Meg Tilly, who starred in the feature films “Agnes of God” and “The Big Chill,” among others, shares her first novel for young adults, “Porcupine,” about an adolescent girl, Jack, whose father is killed in war-torn Afghanistan and who takes on multiple responsibilities for her family.
Question: Tell me about Jack, a child on the edge, romantic, an idealist, a straight-shooter with a melty heart, and about her relationship with her family.
Answer: Jack is a 12-year-old girl who idolizes her father and has a strong sense of loyalty and family. She wears a scrappy dukes-up exterior to hide and protect her sensitive and generous heart. When her father is killed in the peace-keeping efforts in Afghanistan, she is devastated. And yet she tries to keep things together, be strong for her little brother and sister.
Q: How did your growing-up years come into play with how you wrote about Jack’s life?
A: I spent a great deal of my childhood in remote places. We lived on farms. Not a big, proper, professional working ones. We were more slap-dash. We had a ton of chickens, ducks, and a milk cow, who would have a calf every spring.
The first year I made the mistake of befriending it, giving it a name, getting it to eat clover out of my hand. After the abrupt wake-up call when the neighbor came over and took Mikey away in the back of his truck and he was returned in pieces, wrapped in brown butcher paper, well, I didn’t tame or name the baby calves ever again.
But yes, I borrowed a lot from my life for the details of this book. I’m sure most writers do. The unusual dinner [eating snake] is one that I myself have enjoyed. (And believe me … It is not the only weird thing I have eaten!) All the references to Coconut Zigzag are things that happened. She was my favorite chicken I ever had and so I put her on Jack’s Gran’s farm so that other people could know her, too.
I think both Jack and I responded so strongly to her because of her passionate and nurturing way. The fact that she was an exceptional mother (even if she was only a chicken) and that was something that really resonated with both Jack and me. The magic and comfort of nature was also something that helped form and fill me.
Q: How did you move from your previous books, “Singing Songs” and “Gemma,” which are quite graphic and adult-themed, to writing a book for young adults?
A: The transition from my adult novels was not a difficult task at all. I don’t believe in writing down to a particular age. I believe if you write something true and from the heart that it will appeal to whoever is supposed to read it. And I have to say, adults seem to embrace this novel as enthusiastically as the age group the publishing company is marketing it to. It’s really quite amazing to me.
Q: Many of Jack’s thoughts have a spiritual base, like her time spent in the barn. Why is that important to one’s life, especially as a foundation when one is growing up, and how does this relate to your life?
A: Each person is different. For me, I have always felt the closest to God when I have been in nature, or found a quiet place by myself. Away from the chatter and hustle-bustle and busyness. It’s like when I get still that’s when I can hear the answers drop deep inside. And when I am grieving, going to the woods, the ocean, a stream or creek has been a great comfort to me. It has to be some place or plant or rock that has been on this earth much longer than me, or my ancestors. Somewhere in nature that feels like it’s been breathing since the beginning of time. And in just being there, it puts whatever problem I’m struggling with in perspective. And I know that as heart wrenching or challenging, as my problem is, that it too will pass.
Q: The title reference is such a surprise, and I don’t want to spoil it for readers who don’t have the book yet, but how did you arrive at it?
A: The title just came to me. It couldn’t have been called anything else. Everyone has his or her own idea as to what the title means. As for the ending of the book, it is based on a true-life experience. The new cover of “Singing Songs” with the picture of my sister was taken just a few months after this event happened (in our childhood). I was 9 years old, and that was at the house we were living in.
And let me just say that what happens at the end of “Porcupine” was one of the most magical things that I have ever experienced! It was empowering as well, because I thought, “Well, if we can do this? What seem to be an impossibility?” Well then, I guess, if we set our minds to it, just about anything is possible!
Q: Do you enjoy being on a book tour?
A: Some book tour experiences make me want to crawl into bed and never come out. The “Gemma” book tour was quite challenging for a multitude of reasons. But “Porcupine”? Really, it’s been a delight. People love this book so much. And to see how people respond to Jack, it makes my heart sing.
And many times, when I’ve finished a reading, everybody just wants me to read more. And several times that’s been the first question in the Q&A at a reading: “Can you read more please?” I loved sharing this book with the world.
Q: What’s the news about the screenplay for this novel?
A: Rosie O’Donnell has optioned the movie rights! Yippee!