A few weeks ago I met author (and former actress) Meg Tilly at a reading of her novel, Porcupine. I was so moved by her reading that I devoted the next day’s blog to it. I was also impressed with her writing and she was so open and lovely to chat with that I invited her to The Ball.
And so I am obviously thrilled today, to have Meg Tilly as my guest. Meg is the author of two adult novels, Singing Songs and Gemma. The newly released Porcupine is her first young adult novel. She is 47 years old, happily married and the mother of three children. Molly, a German Shepard/collie mix is her dog. She adopted her from a rescue service in July. Meg has finally managed to teach Molly to stop leaping over the back of the sofas. That dancing on the kitchen table is a no-no. And the butter and whatnot on the counters is not a smorgasbord for doggies.
I have just finished Porcupine and it is a gorgeous, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story about a young girl, Jack, coping with life when her father is killed in peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan. This is a young adult novel, but an equally wonderful read for adults.
Porcupine will speak to any kid who has felt abandoned or whose family has broken down for whatever reason. In finding a way to survive your heroine (the twelve-year-old Jack) seems to find a new way to define family, among other things. What ideas, what message do you want your readers to walk away with from this story?
I want my readers to know that challenges happen. And sometimes these sorrows seem so huge that you think they might drown you. But deep inside, everybody has hidden strengths and resources. I also feel that in those times of hardship, it is important to stop and notice, breath in the beauty around you. It could be something as small as a tiny wildflower forcing it’s way through a crack in the concrete. Notice it, take it in and it will fill you.
The three siblings go fishing at one point in the book (a great scene!) and they actually make their fishing poles from tree branches and dig up their own worms on site. I was amazed by this; I just assumed everyone who fished did it with a store-bought pole! Do you have personal experience fishing “from scratch” or is this something you researched?
That’s funny. Growing up I thought that most people fished the way we did, with homemade poles, and it would be only the super fancy and rich that would have store bought ones. I remember one summer when I was 7. We were travelling across the country painting post offices. And at one of the creeks we camped at the fish were having a run of some sort. Our fancy grown-up step brother (the one who molested me in Singing Songs) had a store bought fishing pole, complete with fancy flashing baits and weights and feathered hooks. Well..those fish were having none of it. They were just trying to cram their way (I can’t remember if they were swimming up, or down stream) I just remember that the water was dancing with their writhing silver bodies. Anyway, us kids, we were always hungry and there was a veritable feast passing before our very eyes. So we rolled up our pants and strode in. We would grab a slippery body, hold on tight and then fling it to the shore. Then race up after it and pound it on the head until it was dead. We caught a lot of fish that day. Enough for everyones dinner. And our stinky step-brother with his fancy pole? Zip! Boy did that feel good!
Jack feels like a character that could have arrived, fully formed on the doorstep of your imagination, whereas Gran feel like someone you, the writer, may have had to discover as you went along. I love them both and I’m curious about how they each developed.
That is absolutely true, Danielle. Jack is very much a part of me. Gran revealed herself to me as we went along. Constantly surprising me.
Maybe this is a harsh question, but are there some people who just shouldn’t be parents? I didn’t hate Jack’s mom and even had some sympathy for her throughout the book but in the end I almost felt she shouldn’t ever have been a mother. And yet if she hadn’t been, there would have been no Jack, Tessa or Simon…
There are some people who are ill-equipped to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. However, that being said. Look at me. I didn’t have, by any stretch of the imagination, model parents. And yet, I have grown up to have a very blessed and wonderful life.
Your writing is incredibly rich and descriptive but also very”economical” in places. I think you strike a great balance. (A great example: early in the book Jack describes her mother as having become “a puddle of a person” which says so much with so little.) When you’re editing, do you find your work is more in filling in/fleshing out or in paring down, getting things to their essentials?
I find my editing process is a lot of both. Paring down and fleshing out. I get it the very best that I can, and then I put it away for a bit. Take it out, look at it with fresh eyes and start the whole process again.
You’ve been doing a tour for Porcupine that has included reading to kids in schools and libraries. What has that experience been like, especially in comparison to reading to adult groups?
I have loved going to the schools and libraries. To see the kids faces light up, asking questions, talking about Jack and her family, me and mine. I especially love when I visit a book club or a school that has read Porcupine before I come. It takes the question and answer section to a whole deeper level.
Do you find it tough to transition from the solitary world of writing and get in to publicity mode?
I think going from the tucked away, safe life of creating in ones writing room to suddenly be expected to stand in front of a group of strangers and form cohesive sentences is like belonging to the PolarBears club and plunging into the ice cold ocean on New Years Day. You know it’s coming. You dread it, and at the same time there is a terrified excitement anticipation. You feel very naked, very vulnerable. And then when it’s all over, it’s an exhilarating feeling. Like, “I did that! I was scared and yet I stood up and did that! Not only did I do it…but I actually liked it!” It is very moving for me as an author, to meet my readers. A privilege, really.
And related to that, you’ve created a very private life for yourself since your acting days and yet the publicity/marketing aspect of publishing can place you back in the spotlight. I was struck by your description, in one of your recent blogs, of arriving at a reading to find cameras waiting for you. Obviously getting press is an advantage in terms of getting the word out about your books, but how do you feel about it? And how do you deal with it?
I don’t know why, but when ever the t.v. crews decide to come by an event it is always the ones with the minuscule attendance. It’s funny really, in a sad ego busting way. I’ve done reading where a hundred and fifty, two hundred people show up. But it is the ones that are documented are the ones that are attended by a sparse enthusiastic few.
At the reading where I met you a few weeks ago, you mentioned that Porcupine went through many drafts. Was is 18?
Gemma was the book that I went through 18 drafts. And to be honest, I wish I’d done 19. Porcupine had I think around 7?
What kind of research did you do for Porcupine?
I researched on-line a lot. I bought a bunch of books on both Newfoundland and Alberta. And even more importantly read them.
What does your writing day look like?
I get up at 6:45 a.m. My husband and I alternate weeks in terms of breakfast duty and/or lunch duty, doing the morning salutations with the dogs and driving Will to school. When the lunch person is driving the breakfast person puts the tea pot on to boil. Then when the driver arrives home we both go into our writing rooms.
What inspires you?
In your second book, Gemma, your protagonist is young, but the book was sold as an adult novel and there is a big notice on your website that the book is not appropriate for ages 15 and under. Do you think this kind of subject matter (sexual abuse, pedophilia) can be covered in YA? And if so, how?
I do. The manuscript I’m going to be working on in January, when I finish this draft of Big Muckle, deals with that as a sidebar issue. I think it is important to talk about these things since, according to a U.S. justice report I read while doing Gemma research, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 7 boys will be sexually assaulted before they reach the age of 18. These kids need a voice. And they need to not feel alone.
That being said, I’m not positive yet that I’m going to publish it as YA. I’m running it by 3 of Christianne Haywards YA book clubs. They are reading the manuscript now and will be giving me their feedback in January and February and I’ll make my final decision based on that.
Because I also had a career in acting (mostly theatre in my case and not spectacular) I’m particularly curious about your transition from that to being a writer and how one career has affected the other. Do you find the creative process of writing very different from that of acting?
As you know, Danielle from your own background the creative process is both different and the same all at once. In acting you are a part, or a piece of the whole. You have no control over what shots they ultimately use. You have no control over who you act with, how you are lit, what the score sounds like. As an author, all those decisions are in your hands. It’s a heady experience!
How does your experience as an actor shape/impact your work as a writer, in creating characters, writing dialogue, using language, etc?
I think the actor training helps enormously in writing dialogue. I think it also helps me trust my gut, to know when something I write resonates in a true way. It has developed my you’re-bullshitting-yourself-this-doesn’t-feel-right gauge and guides me in the editing process as well.
Do you ever find writing lonely in comparison to acting?
Sometimes, yes. But I’m lucky. I have a husband who writes and we share our work with each other and give suggestions for fine-tuning (or large tuning) as well.
What direction do you want to grow as a writer? What new territory do you hope to explore?
I have no set plan. I know one is supposed to. Have a master plan. Career build and all that. But I don’t. I just want to write true. What is in my belly. And my hope is that some people will respond to it. That enough people will buy my books so that it will make business sense to the publishers to continue to publish me.
Your website and blog are wonderfully warm and real. How have you enjoyed blogging?
I love blogging! A real surprise to me. I hadn’t intended to. I started the “Chewing the fat” portion of my blog as sort of a fluke/joke.
Since we are all publishing “debutantes” here, what was your debut experience like? What did you learn? And what changes with the second book and then the third?
My first experience was the release of Singing Songs. And it was both wonderful and terrifying. I was lying about the origin of the book and was scared that someone would discover the truth. I didn’t feel like a “real” author by any stretch of the imagination. I felt numb when the book was out there. Bereft, really. The writing of it had been my conversation with myself. A recording of my memories and now suddenly it was this public thing and anybody who wanted could pick it up and buy it. Have access to that deeply private part of me. I felt like the book wasn’t mine anymore. Very mixed feelings.
Where as now. Sharing my books, although it is still terrifying, it is also the most wonderful thing. A deeply moving gift to me, to meet and share and talk about things with my readers.
Do you have any advice to us, as debut authors?
When you know you are going to have the opportunity to read you work in public, don’t hide your head in the sand. Practice the pieces you are thinking about reading. Choose carefully. Practice some more. And when you are sick and tired of practicing, go through it again.
You have spent years imagining and toiling, writing and re-writing this precious book of yours. Stand tall. Give your words weight. Allow the readers to hear how you hear the book in your own ears and heart when you wrote it. This is VERY important. I see so many beautiful, talented writers shoot their books in the foot, because us writers? For the most part we are a shy bunch. That’s why we chose a profession that is mostly solitary. Allow your words to shine. That’s what you wrote them for. To not prepare for a reading, to mumble and shuffle your feet is the equivalent of sending your child off to Kindergarten
smeared in shit. Why would you do that?
Some of us here at The Debutante Ball (sadly not me) are great cooks and we’ve all be salivating over the pie recipes and cooking advice on your website. Just for fun, how would you compare making a pie to writing a book?
A pie is so much easier!
Thanks so much, Meg. I hope you have fun with this!
Thank you Danielle. And good luck with your upcoming novel, Falling Under. It has a great cover and I’m looking forward to reading it!
Please feel free to post comments and questions for Meg, who will be “here” today to respond. Meg also has a great website and blog where you can learn more about her work, read her blog, get recipes and cooking tips and all sorts of other interesting things. Check it out: www.officialmegtilly.com.