Laura McBride recently answered questions about her novel, We Are Called to Rise, and her experiences at author events. Her debut novel weaves the stories of four very different people living in Las Vegas struggling through war, tragedy and family turmoil.
You did your first Common Reading Program at A Tale for Three Counties in March (which was a huge success!) – how was it different than the author events you’ve done in the past? What do you see as some of the strengths of Common Reading Programs?
The most striking difference was that nearly everyone in each audience had already read the book. Many of the readers had also discussed it in their book clubs, or attended events focused on particular issues that arise in the story: the immigrant experience, the CASA program, PTSD, etc. Instead of speaking to people who had heard of my novel and were thinking about reading it, I was speaking to people who not only had read it, but also had been talking and thinking about it for some time.
That created such wonderfully engaged audiences, with interesting and provocative questions. A Tale for Three Counties is a fantastically well-organized event. It runs like a clock, and the commitment to reading and to reading as a way of building community and opening up difficult conversations among people is beautiful. As an author, as a woman, as a member of a community, I was moved by the program they had built and by the values that the program embodies.
What are some of the “teachable” moments in We Are Called To Rise that make it work well for Common Reads and All Campus/Freshman Reads programs?
While I think it is the intense emotional experience made possible in the first person voices that make the book most teachable, the key issues that arise for discussion revolve around America’s contemporary wars, the immigrant experience, PTSD, women, and community. Could the tragedy at the heart of the novel have been averted? Who is responsible for the people scarred by the ripple effects of someone else’s choices? What is the impact of distant wars on our communities? What are our obligations to each other, and what can or should we expect of ourselves? What does it mean for a human to “rise”?
The Tale for Three Counties’ organizers chose an American flag to represent We Are Called To Rise, saying that the book “is about our country now.” I think We Are Called To Rise asks the deepest question – what does it mean to live one’s life well? – and offers a story about ways people might answer it. The main characters include an immigrant child caught in a terrible crisis, a middle-aged woman struggling with a son she suspects of being dangerous, and a young Hispanic soldier navigating the way the Iraq War has changed his life: physically, emotionally and morally.
Why do you think We Are Called To Rise connects to so many people from all different backgrounds?
Las Vegas is a boomtown. Millions of people came to a largely rural state in a short period of time. They came from all over the world, from all sorts of backgrounds, and for all sorts of reasons. Because there was very little existing infrastructure, this is a diverse community that has also allowed for unusual levels of mixing and fluidity. People of different economic means, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and educational experience live right next door to each other, and send their children to the same public schools together. Although the community is changing to look more like other American places in its stratification of wealth and viewpoint, for many years this was a place in which there were almost no private schools, almost no enclaves of particular cultural groups, and very few neighborhoods that were not a mashup of rich and poor.
I wanted We Are Called To Rise to reflect some of those unique qualities of the place where I have lived, and I chose a story that would highlight the positive and negative ways that these unlikely interactions take place. There is beauty to mixing and fluidity, but there is also explosiveness and risk.
When I am speaking to readers, I often find that one group will be particularly engaged in Bashkim’s story, while other groups feel equal and natural engagement with the stories of Avis, Luis, or Roberta. Sometimes when I mention this to readers, they are surprised. Their reading of We Are Called To Rise feels so apparent to them that they do not imagine that other readers are drawn to a quite different aspect of the story.
Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at literary events that you’ve participated in?
At A Tale for Three Counties, a community college student who had won an essay contest about We Are Called To Rise, told me her family’s story of “rising” to help a child. She grew up on a dead-end road, and the mother of another family there was killed in an accident. The husband became an alcoholic, and the woman’s seven children were removed from the home by the child protection system. The student’s family, along with the rest of the families living on that road, decided to share foster parenting responsibilities for those seven siblings. The essayist’s oldest sisters were actually two of those seven children, and her father walked them down the aisle when they were married. Imagine that. Imagine five unrelated families committing to staying on that street and raising those siblings together. She kept calling it a dead-end road, and I kept thinking: Wow, that was a live-end road.
Click here to read BIC’s review of We Are Called To Rise.