Writer’s life out of spotlight suits local author Meg Tilly

One-time Hollywood star just release her eighth book, Cliff's Edge, and is set to publish a ninth in the fall

What: Meg Tilly presents Cliff’s Edge
Where: Bolen Books, 1644 Hillside Ave., Hillside Shopping Centre
When: Tuesday, June 11, 7 p.m.
Admission: Free

Meg Tilly has just released her eighth book, Cliff’s Edge, and she should be celebrating the accomplishment with some well-earned respite. But the local author has been busy of late, with a publicity tour across North America among the many items currently on her agenda.

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Tilly, 59, will return to the comfort of her writer’s chair on Wednesday, following her in-store appearance at Victoria’s Bolen Books the night prior.

But it’s just a short window of opportunity before the promotion machine starts up again for the Esquimalt High grad. Last week, Tilly wrapped the final pages for Hidden Cove, her ninth book, which will arrive in the fall.

“Every morning when I wake, I put some brainstorming ideas down on paper, but I don’t know which one is going to be the one,” Tilly said in a recent interview at de’lish cafe in Oak Bay.

“Sometimes I get 60 pages, 100 pages into a manuscript before I think: ‘This isn’t working,’ and I throw it out.”

When Tilly began writing in earnest, in 1990, it was just five years after her Golden Globe-winning performance in Agnes of God, which also earned her an Academy Award nomination, and seven years after her star-making role in The Big Chill.

Collaborations with Jack Nicholson and Milos Forman followed, but within four years, she was unofficially retired from acting, a decision she made to ensure her three children grew up with a consistent parental presence.

“My childhood made it more important that I be there,” said Tilly, recalling the years of physical and sexual abuse she endured in her youth.

“Not that my kids had perfect lives, but I did the best that I could. I thought it was for my kids, but in hindsight, I realize I did it for myself.

“Because I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself if challenges happened.”

Her early years, spent largely on Texada Island following her parents’ divorce, were extraordinarily difficult at times — she recounted the trauma in her first book, 1994’s Singing Songs.

She continues to draw upon real life in her writing — abuse has been a recurring theme in several of her books, and the obsessive stalker in Cliff’s Edge is based on personal experience.

When she lived on Beach Drive, tour buses used to stop in front of her house, their occupants peering inside with binoculars, and she was often harassed by overzealous fans, even while using a public bathroom.

Life on a nearby Gulf island has been a blessing, she said. She favours quiet over hustle and bustle, even if it comes at the expense of acting opportunities.

“People have a misconception about what success is,” she said. “I know people who have reached the top of their field, who have accomplished things, and they still never feel like they quite made it.

“I could have done another five movies, another 10 movies, another 30 movies, so what? It would have just been more movies. When it comes down to it, it’s about how much time we have in the world and how we want to spend those hours.”

She hasn’t quit acting for good, and her career as an author allows her to use the skills she gleaned during her acting classes, including emotional recall and sense memory.

The romantic-thriller Cliff’s Edge involves a budding romance between café owner Eve Harris and famous actor Rhys Thomas.

Tilly said the latter character was a composite of three men she holds in high regard: her husband, Don Calame, who is also a writer; actor Colin Firth, with whom she has a son; and actor Brad Pitt, who played her husband in the 2017 film War Machine.

She didn’t plan to draw on the three men for the character, saying it was her actor instincts that led her to it.

“You get to travel down a road you might not normally travel down, but in a safe way,” she said. “You can dive totally in, and see how it plays out. I enjoy doing that. But sometimes I get scared. You feel a responsibility. But at some point you need to dive in.”

Her hesitance is well-founded. Tilly once turned in a performance (she chose not to mention the late 1980s film by name) that featured what she feels was the best acting work of her career, but the movie wound up being a debacle. The movie had been butchered in the editing room, “so instead of removing sentences or pieces, they just cut it in half,” Tilly said.

It was the only film in which she bared her skin, and she initially agreed to do so only because she loved the character.

The producers who cut her dialogue made no effort to do the same with her nude scenes, however. When she saw the finished product, she felt violated. “I almost stopped acting at that point.”

Writing has freed her from the emotional shackles that are hard-wired into the acting profession. “The thing I love about writing is that you don’t need permission from anybody to be creative. Somebody can buy your book, or they cannot buy your book. With acting, you need other people. You need to be given permission — you need to be hired.”

If you didn’t know her backstory, you would have a hard time imagining this “matron,” which is how Tilly describes herself, was once part of the Hollywood hype machine.

She wasn’t approached or even noticed by any customers during nearly an hour of conversation, despite a busy morning rush at the café. At the conclusion of our interview, she walked away on foot, without notice.

Anonymity puts a smile on Tilly’s face.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been super-famous. That’s why I love being older. You aren’t a target anymore. I never wanted to be famous, and yet there it happened.

“That was the downside. But the upside was that I got to earn a lot [of money] by only being away from home for three months a year. How many people get that blessing?”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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