Vegas is the setting for McBride’s debut novel, We Are Called to Rise, a heartfelt chronicle of the lives of a handful of damaged people thrown together by tragic circumstances. She teaches composition there at the College of Southern Nevada.
Why did you decide to set your novel in Las Vegas?
Vegas is a place where people come from all over the world—people who might not make it anywhere else. It’s a classic boomtown. They are from every different ethnic background and every different way of looking at the world. Before the downturn in 2008, housing was always just catching up with the population, so lots of us live in houses built the year we came, next door to people who came the same year.
Was writing in several voices in the first person a challenge?
I thought it would speak to the reader, even though I was more comfortable writing in the third person. At first I just had two voices. I was working on how I was going to resolve the story. I teach at a community college. There is a big military base here, and when soldiers come back, they take my classes, so they are on my mind. Luis, the young veteran [in the book], just kind of worked himself in; that was a voice inside my head.
Did you share the story with your students, the soldiers in your classes?
No, I haven’t. I don’t teach creative writing. My classes aren’t confessional, but, at the same time, it comes out. [The students are] writing, so they work their stories in. The general tenor when they first started returning from the Middle East was more fierce. Then, as time went on, more questioning, more pain. More confusion. I’m just sharing my impressions and how they fit in with the characters I invented.
Praising your work, author Carol Anshaw dubs Las Vegas “our most opulent nowhere.”
That was like a dagger to my heart! It’s a beautiful phrase, powerful. Maybe it is a nowhere in the way it’s perceived. I perceived it that way. I met my husband in Paris and when he came back here, I said, “I’m not moving to Las Vegas!” I wanted to raise my children like New York City kids, Paris kids—kids who hop on the subway. Now I feel you couldn’t raise kids anywhere better for the 21st century—mixing with people from all over the world—to be ready for life in the most basic, true ways.
Do you think you could have written this book when you were younger?
I’ve thought of myself as a writer since I was seven. I think I was really good with words, early. But in the way that this story is so much the product of the years I’ve lived in Las Vegas, then no. I did write a novel when I had small children, about an adopted child. It was interesting to me as a new mother—the choices you make. I don’t think my abilities changed. Being a composition teacher, maybe I’ve learned some discipline. But it wasn’t a lack of discipline that kept me from writing. I was just interested in a lot of things in life. Maybe I had to be old enough to sit still.