

Although Ms. Tilly maintains she did not envision "Singing Songs" as a potential movie, it could be coming to a theater near you. United Artists has picked up the film option, and she just completed the screenplay.

She doesn't have another writing project under way, but there's no question that she doesn't think of "Singing Songs" as a one-shot deal.

"I love acting -- it's really fun," Ms. Tilly said. "But I like having a voice. As a woman, you don't have many voices in movies. In a book, you're everything -- the director, the writer, the sound and lighting people. If I had to choose [between acting and writing], it would be the writing."

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