Today we speak with Roland Merullo, whose new novel, THE TALK-FUNNY GIRL, is in stores now. It's fantastic. Relevant. Heartbreaking. Humane. Wise. A must-read. I think it may be his best yet. Others agree:
"Roland Merullo's book, The Talk-Funny Girl, takes place in the gritty real world, but is rooted in a mythic world. I loved the inventiveness, the bits of unusual language, the heart-wrenching story, and the remarkable portrait of a troubled but gutsy girl who battles her way toward happiness. One of the best novels I have ever read. A book for the ages."--Anita Shreve, author of Rescue
"Roland Merullo has created not just a unique voice but a unique language for seventeen-year-old Marjorie Richards, but what makes The Talk-Funny Girl unforgettable is its young heroine's refusal to succumb to the evil that surrounds her. What a brilliant, great-hearted novel this is."--Ron Rash, author of Serena and Burning Bright
Synopsis: In one of the poorest parts of rural New Hampshire, teenage girls have been disappearing, snatched from back country roads, never to be seen alive again. For seventeen-year-old Marjorie Richards, the fear raised by these abductions is the backdrop to what she lives with in her own home, every day. Marjorie has been raised by parents so intentionally isolated from normal society that they have developed their own dialect, a kind of mountain hybrid of English that displays both their ignorance of and disdain for the wider world. Marjorie is tormented by her classmates, who call her “The talk-funny girl,” but as the nearby factory town sinks deeper into economic ruin and as her parents fall more completely under the influence of a sadistic cult leader, her options for escape dwindle. But then, thanks to a loving aunt, Marjorie is hired by a man, himself a victim of abuse, who is building what he calls “a cathedral,” right in the center of town.
Day by day, Marjorie’s skills as a stoneworker increase, and so too does her intolerance for the bitter rules of her family life. Gradually, through exposure to the world beyond her parents’ wood cabin thanks to the kindness of her aunt and her boss, and an almost superhuman determination, she discovers what is loveable within herself. This new-found confidence and self-esteem ultimately allows her to break free from the bleak life she has known, to find love, to start a family, and to try to heal her old, deep wounds without passing that pain on to her husband and children.
By turns darkly menacing and bright with love and resilience, The Talk-Funny Girl is the story of one young woman’s remarkable courage, a kind of road map for the healing of early abuse, and a testament to the power of kindness and love.
You want to read this book. Trust me.
Q: Thanks for joining us today, Roland. If I've counted correctly, this is novel number ten. TEN! Congrats on that. Has your writing process changed over the years? Was the tenth any easier than the first? As I said above, I believe THE TALK-FUNNY GIRL is one of your best. Do you feel as though you've evolved as a novelist?
RM: It’s a strange business, writing novels. I’ve heard people with multiple publications claim it gets harder with each book, but I can’t say that’s the case for me.
Some parts get harder and some parts get easier.
I think you make fewer mistakes, or at least you see your mistakes more quickly than in the early days. You know how to do certain things, simply by virtue of having done them a number of times.
On the flip side, it is sometimes hard to avoid repetition—using a favorite image, for example, or making the same kind of character. And, of course, you have accumulated more criticism, so that can play a role in cluttering your inner world.
As far as process goes, I used to write everything by hand and then type it on a typewriter (even, for one book, a manual typewriter). Now I still write some sections by hand but the computer is so fast that it’s hard not to rely on it. I do go back to writing by hand sometimes, though, because it slows me down, lets me edit as I go.
I hope I’ve evolved. I think what you write has to be a reflection of your own mind, and if your own mind stays static over thirty years, that’s not a good thing.
Q: In the author's note you say THE TALK-FUNNY GIRL grew from a chance encounter you had in a Vermont convenience store twenty-five years ago. Can you tell us a little about that encounter and why it's haunted you all these years? Was this a book you had to get down on paper? Did the idea fester?
RM: The incident was so ugly that I’m loathe to repeat it, but it’s in the book so I will describe it here.
I was working as a carpenter then, and on my way home from work I’d often stop into a convenience store on Route 7 in Pownal, VT, a couple of miles from our house. One afternoon there was a little boy in there, probably three, poorly dressed and dirty. He ran down an aisle and knocked over a few cans, nothing serious, and his mother, who was young and poorly dressed, too, grabbed him and shook him and said, “What’s the matter with you! Are you a nigger baby from China? What are you, a little nigger baby from China?” I was too shocked, too young, and not yet a parent myself so I didn’t say or do anything.
Now, in a similar circumstance I might say something, I don’t know. The moment stuck in my mind. I thought, there are people in these hills, down these dirt roads, who are living lives I can’t even imagine. If the woman would say that to her son in public, what kinds of things went on at home? There was the racism, the utterly illogical comment, the fact that she would say such a thing to her child, and then the fact that she would say it in public, apparently with no self-consciousness at all.
I wasn’t thinking of that moment when I started The Talk-Funny Girl, but somewhere in the book, about two-thirds of the way through, I remembered it, and saw that the seeds of the novel had been planted in that store, in 1985. Twenty-five years later they grew into the story of a girl living with strange, abusive parents who tried to keep her away from society as much as they could. The comment appears in the latter part of the novel, though the circumstances are different.
Q: Early on in the novel your protagonist discusses her museum of hurts, "with images of bad times displayed on every wall." The novel walks the reader through Marjorie's hurts museum. It's a powerful metaphor. How did you come up with the concept?
RM: I have no idea. I don’t think about things too much, just let my mind produce them, and then edit them out if they seem not to fit. I think we all have old hurts that exert some influence on our present thought patterns, and it’s always remarkable to me how people can overcome those traumas and function well in the world. One way to look at almost all my novels is as stories of resilience. Sometimes the hurt is war, sometimes divorce, sometimes a terrible illness, parental abuse, loss of parents. I have all of those things in my books, and I like to write characters who struggle against the old hurts and overcome them to one degree or another.
Q: To combat their own metaphorical museums of hurts, two of your characters actually build a cathedral. You invoke literal and metaphorical places of reflection. Why the museums and cathedrals?
RM: When I was a boy in Revere, Massachusetts, we had an older family friend, a man named Anthony Pierni, who’d come to the house some weekends and take me into Boston and Cambridge to museums. No one I knew went to museums, ever, so this was an incredible thing for him to do, a gesture of great kindness. Maybe the museum scene came from that or maybe I just wanted an event that was absolutely alien to Marjorie’s life and to her parents’ lives. The very last thing on earth they would ever do is take her to a museum.
I’m a very religious person, in my own fairly offbeat way. Always have been. There are priests and churches and monks and holy people in almost all my books. It’s an important part of my life, and so it finds its way into my stories naturally.
Q: You were once a carpenter. Your characters find solace through stoneworking. Given your history as a carpenter, please tell us why you emphasized building and physical labor as a form of therapy.
RM: Physical work was important to me for many years and still is. It’s a nice counterbalance to writing, for one thing. And I think it does something to the mind that is similar to writing by hand—it slows down the thought process. There’s something fundamentally important in that. It’s no accident that every monastery in every tradition you can name incorporates some measure of physical work into the daily schedule. I also like to have physical activity in my novels so they aren’t simply composed of domestic scenes with dialogue. Talking and thinking and talking some more. And in Marjorie’s case, learning that particular skill-stonemasonry—has everything to do with the increase in her self-esteem as the book goes on, and that evolution is really the main arc of the story.
Q: Writing from the female point of view. Were there any struggles? How did you channel your inner woman?
RM: I’ve been married for 31 years, to a good woman with four sisters. I have two daughters. So there is no shortage of female energy in my life. Besides that, though, I try to pay attention to everyone I come in contact with, in all walks of life, to see the full soul there, rather than the label. I tend to, or try to, see people as people first, and to see them as women or men, old or young, rich or poor, kind or obnoxious, as a secondary trait. I’m not saying I always succeed in doing that, but I try to do it.
I have to say it troubles me a bit that books are sometimes referred to as “men’s books” or “women’s books.” Sure, some subjects, generally speaking, are more interesting to men or to women, but I hate to divide the world that way. It’s not really the case that some of us live on Mars and some of us live on Venus, is it? We’re all in this together, right here. I think of literature as a quintessentially “human” enterprise.
And it’s a good challenge, for a writer, to venture into different types of characters. Personally, I dislike the adage, “Write what you know.” What you know is what it’s like to be a human being. Write about that.
Q: Speaking of voice, as the title suggests, Marjorie speaks using an extremely peculiar dialect. How did you find her voice? How much did you invent? Did you do any research, and if so, from what did you glean?
RM: This is another one of those things that I just did without thinking much about it. In retrospect, maybe fooling around with English comes from the fact that I speak other languages—good Russian and so-so Italian. And/or that I grew up in a place with a strong regional accent and no longer live there. Those things make you pay more attention to the way you and others talk, the way language is used, the way various sounds mean different things in different places. From a technical standpoint, I wanted something concrete that showed Marjorie’s isolation from the rest of society, and having her parents develop their own dialect of English seemed a good way to do that.
In an early draft, the entire book was narrated in that weird dialect. But friends read a chapter and said it was too much to ask of a reader, and drew attention away from the story, so I rewrote the whole thing in standard English and kept only bits of the dialect. A lot of fun.
Q: The cathedral that Sands and Marjorie build is for everyone, meaning it is nondenominational--a place to sit and reflect without having to subscribe to someone's doctrine. Several of your characters are hurt by religious leaders. With the war on Al Qaeda raging and all the recent buzz about rapture predictions, the overall message of THE TALK-FUNNY GIRL seems timely. What would you say the cathedral represents?
RM: The whole purpose of weekly religious services, it seems to me, is to encourage us to have a little quiet, contemplative time. I see that as being a casualty of the modern era, where there is no Sabbath anymore for a lot of people, where we do four things at the same time, where boatloads of information are dumped on us constantly.
The great Zen poet Gary Snyder said that animals naturally get some contemplative time for themselves. You can see it in birds sitting up on a wire. They’re not looking for food, not mating, not even singing sometimes, just being.
I think we all need some of that, especially if we are trying to heal old wounds.
Also, though I am religious, I don’t like exclusivity. And organized religion can sometimes lead to that—God loves me more than he loves you, etc. My way is the right way and your way is wrong.
Sands (like me) wants to have a religious or spiritual dimension to his life, but doesn’t want the exclusivity, the divisiveness.
Q: So many characters in this novel are doomed by family, and yet your protagonist manages to break the cycle of abuse. What would you say separates her from the other characters?
RM: That is one way to look at the human race: there are people who use their pain as an excuse to inflict pain on others. And then there are people who remember their pain and resolve not to pass it on, not to cause more hurt in the world. To my mind, that is the most courageous accomplishment in a life—not to pass on your own pain to
children and friends and strangers. In that sense, Marjorie and Sands are
Q: At one point your protagonist says, "...if you thought about yourself from the outside, if you looped thoughts out through other people's heads before bringing them back into your own, then you'd never be happy." When I read that, I thought it sounded like good writing advice. Thoughts?
RM: There has to be some center. You can’t be here, alive, present, if you are continuously seeing yourself from the outside. It’s good to be aware of the way others see you, but not aware, and it’s the same with writing. You need to keep your reader in mind, but what you give to that reader has to come from your own wonderful uniqueness or why make anything, you’d be writing muzak.
Q: Advice for up-and-coming writers on how to produce long-term? How to last in the publishing world?
RM: I have never liked to hear writers speak melodramatically about their work. The torture of creating something, etc. etc. There are many things in life that are more difficult and painful than struggling with words.
At the same time, it can be a very hard profession and a next-to-impossible way to make a living. It’s nice to have some back-up, whether that’s teaching or carpentry or nursing. You have to learn to deal with rejection, with your own imperfection, with the fact that your success often isn’t linked to how hard you work, or even how much talent you have.
There is an element to writing success that is purely and simply fate or luck or karma, and that can be very hard to accept. The best-selling books often aren’t the best books. The richest writers often aren’t the most talented. To wade into that rough sea and stand there, year after year, success after failure, good fortune after bad, takes a peculiar kind of stubbornness.
I would even say that having that stubbornness is more essential to writing success or survival than having a natural gift for storytelling or for language.
I have a little book on the subject, Demons of the Blank Page, if I can plug that here. It was just published by AJAR Contemporaries, a good, small, new house. Demons isn’t about the technical aspects of the writing life, but about the psychological/emotional ones, which I think are even more important.
But basically, if you are passionate about writing you should write. If you want to make a life of it, you should realize the odds but try anyway, and keep trying. You may write something that changes another person’s life for the better, that soothes or enlightens or entertains. That’s a good service to be doing in this world.
Q: Thanks so much for stopping by, Roland. And congrats on another beautiful book. We wish you much success and fulfillment.
RM: My thanks to you for these great questions, and my admiration to you and Alicia for your commitment to the writing life and your remarkable talents.
Good news, readers! I'm giving away three copies of THE TALK-FUNNY GIRL. To be entered into the giveaway, just make a comment below. If you wish to purchase TTFG, please do so. You won't regret it. I've added links below for your convenience.
Buy TTFG: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Indiebound / Powell's
To be continued, and please keep being you.