Reyna Grande has come a long way since her days as a Writers’ Program student. Her first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (2006) won the 2007 American Book Award and her follow up, Dancing with Butterflies (2009), won a 2010 International Latino Book Award. Earlier this year she published her memoir, The Distance Between Us (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster), which the Los Angeles Times calls “the Angela’s Ashes of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.” This winter she’ll teach her first course for the Writers’ Program, Introduction to Fiction Writing. I recently chatted with Reyna about starting out, getting published, and finding her own way.
Writers’ Program: Tell us about your journey from writing student to published and critically acclaimed author. What advice do you have for new writers who aspire to publication?
Reyna Grande: Writing for me is very personal, and I write about things that are important to me. Across a Hundred Mountains was rejected several times by editors. One of them actually said that no one would be interested in reading a story about a young Mexican girl searching for her missing father. I think that editor has been proven wrong because Across a Hundred Mountains went on to win awards and has been very popular in high schools and colleges.
The advice that I would give to any aspiring writer is not to allow anyone to keep you from writing what is in your heart. They might not understand what you are writing, but there are others who will. Write what is in your heart and your book will find its way to that one editor who understands you.
WP: How did your Writers’ Program classes help you hone your craft and create publishable work?
RG: Writing is a solitary endeavor. What I really liked about being in the program is that I had a chance to be in a room full of people who love writing as much as I do! I had teachers like Maria Amparo Escandon and Stephanie Waxman who were very good about making me think about my writing in different ways. Those hours in class were really stimulating and I would go home feeling inspired to write some more.
WP: How do the challenges of writing a memoir differ from those of writing a novel?
RG: Writing the memoir was very challenging. With a novel, you create the characters, the setting, the plot. With memoir it’s the opposite. You have a ton of material (“footage”) and the challenge is how to select what to put in and what to leave out, and how to shape it into a story that has an arc. Also, I was afraid to give myself permission to recreate the events in my life that had happened long ago. I was getting caught up on things like not remembering if my mother’s dress was blue or red, or not remembering the exact words that were exchanged in conversations. But eventually I learned my way and I used all my tools as a novelist—minus the fiction—to write it. The result is a memoir that reads like a novel in stories.
WP: You’re teaching Introduction to Fiction Writing in the upcoming winter quarter. What do you hope to teach your students about getting started? Do you have any tips for overcoming the fear of embarking on a new creative journey?
RG: I’m very much looking forward to my class. What I would like students to take away is that writing is a process. The first attempt will not be perfect, nor will the second or third. Writing requires patience and dedication because you need to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite some more in order for your story to take shape. I want my students to learn how to enjoy each step in the process and not rush through it nor be overwhelmed by it. I also want to encourage them to be honest in everything that they write.
Katy Flaherty is the Program Representative for Creative Writing (Onsite).