An Interview with Meg Tilly
by Amanda Witherell
Don’t ever pass up a chance to see an actress read her own writing. Watching Meg Tilly turn up her faint lisp to read the words of the 12-year-old titular character of her novel Gemma, with tears and terror in her voice when the girl is kidnapped by a pedophile, was so captivating it was hard to believe we weren’t out in the woods at the scene of the rape, not sitting in a room above City Lights Bookstore.
I first heard about Gemma from Charlotte Sheedy, Tilly’s New York agent who’s fostered successes like Eve Ensler and Daniel Handler (and is also the mother of Ally Sheedy, another ‘80s actress who fell off the map). She was talking about this book that she just couldn’t get anyone to publish — it was too graphic, too intense, too much for the mainstream publishing houses to touch. Naturally, I was curious. When I heard it was written by an actress I hadn’t thought of since the last time I saw The Big Chill, I was even more intrigued.
Tilly made her author debut twelve years ago with Singing Songs, the story of a family destroyed by physical and sexual abuses. Though initially billed as fiction, Tilly now says the book is far more true than false.
Gemma, however, is pure fiction she says, although by the way she talks about the characters “dropping in to her,” one could argue it’s more like she’s haunted by ghosts. The raw, uncensored book is told in chapters of alternating perspectives — the lecherous captor and his increasingly despondent victim. At times, the book is difficult to read, but only the faintest hearts could put it down without finding out what ultimately happens to the characters.
Tilly ended up footing half the bill for its publication with Syren, a small independent press. She expects she won’t make much money from the book — she’s donating 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Gemma to children who live through and with the problems her character faces. She’s said that being “Meg Tilly” has helped and hurt the book’s popularity, but most of the people who’ve come to see her during the nationwide tour are there because of the story she’s reading, not because she almost won an Academy Award.
Off stage, Tilly projects a certain shyness, that’s countered by bouts of utter candor and confession. We met at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California on a warm afternoon in October, while she was touring with the book.
Gemma has been likened to Lolita, and after I read it, I went back and read Lolita again, and I was struck by how both books have such strong voices. I’m curious why you decided to write it the way you did, with the two perspectives of Hazen the captor, and Gemma the victim.
Charlotte decided I was going to write it. I was in a writing group — I belong to a couple of them — and the exercise was to write from the voice of the “other.” If you’re male, write as a female; female, male — and someone who is the polar opposite of you. So, first off my step-dad flashed in front of me, and then my mom’s boyfriend of twelve years who was also a pedophile and very violent, my step-grandfather, and another person who had molested me when I was a child. So, I had all these men piled up behind each other.
And everybody’s writing, you know how it is in those writing workshops, the pens are flying and the pages are flipping… and I can’t write anything. I’m just sitting there. I don’t know what your childhood was like, but sometimes you’re fine and you’re cool and you’re going along and everything’s mellow and then it just comes and bites you in the butt. It was one of those moments. So I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t write anything and luckily time ran over so I didn’t have to read my nothing, cause I had nothing on the page. Nothing.
I drove home and my heart was just banging away. And I was too agitated to go to bed. It was about 11:00 by the time I got home, so I went to my writing room and I just circled and circled, and then around 2:00 a.m. Hazen’s voice dropped in. And he told me about the first time he had sex with Gemma. And I just wrote it. And when I finished I was shaking and I felt like I needed to take a shower. Really disturbed, but I knew that it was a true voice.
I kind of fiddled with it and fleshed it a bit and made it into a short story that I sent to Charlotte with a bunch of other short stories that I had written because that was a comfortable way to go. And she told me short story collections are very hard to sell. Then she said, “But there’s one of those that’s a novel.” And my stomach drops, and I’m thinking please, don’t let it be the Gemma one, please don’t let it be… and she says, “That’s the one.” And I’m like, “No, anyone but that one!” And she says, “That’s a book. You have to write it.”
She’s my agent and I respect her enormously and I wouldn’t have finished Singing Songs, my first book, if it hadn’t been for her confidence in my voice. So I was trying, and I added a little bit more, and I got to page fifteen and I thought that’s it, that’s it, that’s all I can do! I hate being in this guy’s skin! I don’t want to write a book from here, I just don’t.
Were you already writing it from just Hazen’s voice or from both?
Just from his. I didn’t have her. It was 2001, Canadian Thanksgiving, and I had the turkey stuffed and in the oven and I was working on pies — I always do three pies because the recipe makes that much dough — and the phone rings and it’s Charlotte. She said, “What are you doing, Meg?”
I said, “Oh, I’ve got the turkey in the oven and I’m working on the pies…” and she says, “Get out of the kitchen and write that book!”
She wasn’t calling to wish you a happy Thanksgiving?
No! She’s in America, she didn’t know.
So, I said, “Okay,” and I finished up the pies and I went. Charlotte can be quite abrupt. And it took me around a week after that — I was just circling it, trying, and really resistant, and then all of a sudden, Gemma’s voice dropped into me. And I was like, ohhh, now I can write the book. Once I had her voice as a balance to his, a balance to his love story, his view of acquiescence, what he thinks is consensual — that she’s just playing games, she’s a little lollipop slut. As a balance to that, you’ve got Gemma and the cost of what his version of events is. So that the same moment is given with two totally different ideas of what’s going on. That was when I knew I could write the book.
Was it difficult writing from the voice of a child and making it seem authentic?
When I wrote Singing Songs, Emily and David were around the age that I was when the abuse started. So, that helped me there, but when I first started Gemma in 1999, Will was nine, and by the time Charlotte tore into me on Thanksgiving, he was eleven. So I was around kids that age, although I just dropped back into myself. A lot of things that happened to Gemma — not the really, really hard things — are things that are… you borrow as a writer from yourself, too. Like, her not being friends with the girl who was her friend because she realized she loved the life and not so much the girl, that happened to me. You remember those times in your life. Or Gemma’s travel? I did that myself. Certain things are part of you. I think also that’s where an acting background helps. You can drop back in with your senses to different times and stages in your life.
Once I heard her talking to me, it was like ah ha, okay, I can do this now. It was hard, because at times, when you get really deep into a first draft, it becomes, in a way, almost more real than your day to day. I had to pull myself out, because of my kids — I had two at home at that time, not just the one. It starts working in my subconscious mind, so that one or the other would shake me awake, talking, and I’d hear their voices and I’d hear how they talk, so I’d write it down, and then sift through and take out the bits that I could. They would help me. That’s how details would come, like that she had a pet turtle — she was telling me she had this pet turtle that she named Boxcar Julie.
But it was really scary when I’d wake up and he’d be talking to me, in that voice. It freaked me out. I didn’t get much sleep. But, once I got her voice it was like a runaway train. It was a really exhausting time in my life because I have pages and pages of just writing in the dark when they’d wake me up because they wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. It sounds very schizophrenic, but it’s just part of diving in deep to the creative process. Once I finished the first draft I did eighteen more go-throughs with it, but it stopped waking me up at night.
The book is entirely propelled by voice, the whole plot. There’s no setting, or any of the setting is just through the voice. Was that a deliberate decision?
Nothing I do is deliberate. It’s all instinctual because that’s what I have. I read a lot, but I didn’t… it’s just when it feels right in my belly. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know what it is. A lot of times I feel a little embarrassed when people give me compliments because of some choice I made, because I didn’t really make it. It just sort of made itself.
I think a lot of writers have that instinct and that’s what makes good writing. How difficult is writing for you? Is it something that you have to be really disciplined about?
I do have to be disciplined about it. Because when I get in my writing head if I’m really into a new project I’m sort of here, but I’m also stopping conversations or writing things down on scraps of paper or looking for lost pieces of paper. Usually what I do, on a regular school day I get up at 6:45, make Will hot breakfast, my husband drives him to school, he comes back, I put the tea on, we both take our tea, and then we go up to our writing rooms and just write.
Does your husband read your stuff?
Everyday or when you’re ready?
Well, actually it depends. We’ve gotten more comfortable as we’ve been together longer. In the beginning, no. A little bit, but very carefully, very fragile. Everything’s wrapped up in it because if you don’t like my writing that means you don’t like me, and if you don’t like me that means you’re going to leave and you’re going to fall in love with someone else.
I know, writing relationships don’t always make it.
Well, we had met at a writing workshop, and it was personal stories, so we started off on a very no-holds-barred, absolute truth, your darkest and happiest, so we knew each other in that way, so there weren’t any real big surprises, because you write about all the stuff you don’t want to admit in life.
What a great place to start a relationship.
Yeah, actually that particular workshop, there have been three different couples who have fallen in love and met over the course of it.
Wow, they should market it.
I know! Because you really get to know each other.
So, but now I’m at a comfortable stage where when I get a chunk of stuff, around ten or twelve pages I’ll read it to him, not so much for… well, sometimes I’ll see something that’s right there that’s missing, but also to hear it out loud. I didn’t know, but I talk when I write. I went to this other writing retreat and we had 24 hours of silence, so you’re just supposed to write, but I kept hearing this voice. I didn’t know that I talked.
Were you in a room with other people?
No, I was in my bedroom, but it was so jarring. I write by myself all the time and I’d never noticed, but when there’s so much silence and the whole house is quiet and then all of a sudden you hear yourself. I didn’t realize I talked out loud.
So, when I write something, initially a lot of it is longhand, but a lot of it is on the computer too, once I get their voices. But then when I’m on the computer I can’t see it clearly. I have to print off a hard copy and then I can see things to fix them. And then comes the next stage of reading it out loud because then you hear things that you don’t catch, you notice when something doesn’t roll right off the tongue. You hear things more glaringly.
Who did you write this book for? Who do you imagine as your audience? Do you imagine a reader?
I wrote this book… for me. And for Charlotte’s belief that I could write this book. But mostly, for me. Also, it’s sort of my middle finger hoisted high at the pedophiles who abused me and my loved ones growing up. When I first wrote it, I used the name Hazen, and then the name that my stepfather had, but then I found out that one of my half-brothers had switched his name back to that last name, so I had to change that because I didn’t want him to think that I was naming him. But it was very satisfying to have the Hazen character have the name of my mother’s boyfriend for 12 years who was a pedophile and really, really abusive. I was kind of hoping that he would read it and say hey, wait a minute, that psychopathic pedophile is me! And take me to court and then I’d be able to say, yes, it is. Although, he’s different. That guy was older, and he had a missing middle finger, and different preferences.
The first writer to hope for a libelous situation.
I know! Well, then I decided with this, people say why did you decide to re-release Singing Songs, copping to it, but when I came out with it I just felt like it was the first thing I’d ever written and I didn’t want anybody to know it was based on me and my family. But now I think, I’m 46-years old. Why am I so embarrassed about what I come from? That’s what I come from. It’s part of me and I’m really proud. There’s other kids out there who come from challenge and if they can say wow, look where she came from and she has this successful happy life, I can have a good life too. I don’t have to get addicted to crystal meth or become a streetwalker. There’s two ways to go and I was at that dividing point myself where I would have gone this way or I would have gone that way and I made a choice. In a way I want to speak to kids out there to say you can make a choice. If you go the path of self-destruction you’re letting them win. They only have power over your life as much as when you’re there physically with them, and then there comes a time when you leave. Yes, it’s going to bite you in the butt sometimes and it’s going to be hard, but you can change, you can break the cycle, and you can have a good life. And you can be successful. If anything, it gives you problem solving skills.
Like I’m a real good problem solver. When my step dad’s bursting out of the bedroom, penis flapping, ready to beat somebody, I could find a hiding place like that — and good ones! So you feel triumphant, you know. I figured out I could jump out the window. I could climb out on the roof really easy because it had this sticky stuff. And he was afraid of heights, so he could never get me up there. He could have the biggest boner in the world and I’d be safe because he was scared. So there are ways you win.
So, it’s for people like me. I’ve just been on book tour for a little while, but I’ve had a lot of people come and thank me privately and tell me their stories.
Pedophilia and child molestation are in the paper every day — any paper you look at, there’s some story somewhere, whether its Mark Foley, JonBenet Ramsay, Catholic priests, there’s something everyday.
Do you think it’s bigger than people recognize?
It’s bigger than people are willing to recognize. When you think about the statistics, they say it’s one in three girls, one in seven boys, by the time they hit eighteen, they’re going to be sexually assaulted. Okay, I think the boys are equal to the girls. I think with boys it doesn’t get reported because people worry about their young child growing up in schools where — it’s stupid, but the worst insult you can give some guy is, Oh, you’re gay, you’re gay. They throw it around. My son says, I’m not, but why do they think that’s an insult? It’s that sort of mentality.
I think parents don’t report it. But I think it’s more equal. And when you think, the average pedophile, this is the US Justice statistics, will molest between 30 to 60 children before the police catch them. They can molest up to 380 in their life.
I sit in a crowded room, I sit in a restaurant, I go to a show and I divide the audience into three, and I say one third of these people have been sexually assaulted before they hit the age of 18. One third. So, if you’re sitting at a table with six people and everybody’s dressed and looking so beautiful with their pearls in their ears and you think, out of this luncheon of six ladies, at least two have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. It’s huge. People say, we don’t want to talk about it because they’re so scared they don’t want to face it, but the fact of the matter is that when you’re teaching your child to cross the road, you teach them to look both ways. More children get molested than hit by cars. When you think about it, how many people do you know when you’re sitting at a table of six that have been hit by a car? Parents are always like, look both ways… but they don’t say the simple things that kids need to know if somebody tells you they’re going to kill you or kill your pet or kill your parents if you tell. Or if somebody touches you, or shows you their privates, that’s the first step. There are so many things, and you can do it in a way that’s not scary to the kids but protects them so that they know how to talk.
Have your kids read Gemma?
My daughter has. My older son has. The younger one has dyslexia. I’ve read pieces to him, because they help me choose which pieces to read for the reading, and they know what it’s about. I don’t know if he will, if he can yet, but maybe. His reading is getting better and better.
There are some really graphic scenes. Did you ever consider reading any of those, or do you think it’s too much for a public setting? I mean, some of them are hard enough to read on your own…
I did consider it. These ones I read do touch on it, because he does rape her in one, but I think that it might be too much for some people. I didn’t want to back away from inside his mind, because that’s the way he thinks. I probably could have gotten a publisher if I’d whitewashed it and sanitized it, but to me this is the way Hazen thinks. I don’t have to sell books. I don’t have to have a big writing career, but I do have to speak my truth and I didn’t want to Pollyanna him to get published.
So there were publishing houses that would have published it if you’d made changes?
There were ones that were interested. There was one editor at Simon and Schuster who loved it, and he couldn’t get the support he needed. They were too scared of the material. The two women that he gave it to found it too disturbing. Then there was another one who wanted in Bloomsbury, in London. She was very passionate about the book. Again, she couldn’t get it past the next level. I’d never met her, but she wrote me and said you must know, it’s not you. You must know, you’re a wonderful writer. Of course, you feel like maybe it isn’t any good. You always do, even though she gave it to other people who also said, wonderful writing, but there’s not a market for this or that. But it is actually selling pretty well. So, it’s kind of cool.
I couldn’t put the book down, because I was so worried about Gemma when I was reading it.
Yeah, me too. That’s why I had to finish writing it. Quick.
I was curious about the ending. Did you ever think of any other ending?
Oh yeah, I had another ending. I had it go on and then I wrote that last bit, and I was like oh, oh my god, that’s the ending. And I felt bereft. I thought I had another week to ten days of writing — I had somewhere else I was going, I don’t even remember where I was going, but I was like, no, that’s it. Because you don’t know, all you can do in life is hope, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t tie it up in a pink bow, that’s not life, but you can offer a bit of hope. But that’s all it is. You don’t know how Gemma’s going to end up. There are people in my position who went the other way, who end up on the street.
When I wrote Singing Songs, there were people who wrote me from prison saying how did you know my life? I couldn’t tell them it was my life, too. You go either one way or the other, because the damage that these pedophiles do, male and female, is so huge, and if you feel like you can’t speak about it and you feel like it’s your own dirty secret instead of their dirty secret — until you step in with your power and say no, this doesn’t belong on me, this isn’t mine to carry, you’re keeping their secrets because of your shame. It’s not your shame. It’s their shame and it belongs in their lap.
It was such painful, tense reading. I had my shoulders up around my ears. So tense. But there is a payoff — it isn’t completely depressing.
Yeah, that was important to me. There was a couple of editors who liked it a lot but didn’t want it to have… but I couldn’t write the book if I didn’t have that, because I believe in that. Look at my life — I believe solidly in that. My intention isn’t just to depress people. It’s to offer something that there are ways to pluck joy out of the hardest situations. Pluck the blessings. But it is tense. I wanted it to be.
I ran Gemma by a book club and their response was so overwhelmingly positive — the parents and the teenagers, 15 and up, they wanted to march onto the publishers and force them to publish it.
So you had a whole book club read it?
Yeah, because Charlotte said maybe a young adult publisher, she said sometimes young adult can handle things others can’t. The young adult book club said nobody under 15, and I didn’t want a YA (a young adult rating) on it — then you’d get the precocious readers, the 12- and 13-year-old readers who, once they hit a certain age they round the corner and read everything. I wanted this to be an adult novel, because I really feel strongly that it shouldn’t be anyone under 15. Although, when I gave my reading last night there was a girl there who was 14 and her mother said, “She’s already read it. She’s 14 but she’s going on 21.” And the girl said, “And I really, really loved it.”
And she came to me after, and she was kind of shaking, and she said, you know, I don’t read. I’ve never been a reader. But I picked up Gemma and I started to read it and I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never read a book, just like read it and couldn’t stop. And she said, but you know what, that was two weeks ago, and she smiled really proudly, and she said, since then I’ve become a reader. She said I’ve read at least three books a week, and I’ve never been a reader, my whole life. She said, you’ve caught me in this whole world.
That made me feel real good, even though she’s 14 and if she hadn’t already read the book I probably would have said, I’m sorry. There were some other children there and I said that they had to leave. I don’t want to give anybody nightmares or scare them or give them more information than they’re ready for.
How did you start writing?
I started writing when I was 29 or 30. I’d gotten pregnant with Will. I was in a relationship with Colin Firth, who’s an actor, and he was gone for most of that year. My daughter had hit the age I was when I started being molested and David was the age when the stepfather came into our lives and we started getting beaten. I had played the happy childhood all my life and people really didn’t know, unless I was with my brothers and sisters and sometimes people would have a couple drinks and start talking, between us, just certain incidents that happened, but never the really bad ones. So then what happened was as they were growing up I kept seeing flashes of my own childhood that I’d kind of stuffed down. It was like a scrim, and everything was seen through those sorts of filters. I started asking questions for the first time in my life about how these things could have been allowed to happen, and the enormity of what actually happened. Whereas I’d always thought oh, that’s just family, everybody has their challenges. Now, I was like, no, when we were in the doghouse, we were in the doghouse. It’s not just a phrase. You had to live in the doghouse and you weren’t allowed out except to go pee and you couldn’t go in the house to use the toilet because you were in the doghouse. And you only got a peanut butter sandwich and you got your beatings. You were in the doghouse. I couldn’t get my mind around the things that happened, looking at my own children and me creating this nest for them. So I started writing.
How did your writing affect your relationships with your family?
Oh, not good. When I first came out with Singing Songs, I said, oh, 100 percent fiction, because I’m such a fabulous writer I can just pluck these things from the ethers. Actually, I was Anna. When I told my editor we were pretty close to the end of it and I said actually, you need to know, this is my life and I need help now fictionalizing it. So we met in San Francisco, Carol DeSanti — she’s wonderful. We stayed in a bed and breakfast and we just locked ourselves inside for three days with an atlas and figured out ways to blur the edges. I changed sexes, birth order, one child taken away here and added there. Different places. We did that but then I spent the whole book tour afraid… I didn’t enjoy any part of it because I was terrified that somebody would find out the truth. Terrified. At that point only one family member was speaking to me and I have a very large family.
But now, coming out now, I was nervous. I wrote to everybody, or called the ones that were talking to me, and said I’m not going to lie about my life anymore. I love you all very much. I won’t talk about your experiences or what happened to you but I need to tell the truth about my own. I was going on book tour with Gemma and I didn’t want to have to lie when they said well why do you write about this disturbing subject, what do you know about pedophiles. I could say I have close personal experience with four. So I needed to, not because I need to bare my soul to the world, but because I needed to speak to this.
Two-thirds support me. One-third don’t speak to me and I’m probably as good as dead. One of my stepsisters wrote back and said, I’m really proud of you. I always thought it was really ironic with that James Frey, he’s selling fiction as biography and you’re selling biography as fiction.
There were twelve years between Singing Songs and Gemma. Were you working on other projects?
I was writing. I have seven completed manuscripts in my closet.
I know. I write a lot. Seven days a week usually. I have to write at least four days a week. When my kids are in town from university I’ll take a few days off but I do go in usually seven days a week, so of course I’ve got all these manuscripts. I do rewrites and rewrites. It’s fun. Some of them — I had to learn how to write fiction. Gemma is fiction. There’s huge chunks of me in her, but Gemma is absolutely fiction. I was never thrown in the trunk of a car. I never heard to endure the quantity and the quality that she did. Mine was just incidents that happened over my life – the beating was pretty regular – but the actual sexual abuse, I didn’t have it nearly so bad.
I wanted to read something — this is from Donna Tartt in her novel, The Secret History, one of her characters says: “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I’ll ever be able to tell.”
I was wondering, after I read both Singing Songs and Gemma, because they subject matter is so similar, are there other stories you want to tell?
Well, I can do fiction now. My next book is a young adult book. Kathy Lowinger, she’s with Tundra, which is part of McClelland and Stewart, she had read Gemma and said not appropriate for young adults, but would you write a young adult, and I was like, hmm, I’ve never thought of that.
So I wrote Porcupine. This one is about a young girl, her father goes peacekeeping in Afghanistan. She’s Canadian. He gets killed and her mother falls apart, just unravels, and it’s her trying to hold the family together.
It’s fiction, but there are parts of my life — like the two kids, Jack and her little brother Simon, the rattlesnake is going to bite the dog, so Jack kills the rattlesnake with a stick and then they bring it home. That happened to us, but then I have the grandmother cooking the rattlesnake for dinner. Instead, we cooked the rattlesnake and ate it, because we were hungry and we heard rattlesnake tasted good!
Where were you? Where did you grow up?
That was in Hayfork, when that happened. It was really actually quite tasty. But then when people say, well, what’s rattlesnake taste like. When I was describing it before, I was like oh, well it tastes like a combination of rabbit and squirrel. And they’re like squirrel? You eat squirrel? And I’m like, oh, that shouldn’t have come out! You know, cause that’s when you’re still acting all tough, you’re like, yeah, I’ve eaten rattlesnake. And then you see their expression, and you’re like check. Meg — don’t tell people you ate squirrel when you were little because you were hungry.
It’s funny, because we were once offered a ride in a private plane from LA to New York, me and one of my sisters. And the limo picks me up — I don’t live this fancy life, but every once in a while you get a taste of it — and as we’re driving along I see a dead squirrel on the road and I’m thinking oh, my god, when I was a kid if that hadn’t been dead too long we would have cooked it, eaten it. So I say to my sister on the plane I saw a dead squirrel on the road I can’t believe we used to eat those as kids. And she says, bony little critters. And we’re sitting on this private jet with these cashmere throws, with people serving you whatever you want, talking about how there was only a mouthful on the thigh, and then its just all ribs. Only good for flavoring rice really.
There are a couple manuscripts I’ve written that were during my transitional period from being able to write fiction and personal stories, when even though I thought I was fictionalizing, they aren’t camouflaged enough, and because I’m writing about a period of time when I was more in the pubic eye and there are other pubic figures, I’m not prepared to publish those. So I’ve written a lot of books, and I’ve been growing as a writer, but most of them people will never read. And going out with book tour with this, doing all the publicity, and going on The View — Rosie’s so beautiful. Oh man, she’s amazing. She was so kind to me — but anyways feeling so naked and vulnerable, I’d call my husband and say I don’t like doing this. I’m just going to write and keep putting them in my closet. Who knows… I don’t like being out there. I might keep publishing or I might just keep writing and when I die, I told my daughter, you can publish anything you want.
Do you think you’ll ever act again?
I don’t know. I don’t think so. But you know, I try not to say never, because something comes along and everybody’s like Oh, I thought you said you quit for good. I do get scripts and offers sometimes, even now. Not as much as I did before. Every once in a while somebody will find a way to get to me because I don’t have an agent anymore. My boy’s still in school and I made this commitment to raise him to adulthood as safely and as well as I could. He’s got another three years.