After concluding the interview with a smile, Meg Tilly left the coffee shop and set off to rejoin her husband by crossing Dairy Queen’s parking lot. The author stopped suddenly. “That tire’s pretty flat,” she said, glancing at a beaten-up blue Subaru. She pulled out a pen and a scrap of paper, and left a message pinned under the car’s windshield wiper.
The owner will see the note, get the tire checked out, and never know that former Hollywood actress Meg Tilly – who once won a Globe Globe and received an Oscar nomination – was the Good Samaritan.
Acting is no longer part of Tilly’s life and hasn’t been for more than 10 years. When asked to choose between a good book and a trip to the Oscars, she says she’ll go for the book every time. She’s a regular mom with three grown-up children who also writes, but her books push the reader to the edge thanks to their graphic and painful subject matter.
In 1994, she published Singing Songs – a frank account of child abuse and neglect in a fragmented family that she said was fictional when promoting the book. Now, she openly admits the book was based on her own experiences of abuse at the hands of family members.
“I was going to publish Singing Songs under the name Anna Fury,” explained Tilly, who received the Oscar nomination and Golden Globe for Agnes of God in 1985. “They would have wanted me to go on book tour as a first time author, but I couldn’t because I was Meg Tilly – famous actress. I wasn’t prepared to tell the truth at that point.
“I found an editor at Dutton (a division of Penguin) and I had to tell them: ‘Look, this is my life.’ They were shocked and then asked: ‘Do you want to sell it as fiction?’ I said: ‘Absolutely.’ We blurred the edges, names of family members, locations, made girls into boys and boys into girls, and different first names – things like that. I spent the whole time terrified that people would find out the truth. I found the whole experience of putting out a book so terrifying that I wasn’t about to do it again.”
However, Tilly’s perspective changed and her latest book is Gemma – a fictional novel about the abduction and abuse of a 12-year-old girl at the hands of a brutal individual. It is not a novel for the faint-hearted but it has connected with many readers across North America, including people who have suffered abuse themselves.
“When I was coming out with Gemma, I knew I’d get the same questions about why I wanted to write about this stuff and I just didn’t want to lie any more,” she said. “When I looked at my own children, the excuses I had made as a child and an adult were not washing anymore. I could no longer hide my dirty laundry. I needed to write it and give voice to all these things.”
Gemma has been self-published. Several major publishers were interested, but the painful subject matter made the book unmarketable. They wanted to soften the content.
“Editors were interested but they couldn’t get any in-house support for the book,” said Tilly. “I got letters saying the writing was wonderful but that their marketing people thought it would be too hard a sell. One publisher wanted me to hand over the manuscript and make major changes.
“It was very important for me not want to candy coat or to white wash the Hazen character (the abductor). That might not be the case with all pedophiles but it was my experience with the men who came into our lives as kids. I was quite adamant that I did not want to make it nice, clean it up. I wanted to write what I want and how I see it, and that’s very important to me.”
When Tilly mentions the “men who came into our lives as kids”, she is referring to her stepfather, step-grandfather, another family member and boyfriend of her mother – all of whom abused her as a child.
Despite Gemma’s ultra-sensitive storyline, Tilly is “promoting the heck out of the book”, making TV appearances, speaking to journalists and conducting emotional readings on a North American book tour. She is finding the publicity process difficult but also revealing.
“They’ve been terrifying and exhausting, but also remarkable,” she said. “Organizations that deal with this kind of thing (child abuse), plus world renowned experts have been hopping on board. Staff have been recommending it to judges and healthcare workers, and then there’s the people who work in the sex crimes units too.
“People have stood up in readings and told stories about suffering abuse. Some people come to get a hug or give a hug.”
Tilly, who lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada, deliberately pulled no punches with Gemma, which is told jointly through the perspectives of the 12-year-old school girl victim and the abductor. No judgments are made.
“I want the book to slam the reader into what it feels like to be trapped with one of these men,” she said. “I wanted it to be like a runaway train where you can’t get off because you need to know that it’s going to be alright.”
Gemma actually reached the page after Tilly began attending writing workshops. Suffering from writer’s block, she was asked to put herself into other people’s shoes.
“I’m sitting there with my stepfather’s face, my mother’s boyfriend of 12 years' face, my step-grandfather who molested me when I was five and another family member who molested me when I was seven – all of these men are right up in my face,” she admits. “I was up writing until 2am that night. I was shaking and I was nauseous.”
Tilly admits books played a key role in her turbulent childhood, which included growing up on a remote island off Canada’s west coast.
“We read everything we could get our hands on,” she said referring to life with her two sisters, Rebecca and Jennifer, who also became an actress. “We’d go to the library and get out the maximum number of books, and read each one. Then we’d read each other’s books. When I found an author I liked, I’d read every book they’d ever written.”
Tilly’s next project is a young adult book called Porcupine, which will be published by Tundra Books.
After Hazen Wood kidnaps 12 year-old Gemma Sullivan, the two embark upon a cross-country journey that tests the limits of Gemma's endurance. In graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence, Hazen tries to destroy the young girl's will. It is only Gemma's childlike resilience and fertile imagination that protect her from the worst of the abuse she suffers. And in the end, the healing power of unconditional love gives Gemma the courage to speak out against her abuser at last - reclaiming her dignity as a human being.