I FIRST LEARNED of Reyna Grande when she submitted a short story in response to my 2005 call for submissions for what would eventually be the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008). This was early in her writing career, a year before Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) would publish Reyna’s first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, which was well received by the critics and went on to win the American Book Award among other honors. Her second novel, Dancing with Butterflies (Washington Square Press) also garnered critical acclaim and awards.
Reyna was born into poverty in Mexico and was only two years old when her father left his family for the United States to find work. Her mother followed two years later leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico with relatives. In 1985, Reyna was nine when she entered this country as an undocumented immigrant and settled in Los Angeles to live with her father, her parents having separated. Despite a life filled with deprivation and violence, Reyna has gone on to live the American dream.
Reyna became a naturalized citizen under President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program. She earned a degree in creative writing and film and video from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She then obtained an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. To this day, Reyna is the only person in her family to complete college. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.
This summer, Atria Books published Reyna’s memoir, The Distance Between Us, which offers a difficult read only because of the hardships she depicts in exquisite detail; it is a deeply personal coming-of-age story that extols the power of self-reliance and the love of books. Indeed, literature has made Reyna’s life what it is.
As she continues her book tour, Reyna kindly agreed to spend some time with us and answer a few questions for LARB.
DANIEL OLIVAS: After writing two novels, why did you decide to write a memoir?
REYNA GRANDE: Even though my novels are very personal, and the material I write about is drawn from my own experience, they are fictional stories. After I completed my second novel, I wanted to write the real story about my life, before and after illegally immigrating to the US from Mexico. I wanted to shed light on the complexities of immigration and how immigration affected my entire family in both positive and negative ways.
DO: When did you start your memoir? How did you map it out?
RG: I started writing it in May 2007 while I was working on Dancing with Butterflies. I finished the first draft in April 2010, six months after Dancing was published. The first draft was very rough. I was cramming 30 years of my life into 300 pages! I showed this draft to a former teacher who told me that I had four memoirs in there, and he suggested that I think about what I wanted the memoir to cover. So I decided that it would be about my coming-of-age and I got rid of the pages that had nothing to do with that. The hardest part of course was how to structure it. In the end, I decided to use my background as a novelist and the result was a memoir that reads like a novel in stories. Each chapter is wrapped around a specific memory, a day in my life. I also deci...