Author/Actress Meg Tilly ~ Interviewed

Meg Tilly is the acclaimed actress best known for her role as Chloe in “The Big Chill,” and the title role in “Agnes of God,” for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in 1986, as well as an Oscar nomination. But Tilly is also a published author.

Her first title, Singing Songs, released in 1994, received terrific reviews and seemed to launch Meg’s new career as a fiction writer. But when she penned her next novel about a 12-year-old girl abducted and sexually abused by a violent pedophile, she was told that the graphic content made the book impossible to publish. The publishing world wasn’t ready for frank, in your face details about such a heartbreaking and brutal subject matter. Tilly was a victim of sexual abuse as a young girl and feels strongly about the issue, so she decided to publish the novel herself in 2006. In a daring move this February, St. Martin’s Griffin will release GEMMA (February 16, 2010, Trade Paperback) to a wider audience.

What life event/experiences have most prepared you to become an author of fiction? Why?

I believe all one’s life experiences help one as a writer. The more experiences the better. I call it the gathering phase. That’s why when I meet people who are further on in the life cycle and I can see the I-wish-was-a-writer-starlight in their eyes, if they are avid readers and closet writers, I encourage them to give it a go, because if it’s always been a desire of theirs, they should not to go to their deathbed without having attempted to fulfill their dream. I know many published authors who didn’t write their first book until their children were grown, or they’d retired from their job, etc.

It doesn’t matter what point you are in your life when the muse comes to you, shaking you to the very core, insisting on being heard so strongly that you have no other option but to pick up the pen.

Writing is one of the few professions that we have nowadays where age doesn’t matter. What matters is how your words sing on the page, if what you have written is true, speaks to people.

Acting and writing both have elements of becoming someone else and you’ve done both well. How similar or different are acting and writing fiction?

You are right, Kelly, with your observation about acting and writing being the same and yet different.

Both require one to dive in, both on a cellular and an emotional level. Both require extensive research, endless hours and days, trying to get closer, get inside the skin of your characters, discovering their likes and dislikes, making choices on place, time, surroundings and situation.

The difference for me is, writing is mostly solitary, done on one’s own. Locked away in my writing room, in front of a glowing screen, or grabbing snatches of phrases, thoughts and scribbling them down on whatever scrap of paper is handy. Sometimes I get lonely. I am writing about the world, but at the end of the day, I look up and there I am, surrounded by the walls of my writing room, shoulders aching and sore from the hours spent at the computer. And if I had a good day writing, I feel happy and fulfilled, but if the words didn’t come and everything felt fake and forced and didn’t ring true, then I feel depressed and wonder if, when I am lying on my death bed, I will look back and say, why did I waste all those precious hours, sitting in front of a glowing screen, trying to pour my heart into a computer? I should have gotten up, gotten out, been in the world, taken more walks, danced more sunrises up into the sky.

With acting, you are being creative with people. There is conversation and life. There is a sort of dysfunctional family that forms with noise and chaos all around. It is fun, it is horrible, it is creative. One of the things I loved about acting was that I’d get to travel to all these different places for work and they’d rent me a flat or a little house and my family and I would get to experience all these different countries and cultures in a way that one doesn’t get to as a tourist. I miss that.

With both careers there is a lot of insecurity and rejection. I think with acting, perhaps, it is a little more challenging than writing. As an actor, you can’t just go in a room and create by yourself. You have to be given permission to do your craft. You have to be hired for that play or TV show or movie. Whereas with writing, you can write to your heart’s content. Whether any one wants to publish it or not, no one can stop the words flowing from your fingers and thoughts onto the page (or keyboard, depending on your preference.)

Another aspect where I prefer writing over acting is that when I write, it is my thoughts, what I want/need to say. With acting, all one’s creative talents go into fulfilling someone else’s words and dreams.

What aspect of book authoring has been the most challenging for you and what are some steps you took to overcome/conquer it?

The hardest part of writing for me is the rejections. When I spend several years and many drafts writing and re-writing, trying to get a manuscript just right, trying to hone and polish it, and then to get those polite, sometimes kind, encouraging, or discouraging letters back, most of the time I try not to let it discourage me, but sometimes, after a slew of them, I want to crawl in my bed, pull the covers over my head and only poke it out to ingest copious amount of chocolate, ice cream and salt and vinegar potato chips.

What do I do to conquer it? Hmm… I’ll let you know when I manage that hurdle. I find the book The Resilient Writer helps. If things start looking really dark, I’ll flip it open to an arbitrary page and read about ans extraordinarily successful writer’s dark-of-the-night rejection story, and I think, “Well see there, your living room, dining room and bathroom aren’t papered with rejection letters, you’ve only had eight so far on this manuscript, that’s nothing.”

Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn’t.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Write what you want, what you know to be true. Don’t write for success or acclaim or with the idea that you are going to be rich-rich-rich. That only happens to a minuscule few and if that is your goal unhappiness is sure to follow. Write because you need to, because you feel like if you don’t your life won’t be complete. And don’t feel like every day you have to feel that way. I dance my way to my writing room with a happy heart maybe five percent of the time. The rest of the time I have to drag myself there, force myself to get started.

But still, even though I resist, am reluctant. I go. And I write. And on the rare occasions when I don’t, I feel unsettled, incomplete. Like I’m only half awake inside myself.

What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?

The thing that works best for me is a schedule. Once I am working on a manuscript, I can’t quit for the day until I have written a minimum of three pages. Three pages is doable.

I do not spell check or correct those three pages.

Then, the next day, when I go into my writing room, I start with cleaning up the previous day’s work. That way when I get to where I left off, I am back into the work, back in creative mind and it is easier to slide my way into the next section.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

My life has been nothing if not strange and unique. It would be impossible to choose one particular event.

I borrow from it all the time, as I’m sure most authors do. Things that have been said, done, eaten. Singing Songs was lifted straight from my childhood memories. In Porcupine, my YA novel, I lifted events from my life and gave them to Jack, (the rattlesnake we killed and ate, my pet chicken, the wild porcupine my sister and me fed and petted.) I borrowed stuff for Gemma as well.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)

I am proud of all of my books. Sure they are flawed, but they are mine. I wrote them. They spoke to people and made them laugh and cry and not feel so alone in the world.

I am proud of the manuscripts I have written and chosen never to send out. They were important for me to write.

I am proud of all the spiral notebooks that I have filled with my memories and scribblings and short pieces.

Many of these things will never be read by anyone but me, but I am proud that I wrote them. Proud that I discovered that I have the right to my words, I have the right to my experiences, I have to speak the truth, as I know it. Vitally important to me, after so many years, childhood and adult, of speaking other people’s truths, other people’s thoughts, not acknowledging, muffling and silencing my own.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writer’s block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

Yes, absolutely. After Singing Songs, my first novel was published, everything in me slammed shut. Even though, at that time, I was selling the book as fiction. Even though, no one knew it was the truth of my life. Even though, I was protected in that way, I felt naked and vulnerable and scared.

I didn’t/couldn’t write anything for a couple of years. Then I found a couple of good writing groups by various recommendations, where I was forced to write, not think, just write for a specific time, 15-20 minutes, and then horror upon horror, we had to read. No editing, no tweaking, just read.

It was terrifying, but it got me over my writer’s block.

Also, my earlier answer to a different question works as well. The three pages, don’t correct, writing a minimum of five days a week, type of schedule.