Write from the Heart: A Chat with Reyna Grande

reyna_grandeBy Abbey Hester and Paula Sword Orr


Reyna Grande is a bestselling author of three books (two novels and a memoir) that deal with immigration. The LA Times praised the memoir as “the ‘Angela’s Ashes’ of the modern Mexican immigrant experience.” She’s received some pretty hefty awards for her writing, such as the American Book Award, the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award, and the Latino Book Award, and has been printed internationally in several countries.


She’s a pro at writing beautifully to keep the reader engaged and pacing the story to keep them wanting more. If you want to learn how to whip your plot into shape, check out Reyna’s Plot Bootcamp, February 16th. We’re truly excited to be offering such an amazing workshop. Snag your spot before they’re all taken!


Thank you, Reyna, for taking the time to talk to us:


1. How did you get your first book “Across a Hundred Mountains” published?
I was fortunate enough to have been a 2003 Emerging Voices Fellow (offered by Pen Center USA West), where, at the end of the fellowship, I landed an agent. From there the journey wasn’t so difficult. My agent sent out the manuscript to editors. I got several rejections, of course, but one day in March she called me to give me the news that Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, had made an offer! I was very lucky that things fell into place for me the moment I decided to seize my dream of being a professional writer. I hadn’t written in three years, then one day I woke up and realized that my dream of writing was slipping away. So, I decided to take my dream back. I enrolled in a weekend writing class. My teacher told me about Emerging Voices (and the deadline to apply was the following weekend!). I applied. I got in. I got an agent. I got a book deal– In that order, in a period of one year and three months!

reyna grande


2. Your books are thematically about the Mexican immigrant experience. Tell us why. Have you pigeon-holed yourself?


My writing is very personal. I write about things that I care about. As an immigrant, one of the things I deeply care about is the topic of immigration. I write about it from a different angle. For me, immigration isn’t black and white. I write about its complexities, about the positive and the negative. I don’t romanticize it.  I don’t think I have pigeon-holed myself. In fact, the opposite is true. When you write about one particular topic again and again people think of you as an “expert,” as an authority on the subject. That isn’t a bad thing, let me tell you. One of the reasons why my writing career has gone so well for me is because immigration is the biggest issue of our time, and I constantly get asked to speak about my experiences at schools and conferences all over the country. Having said that, I don’t write about immigration because it’s a “hot” topic, or because I want to be considered an “expert.” I write about it because I care.  And that is what makes the difference–that I write from my heart.


3. You have written three award-winning books. What do you think the elements of a good novel are?
I think what people like about my books is that they are well-structured. I pay a lot of attention to the pacing of the story. I am brutal when it comes to cutting stuff that needs to be cut. Even if I love it I cut, cut, cut. Every book I have written, just as it is ready to get sent off to the printer, I manage to still cut another 20-30 pages. To me, a novel needs to have a solid structure. It needs to move at the right pace. It needs to be tight. It must have a narrative arc and a well-developed character arc. It needs movement, a rise and a fall, a beginning that grabs you and an ending that resonates, even after you’ve put the book down. One of the best questions I get asked by readers is this: When are you going to write the sequel?  That question tells me that I succeeded. I left my reader wanting more.


reyna grande 2

4. Tell us about your memoir “The Distance Between Us.” How different is it writing memoir and fiction?


There are similarities and differences. With a novel you start from scratch. You build the world and the characters from the bottom up. It is an addition problem. In memoir you have a ton of material to choose from. Depending on how many years you are covering of your life, you have years and years of material that you need to sort through and pick what to keep and what to leave out. It is a subtraction problem. The similarities are that in both novel and memoir, you still need to write scenes, dialogue, and vivid descriptions. You still need a narrative arc, character arc, tension, build-up, a good beginning, and a good ending. Characters need to be three-dimensional no matter if they are imaginary or real. When I was writing the memoir, I wrongly assumed that because I was writing about real people I didn’t have to work as hard on developing my characters as I do in my fiction. I was wrong. I had to work even harder.


5. Are there any stories or novels that helped you write any of your own books?


I like books that are lyrical and sparsely written. Some of my favorites are The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Mother Tongue by Demetria Martinez, We, the Animals by Justin Torres, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kinkaid, A Country Called Home by Kim Barnes, and many more. I read these books for inspiration whenever I’m stuck with my own writing.

reyna dancing


6. Which character is your favorite fictional character (from your own works) thus far?


Oh, hard to say. I love the heroine in Across a Hundred Mountains, Juana, because she is a fighter and never lets life bring her down. I also love Soledad, one of the main characters in Dancing with Butterflies, because she is so sweet and true to herself.


7. What can students expect to learn in your class at Writing Pad?


They will learn that there is no right or wrong way when it comes to writing…As long as it works, I will say, “Go for it!” Throughout my years of teaching, I have to say that this is one of the best things that I can teach a student–to not be afraid to try new things. Students come with a lot of fear. They get overwhelmed with the “rules” of writing. I teach my students the rules. I show them traditional methods, but I also show them non-traditional approaches to writing that WORK. This liberates them. It gives them permission to explore and find their own voice.


8. What is your writing process like? Do you know how your fiction stories will end when you first start them? How often do you write?

reyna distance

First thing I do is to not FORCE myself to write. If I don’t feel it, I don’t feel it. Instead, I read, I do some gardening. I make jewelry. I watch a good movie. Then I have my “Aha!’ moment and I write like a maniac, cranking out pages and pages within a short time. So I guess you can say that through all the non-writing things I was doing I was in fact writing, subconsciously that is. To me that is the key thing to remember–just because you aren’t physically writing it doesn’t mean that you aren’t writing inside your head. I always have my characters in my head. I am always trying to work out the story problems as I go about my day. So in a way I am always writing.


When it comes to starting a new book, sometimes I write by the seat of my pants, or the “headlight” method. E.L. Doctorow once said that “‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Having said that, once I have a draft of my book, then I switch gears and I do an outline just to make sure my structure is right. Right now I am writing a historical novel. This is the first time I’ve done a basic outline first before I start to write. I used the historical timeline and super-imposed my story timeline. I have an outline that has the major events, such as the inciting incident, the first plot point, the midpoint, the second plot point, the resolution. Every book you write will teach you something new.

reyna across


9. Do you ever get writer’s block? Any tips on how to get beyond writer’s block?


Don’t stress out about it. Stress only makes it worse. Accept it and do something fun. When I have writer’s block I do a lot of gardening and while I’m doing that I’m having conversations with my characters, trying to get to the bottom of things. I also read my favorite books, and when I read them I remember why I love the written word and that makes me want to write again. I go to book readings, or I teach a writing class, and being in a room full of people that love books energizes me, it hypes me up and I want to go home and write.


There you have it, friends. If you liked what Reyna had to say about crafting a perfectly paced novel while also finding your own voice, don’t miss her Story Marathon: Plot Bootcamp. This is your chance to learn from a pro!