Las Vegas author Laura McBride stopped by Noir Nation recently to discuss her new novel, We Are Called to Rise (Simon & Schuster, June 3, 2014). A college instructor calling Las Vegas home, Laura’s new novel explores the collision of three disjoint lives in Sin City. But unlike the countless stories exploring the glamorous side of Las Vegas, We Are Called to Rise takes us to the real Las Vegas, the city, the community, the people who call this crazy place home.
NN: Why did you write We Are Called to Rise?
LM: I wrote a novel years ago, and it was a fabulously engaging, satisfying process. I was always on the lookout for the chance to do it again.
Hmm, that’s the answer to why I wrote a novel. Why did I write this novel?
I guess I thought the core incident had great dramatic potential; I wanted to write a story that captured the chaotic, hopeful, desperate, beautiful boomtown nature of Las Vegas; I wanted a novel that would entertain and satisfy a thoughtful reader.
NN: That’s an interesting title. Why did you choose it?
LM: My agent did not like my working title, and she asked me to come up with some options quickly. I offered three lines from poems, to get the conversation started, and she felt strongly about this one. It took a while for the title to grow on me, but now I think it perfectly expresses an important theme of the book. I didn’t have that theme consciously in mind while writing, but it is a central idea. I’m grateful to my agent for her strong sense that this title was right.
NN: Why did you decide to go with multiple points of view? What are the strengths and weaknesses you’ve experienced with this format?
LM: I wanted to write in the first person, but I needed more than one person’s awareness to tell the story I was thinking about. I think a strength of the format is that readers often feel a personal connection to the narrator who is speaking; a difficulty of the format (though not perhaps a weakness) is that it can be complicated to communicate critical information through a first person voice. I had to trust the reader’s ability to pick up nuance, irony, guile.
NN: Do you think people misunderstand Vegas as a community?
LM: I think billions of dollars are spent, by creative and sophisticated people, to disseminate particular ideas about Las Vegas. Those ideas often don’t represent my experience of living an ordinary life here. I feel confident in my understanding of Las Vegas, but I recognize that many other people have equally valid ideas about the place. And then some people have ideas that aren’t so valid!
NN: As a reader, what is your favorite book?
LM: An impossible question. I give.
I’m not just cheating here. I think the really good books one reads when one is young have terrific impact, because one has never before experienced reading in that way. But those books are not my favorite books anymore, though they might linger in my mind quite vividly. By the same token, books I really like now might be difficult to categorize as favorites. I like them, I appreciate them, I am grateful for them, but I am too tested a reader to think of any as a favorite.
NN: Where do you see Las Vegas in ten years?
LM: I have no special prognostic powers. I guess I think it will look a little bit more like a lot of American cities than it once did. Already, people are much more likely to live next to someone whose economic situation is similar to their own than was true two decades ago. I think we are generally sorting into more and more homogenous neighborhoods, which seems sad to me. So much of what I found amazing about living here came from the salmagundi of being a boomtown.
On the other hand, I think Las Vegas will remain socially, culturally, politically, and ethnically diverse, because people will continue to come here from all over the world. I hope our economy will be a little more broad-based, but that is not evident to me.
Laura McBride is a writer and community college teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada. She once thought of herself as an adventurer, having traveled far from home on little more than a whim and a grin, but now laughs at the conventional trappings of her ordinary suburban life. She’s been married for 25 years to an ex-pat she met in Paris, and has two lovely children. A long time ago, she went to Yale. We Are Called To Rise is her first novel. (from Amazon)
Trish Kaye Lleone knows true-crime stories. Born and raised in the Philippines, Trish has a finger on the pulse of publishing in Asia and beyond. Today, Trish stops by Noir Nation to share insight into her new memoir, a gripping story about her own tragic struggle with child abuse. Told with stark realism, Finding Anna will take you on an intimate tour through the shadows of the Philippines in the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond.
NN: Your new story Finding Anna is based on your own personal and often tragic experiences growing up in the Philippines. Was it hard to write as you looked back in time?
TKL: It was. I have kept all of the harrowing details to myself for so long because I felt it was the only way to be “normal.” I didn’t realize that although deeply and safely bottled up inside, the effects of what I had gone through manifest in my decision-making, values, principles, and in my own perspectives about life, particularly in my own relationships with others. I was already 36 years old when I realized that. When my partner first suggested writing everything down, I looked at him and thought for a moment he had gone crazy. Was he trying to torture me? But then, I started reading abuse-survivor blogs and many of them attest to the therapeutic value of writing down your own story.
It was difficult not to have moments of disruptive behavior, recalling everything including how each abuse felt, the pain of realizing that all of what I had gone through had a major contribution to the person I have become and the agony of living through the eyes of that little girl again even just for a few hours each day – horrifying and heartbreaking.
NN: Street crime in Asia has always had a noir flavor. Is it because of the densely populated cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Manila? Or does it have something to do with the roots of personal preservation and family honor embodied in the people inside many Asian countries? Since growing up and working in the Philippines, what are your thoughts?
TKL: I would have to say it is mostly poverty-based. As a result of poverty, people cannot afford to get proper education, and later on are not qualified for job positions. This drives them to resort to criminal acts in order to survive. People in rural areas relocate to the metropolis in hopes of escaping poverty; they’re tired of planting sweet potatoes, rice, and bananas from sun up to sun down so they try their luck in the city, only to arrive there without a place to live, without enough money to spend, and without a job that they would be qualified to apply for. They cannot go back to their provinces because they had sold their land or their livestock or are too proud to give up. There will always be reasons to stay in the city, even if it means stealing for food.
Recently, the world knows that a great part of the Visayan region was hard hit by a strong typhoon (Haiyan). People there lost homes, lives, and property. Many of them took the risk of going to Manila; they were captured on the news explaining that there is nothing left for them to remain in their beloved city. I asked myself, what are they going to do in Manila? When they get there, they will find an overpopulated metro that boasts of a higher cost of living and very few to nil job vacancies. It is sad to think this way, but there is a great possibility for most of them to end up as criminals or prostitutes.
NN: Do many Western depictions of Asian crime in stories and film capture the streets and the motivations of their characters accurately, or does an author or filmmaker have to live and breathe the air in this climate to truly capture it?
TKL: I would say authors and filmmakers who attempt at capturing Asian crime stories in film or print must first experience living in Asia to deliver a more accurate depiction. They have to stay not just for a few months, but for a long time to really understand what drives people to do what they do here. Asian culture is vastly different from Western culture. As an example, CNN’s Anderson Cooper covered the recent Haiyan devastation in central Philippines and he thanked the Filipino people for teaching the world “how to live.” That’s because Cooper witnessed how Filipinos can sleep without beds cushioning their backs, can survive on meager meals and sometimes even miss meals, can hold on to the corpses of their dead loved ones and still display happy demeanors despite the turmoil and the anarchy in their midst. For most of us who grew up and live here, those are ordinary, everyday occurrences. Many poor families don’t care much for a bed to sleep in at night; they can sleep on mats or even pieces of cardboard lined on the floor. I believe that people in Western cultures don’t get to experience this. Even the poorest of the poor receive social welfare assistance in the West, which makes a bed and a decent home to live in affordable, if not free.
NN: You are working toward an English degree and have worked in a variety of publishing and journalist positions in the Philippines. Where do you see the traditional publishing industry going? Have Asian consumers embraced e-books as the consumers have in America? Where do independent and small presses fit in?
TKL: I am a college undergraduate but yes I have worked as a journalist for many years before branching out to online PR and Marketing. To answer your question, traditional publishing will always be there. Readers will always crave for actual books and many authors would still prefer getting traditionally published, although they may self-publish at the same time.
As for me personally, I am a voracious e-book consumer. I prefer e-books than actual books because I can simply buy online and the book will arrive within seconds. Some of my Asian friends read e-books, but I cannot say for sure if Asian consumers have embraced e-books the way American consumers have.
Independent and small presses will not lose their market share if they adapt to the industry’s trends and changes. For example, many of my former colleagues who own news publications are slowly realizing that the way to remain visible in the market is to branch out to the digital world. A few of them have and they tell me that while it is a learning curve for them, it has helped them remain in business. One colleague completely repackaged his product. From merely a business news magazine, he changed it into a lifestyle and business news magazine both online and offline, and it is surprisingly doing very well. Over dinner one time, he expressed how grateful he is for his wife’s ability to foresee the future and how lucky his wife is for having a husband who knows what sound judgment is. He changed his business model a lot earlier than most.
NN: What are some of your favorite films and books?
TKL: Ahh, films! I love timeless classics like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Love Story, The Godfather trilogy, An Affair to Remember, Ratpack, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. I know, that selection gives me away as a hopeless romantic, doesn’t it? What woman isn’t anyway? Lol. Oh, but if it would help, I could watch The Godfather trilogy over and over and over again and won’t get tired of it. I’ve seen it a total of seven times already and I watched all three films after the other in one sitting. Aside from these classics, I also love Legends of the Fall, Star Wars, all Superman films, Iron Man and X-Men. I have HUGE crushes on Robert Downey, Jr. and Hugh Jackman.
As for books, I am an extensive reader; I have read books by Sidney Sheldon and all the books by Johanna Lindsey, Tom Clancy, and Robert Ludlum. I love The Little Prince, Don Quixote, and The Diary of Anne Frank. I am interested in the biographies of Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few. Lately, I am reading books from new and rising authors such as Jonathan Sturak, Amy Cancryn, Joyce DeBacco, John Jack Wigley, and the ever famous E.L. James. I have no particular favorite, I guess. I just love to read books.
NN: What creative projects are you working on?
TKL: Well, now that I’ve wrapped up work on Finding Anna, my first memoir-based novelette with Firebrand Publishing, I am just about ready to pull out my supposedly first novel, “Dear Tommy,” from the drawer and pick up where I left off. “Dear Tommy” is a story about disrupted adoption, infertility, and a failed marriage. It is one woman’s story of pain, loss, love, and redemption. I am also in the process of creating an outline for another book project; this one is about politicians behind closed doors – you know, the dirty and the despicable.
To Jonathan and the rest of Noir Nation, a huge thank you for this opportunity! It has been a lovely experience for me to be interviewed here and I really had a great time.
All the best!
You can get her new memoir, Saving Anna, on Amazon.
Crime fiction deals with life and death experiences all the time. The very nature of fiction provides the author (and the reader) an escape into the universe of a story. But what happens when these life and death experiences transcend the story and threaten the life of the author?
Chris Abani knows the answer to this question all too well. Chris is part of a new generation of Nigerian writers working to convey to an English-speaking audience the experiences of those born and raised in Africa during its divided past of apartheid and unrest. His first novel, Masters of the Board (1985), portrayed a government coup that eerily resembled a real coup carried out in Nigeria just as the novel was being released. This sounds like a perfect marketing platform for the novel, right? However, for Chris, it meant six months in prison on suspicion of an attempt to overthrow the government, which ultimately led to torture and a sentence on death row!
Today, Chris is a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University where he continues to share his voice through award-winning literary works. Recently, he stopped by Noir Nation to share some fascinating insight into his journey as an author, as well as to discuss his exciting new crime novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas.
Noir Nation: Your writing career has spanned decades and started during your childhood in Nigeria. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Chris Abani: I published my first short story at 10 and my first novel at 16, so I guess I’ve always sort of known. But truly I believe all writers come from being avid readers, so that’s probably when the bug bit me. In the end, it doesn’t matter when we know, only that we spend the rest of our lives trying to get good at it.
Noir Nation: Your new crime novel The Secret History of Las Vegas has just been released by Penguin Books. Please tell us about the book.
Chris Abani: It’s Halloween night in Las Vegas when detective Salazar encounters a set of conjoined twins wading in Lake Mead, who upon questioning can’t explain the drum of blood near their pickup. Positive he’s apprehended the killers responsible for a series of murders of Las Vegas’ homeless—which has haunted him for years—Salazar enlists the help of Dr. Sunil Singh, a South African transplant who specializes in the study of psychopaths. But unknown to Salazar, Singh has been conducting a series of violent experiments on human behavior at a local institute, linking him to the killings.
Over the course of three days, as Singh simultaneously tries to psychoanalyze the twins and ward off Salazar, the implications of his study grow darker, and it becomes clear that he has his own demons to reckon with. Endlessly distressed by his betrayal of loved ones back home during apartheid, he seeks solace in the love of Asia, a prostitute with hopes of escaping that life. But Sunil’s own troubled past is hard on his heels in the form of a would-be assassin.
Noir Nation: Why did you set the story in Las Vegas?
Chris Abani: I love Las Vegas. It is perhaps the last frontier in America, one that is the fringe of a deeper inner self. Vegas gives the impression that everything is possible there, a place of total permission, and yet it is run with the tightest security. It is in many ways the only place left in the U.S. where everyone can feel free. A real place for nomads and transnationals. I could go on, but let’s just say it offers a lot of layers and possibilities.
Noir Nation: Where do you see Las Vegas in ten years?
Chris Abani: One of the world’s melting pots. A place that always grows and adapts – or else, a city buried under the sand and Lake Mead. All of it is possible.
Noir Nation: Media outlets have dubbed you as part of a new generation of Nigerian writers working to convey to an English-speaking audience the experiences of those born and raised in “that troubled African nation.” Do you feel this contributes to your creativity as a writer today or do labels inhibit creativity and expression?
Chris Abani: I think that I am a writer who is interested in the places of our common humanity. I have a global perspective and don’t feel I am trying to convey anything to the world. I simply put my humanity on trial with stories that have exciting plots and marginal characters and hope that my readers find a measure of themselves in the work.
Chris holds a BA in English (Nigeria), an MA in Gender and Culture (Birkbeck College, University of London), an MA in English and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing (University of Southern California). He is a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University and the recipient of many prestigious literary awards including the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice for his novel Song For Night (Akashic, 2007). For more information, visit ChrisAbani.com
The draft print cover of Noir Nation No. 3. The print version should be out in 5 to 10 days in the U.S. and Europe. And a few days after, the rest of the universe. In the meantime, the digital version can be downloaded on Amazon. Click here or on the image above to make the jump.
The much anticipated Noir Nation No. 3 — The India Issue — has hit the Amazon Marketplace. Click here or on the image above to have a look.
The issue contains over thirty entries from some of the very best literary crime fiction writers in the world, among them Suparn Verma, Samrat X, Yaeer Talker, Bianca Bellova, JJ Toner, Richard Godwin, Simon Rowe, Graham Wynd, David Siddell, and Meah Cross; as well as ace contributions from emerging noir writers Alastair Keen, Terrence P. McCauley, Frauke Schuster, Ryan Gattis, Chelsea L. Clemmons, Gila Green, Paul Alexander, Carmen Tudor, and Anthony Pioppi; and established hard-boiled wunderkinds Jonathan Sturak, Ed Lynsky, Mark Mellon, Christopher L. Irvin, and Nik Korpon, The issue also includes essays on noir-related poetry, music, and the visual arts by Atar Hadari, Vicki Gundrum, and Robert Brunet and two works of classic noir: “The Turkish Brothel” by the late Cortright McMeel and “The Perfect Courtesan” by Kshemendra.
Here is snippet from the issue, the introduction by Eddie Vega:
A Search for Beauty, Dark and Brutal
Noir Nation is a search for beauty, dark and brutal. We can hear the initial call in these lines from W.B. Yeats’ masterful poem “Easter 1916”:
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
There is a turning away from the light and the banal, the casual comedy, and a turning to the murderous passions and dark depravities of human nature and transgressive political bodies. In real life, such turns result in death, disfigurement, and prison. In literature, we can live and relive the mechanics vicariously and safely through the prism of the imagination. Even Grimm’s Fairy Tales had dark elements which helped children prepare for both the magic of life and its harsh realities. Cheerful weddings are counter-balanced by the cries of funeral birds.
In any case, the very definition of noir varies depending on whom we ask. Many will relate it to U.S. crime films arising from German expressionism, D.O.A., The Big Combo, and The Maltese Falcon, among others—and books by certain writers, such as David Goodis, Georges Simenon, James M. Cain, and, among the more literary set, Celine, and among the more drunken set, Charles Bukowski. There seems to be an effort, coming really from the academy, to classify it according to these 20th Century referents. But there are powerful elements of noir in Gilgamesh, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The Book of Job, and the mother of them all, Dante’s Inferno. In the visual arts, it spurts like dark blood through the works of Goya, Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi—who took vengeance on male figures in her paintings after being raped by her tutor—as well as Theodore Gericault, whose Raft of the Medusa depicts a horrific scene based on an actual historical event where many shipwrecked passengers died and the rest survived by eating the dead bodies. More recently, Edward Hopper, Jack Vettriano, and Peter Illig have moved the subject matter closer to elements familiar to crime pulp: isolation, voyeurism, sex.
But for us the kernel of noir lies in Federico Garcia Lorca’ seminal essay, “Theory and Play of the Duende.”
Duende is the dark goblin spirit that animates the deep song of Flamenco, songs soaked in human misery, and that my mother loved to listen to. It is also the ragged genie that animates artistic and religious expressions about crime and punishment. It is the ax of Raskolnikov and the Necklace of Kali. Lorca wrote that it wouldn’t appear unless it could see the possibility of death and that it loved the edge of the wound.
Lorca argues that there are two angels that animate art, the bright angels and the dark angels. They are both important to art’s creation. But of the two, the dark angels are more interesting. History indicates he is right. For example, Catholic scholars have argued that Dante’s Paradiso is the most important part of his Divine Comedy, a work clearly animated by the bright angels. That may be true. But it is The Inferno, the first part—where evil acts are punished by brutal means—that excites the imagination and that has had the more lasting impact on world literature.
So the definition of noir can be very broad—anything that is dark and/or transgressive—a fact that no doubt annoys some academics who need well-defined categories for their lectures, panel discussions, and articles for scholarly journals. They need a workable definition. Crime Noir, for example, has a more limited scope than simply Noir. With crime noir, there must be a crime or the possibility of one. It can’t just have the dark mood of Ecclesiastes. There must be a violation of the civic or moral law.
On television, The Sopranos, The Wire, Law & Order, and Breaking Bad, are among the most popular TV shows in history. Aesthetically, many crime films and television shows have a noirish feel, which they create not only with deft use of shadows but also with the use of cool light that relies on the blue spectrum (the original CSI with William Peterson offers good examples of these elements). Many of these shows are available internationally.
But we don’t see this as an exclusively U.S. phenomenon. Crime noir has ancient and aboriginal roots in Japan, India, Spain, Mexico, Cambodia, indeed just about every country in the world. What we are seeing today is an exquisite confluence of all these cultural rivers forming an Amazon of Noir. Its most potent stream comes from India and her large cities, Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai.
With over 1.2 billion residents, India is not only the world’s most copious producer of crime pulp, it is also its hungriest consumer. Even in her chirpy feel-good Bollywood films, guns and gangsters vie with the singing and the dancing. Although the work of many Indian writers of crime noir are not to be found in fashionable bookstores—next to the hardcover books of Jhumpa Lahiri, Salmon Rushdie, and Vikram Seth—they are in much more popular spots: the stalls and book carts of A H Wheeler & Co found among the 8,000 railway stations that serve India’s 25 million daily commuters riding 71,000 miles of uneventful track. That is India’s open secret: crime novels stay close to their devouring readers. This needs commemorating.
Hence Noir Nation No. 3: The India Issue. Dark, brutal, and beautiful to the eye that loves the shadows—where the dark angels flock.