Meg Tilly can't help but laugh when people suggest that her new career as a novelist is some sort of desperate attempt to finagle her way back into the spotlight.
The former Hollywood actress — who is now releasing a second book called Gemma — is still best known for her Oscar-nominated role in 1985 as the young nun in Agnes of God. Yet, she looks back on her acting career with a shudder.
How bad was it? Well, it may have been a cakewalk compared to her childhood, when she experienced repeated physical and sexual abuse at the hands of several family members, including her stepfather. Still, says Tilly, who now, at 46, has begun speaking publicly about the grim circumstances of her youth that inspire her writing, “being a celebrity isn't all it's cracked up to be.”
As a rising star with a troubled past to hide, Tilly found life in the limelight often intolerable.
She recalls the time she was in the hospital, about to give birth to her daughter, when an excited nurse barged into the room wanting to know what it was like to work with William Hurt (in The Big Chill).
Then there was the sleazy producer who suggested she come back to his apartment to convince him she could imbue the role of school teacher with sufficient sexual tension. (“I was nursing at the time,” she recalls incredulously.) Or the “gross” male co-star who refused to wear a sock over his “full-on boner” and tried to slip it in during a sex scene.
And all the crazed fans, some of whom continue to stalk her more than a decade after she packed in her public life and moved to rural British Columbia where she continues to happily live the life of a self-described hermit with her husband, Don, and 16-year-old son, Will, the youngest of three children.
“I wouldn't wish fame on my worst enemy,” Tilly says with a sigh on the eve of her North American book tour, which kicked off with a reading last week in Toronto.
“Well, it might not be such a bad fate for Hazen,” she adds, referring to the child molester in her new novel. The repulsive character is named after her mother's former boyfriend, one of many men who sexually molested Tilly as a child.
“This book is a big middle finger hoisted in the air to all those guys,” she says with a triumphant grin and buoyancy of spirit that are as heart-warming to witness as they are hard to fathom, considering the wretched experiences of her youth.
Tilly was born in California, but spent most of her childhood growing up in an impoverished farm house on Texada Island, off British Columbia's Sunshine Coast, where the family sometimes shot squirrels for dinner. She was the third of four children born to Patricia Tilly, a teacher, and Harry Chan, a car salesman. She was 3 when her parents divorced and her mother began dating John Ward, a child molester who eventually became her stepfather.
Ward left her mother when Tilly was 13, but was soon replaced by another abusive boyfriend, Hazen. She says he was just as much a monster, one who often threatened to kill everyone with a butcher's knife. All three men are now dead.
These men, and others that Tilly declines to name, were the inspiration for Gemma, a stomach-churning tale about a young girl who is kidnapped by a sexual predator. Like Singing Songs, her first novel published in 1994, the story is semi-autobiographical, although some characters and situations have been changed.
“Gemma had it way worse than me,” says Tilly, who is so full of energy and eager to tell her story that she barely pauses to pick at the croque monsieur sandwich on her plate.
“No one ever threw me in the trunk of a car,” she continues. “And at least I had my brothers and sisters. But the sexual abuse is similar to what I endured. Her emotions are definitely mine.”
Tilly wasn't always so anxious to talk about her past. Her first novel was presented as being entirely fictitious, snatched from roles she had performed and books she had read.
“I was scared to admit the truth — that this dirty, little scrappy kid could have been me, Meg Tilly, the movie star,” she writes in the new introduction to Singing Songs, which was rereleased this week to coincide with the second book.