Please welcome Reyna Grande to the Ball this week! Reyna is an award-winning author whose stunning memoir The Distance Between Us was a New York Times bestseller, and whose novels have been adapted as a common read selection in classrooms across the country. A Dream Called Home, which came out this year, is Reyna’s fourth book, and we are incredibly honored to have her as a guest.
In A Dream Called Home, Reyna chronicles her journey to becoming a writer, making the memoir a must-read for anyone who has ever wanted to pursue their dreams of making art. Readers of Reyna’s captivating books are treated not only to beautiful prose, but to stories that are sure to move and inspire people from all walks of life (see the fan mail that Reyna shared with us in this interview). Talking to Reyna is like meeting the encouraging mentor you wish you had growing up–and as Reyna says, much of what fuels her writing is the hope that she can convince young people “that their story and their dreams matter.”
Stephanie Jimenez: In your latest memoir, A Dream Called Home, you write about overcoming great adversity to eventually become the writer you are today. Here at The Debutante Ball, we are committed to helping writers forge a path forward, but we know that the process can be mystifying. Can you tell us about the beginning of your writing career and how you secured your very first book offer?
Reyna Grande: My biggest disappointment when I graduated from university was that I didn’t have a clue about where to begin. In my writing classes we talked a lot about craft, but I can’t remember one instance when we talked about the business of writing–like getting an agent or pitching publishers. In fact, I didn’t even know what a query letter was, since we never talked about that in class. It was a daunting experience to try to figure things out once I was in the real world learning how to be an adult and take care of myself while pursuing my writing dream. I actually gave up writing for three years. Luckily, I took a weekend writing workshop and my teacher told me about a fellowship for emerging writers offered by PEN America. I applied and got in. In Emerging Voices, I learned more about the business of writing. I finished the program with a completed draft of my novel and with an agent. A year later, I had a contract. My advice to new writers is to make sure you spend time learning about the business. It’s great to learn the craft and to give yourself completely to your art, but you need to be savvy when it comes to navigating the complicated world of publishers and you must learn how to pitch yourself to the gatekeepers–the agents and the editors.
SJ: You’ve written masterful works of both fiction and non-fiction, including your novels Across a Hundred Mountains (2006)and Dancing with Butterflies (2009), as well as your memoirs The Distance Between Us (2012) and A Dream Called Home (2018). I’m curious about what it’s like for you to publish in different genres–do you have a clear preference for writing fiction or non-fiction?
RG: I truly enjoy writing both. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. What I love about fiction is that I am not beholden to the “truth” and can use my imagination and follow the story to wherever it may lead me. It’s like making a smoothie where I get to throw in my experiences, other people’s experiences, things I imagined, things I read about or heard about and mix it all in. Also, sometimes it’s fun not knowing what is going to happen next and to discover as I write. On the other hand, you have to work harder at writing the story because you are starting from scratch, from nothing, and you get to play God and create the world and the people who live in it. That can be quite daunting.
Writing memoir is easier in that you already know what happened and how things ended. You know the story, the characters, they are all there already. The trick is how to write it in a way that doesn’t read like a collection of memories, but has a structure and narrative arc. This happens when you are very clear about how to shape the story.
A memoir is like making a sculpture–what you remove is just as important as what you leave in. The biggest challenge for me was figuring out the plot points. We don’t think of our lives as having plot points, so it is unnatural to think of our experiences this way–but surprising enough, there are defining moments in our lives that are definitely plot points. I love working with both genres, but as of now, I am going back to the novel because I cannot bear the thought of writing another memoir at the moment. I am emotionally drained from the experience.
SJ: Your books have been adopted as common read selections by schools and colleges across the country, and I imagine that you have received letters and e-mails from many readers. How, if at all, does this correspondence influence your work?
RG: Ha, ha, ha. Good question. I love getting “fan” mail. In fact, I just got one yesterday that put a huge smile on my face.
“Dear Ms. Grande, I read your autobiography The Distance Between Us a few weeks ago and I was floored by your candor. I just finished reading Across a Hundred Mountains and I truly believe that people will be talking about that book hundreds of years from now. You deserve every accolade bestowed upon you. Just for context, I am a 58 year old white/half Jewish man from Long island, N.Y. I am anxiously looking forward to reading more of your work. I have read Hemingway, Austen, Dickens, and many other classic literary authors. You will be spoken about in the same breath, if you haven’t been already.”
This letter gave me a little boost of confidence, which I need right now because I need to prepare for writing marathons now that my book tour is over. But I have to say the most powerful letters I get are from young students who tell me that my book gave them hope for the future and that it inspired them to keep fighting hard for their dreams. To me, this is the true reason why I work so hard as a writer–because I want to motivate our youth, remind them that they are not alone and that their story and their dreams matter.
SJ: Publishing a book is a collaborative process and in my own process with my debut novel, I’ve experienced firsthand how important it is to have a whole team of people–including editors, art directors, marketers, and publicists–who can respond to your work not only with sensitivity, but with real, critical insight. Given that the publishing industry is notorious for its lack of diversity, it seems like its harder for authors from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to find a publisher they can fully trust with their work. What advice would you give to new authors who are entering that relationship for the first time?
RG: You have to learn to advocate for yourself. No one else is going to do it as well as you. Not your agent, not your editor. This is your baby. They are just helping you to raise it, but ultimately, the baby is yours and so is most of the responsibility. Don’t be afraid to speak up whenever things don’t feel right to you, or when you see the publishing team making decisions that you feel don’t honor or respect your culture. For example, I had to push back when the art department wanted to put cactus all over my cover, you know what I mean?!
But the one thing I will point out that really irritates me is that new writers think that publishing is the end of the goal–that’s their finish line. And then they move on to their next projects. You have to honor the opportunity of being published. And you do that by working hard to promote your book before and waaaay after it’s been published. Don’t “move on” to the next project so soon. You need to make sure you promote, promote, promote for as long as you can and don’t expect your publisher to do it all for you. They won’t.
SJ: If you could go back to any historical time period, which would it be?
RG: 1846-1848, the Mexican/American War. This is the setting of my new novel and I would love, love, love to have a time machine to take me back so that I can witness it for myself. For now, I’ll have to make do with the limitations of my imagination and history books.
GIVEAWAY TIME! Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter and SHARE the interview for a chance to win A DREAM CALLED HOME! For extra entries, comment on this post. We’ll choose and contact the winner shortly afterwards.
We had a fascinating conversation with @reynagrande this week about art & publishing that you should read right now. RT & follow for a chance to #win A DREAM CALLED HOME, the captivating memoir that’s essential for readers who want to stay inspired in 2019 https://t.co/IWmDy3tBWz
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) December 22, 2018
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