Laura McBride is a writer and teaches English at the College of Southern Nevada. We Are Called To Rise is her first novel. She graduated in American Studies from Yale University, and wrote part of this novel while in residency at Yaddo.
NAW- Tell us about your book, We are Called To Rise. How did you get the idea for it? How did you decide the title?
We Are Called to Rise is set in contemporary Las Vegas, but it almost never mentions the Strip. It weaves together the lives of three characters – an 8-year-old boy who is an immigrant from Albania, a middle-aged woman who grew up in precarious circumstances in Las Vegas, and a young man, who headed straight to Iraq after graduating from high school. I was interested in writing about Las Vegas because I have lived here a long time, because it is a boomtown in which crazy, absurd, and beautiful things happen, and because there are so many myths about the city which do not much apply to many of the people who live here.
The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, and it was really my agent who liked it enough to use it. I suggested several lines of poetry, just to get the conversation about a title started, and I didn’t initially see how apt the title was. There were the ideas I was thinking about as I was writing, and then there were the ideas that evolved as the story developed. We Are Called to Rise captures a central theme, and I have come to love the title, but that theme wasn’t the thought I was working from when I was writing.
NAW- Your debut book is very interesting in the sense that it’s voiced through four different unrelated characters. How did you develop the characters? And did you carry out any research for the same?
I wanted to write in the first person, and I needed more than one perspective to tell the story I wanted to tell. I started with two characters, very quickly added the third, and only later added a fourth. I didn’t do research in the sense that an academic or a journalist does research, but I occasionally did a little bit of what I call a novelist’s research. To feel comfortable writing as Luis, the young soldier, I read blogs and chat room conversations by soldiers and their families. For Avis, Bashkim, and Roberta, I just pretended I was them while I was writing.
NAW- What would you like readers to take away from your book?
I like to imagine a reader curled up in an armchair, utterly caught up in a fictional world, and turning just a few more pages when she should be in bed. I want a reader to feel like he read a great book, and loved doing it. I like to think of him or her being moved, and engaged, and sad at finishing. In short, I hope my readers are entertained. It isn’t laugh-a-minute entertainment, but I hope it is I-share-this-world-with-others, life-is-short-and-beautiful entertainment.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How difficult (or easy) was it finding a publisher?
I have had the experience of not being able to find anyone to read or want my work, and I fully expected to have it again for We Are Called to Rise, but in fact, a friend put me in touch with an agent, who asked for a few changes before pitching it, and then several editors expressed interest, and one – Trish Todd at Simon and Schuster – bought it. It was shockingly, terrifyingly, thrillingly easy, and I have trouble reconciling the world in which nobody wanted to read my work with the world in which my work sold in days. Both things happened to me. I am very grateful for the second.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I am a full-time composition and literature teacher at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. CSN is a very large, very diverse community college, and I am highly engaged in my work with students there. I also have two children – my youngest just graduated from high school this month – a longtime husband, and the usual assortment of pets. I like to take road trips, often to visit family in the west and Pacific Northwest, and I have an ordinary level of interest in art, science, poetry, gardening, hiking, food, and keeping fit. I have very dear friends stretching across the length of my life, and those relationships are precious to me.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
Well, there are a lot. Off the top of my head, I am a fan of Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Chinua Achebe, Henry James, George Saunders, Joan Didion; the list goes on and on. I like writing, and I adore all beautiful and communicative sentences, so really, I like a lot of writers.
NAW- How do you write, planning the complete plot beforehand or do you let the book take its course? Take us through your writing process.
For this book, I had a sense of the arc of the book: how I wanted it to begin, what would be the climactic action at the middle, and how it would end. I also had the idea of alternating voices leading me through the story. So those were the bones. Then within each chapter, I often just let the character go. Sometimes I would go on a tangent, and often those tangents would circle around and fit in the book beautifully. That was my basic method, though this is quite complex question.
NAW-What are you currently reading?
Today, I am reading Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, which Nicole Sullivan of BookBar in Denver recommended to me. I am also halfway through Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom, which Valerie Koehler at Blue Willow Books in Houston suggested. I’m reading two books because I forgot to pack Steal the North for my trip to Denver.
NAW- Any advice for struggling writers?
As long as you still love it, keep doing it. Do it and do it and do it. But if you have stopped loving it, do something else. Life is short and the possibilities for joy, for meaning, are many.
We Are Called To Rise by Laura McBride
The lives of an immigrant boy, a soldier returned from Iraq and a woman whose marriage is crumbling collide in this remarkable debut.
When an ice cream van is stopped at a cross roads, its brake light out, what are the chances its driver will be terrified by the police, his wife unable to communicate her distress as she tries to protect her children?
What are the chances that the brand new police officer on duty will be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, fresh from his third tour in Iraq. That he’ll pull out his gun, blinded by memories of war?
What are the chances that the only hope of happiness left to that broken family inside the van will begin with a letter from a man desperate for redemption, to do something good? And will Bashkim Ahmeti, our eight-year-old hero, let him?
Praise for We Are Called To Rise-
‘Unforgettable… I can’t stop thinking about it’
Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress
‘It moved me to tears. Tough but compassionate, a very powerful novel’
Rebecca Wait, author of The View on the Way Down