McBride's debut novel, 2014's "We Are Called to Rise," a psychological war story set in the boomtown of Las Vegas, hit the jackpot with readers, becoming a national best-seller and popular community reading selection. McBride, a tenured English instructor at the College of Southern Nevada, returns to The King's English Bookshop for a reading on Tuesday to launch her second novel.
The writer's literary backstory is almost as interesting as her work's complicated, textured characters. She was raised in Spokane, educated at Yale and met her husband in France. The couple found their way to Las Vegas to be close to his family, never intending to settle there. Over the years, they raised two children in a place where they discovered a diversity of connections across economic, religious and ethnic borders.
McBride spent years considering plot and characters while teaching English courses to community college students, before a sabbatical offered her the chance to begin writing the novel that became "We Are Called to Rise."
She published her first novel at age 50, without literary connections or having built a following on social media. "Kind of like being dealt four aces if you live in Las Vegas," she said on her first Salt Lake City stopover.
She began writing " 'Round Midnight" after visiting a nightclub act in the old Riviera, right before the casino was scheduled to be imploded. "It was the classic: I had an out-of-town guest, a childhood friend of my husband's, and he wanted to see this doo-wop show."
The nightclub was rundown, which was why McBride was surprised to find herself transfixed by the four veteran performers she was watching, the group including original members of The Platters. "They were stars before I was born, and I'm not young," she says. "They could sing and they could dance, and they owned that room. I went back to that show four times before it closed. It was like watching a masterclass."
At home, the writer quickly abandoned the draft of the sad novel she was working on and started imagining a character who would become June Stein.
June comes to Las Vegas in the 1950s to get a quickie divorce, later returning to marry a young man who intended to run his own casino, who thought a glamorous young wife from somewhere else fit into his plans. "To June, this world felt free and fast and stripped clean of the conventions that had closed in on her in New Jersey," McBride writes. "Here there was money and music and gambling and sex and drinking late into the night."
June and her husband discover a talented African-American singer, Eddy Knox, who's "as good as it got when it came to nightclub entertainment." Despite segregation laws, June knows that Eddie Knox's talent will make them rich, and his influence in the couple's life will come to alter everything that happens next.
McBride weaves together the stories of four women living in different eras of contemporary Las Vegas history: in the 1950s, when the place was a small town at the beginning of a boom; in the 1980s, when the casinos became corporatized and locals were disenfranchised; to the contemporary era, when the city has grown into a sprawling city with a small town path.
" 'Round Midnight" is a richly textured story about the border-crossings of race, of forbidden secrets and of mothers who try to protect their children. It's bookended by two rich and surprising scenes, in which a mother tries to protect her daughter from the father she never knew, and in contrast, an adopted daughter quietly faces an elderly woman she had never met.
The ending, for McBride, especially the last line, was the catalyst for the entire story. "I wanted to keep writing so I could finally write down that page. It was so fundamental to how I thought about the book."
You might think Las Vegas would be a fresh backdrop for readers of book club or literary fiction, but McBride considers her setting as more of a speed bump. Most of the 40 million or 50 million annual tourists drawn to the Las Vegas Strip simply aren't interested in reading any stories that aren't focused on the glitz of gambling or the grift of the sex industry, she says.
"It happens to be the place where we live, and I see it as a quintessential American story," she says of the city that has become a character in her novels. "The reality of Las Vegas is there are people here from all over the world. Interactions between those groups of people can be beautiful and explosive and violent. And that can resonate with people who live anywhere."