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July 16, 1994
NPR BOOK REVIEWS FROM WUNC RADIO
Actress Meg Tilly Discusses Her Book, `Singing Songs'
DANIEL ZWERDLING, Host: Actress Meg Tilly has made her reputation playing abused, haunted, spooky characters. Her first big movie role was in The Big Chill, as the girlfriend of a man who kills himself. She got an Oscar nomination for her work in Agnes of God. She plays a nun who's suspected of getting pregnant and then killing her newborn baby. She appeared as the psychopath's girlfriend in Psycho II, but we talked with Meg Tilly recently because she has written a book, a first novel about a haunted, abused little girl. Speaking to us from Vancouver, Tilly said that writing the book, which has been well- reviewed, was a lot harder than doing movies.
MEG TILLY, Actress/Author: In my acting, I give myself to it fully and, obviously, they seem very difficult during the time but you take in a movie, you work maybe three months and when I was writing this book, it took me 3-1/2 years to write and if I ever… if I had to hold up all my movies in one hand and my book in the other and I'm on my deathbed and they say, `You can leave one thing behind - all these movies or this book - which would you leave?' It would be, without a doubt, my book. I'm so proud of it.
ZWERDLING: Any way, why are you so proud of it? Why is that going to be what's with you on your deathbed?
Ms. TILLY: Because as- as actresses, other people have the voice and you're required to fill it. It's other people's vision, other people's voice and you just fill it to the best of your ability and you try to sneak in a little bit of what you believe is important and you try to choose your parts to say something. But in writing, you're the sole creator. You create the characters. You create the- the place.
ZWERDLING: This book is yours. I mean, either it succeeds or fails and you are it. You're the plot. You're the words. You're the concept, everything.
Ms. TILLY: Right.
ZWERDLING: Meg Tilly, it's interesting that you have written a really disturbing first book. Here we have a little girl named Anna, whose family is completely, utterly, totally, dysfunctional. Why use euphemisms? They're sick. I mean, the parents-
Ms. TILLY: [laughs] Yeah, all right. I was- I wanted to write something from a child's viewpoint. I had done five of the characters I have played in movies have either been abused or became abusers, themselves, and I just kind of felt like there was a need. I couldn't find anything in all the research I did that was from a child's voice. And I was working as a teacher's aid in the school. I lived in this kind of rural area and- and I was seeing a lot of things, you know, that made me want to say something. I'd read a newspaper article and it would- it would make me start shaking and it just kind of- I just felt like I had to write it.
ZWERDLING: So give us a quick psychological analysis of this family.
Ms. TILLY: Of the family. My heroine is Anna and it takes her from her journey from 4-1/2 to 11-1/2 and it's kind of her coming of age. And in the beginning, it's like the- everybody says, `Oh, it's such a horrible life,' but for her it's the only life she knows, so for her it's just like kind- if somebody asks her what she has for lunch and she says, ‘Well, I had an apple and a peanut butter sandwich and then I borrowed- you know, I had a bite of my friend's'-
ZWERDLING: And my family moved from town to town and my stepfather-
Ms. TILLY: Molests us, but that's- it's like- but that's not all of it. Like, you know, just as much as those are important, also are her- her triumphs and playing fine ladies and dressing up and- and I think it's the power of their imagination and to escape it and it's how the children parent themselves and in a way, they almost parent their parents. Do you know what I mean? Because their parents, especially the mother, has never been parented so she doesn't know how to so she's kind of like a little girl. She's trapped.
ZWERDLING: Let me just interrupt here to say that there's a wrenching little scene on page 166. Anna- did you have the book there? You' re in Vancouver, I'm-
Ms. TILLY: Oh, right.
ZWERDLING: OK, good. Anna has asked her mother what the Charleston is, the dance. Her mother awkwardly starts to demonstrate and if you could just read from the passage, `She started to sit down-'
Ms. TILLY: Oh. [reading] She started to sit down, tiny wisps of hair escaping from her bun. I saw Daddy was lookin' at her. Daddy doesn't look at Momma very much. Well, I guess Momma musta noticed, 'cause she got a little smile in the corner of her mouth and didn' t sit down, asked me if I wanted to see some more Charleston. But she wasn't talkin' to me, 'cause she was lookin' in Daddy's direction. I said, `Okay,' but I felt funny in my stomach. Momma started the Charleston again, bigger this time. She started kickin' her legs and steppin' from side to side. Her breasts were really floppin' now, makin' loud, smackin' noises. Her arms were flailing and she was singing loud, real loud, ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. Daddy was laughin' . She was gigglin', too. She thought he was laughin' with her, but he was laughin' at her. She finally stopped. Her face was real red. There was sweat on her arms and forehead, stains under her arms. She wasn't breathin' good, but tryin' to pretend like it was no effort at all. She looked at me and said, in triumph, `So that's the Charleston, Anna.' Then she looked back at Daddy, expectantly. He looked at her for a second and then went back to reading Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species. Not a word, not a single word. She stood there, awkward, hair falling down. I hated him.
ZWERDLING: You know, I know you say that this is not an autobiographical story, that you wrote it because you've played a lot of abused characters, you wanted to give them more of your own voice. But, I mean, every writer draws on something from his or her childhood - don't they - to write passages as moving as this one. Is there anything from your life which is in this book, whether it's from your family, your friends, your neighbors?
Ms. TILLY: Well this- actually this story- it's funny 'cause I hadn' t read it since I had finished editing it and writing it. I had gone to a friend's wedding and there was a woman there. I didn't know her, but she got up and she started dancing and it was the same kind of thing. She had noticed her husband watching and she starts dancing bigger and bigger and bigger and- and he starts laughin' and he starts laughin' and she thinks he's laughin' with her, but he was laughing at her and then when she stopped, it was like all silent. People were watching and she was thinkin' that she was this victorious kind of sexy thing and- and she just wasn't and it was really, really painful. And I went home and I wrote and then all of a sudden, I got the idea to make them the parents of these children and- yeah, it just kind of built like that. I mean, it was just kind of like gifts from outside influences. However, I do feel like- I feel like writin' this book is kind of like makin' chicken soup. You know, you've go the chicken. It's true, you've got the water, you have onions, carrots, barley, noodles, spices. And then you have a handful of salt and I feel that me and my life or my experiences is the salt you sprinkle throughout the soup and it brings out all the flavors and blends it together and makes it have a taste of- a fullness, you know?
ZWERDLING: One of the wonderful things about this book is the way you portray this incredibly delicate, fragile stage in a child's life where the child is- we've all gone through it, we hope. At one stage, we're so young, we're innocent. We don't judge the world when our father - God forbid - crawls into bed with us. We accept it. Well, that's the way the world works.
Ms. TILLY: That's the way it is, right.
ZWERDLING: But then, we start to sense, you know, just barely start to sense, wait a minute. There's something wrong here. This isn' t the way life has to be. And I'm wondering when you- again, I know this is not an autobiographical book. But can you remember any stage in your own life when you passed that point from being innocent to thinking, wait a minute. Something's wrong here.
Ms. TILLY: Yeah. You know, I think for me, I think for me it came much later. I think I didn't start really making changes in my life until I was actually in my mid-20s. And all of a sudden I was like, wait a minute. I was trying so hard to be what I thought I was supposed to be, instead of just allowing myself to be what I- what I was or what I am.
ZWERDLING: Well, what was that? What was that `wait a minute'?
Ms. TILLY: Well, I think, you know, when I was 16 I was given this book, called Amazing Womanhood. It's a pink book, which is kind of a hint to the content. And it was all about how a woman, you know, in order to have a successful relationship must always acquiesce to the man and must always, you know, you know, be a homebody. And there's nothing wrong with that if that's what is you, but it isn' t what is me and I was trying to be what I thought a perfect woman was, instead of being a woman, and a whole woman, with her flaws and her inconsistencies and sometimes anger, is a whole woman. And I had a different idea of what a whole woman was. A whole woman was, you know, just this like, vision in pink, really.
ZWERDLING: Meg Tilly, actress and now a novelist. Her book is called Singing Songs.