Driving down the street and approaching the crossing guard who is ushering loads of children through the intersection, Laura McBride recognizes the 8-year-old strolling across the street in his windbreaker.
The way he walks. His smaller frame.
It’s Bashkim Ahmeti. She is certain.
“I literally had the desire to stop him right there and hear him talk,” she says.
The only problem is that the Bashkim she knows doesn’t exist.
He is a fictional character she created in her debut novel “We Are Called to Rise” (Simon &Schuster, $25).
After pouring herself into this book for months, followed by edits and back and forth conversations with her agent and editor on the publishing process, McBride couldn’t shake the characters who had run rampant through her mind since 2012.
“It was really intense for a while,” she says. “It has tapered off since then.”
Though the voices — and at times the faces — of the characters have subsided, McBride, 53, is just getting used to what it means to be a published author.
“It feels pretty euphoric,” she says. “So many talented people don’t get published. It feels like winning Megabucks.”
She tries not to pay attention to the reviews.
“I still can’t read a lot of the things written about (the book),” she says. “I’ve glanced at them, and readers have said lovely things.”
“We Are Called to Rise” is set in Las Vegas
“But not the Las Vegas everyone reads about,” she notes.
It is the Las Vegas she has grown to know after arriving by happenstance in the city in 1987.
After graduating from Yale in 1984, she left for a life of adventure.
With 300 bucks to her name, she traveled to Paris where she lived for two years.
It’s where she met her husband, Bill Yaffe.
He had family in Las Vegas, which caused the two to move to the city.
In her life here, she completed her master’s degree in English at UNLV, had two children, bought a house and took on several jobs, including fundraising for local nonprofits.
“I didn’t even think I’d finish my master’s at UNLV,” she says. “I thought I’d start and maybe I could transfer the credits over to another school.”
But she finished.
Eventually, she not only realized she was here to stay, but also that Las Vegas had become her community.
“I had my master’s degree in my back pocket,” she says. “I started searching for a job.”
But it was for more than just employment.
“I wanted a career here,” she says.
McBride became an English professor at the College of Southern Nevada in 1999.
She has been full-time faculty since 2005.
As an English composition professor, she enjoys the challenge of inspiring many reluctant students to want to write.
During her time at CSN, McBride says, she also was part of the faculty senate and took on more and more responsibility within the department.
“She was the assistant department chair,” says Levia Hayes, the department chair of the English department. “She is a wonderful professor and amazing teacher of teachers, too.”
Though she loved her job and enjoyed her other responsibilities, she was looking for the next step.
The plan was to take a sabbatical in 2012 to work on her doctorate in Educational Leadership at UNLV.
She had dropped many of her obligations in preparation.
“She didn’t want to spread herself too thin,” Hayes says. “I can respect that.”
Amid her planning, she heard rumblings that the program would be cut because of budget issues.
“I was assured it wouldn’t happen right away,” she says. “I would call to ask and they said even if the program was cut, I’d be grandfathered in.”
But the program was canceled and McBride had no other plans for her approved sabbatical to take place in 2012.
“I was lucky so many things went wrong,” she says.
She decided instead to work on a novel.
The first day of her sabbatical, McBride went for a run, got her son ready for school, sat down at her computer to begin.
Nothing came out.
“I didn’t know what to write,” she says. “I spent my whole life dreaming up a novel. I had story after story idea. I didn’t know what to write. I had this sickening and terrifying feeling.”
She felt defeated — a state that she says remained for weeks.
“Eventually, I put on my big girl pants,” she says. “I had to pick myself up.”
Her work ethic was to sit down at her computer at 8 a.m. every day and start writing.
In the sunroom of her house, McBride found her stride working at a desk almost too short for how tall she is.
Though it gets too hot in the summer and too cold during the winter, it was just right for her to draft her novel.
Typing on her MacBook Air — the only size computer that works on the desk — she wouldn’t take any phone calls and refused to answer the door.
“I became religious about it day after day,” she says. “I didn’t worry how bad it was. Every single day, I kept my commitment.”
Looking back at getting started, she realizes that the strategy she used to get her through the writing process was exactly what she tells her students.
“Follow a road map,” she says. “Do (create the road map) in one sitting. And don’t sweat the small stuff. And every day for the next few months, I didn’t sweat the small stuff.”
The product of her hard work: “We Are Called to Rise.”
The story follows four very different Las Vegas residents and how their paths eventually overlap.
It is written from four points of view: a Hispanic Iraq-war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, a court-appointed special advocate, a mother and wife at a moment of crisis and, of course, 8-year-old Bashkim.
The story also hinges on a moment based on a real Southern Nevada situation in which a woman, 42-year-old Deshira Selimaj, was shot and killed by Henderson police during a confrontation after her husband was pulled over in his ice cream truck for a routine traffic stop. According to police reports, Selimaj, an Albanian immigrant, was shot after threatening police with a knife.
Though the event happened in 2008, years before the sabbatical, it stuck with McBride.
McBride can’t pinpoint exactly the year, but she remembers a fall night — 9 p.m., maybe 10 p.m. — when she was at her son’s Little League game.
While most of the cars had left, an ice cream truck remained in back of the lot at Sunset Park.
“I thought, ‘She should go home because no one is going to buy ice cream tonight,’ ” McBride says. “It was late and cold. She looked tired. I told her she should go home.”
They didn’t chat long. The conversation wasn’t even that deep.
But somehow the memory stuck.
A few years later, that night would return to her mind during the shooting coverage.
Sitting in her desk, story ideas swirled around in McBride’s head.
“I kept thinking, ‘The woman in the ice cream truck,’ ” she recalls.
She grabbed the idea and never looked back.
McBride didn’t want to write a political or social commentary on officer-involved shootings in Las Vegas.
“I think we are all heartbroken by things that happen in the community,” McBride says. “My heart has been broken many times. I really just wanted to write a story, though.”
Many of the character decisions were formed in the first week of writing.
Bashkim’s voice came easiest from the first chapter he appeared. At times, tears would stream down her face as she wrote.
Before her sabbatical started, she applied for a writing retreat called Yaddo. She was accepted.
Four months into writing, she traveled to the program in New York, where she stayed for a month and finished her book.
While connecting with other artists and writers in the program, she met her agent.
Along the way, Trish Todd, a book editor from Simon &Schuster, was given her book.
“It was one of those books that grabbed you from page one,” Todd says. “You know you’re safe in the storyteller’s hands, and you open yourself up to an amazing journey.”
Todd adds that the setting of the book, Las Vegas, is not too common.
She worked with McBride to pull out one of the characters and did minimal edits.
Along the way, she reassured McBride.
“A lot of authors get worried because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “It’s like raising your baby and sending them off to college.”
But in her opinion, she knew McBride’s book would go far.
“People around the office who weren’t working on the book would ask to read it because there was so much buzz going around,” Todd says. “People were really affected by it. It was heartbreaking yet uplifting.”
The book was released in June.
“Many other professors are published,” Hayes says. “Some have books published while others have short stories published in magazines.”
But McBride has done something different, she adds.
“You open up Entertainment Weekly and see a write-up on Laura’s book,” she says. “She is becoming more mainstream, and that’s exciting.”
McBride, who returned to CSN after her sabbatical and continues to teach, is already thinking about her next novel.
“We talk to her all the time about it,” Todd says. “We can’t wait to read what she comes up with next.”
Still, she is just getting used to the whole ordeal.
“I don’t want to discredit what I’ve done,” she says. “I put in the hard work. I wrote something so personal and was able to put it out in the world. I feel a lot of this was luck.”
Contact reporter Michael Lyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5201. Find him on Twitter: @mjlyle.