Arrow-right Camera

Books

From counting worms at White Elephant to writing, Laura McBride discovered hard work pays offs

Sat., May 6, 2017, 9 a.m.

In Laura McBride’s second novel, “ ’Round Midnight,” the action revolves around the El Capitan, a Las Vegas casino. From there, readers are introduced to four women, all connected to the El Capitan regardless of era, ethnicity or status.

As Publisher’s Weekly noted in its review, “Las Vegas itself is a character in this immersive novel that effectively exhibits the changes to the city throughout the decades. This is a tale of love, loss, and the unexpected, unheralded ways that lives meet around blackjack and roulette tables.”

McBride, who was raised in Spokane, teaches at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. She’s returning to her former stomping grounds to mark the release of “ ’Round Midnight,” released last week from Touchstone, with a reading at Auntie’s. In an email interview, McBride talked about her memorable teenage job, teaching, and finding inspiration for her story.

Q. On your website, you have a picture of yourself as a teenager when you worked in a store that sold “guns and toys.” White Elephant or the General Store? And what did you learn working there that stays with you today?

A. The White Elephant! The General Store was just an upstart newbie down the road, and of course, the White E was already a Spokane tradition.

I learned to work hard, and to work a lot of hours, and I learned the power of delayed gratification. I never took a day off in all those summers and school breaks in which they allowed me to work. We were paid time and a half for 17 overtime hours a week if we worked six days a week, and while that meant I didn’t go to the lake with my friends or on vacation with my family, it also meant I could pay my fair share of college expenses.

I was so lucky to have such a wonderful job in years when that money made it possible for me to go away to school. I was around a lot of other people who worked that hard every week of the year, and who were proud of what that hard work meant for their families too. And of course, I also learned the importance of workplace camaraderie.

One of my summer jobs was counting the tens of thousands of worms that were brought to us early each morning. After the initial recoil, it was very peaceful; the zen of worm counting.

Q. Your novel “ ’Round Midnight” brings together a diverse cast of characters. Are these women that you know, or who you have met?

A. No, not at all. Imagining characters and stories and situations comes easily to me; it always has. I was one of those little kids who could stare out the car window for hours, while a whole world turned in my head.

They aren’t women I know, and their situations are not comparable to those of anyone I know, but they are women I have deeply imagined. I could write about any one of them in a different place, a different time, even a different era. Their inner lives are real to me.

June Stein popped into my head when I was listening to a doo-wop act in an old Vegas nightclub. I had been thinking about Honorata, and how she might someday fit into a story, for 25 years. I wrote part of a different novel built around Engracia, and Coral evolved as I wrote this story. I didn’t know Coral would be in the book at the start; she exists because I set June Stein in motion.

I was never writing a novel about four women, and I certainly wasn’t writing a novel that was a Gap ad for diversity. I’m not conceptual in that way. Instead, I work from character: I set down a fully imagined person in a particular place and time, and let her life unfold.

Q. Are there challenges in writing such a sweeping novel, one that covers decades in the lives of a wide number of characters?

A. Yes, there are. But again, I didn’t start out thinking about that sweep as a goal. I was following these women in their lives, and their lives opened out – both forward and backward in time – and that made the story get bigger and bigger.

It was a very rich experience to write about such different women, with such different pasts and such different ways of being in the world. I spent a lot of time steeping myself in the Vegas of the 1950s, in the Cordillera mountain region of the Philippines, in a rural village in Zacatecas, Mexico. I needed to do that so that I could imagine the sounds and smells and sensations of these places; I can’t work until I can hear a bird, smell the air, distinguish the particular color of the light in a place. This is just how my imagination operates.

Q. In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a writing teacher. What is the one question you wish more of your students asked about the craft of fiction?

A. I teach academic writing in a large, diverse community college. I also teach introductory literature courses, but I have been focusing on composition and research for the last few years. As a general rule for all writing, I wish readers asked: why did the writer choose that? And I wish writers asked: what is the reader experiencing now? And I suppose the reverse of those questions too: What did the writer not do? What would a reader hope to experience now?

Q. Do you enjoy getting to come home to Spokane on book tour? Do you still have family in the area?

A. Oh my gosh, yes. Spokane is still home to me. My sister and her family live here. My brother and his family live in the home I grew up in. Many of my nieces and nephews are here. And lots of friends: friends from my childhood and high school years, friends of my parents who have become friends of mine. Many of these people are central figures of my life. I have returned to Spokane every summer; my kids grew up coming to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I absolutely begged Touchstone to send me to Auntie’s and Spokane.

Spokane is also a wonderful town for authors. So many terrific writers are connected to Spokane. I’m jealous of the many that claim Spokane more legitimately than I do, because I feel very connected to my roots here.



Click here to comment on this story »