April’s Craft on Draft event focused on portraying fleshed-out secondary characters who bring out the best – and worst – in their characters. Authors Camille DeAngelis (Immaculate Heart), Sara Farizan (Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel), and Annie Weatherwax (All We Had) read from their novels and discussed how they approached their secondary characters.
The evening’s contest winner was Melanie DeCarolis, a writer at work on her first novel. In addition to having the spotlight turned on her and enjoying a drink in her hard-won GrubStreet pint glass, her winning piece was read aloud and critiqued by the panel of authors. I had the opportunity to interview Melanie about her work and her thoughts on the evening’s theme of secondary characters. Her winning excerpt follows.
DD: Was the excerpt you submitted for the Craft on Draft contest part of a larger work?
Melanie: Yes, it was part of the novel I’ve been working on for about five years, which will hopefully be a trilogy someday. I’m utterly, shamefully undisciplined and am more of a binge writer than I am a daily practitioner, which I know I need to do something about. At this pace, the other two novels won’t get done until 2028….
DD: Can you tell me a little about the novel?
Melanie: I tend to tell people my novel is about the place of women’s anger in society. We’re not allowed to exhibit it. I was in Washington marching in January after the inaugural. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how, collectively, when you are a face in an endless peaceful crowd, that’s more acceptable than calling out bullshit in the workplace or in the street by yourself.
Okay, that’s the larger political theme and context. At its fundamental level, though, it’s a crime novel with a mystery or two in it. It’s set in Boston, which as a bonus, lets me tap all the threads of race, class, religion, political parochialism, wealth, gentrification, the cost of higher education, and even the crappy traffic and endless construction.
DD: What have you done (or are doing) to learn/work on your writing?
Melanie: I’ve taken classes at Grub since 2000: screenwriting, endless one-day workshops, short-story workshops, the first 10 Weeks, 10 Stories class. Somewhere in there, I got an MFA, where my thesis was a collection of dark short stories. Twenty-five pages is easier to fill, and the instructor and peer feedback took the whole piece into account instead of chapter after chapter. And after grad school, everyone asks about the novel that you’re working on. I didn’t have one, so I basically succumbed to peer pressure.
Once I came up with an idea I knew I wanted to stick with–there were about two or three I gave up on– it was back to Grub for Master Fiction, Novel in Progress, etc. etc. I took Grub’s first online class on mystery writing, taught by the amazing and award-winning Ben H. Winters (The Last Detective series), which was incredibly helpful, too. And the class was three hours on a weekday, so I got the extra secret thrill of working on my art while I was working at my previous job. Then I was in the 2015-2016 Novel Generator class, and a few of us stuck together through a Generator extension class and then our own independent group that meets twice a month.
DD: What’s your “day job,” if you have one?
Melanie: My day job is being a copywriter, in Boston, for a financial company in California. This often requires me to travel out there, and then deal with lawyers who look at everything I write to make sure I’m not promising people anything like “free pony with every new IRA account!!!” Plus there are a lot of legal promissory subtleties around “can” and “could;” and the verbs “partner” and “provide,” which seem to change on me every day.
My job is another reason why I’m a binge writer. It’s hard coming home to face your own screen after doing it for pay for eight hours, especially if you’re jet-lagged. In my next life, I’m coming back as a personal trainer or something that has nothing to do with writing. I also give wine tours on the weekend, which is why my protagonist works in a wine store. Write what you know, right?
DD: What did the panelists say about your winning entry? Do you agree or disagree with them? Did the feedback make you think about the larger work in a new way?
Melanie: The feedback I got from the Craft on Draft panel was that they definitely felt like they knew who the secondary character was; they liked the voice of the narrator a lot, and they wanted to know what happened next. What was cool for me was that it validated things that I was already wondering about. My protagonist is out of step with society and does a lot of illegal stuff–specifically multiple murders–so it’s exponentially important to me that she be, if not likable, compelling enough to elicit interest.
What was also incredibly gratifying–beyond my free winner’s drink–is that the writers all represented so many different genres: graphic novels, visual art, literary fiction, memoir and YA. There’s always the fear when you write genre all the “serious” writers are going to roll their eyes at you and say, “Shhh, the grownups are talking now.”
The whole secondary character thing is an interesting challenge to any writer to make sure they’re more than props. My parents introduced me to film noir when I was 12. Two of the famous character actors that kept popping up in many of these old movies were Elisha Cook, Jr and Thelma Ritter. They played the same types in every movie: Cook was the weaselly gunsel that gets punched out at least once per movie by Humphrey Bogart. Ritter played the wisdom-dispensing seen-it-all landlady type. She’s the one in Rear Window taking care of Jimmy Stewart who wasn’t Grace Kelly. I always wondered — were the actors happy that that was that all the studio allowed them to be? When they came to Hollywood, did they have dreams of playing Hamlet or Scarlett O’Hara? Hopefully, they made the best career they could out of the opportunity they had, even if they were typecast.
In another Grub class I took, Steve Almond said you had to love all of your characters. I’m not sure I do that with the supporting cast that shows up in my stories, but I definitely try to give a thought to who they could be, which might give them some room on the page to surprise me. Otherwise, they’re all just the nameless red shirt characters on Star Trek who get conveniently blown up in the first act, though I’m sure all those characters, if they had inner lives, had dreams of conquering space too.
Supa didn’t have a car. Of course. So I walked him, with my gun arm slung around his neck, to my nice safe driveway parking spot and let him throw his skateboard in the back. I made him drive, which was another brilliant move on my part because he didn’t have a license.
“You’re familiar with the basic concept, right? Red, green, gas, brake?”
“I’m not a retard,” he said.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” I said.
I didn’t have to tell him to keep it under 25 to prevent him from pulling any high-speed crash cuteness to escape. The guy simply did not know how to drive. We inched through the streets with horns blaring behind us. We went down at least three one-way streets the wrong way, which caused the same amount of near-collisions, more horns, and at least one middle finger.
“Stupid, can’t you read the signs?” I smacked him on the head.
“Lookit, I only know how to get around on my deck. I don’t pay attention to traffic stuff.”
He had a point there. At the red lights, he was sullen and slumped in the driver’s seat, twisting his bracelets nervously.
“What’s wrong,” I said.
“What’s wrong?” he screeched. “You pulled a gun on me, bitch. How’m I supposed to work with you ever again?”
Oh, the drama.
“I’m one of your top earners. You’ll overcome,” I said.