Actress Tilly Lets Voice Be Heard--as a Novelist

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Fridays

She played a free spirit in "The Big Chill" and earned an Oscar nomination for her beatific title role in "Agnes of God."

Now, Meg Tilly has turned novelist.

The critical reaction to Tilly's "Singing Songs," newly published by Dutton, confirms the actress's literary voice is being heard. Novelist Tom De Haven, reviewing the book in Entertainment Weekly, hammered her tale of an abused, but resilient, child as "oppressively ugly." But Publishers Weekly calls the book "an impressive first novel," and writer Donna Rifkind, in the New York Times Book Review, applauded Tilly for achieving "the remarkable coherence and clarity" of her young narrator's voice.

The narrator is Anna, whose innocence and independence recall Tilly's two most famous roles.

"I don't think I'm an expert on writing novels because I've only written one," Tilly said recently as she embarked on a 10-city book tour (which will bring her to Book Soup in Los Angeles on June 27). "All I know is that this thing grabbed me. It's like when I'm acting and a character gets hold of me. Anna got hold of me."

Anna, who protects herself and her siblings in a dysfunctional family adrift in the Northwest, came to Tilly as she tried to write a short film she intended to direct. The episode at the heart of her script led her to envision another scene, and then more, until Tilly saw she could weave them all into a novel of short chapters.

Tilly, a single mother of three, said it was easy to slip into a child's point of view as she wrote her novel at home in rural British Columbia. "I borrowed from my kids. I borrowed from characters that I played. I borrowed from myself," she said.

United Artists has bought the film rights and Tilly has prepared the screenplay.

"I never imagined myself as a writer," she said. "I always thought that writers are the intelligent people. I never pictured myself having a voice, and I must tell you that I'm so amazed that I have a voice."

The Other Brando Book: The battling Brandos will reach bookstores in October. In this corner, the actor's autobiography, "Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me," to be published by Random House . . . in that corner, Peter Manso's unauthorized biography, "Brando," from Hyperion.

Manso phoned the other day to take issue with our previously quoted remark of Random House Publisher Harold Evans, who had referred to the timing of Manso's book as a "spoiling operation."

"I spent seven years writing my book," Manso said. "Where does Random House get off calling it a spoiling operation? They're the ones in a spoiling operation."

Manso, the author of "Mailer: His Life & Times," contends that Brando agreed to write his autobiography only after learning how deep the biographer was digging. "I've spoken to everyone from (director) Elia Kazan to Marlon's personal assistant to his eldest sister, who gave me a week and a half of her time.

"It's a very sad story. The hardest part was packaging the pain, his unrelieved descent into darkness, his spending most of his time alone in the bedroom atop Mulholland Drive. . . . I have no doubt that his book is geared specifically to bury me."

The word is that Manso turned in a manuscript of about 1,200 pages that Hyperion plans to trim into a 700-page book.

On the Racks: The July / August issue of the new Family Life preps parents for summer days with a revealing report about which sunscreens for kids work best, as well as vacation-minded looks at "The Joys of Hiking," zoos and roadside attractions. Also, Contributing Editor Robert Coles considers the Pledge of Alliance and its meaning to children. . . .

Also on the magazine racks is an unexpected interview with Richard M. Nixon, given shortly before his death in April, in which the former President tenderly recalls his late wife, Pat, and their life outside the political arena. It appears in the July issue of Good Housekeeping.

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