Roland Merullo had largely forgotten the disturbing sight of a small child being mistreated by his mother outside a store in rural New England -- until the memory welled up some 25 years later to help fuel the novel he was writing.
That sort of abusive parenting, which Merullo likened to the power of a dictator, underlies much of The Talk-Funny Girl, the story of teenaged Marjorie and her struggles to escape from the bleak life forced on her by her isolated parents, who are falling more deeply under the influence of a sadistic cult leader.
People get away with stuff at home that they wouldn't dare do in the rest of the world, because there's nobody there to stop them. They have the ultimate power over their children, said Merullo in a telephone interview.
Part of the motivation for this (book) was to give a voice to kids like that, to speak up a little for kids who are in terrible situations and can't do anything for themselves.
Marjorie's isolation is symbolized by the strange English dialect she speaks as the result of growing up with her parents in a backwoods cabin, with any attempts to speak properly punished by physical abuse.
I can't to have any money for boots now but I can at tomorrow maybe or another time, she says early in the book.
Through the course of the novel, as seventeen-year-old Marjorie fights her way to a normal life through a job as a stoneworker rebuilding a church, her speech gradually changes as she gains independence.
That narrative decision prompted some criticism, Merullo said.
One of my early readers said to me that kids at that age are so sensitive to their peers' opinion that she would never talk like this, he said.
I entertained that thought, but I think what I was trying to show was the abject terror she felt at home and the magnitude of the punishment she would face if she betrayed her parents and began to speak normally. In a family like this, I think the fear trumps peer pressure.
Merullo felt so strongly about this speech pattern that he originally wrote the book, which is told in the first person, entirely in Majorie's dialect -- until another early reader said it was hard work to read, requiring him to rewrite a good chunk of it.
Additional challenges were writing from the female point of view, which he said was a bit tricky because he did not want to use the obvious sorts of subjects, such as talking about menstruation, to make it clear the character was a woman, a technique he termed a cheap trick.
But overcoming that kind of thing is all part of the job for a novelist, he said.
I felt like I knew this young woman. I don't know why, because I'm not young, I'm not a woman and I didn't grow up in anything like she did, he added.
I just felt like I knew her, and even from the first walk she takes into town looking for a job, I just felt I understood her soul, who she was.