“Writing Was an Act of Survival”: A Conversation with Reyna Grande

By Alex EspinozaMay 19, 2022

“Writing Was an Act of Survival”: A Conversation with Reyna Grande
REYNA GRANDE IS the author of the best-selling memoir The Distance Between Us (2012) and its much-anticipated sequel, A Dream Called Home (2018). Her books, which also include the novels Across a Hundred Mountains (2006) and Dancing with Butterflies (2009), have been adopted as the common read selection by schools, colleges, and cities across the country. Grande has won numerous literary prizes, including an American Book Award, the Premio Aztlán Literary Prize, and the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature. She has written about such topics as immigration, family separation, language trauma, the price of the American Dream, and her own writing journey in The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, and Buzzfeed, among other outlets. In March 2020, she was a guest in Oprah’s Book Club. She has taught at the Macondo Writers Workshop, Bread Loaf, and VONA.

The ever-busy Grande has two new books appearing in 2022. March brought her latest novel, A Ballad of Love and Glory, a sweeping historical drama set during the Mexican-American War that Publishers Weekly has called “a great story and a revealing look at a lesser-sung chapter of American history.” In June, HarperVia will publish her co-edited anthology Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings, which features works by and about undocumented Americans. 

Reyna took time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Author photo by Ara Arbabzadeh.


ALEX ESPINOZA: Could you tell us a little about this new novel? What inspired you to write it?

REYNA GRANDE: In 2013, someone at a book reading asked me if I had ever heard of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion and its leader, John Riley. I had not. I did a little internet research and was immediately fascinated by this company of mainly Irish immigrants who had deserted from the United States army during the Mexican-American War, switching sides to fight for Mexico. They swam across the Rio Grande and found in Mexico what they hadn’t found in the US ranks: respect, friendship, opportunities. It fascinated me — their river crossing — because when we think of the Rio Grande, we think of people swimming across from south to north, but in this particular time in history, it was from north to south.

Another thing that inspired me was that I had very little knowledge about the Mexican-American War of 1846–’48, and as I read more and more about it, I felt a yearning to reclaim this history. By learning more about the US invasion of my native country, the fight over the Southern border, the land-grab that happened in 1848 when Mexico lost half its territory, it helped me to reframe the way I see myself as a Mexican immigrant living in California, a state that was once a part of Mexico.

How was this process different from your previous works of fiction?

In some ways, it is a total departure from anything I have ever written! It is my first time writing historical fiction, my first time writing outside of my gender and my culture. Switching genres was really difficult for me, especially writing a historical novel when I had no training doing research at this level. For my last novel, my “research” consisted of going to folklórico dance shows and talking to dancers! It was a daunting process to make sure that my novel didn’t sound like a history textbook, while at the same time fully immersing the reader in the war and the politics of the time.

The one thing that was similar to my other works is the exploration of the immigrant experience. This is something I always write about, but in A Ballad of Love and Glory, the immigrant experience I focus on is the Irish experience of the 1840s and their struggles with American nativism. But the immigrant experience is universal, and I was able to draw a lot from my own (and my father’s) experience to find parallels with the Irish in the 19th century who were mistreated, demonized, and reviled, much like the Latino immigrant is today.

I find that each novel we take on tends to reveal something new about the writing process. What did writing A Ballad of Love and Glory teach you about the process that you didn’t anticipate?

I never expected to be able to write battle scenes! I never saw myself as a writer who would (and could) write about war — battles, soldiers, politics. It was a frightening undertaking, to write this novel, and honestly, for the first few years, I kept putting it away because I thought I had taken on more than I was capable of. My other books — whether fiction or memoir — are all about me and my own experiences. But this novel required me to write about things I had never lived through, a time period that wasn’t my own.

Also, my writing has never been as blatantly political as this novel wanted to be. I kept telling myself I couldn’t do it. Luckily, I had people like my mentor Diana Savas and my husband who kept encouraging me not to give up on the book, so for five or so years I kind of trudged painfully along, writing a scene here and there. It wasn’t until 2020, with COVID-19 and everything shutting down, that I was able to find the courage to finish the book. All my anxiety, fears, and uncertainty over the pandemic helped me because I channeled those emotions into the novel. After all, my characters themselves were experiencing anxiety, fear, and uncertainty as their world was falling apart. All of the emotions I was feeling myself heightened the battle scenes I was writing about, and it raised the stakes.

So, what surprised me was that, in the end, I did manage to become a writer who writes stories about war!

Your last two books, The Distance Between Us and A Dream Called Home, were memoirs. How does it feel to return to fiction?

My last novel was published in 2009, so after almost 13 years of not publishing fiction, it feels tremendous to have a new novel out! Writing the memoirs was emotionally exhausting. I felt so vulnerable on the page, exposing all the good, the bad, and the ugly of my life. It was nice to take a break from being the protagonist of my own story or writing about my own traumas and heartaches. A Ballad of Love and Glory gave me a chance to enter someone else’s life and write about their heartache. It also gave me the opportunity to use all the techniques that were in my fiction toolbox and exercise my novelist’s muscles in a way I hadn’t when I was constrained by the parameters of memoir writing.

What challenges does writing a historical novel present that writing a novel set in a contemporary time doesn’t?

Transporting myself back to the 1840s was difficult. (How I wished I had a time machine!) It took tremendous work to recreate moments and events that I didn’t witness or didn’t have pictures and videos of. And yet, I needed to be able to create a convincing 1840s atmosphere for my reader. I was told early on that this makes or breaks a historical novel — the atmosphere! I was meticulous in my research of the locations I wrote about, and there were times when I caught things I had gotten wrong. For example, a church that might now have two steeples only had one in the 1840s. Measuring distance was another challenge — Google Maps isn’t going to give you an accurate measurement of how long it would take to travel from one place to another in the 1840s! Another challenge for me was the language. I paid special attention to how my characters spoke because I wanted it to be authentic to the time period. One difficulty I had was with all my military officers — Santa Anna, Arista, Ampudia, Scott, and so on — who spoke in a more formal way. I had to be careful that the dialogue wasn’t stilted while remaining true to the formality of the era.

What advice would you offer to anyone interested in taking on the challenge of writing a historical novel?

Take it in phases. Start with the big picture and then narrow the lens. That way you don’t get overwhelmed. For example, I read as many books as I could about the Mexican-American War to get a general idea of the what, when, where, who, why, and how. Then I researched each historical figure and got a good idea as to when they would enter the story’s timeline. This gave me enough to get a rough draft of some chapters done. Then I divided my research into sections focused on each location where the novel takes place, each battle my protagonists were in. This helped me add more chapters. Once I had the plot points in place, I got more focused on the research — the flora and fauna of South Texas/Northern Mexico, curanderismo and spirituality, cockfighting, artillery warfare of the 1840s, and so on. This helped me add more concrete details to my chapters and my characters. The point is that you don’t have to know everything to get started, just enough to make broad strokes. You add the details in subsequent drafts as you narrow down the areas you need to research.

I’ve been reading a lot about the idea of producing art in a time of uncertainty and the way such circumstances shape our aesthetic. How, if at all, has our current pandemic reality altered your writing practice?

I think the silver lining of the lockdown was being forced to stay home and write. Prior to this, I was traveling and speaking so much that I was not prioritizing my writing as much as I should have. So, in March 2020 when our world was upended, I only had 200 rough pages of A Ballad of Love and Glory, even though I had started the book in 2013. But then COVID-19 hit, and as an escape from our present situation, I transported myself to the 1840s to explore the uncertainty of a war instead of a pandemic. By September, I had 400 pages decent enough to pass on to my editor. By December, I had done two more drafts. I think for me, it’s been easier to get into the writing during these challenging times because the reason I turned to writing in the first place, when I was 13 years old, was that my childhood was so unstable and uncertain. Writing for me was an act of survival. It is during difficult times when I do the most writing.

Your first book, Across a Hundred Mountains, was published in 2006. How, in your opinion, has the publishing landscape changed, if at all, for Latinx authors since that time?

I think it’s changing slowly, but it is changing. And obviously, after the embarrassing controversy from early 2020, I feel that more publishers are making a bigger effort to increase the diversity of their titles. In 2022, there is a great lineup of Latinx titles being released — and I’m especially looking forward to You Sound Like a White Girl by Julissa Arce, Crying in the Bathroom by Erika Sánchez, Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A Woman of Endurance by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa, The Neapolitan Sisters by Margo Candela, I’m Not Broken by Jesse Leon, and The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas. Recently we’ve had titles land on the New York Times best-seller list (Mexican Gothic, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, L.A. Weather, and Infinite Country are some examples). We have some books currently being made into films or TV series, such as I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseMexican GothicClap When You Land, and Olga Dies Dreaming. We have titles being chosen for book clubs and community reads. So, let’s be sure to celebrate these successes! Obviously, I know that for every writer being published there are many more who are struggling to get their foot in the door, so let’s keep advocating for ourselves and our writing community.

What inspires you to keep writing?

I never forget that writing is something that might have never been in my life if circumstances had been different. I was born in poverty in Mexico in a place where access to books is almost nonexistent without money. You can’t be a writer if you aren’t a reader first. In Mexico, for example, The Distance Between Us costs 200 pesos, and that’s two days wages for people like my relatives. So, I came really close to never becoming a reader or having a clue that I had some writing talent. But when I immigrated to the United States, I suddenly had access to a beautiful place called the public library. I discovered my love of books, and from there my love of writing. As an immigrant who risked her life crossing the border, I never forget that, had things turned out differently, I could have been detained, deported, disappeared, or dead. So the way I show gratitude for having survived my border crossing and the opportunity to have books and writing in my life is to keep creating works of literature that I can share with others.

Can you talk a little about other projects you have in the works?

In between writing A Ballad of Love and Glory, I co-edited an anthology with poet and activist Sonia Guiñansaca. Somewhere We Are Human: Authentic Voices on Migration, Survival, and New Beginnings is a collection of essays, poems, and artwork by and about undocumented Americans. It is due to be published in June 2022. I am also currently adapting Joshua Davis’s best-selling book Spare Parts for young readers.


Alex Espinoza is the author of The Five Acts of Diego Léon.

LARB Contributor

Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico. He came to the United States with his family at the age of two and grew up in suburban Los Angeles. Author of the novel Still Water Saints, he received an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. A recipient of the Margaret Bridgman Fellowship in Fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Espinoza is currently an associate professor of English at California State University, Fresno. His latest book is The Five Acts of Diego Léon.


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