The Simon and Schuster Reader’s Guide to We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
A Reader’s Guide
We Are Called to Rise is told in four distinct voices—an immigrant boy whose family is struggling to assimilate, a middle-aged housewife coping with an imploding marriage and a troubled son, a social worker at home in the darker corners of Las Vegas, and a wounded soldier recovering from an injury he can’t remember getting—voices that come together around a tragedy changing those four lives forever. Each of the four struggles with ramifications of the choices that have led to this event, and all four discover that our lives are connected and we are responsible for one another.
1. Which of the three main narrators—Bashkim, Avis, Luis—was the most effective?
2. The setting, Las Vegas, is so pervasive it is almost a character in its own right. Talk about how the author uses the dry desert town as a backdrop and as an integral piece of the story. Discuss the juxtaposition of glamorous casinos with the ordinary suburban lives so many of the characters lead. How does the backdrop of the world of gambling, sex, and money impact the characters in their everyday lives? Do you think this story could have taken place anywhere else?
3. The landscape of Nevada is compared several times to that of Iraq and Afghanistan. What other connections do you see between the Western state and the war zones of the East that affect so many of the characters?
4. Throughout the story Avis struggles with how much responsibility she has for her son’s actions. How does her own childhood impact the parenting decisions she makes? What about the loss of Emily? How much blame does Avis bear for what has happened to Nate throughout his life? When are parents accountable for the actions of their children?
5. Luis carries guilt for not protecting his partner, Sam, and also for accidentally shooting a boy in Iraq; when we first meet him, he is recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He suffers both mentally and physically, but which bothers him more? Is his recovery more about healing body or soul? How does the act of writing to Bashkim help him with both?
6. How does seeing events through Bashkim’s eyes influence our understanding of the story? Do you find Bashkim’s narrative of the novel’s more serious events to be reliable? Why or why not?
7. Roberta is, in many ways, the narrator we know the least about. She has the fewest sections, and the parts of the story she narrates are almost entirely focused on other people. How is seeing this story through the eyes of a largely unknown character different from a character’s life story that is more fleshed out?
8. Avis is heartbroken over her husband’s infidelity and desire for divorce. But we find out that she, too, has been tempted, and that she even secretly kissed another man. When Jim says that Darcy was somebody he could talk to, somebody who “helped him think about things,” Avis wonders, What does that have to do with ending our marriage? Is she questioning why Jim thought he couldn’t just have a woman friend? Or is she saying that she’d prefer to go on not knowing that Darcy and Jim are now lovers? What do you think she means by this question? (Would you want to know if your partner were cheating?)
9. We’re more than halfway through the book before we begin to see how each of the characters’ stories intersects with the others. What is the narrative impact of seeing each story unfold individually? What are the benefits of this story structure? What are the drawbacks? Do you think the way the stories come together is effective?
10. At the final court proceeding the judge says, “If, sometimes, an unspeakable horror arises from the smallest error, I choose to believe that it’s possible for an equally unimaginable grandeur to grow from the tiniest gesture of love. . . . Great terror is the result of a thousand small but evil choices, and great good is the outcome of another thousand tiny acts of care.” Do you agree with this?
11. “Things happen to us that are more than we can take. And we break. We break for a moment, for a while. But the break is not who we are.” These words are spoken to Luis by Dr. Ghosh. Do you agree that the break is not who we are? Or do you believe that what we do when we break shows who we truly are? How do you see each of the main characters reflected in this statement?
12. The title of this novel is quoted from an Emily Dickinson poem—the epigraph at the beginning of the book. What do you make of the poem? How do you see each of the characters in this story rising? Do you see the title as ultimately optimistic? Do you see the book the same way?
13. Anton Chekhov famously said that if a gun appears in the first act of a play, that gun must go off before the end of the story. This book opens with the discovery of a gun, but that gun is tossed away partway through the book. Guns, however, are an integral part of the plot. Discuss the role of guns in this story, both in actuality and as metaphor.
14. What do you make of the judge’s decision to place Bashkim and Tirana with Graciela and Luis? Does that seem realistic to you? Why or why not? Do you think they would have been better off with their father? What solution would you have chosen for these children?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. There are dozens of movies set in Las Vegas, old classics such as Viva Las Vegas, the original Ocean’s Eleven, and Diamonds are Forever, and also contemporary favorites such as Leaving Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Showgirls, and The Hangover. View one of the films together and discuss how the unique setting influences the story.
2. Both Nate and Luis suffer from forms of post-traumatic stress disorder or combat stress after serving in the military. This is a common response to war, though many soldiers returning home from war are ashamed to seek help for the psychological scars they carry from their time serving. Research one of the organizations that aims to help these servicemen and women, such as The Soldiers Project (http://www.thesoldiersproject.org/) and discuss how you could help as a group.
3. The Ahmeti family members are refugees from Albania, a country many Americans know very little about. Do some research on Albania’s history, geography, and culture, and discuss their effect on how Sadik, Arjeta, and even Bashkim understand the world they now live in.
A Conversation with Laura McBride The heart of this novel is based on a true incident, though you have created a fictional story around it. Was it difficult to let go of the facts of the story and let your characters take over? How much did you think about the real people involved as you wrote?
I didn’t want to write about the real people, so I took the three or four facts that were stuck in my head, and tried to imagine my way in. I like to work this way. I hear a snippet of a news report or an interview or a radio program, and I ask myself: Who would have done that? Why? And then what? It is something of a mental game that has amused me through dull commutes, and it was not difficult at all. I’ve probably been doing it since I was seven years old. So, in short, I didn’t think about the real people. The parts of the story that are actual—those facts, the places, how certain things work in Las Vegas—were, for me, a way to keep the story anchored. I used all of those actualities to ground the imagined world in my head, not to create it.
You write in the author’s note: “One thing that almost kept me from writing my story was that it was so unbearably sad. . . . So the challenge I set myself was this: could I write a story that accepted the full unbearableness, and still left one wanting to wake up in the morning?” How did you work to achieve that lightness and optimism which ultimately pervade such a tragic story?
I suppose it was a single choice, made on the first day I started writing. I decided that Bashkim had to be safe at the end. On the very last page, I had to leave him with a chance. That shaped everything.
It’s hard for me to think about whether the story ended up light or tragic; I don’t have that much distance from my words. I guess I am someone who fully inhabits the way that life is painful, and I am also someone who is naturally a bit lighthearted. It doesn’t take much to please me. So in fact my world is lighthearted and heavy at once. I don’t remember choosing this. It seems I have always felt the sadness of others as if it were my own, and also, I have always been easily delighted. If these traits come out in the story, it might just be that they reflect my own temperament.
Which character was the most difficult for you to write? Which was the easiest? Which was your favorite?
Avis was the most difficult! She was awful. I struggled and struggled to get the voice of a woman who is questioning and disappointed and confused and courageous at once. Some early readers liked her, but others found her self-pitying and small, which was not how I imagined her at all. Sometimes I thought that she suffered from what it means to be an aging woman in our society—which is that perhaps we don’t like aging women very much—and so there wasn’t much room to let her express unattractive qualities.
Bashkim was the easiest. I didn’t think I would like to write in the voice of a child, but once I had it down, he just chattered away in my head. I couldn’t get his words on the page fast enough. I would be typing, and suddenly laugh at something he said, or tear up at his sweet ways—and I was doing the writing! He was so real that I sometimes miss him. One day I saw a little boy crossing the street to school, and he was so very Bashkim-like; I drove to work with this odd sense of having left him behind me.
I suppose that I feel the closest in nature to Luis, or that might not be right, that we are close in nature. I feel closest to his predicament—a very young person who has done something irrevocable, for which he cannot forgive himself, and which he almost cannot bear. Bashkim loses his mother, and Avis has lived her life so alone, but Luis bears the brutal weight of an error that mattered.
You live in Las Vegas, and that city comes alive in all its glorious complexity in this story. What did you hope to convey about Las Vegas to readers who know it only for its famous strip?
I set the story in Las Vegas because I live here, and because it is a fascinating place, but I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t set out to show the world a different side of Vegas. My idea of Vegas (which is opinionated and specific and idiosyncratic) is just one way of looking at the place.
I suppose the resonant quality of Las Vegas for me is that it is a boomtown. People come from all over the world, for all sorts of reasons, and they live in whatever houses were being built the year they arrived, next to whoever else arrived that year, and there’s this salmagundi of cultures and ideas and experiences. I don’t know how long this fluidity will last; already the town feels less mixed up than it once did, but for many years Vegas rocked with boomtown energy: with people starting anew, their pasts stripped away, their futures mutable. And all of that was marked by constant cultural collision.
Boomtowns also struggle. Vegas sits in a largely rural state with a small institutional infrastructure. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved here quickly; tens of millions visit each year. Things go wrong. Essential tasks don’t get done. Absurdities happen. Tragedies occur. Surprises abound. Every engaged Las Vegan has stories. The pace of change, the breadth of potential conflicts are mind-boggling. And they set up a place where astounding things happen. For better and for worse.
You write with such depth and compassion about the inner workings of the foster care system. Is this something you have experience with, or did you have to do a lot of research? What was your experience writing about such a harrowing and challenging system, especially as a mother?
Well, I didn’t do any research (so that’s fair warning), but I did have some familiarity with the child welfare system in Las Vegas. I didn’t find writing about it, or about Roberta’s work, harrowing—perhaps because I have had a lot of years to accept what is. I think it is a truth of a place like Las Vegas that the systems can be very, very weak, but also that individuals can have a commensurately important role. Weak systems create chaos, which is generally bad, but they also allow for certain strengths. A better system might not have the flexibility to accept the sort of solution that happens in this story, but that solution is not so far from things I have seen happen here.
Both Nate and Luis come back from war with something akin to PTSD, and both make very bad choices because of it. Do you believe that war necessarily changes people? Do you have experience with veterans and the unique challenges they face?
One of my great-uncles fought in Italy in World War II. He went in early in the campaign, and he stayed to the end. He saw a lot of young men die quickly, and when he came home, he asked his mother to tie him to the bed at night. I used to love visits from this uncle. He was a cook in a hotel, an immigrant, and he would bring these huge cooking knives to our house, and coolers of fish, and—although he had very little—a silver dollar for each child. My mother told me the story about his being tied to the bed when I was quite small, and even when my uncle was singing or laughing, I would wonder about those nights with his hands strapped to the bedpost.
Probably more relevant to my novel is that I teach at a community college in a town with a large military presence, so I frequently have soldiers in my classes. My classes are not confessional—I teach academic composition and literature—but they are the sorts of classes where the truth sometimes will out. I had been paying attention to the overall arc of these students’ attitudes about the war: from high patriotism to deep frustration to fatigue and confusion and difficulty fitting back in. I think the normal response of anyone witnessing this is to feel it, to have heart for the pain of those experiences. That was certainly playing in my mind as I was writing.
You attended Yaddo, a prestigious artists’ retreat. What was that like? In what ways did that help you on your path to publication? What was the process of publication like?
Oh, yadda, yadda . . . Yaddo! It was such an adventure for me. I was stunned when I got in. I had all sorts of questions about what it would be like, but I didn’t know whom to ask, so I just showed up—with camping gear, of all things. And then I stayed in a lovely room, fully appointed, and ate delicious meals prepared by the Yaddo chefs—on china—in a mansion. It was so funny.
The point of going to Yaddo is to do a lot of work, and I did a lot of writing, very fast, while I was there. I think I wrote the last 150 pages of the draft in the first two weeks of my stay. But the other experience of Yaddo is to be surrounded by fellow artists—writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers—all working very hard in their own studios each day, and all coming together at dinner to share stories, and have debates, and laugh—oh my gosh, we laughed and laughed.
And we were kind to each other. People shared ideas and supplies and food and transportation and equipment; we encouraged each other through tough moments, we played games sitting in great overstuffed chairs with everyone’s feet on the antique tables, we experimented with exotic drinks and shared tips for avoiding deer ticks and played Ping-Pong in the pool cabin while downing shots of Maker’s Mark. One night, a Broadway composer played the piano and sang songs to a sculptor and me—we were sitting high in the rafters of the music room. A video artist smuggled in episodes of Game of Thrones and handed out flash drives to those of us who couldn’t sleep at night. And not one, not two, but three writers offered to introduce me to their agents—which is how I got an agent, and which started everything that happened after.
Yaddo was, well, just perfect. A perfect four weeks in my life.
You set out to write this book after your children were grown and out of the house. Was writing something you’d wanted to pursue, or was this a desire that developed later on? What would you say was your greatest influence throughout this process?
Well, my son had started high school, and my daughter had left for college. It actually felt strange to leave my son at home for a month while I went off to a writer’s retreat, but of course, he was just fine, and he had a lovely time with his dad.
I’m one of those people who has always thought of myself as a writer. Writing is a very natural form of communication for me; I have used it daily all my life. So, yes, I always planned to write a novel—and in fact wrote an earlier one when my children were quite small—and it was more or less just finding the window in my life when I would sit down and do it again. Writing a novel was much in my mind when I was choosing a new career mid-life; I wanted work that would allow me the flexibility to write. (I was, however, a bit naïve about the demands of a community college teaching job!)
My greatest influence? Hmmm. Well, I come from a family of readers, and we like stories, so I think I was influenced by all the ways that stories mattered in the lives of people who mattered to me. My mom instilled in me the idea that a novel was a way to understand the truth of things, that turning to a novel to figure out one’s bearings was simply a practical approach to life’s ups and downs. (A doctor once told her that perhaps she should stop reading for a while, to calm her nerves. It was the books that were to blame, of course—not the six kids . . . )
Why did you choose the quote from the Emily Dickinson poem for the title of this book? How do you feel it captures the essence of the story?
It was chosen in a burst of chaotic energy. I woke up on a Monday morning to an email from my agent saying she was ready to market the book; all she needed was a new title and a bio—in the next couple of hours. Ha ha ha. A new title and a bio that morning? I cranked out a two-line bio that I hoped would make me sound smart and fascinating, and then I grabbed a textbook thinking that I might be able to use a line from a poem. None of the lines I found seemed right, but I sent them off. My agent liked two, and her assistant liked just one, so there we were with “We Are Called to Rise.”
At first, I was worried that We Are Called to Rise sounded a bit sententious, and also, I had trouble remembering it, but I have come to love the title. I think my agent’s assistant intuited how effectively that line expresses the heart of the story; I’m grateful to her for that strong sense. I like Emily Dickinson’s work very much, and I particularly like the thought behind that poem. I hope my story does it justice.
What are you working on now? Are there more novels in the works?
I have been working on another novel. It’s also set in Las Vegas, and it also relies on the strange convergence of people’s lives, but it’s quite different from We Are Called to Rise. I’m working with characters that are far removed from my own experience. This should scare me, but it doesn’t. (They are just words on a screen, and if they turn out badly, I will delete them.) This novel also has a different narrative path. It ends with why the story exists, so the challenge is whether or not I can engage a reader long enough to get there.