A conversation with Laura McBride: “To me, a novelist’s research is about picking up tone and voice, and the occasional telling detail. From there, it has to be a work of personal imagination.”

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Laura McBride’s first novel, We Are Called to Rise, was published by Simon & Schuster on June 3. It is receiving well-deserved acclaim for its powerful depiction of the intersecting lives of four widely varying characters in “off-the-Strip” Las Vegas. It is as timely and relevant as any novel I’ve read in recent years. We Are Called to Rise is one of those special novels that has something for everyone. [Read my review here.]

What inspired you to write We Are Called to Rise? I understand that the book’s turning point is based on an actual event.

I often start thinking about a story from some bit of news that catches my attention.  It is a kind of a mental game – to ask how could that have happened, who would have done it, why – and I have done it for many years.  I can write a hundred pages on hearing an intriguing thirty seconds!  I was inspired to write a novel for the experience of writing one itself.  It is something I had long wanted to do, and the process was something I enjoyed very much.

Did you always conceive of telling the story with multiple narrators, or did that approach occur to you after you’d written a draft in third person or through the eyes of a single character? Why did you opt for the four first-person narrators rather than an omniscient narrator?

I had heard that novels with first person narrators might be more likely to be published. (I have no idea if this is true, but I thought I might as well give myself every chance I can.)  The first person voice is quite restrictive, so I decided to use several narrators in order to be able to tell the full story.

I was so impressed by how convincingly you inhabited four completely different characters in order to make each work as a first-person narrator. That is an act of great imagination and artistic empathy. In particular, what was the key to getting inside the mind of an 8-year-old Albanian immigrant boy?

I’m not sure.  What I did was imagine myself as a child, and put myself into some of Bashkim’s situations.  What would the world look like to him? What would others do, and how would he interpret that?  His voice came very easily, once I committed myself to trying it.  It was so mentally engaging –  to imagine the world from the viewpoint of a child.  I loved writing in his voice.

When most Americans think of immigrants today, they tend to think of Mexicans. Yet we know that immigrants come from nearly every country. Why did you choose to make Bashkim an Albanian boy?

I wasn’t thinking of him as a type, as a typical anything, or even as an immigrant at all.  That’s not the way I approach stories.  He could have been from anywhere, and once I had given him a few details, he just grew into himself.  It’s only when it was time to market  the story that I started to think: oh, it is a book about an immigrant, or about war.  Also I don’t particularly associate the word immigrant with Mexicans.  As you say, the whole history of our nation is immigrants.

While Bashkim is the central character in the plot, I found Avis to be the heart of the novel. She is such a well-conceived and -executed character. Her mother was a nomadic drug addict who neglected Avis and her little brother Rodney. Yet by sheer force of will, we learn through flashbacks, she has created a better life for herself. As the novel begins, she is an upper-middle class suburban wife whose husband suddenly announces he’s leaving her for a younger woman. She is also the mother of a son recently returned from Iraq who does not seem like himself but refuses help, a caring mother-in-law, and part of a circle of close female friends she has known for decades. She has suffered so much, yet she seems to represent the fact that “we are called to rise,” to overcome and be more than what happens to us. Can you talk about your vision of Avis and her role in the novel?

I love Avis too, and I appreciate your comments here.  Avis was very difficult to write.  I saw her as a woman who had spent her whole life very much on her own, having to figure things out without models or people to show her the way. In middle age, she faces challenges that make her think about her life and her choices, and she doesn’t even know if that reflection is something one should do. To me, Avis is brave and reflective and independent.  She relies on herself.  

What kind of research did you do in creating the character of Specialist Luis Rodriguez? You cover his traumatic experiences in Iraq, his long recovery in Walter Reed Hospital, and his relationships with Dr. Ghosh, his abuela, and Bashkim so believably. Have you had college students who were Iraq War vets?

Yes, I often have soldiers in my classes, and while we do not particularly discuss their experiences, things sometimes come out.  I have been paying attention.  I also did a novelist’s sort of research (as opposed to an academic’s); I read blogs by soldiers and went on chat rooms that were populated by people associated with the military.  To me, a novelist’s research is about picking up tone and voice, and the occasional telling detail. From there, it has to be a work of personal imagination.

Another impressive aspect of We Are Called to Rise is your accurate depiction of the Las Vegas where people live their real lives, and your insight into the effect living there has on people. My mother has lived in Henderson for 15 years, so I’ve become familiar with the non-tourist areas of metro Las Vegas, and your descriptions are spot-on, both physically and culturally. There is such a strong sense of place in your book that “off-the-strip Vegas” feels like another character. Tell me about your thinking behind making such an unglamorous place so central to the story.

Well, I have lived here for 25 years, and I think it is a very interesting place, so it was natural to set a story here. Las Vegas is fascinating because it is a boomtown.  It attracts 40 million tourists each year, but it has also attracted millions of new residents in a short period of time.  We came from all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds, for all sorts of reasons.  And the place, a dusty desert city, was not ready for us.  That explosion of people, and the lack of infrastructure to accommodate them,  makes for some crazy events.  Those of us who lived here learned how to help each other; we turned to our neighbors – who did not look or talk or think like each other – and created communities.  Las Vegas is not a utopia, but it does succeed at social mobility, it often succeeds at diversity, and it has given many people a second, a third, even a fourth chance.  As far as I’m concerned, it is a novelist’s dream.

When did you write We Are Called to Rise? In your free time during the school year, during breaks from school, at writing retreats like Yaddo? What was Yaddo like for someone who did not have an MFA or move in those literary circles?

I had a sabbatical in the spring of 2012, and I wrote it that semester. I went to Yaddo for a month at the end of that term, and I finished the novel there.  I did some rewriting and additions during the next six months, while I was teaching.  I like to focus intensely on what I am doing, so each of those rewrites was done in a concentrated rush of days, working 10-12 hours at a time, over a weekend or a school break.

How did you come to use a line from an Emily Dickinson poem as the book’s title? It’s so fitting.

It is fitting, and I did choose it, but it was my agent and her assistant who recognized what a great title it would make.  I sent them several possibilities, none of which seemed quite right to me, and they picked We Are Called to Rise.  I’m grateful for their strong sense of that title, because I think the sentiment does fit the book, though it was not what I was thinking about when I wrote it.  Also, I adore Emily Dickinson, particularly for her artistic courage and sureness.


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