''Being a writer is like being a rag man who goes to people's houses and gets their old clothes, cuts them up into rags, and sells them back again.'' This is actress Meg Tilly, veteran of some 14 movies (The Big Chill, Agnes of God) and player in Aaron Spelling's new TV drama, Winnetka Road, speaking from experience. She'll get the writing credit for Winnetka's fifth episode, which airs on April 16. And come June, her novel, Singing Songs, will hit bookstores nationwide.
Songs is the story of a feisty little girl named Anna and her triumphant bid for self-preservation in a family trapped by a cycle of physical and sexual abuse. Drawing from an obvious respect for the clarity and purity of a child's perspective and from her experience raising three kids Tilly gives us an unblinking account of adult brutality without ever lapsing out of Anna's voice.
From the depths of an overstuffed armchair in a Greenwich Village apartment, the wraithlike Tilly, who began her eclectic career more than 10 years ago as a ballet dancer, talks excitedly, sometimes haltingly, about her new mode of expression. ''This is the most satisfying thing I've ever done. If I had to choose my favorite piece of work other than my kids it would be this.'' Tilly's sense of achievement seems justified: She's already received praise from Bastard Out of Carolina's Dorothy Allison and Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (Madness of a Seduced Woman), who called it one of the best books she's ever read.
With the patience of someone answering a recurring question, Tilly says she came to Songs' unsettling theme not from personal experience but from knowing people and playing characters who've dealt with it: ''I began the book three and a half years ago when I was working on In the Best Interest of the Child, a TV movie about abuse.'' Despite the struggles she deals Songs' small heroine, Tilly has her prevail.
''While she faces difficult challenges, I wanted to say it's okay.'' Then, animatedly, she adds, ''You can do whatever you want in life,'' making you wonder what it is she'll choose next.