Laura McBride took a sabbatical from teaching composition at the College of Southern Nevada the year she turned 50, using the time to write a novel. Because she understood the chances of publication were small, she used the experience as an opportunity to work creatively and thought more about what her two children would think of the story—should they find it on a closet shelf some future day—than how it might be perceived by other readers. Her modest expectations were exceeded when she was accepted to a writing residency, wrote the novel, found an agent, and published a best seller. That novel, We Are Called To Rise, is the story of three strangers whose lives come together during one tragic moment. The plot was inspired by the true story of an Albanian woman who was shot and killed by police in front of her children and husband while operating the family's ice cream truck in Las Vegas in 2008.
Her second novel, 'Round Midnight, introduces the reader to four women in Las Vegas with lives connected by secrets, tragedies, and courage.
Freelance writer Marianne Lonsdale first met McBride at Book Passage in San Francisco while McBride was on tour for 'Round Midnight and then interviewed her via telephone. They discussed McBride's surprise at becoming a bestselling author, the role Las Vegas plays in her writing, and her approach to character development.
Marianne Lonsdale: Your path to getting published is unusual and inspiring. Is We Are Called To Rise the first novel you wrote?
Laura McBride: No, I wrote my first novel nearly 20 years ago, when my 2 children were toddlers, and I was mostly at home with them and teaching part-time. At that time, I thought being a writer meant being published. I worked hard to get representation for that book, but it didn't go anywhere, and I concluded that it wouldn't happen for me. I also had the practical matter of needing to work, so I took a full-time job teaching at the community college in Las Vegas. Being a working mother meant I was already away from my family a lot. So, for years, I did not write because I did not want to take more time from the family.
I gave up writing for ten years until I was able to view writing as a creative process rather than practical work. That said, I wish I had not waited so long. Writing creatively makes me happy, and I should have kept that in my life. On the other hand, I am hard to live with when I'm in the middle of a novel. It's not just the time alone that I need, but the hours of deep concentration deplete my energy. I'm most creative in those deep times.
I started writing seriously when my oldest child started college, and my younger one was in high school. Controlling my time and schedule became much easier as they got older.
ML: I went to a business conference a few years ago in Saratoga Springs, New York, the town where Yaddo, one of the most prestigious residencies in the United States, is located. I drove over there early one morning to walk around the gardens and glimpse the estate. I felt like I was on hallowed ground. Were you surprised to get accepted?
LM: Getting accepted was the craziest element in my path to publication. As I was planning my sabbatical, a friend who is a painter told me to look up Yaddo and apply. I reviewed the qualifications and told my friend that I didn't meet the criteria, but she encouraged me to do it.
I sent the first 25 pages of a novel, one that I've still not completed. The first application question asked me to list five of my artistic accomplishments. I didn't really have any. I listed teaching thousands of students and raising two teenagers.
I flew across the country from Las Vegas to Albany, New York, and landed about midnight. I had a reservation at a local hotel that night and would start my residency the next day.
When I told the cab driver I'd be in residency at Yaddo, he took me there and drove me all through the grounds. The estate is filled with trees, and it's dark and terrifying at night. I was ready to go back home.
My first few days there were awkward. Other residents were accomplished artists. One person asked me if I wrote under a pseudonym because she couldn't find anything about me online. There was nothing to find; I wasn't published.
But I wrote and wrote and wrote. And two fellow authors recommended me to their agent, who is now my agent. I say that Yaddo turned me into a professional, both because I found an agent that way, and because it changed how I perceived my own work.
I will always be grateful to the unknown Yaddo committee that chose me. They changed my life.
ML: We Are Called To Rise was published in 2014. The story focuses on issues that have become even more political and topical since publication: immigrant families, the effects of war on veterans and their families, and culture clashes. The story is so nuanced, so well done; it shows that there are no easy answers or solutions, and it's not always clear who's the good guy and who's the bad guy.
LM: Thank you. It makes me sad that my first novel has become more topical. I wrote it in 2012, but it came out in 2014, shortly before the Ferguson incident, when Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. I was paying attention to these issues, particularly to how they played out and surfaced where I live. Las Vegas is a boomtown that had extraordinary growth, and it is also a military town; we certainly had our tensions and incidents. But I wish that the book felt like old news; I did not want it to be predictive.
ML: Both novels have four different characters telling their stories. How difficult is it to write with such distinct voices?
LM: Both books have multiple points of view, but they are structured very differently. We Are Called To Rise is in first person. The story takes place over about a year's time, and each character tells their story in short narratives.
While writing the novel, I would not write in more than one character's voice each day. Writing in first person felt like method acting, and the characters took over.
'Round Midnight is told in third person. I started with one character, June, who runs a small casino with her husband. I wanted to look at her life over time, and that opened the story up. The character of Honorata, a mail-order bride from the Philippines, had been in my head for years. One day, I wondered what would happen if June met Honorata? The book spans 50 years, which also makes it different than my first novel.
Writing in third person felt very different. I felt like I, Laura the writer, was controlling the characters. It didn't feel like method acting; there was more distance in the experience.
ML: I'm always interested in the different approaches authors use to develop their books. How do you construct a novel? Do you outline? Do you know the end when you begin?
LM: I always know the end when I begin writing. The last couple of pages will be in my head for months and months, but I'm superstitious about writing them down. Knowing the end drives the story forward. I have a framework in mind and make lots of notes about what will happen, but I don't outline. An outline feels too restricting; the characters and the plot grow along the way.
ML: What was it like when We Are Called To Rise? It landed on bestseller lists and went into an 11th printing three years after being published. Eleven states and over two dozen communities have selected the book for community reading programs.
LM: It felt wonderful! I wrote it thinking that it would never be published. So it was thrilling when Simon & Schuster bought it. And there were all of these wonderful moments—the first interviews, fancy tour hotels, international media. Luckily, I have a real person's complicated life, so there was a balanced yin and yang to that time.
LM: Some friends came to town, and we went to this doo-wop show at a dilapidated casino. The evening started badly—the room smelled of old smoke, and the bar had been shut down. But the performers were fantastic—lead singers from The Platters and The Coasters who were quite old but could really sing and dance. This small, battered room was transformed by the instant magic of live entertainment. I thought, "Who else has been in this room in the last 50 years?" And June, the first character in the book popped into my head. I'd been working on another novel, but June was so compelling and complex that I dropped the novel I was working on and started it the next day.
I wondered if my agent and publisher would question 'Round Midnight because the characters are not as approachable as those in my first novel; there was no lovable eight-year-old boy in it. But they loved the story and the complexity of the characters from the first moment; they were on board right away.
I'm concerned with two risks for my novels. The first is that people will dislike the story and criticize my writing. I'm in for this risk; I'll take that on. The second risk is that I'm writing about experiences that mirror someone else's real life. If I get those experiences wrong, will my errors hurt a reader? For example, my character Honorata, the mail-order bride. I haven't lived a life like hers, but someone else has, and I don't want to hurt that person. That second risk resonates for me. I try to get the story right, the feelings right. I want my work to feel credible to someone who has lived something similar to what I have imagined for a character.
ML: You work full-time and are a wife and mother. So, when do you find time to write? And what do your children think about your writing and your success?
LM: I'm not a morning person, and I often don't sleep well, but I do use the early morning hours, as they are the least likely to get stolen.
My daughter was in college and my son in high school when my first novel was published. My daughter is adorably supportive and gives me fashion advice. My son is more low-key. I'm more likely to hear about my books from his college roommates than from him. Their high school teacher now uses We Are Called To Rise in his AP English classes, which pleases me so much, but I'm sure they're glad that that happened after they had both graduated!
ML: What's next? What are you working on now?
LM: I am working on another novel, and I'm super excited about it. Or I'm excited one day and panicked the next. That's just how I feel when I'm writing: excited about all I hope to do and anxious about what might go wrong. It can be tiring to be in my head.