Novelist/Memoirist Reyna Grande is the author of the novels Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies, for which she received an American Book Award (2007) and an International Latino Book Award (2010). Her most recent book, The Distance Between Us, is a memoir about her life before and after illegally immigrating from Mexico to the United States. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as“the Angela’s Ashes of the modern Mexican immigrant experience,” it was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award.
An Interview with Adam McDonald
Last summer I took a class with Micah Perks, where we discussed the conventions and general history of the memoir. The class looked at memoirs from the Confessions of Saint Augustine to Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, to memoirs challenging the genre such as J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood. We talked about the ethics, style, truth, interpretations, and pretty much everything else that came with writing and reading memoir.
After the summer class, I experimented with memoir, trying to write my life, and the things that had happened to me. To be the most clear, I found that it was extremely hard, probably the hardest thing I’d ever tried to write. And, when I heard Reyna Grande would be reading from her new memoir The Distance Between Us at the Living Writer’s Series, last winter, I was more than interested.
The Distance Between Us, is a vast narrative following Reyna Grande in her immigration to the United States as a young girl leading up to her arrival to the University of California Santa Cruz. It’s a sprawling narrative told in the terse and minimalist style of Grande’s writing.
I found the contrast interesting, between the big encompassing story of two countries and family lineages and the minimalist prose style.
Adam McDonald: How does minimalist writing work particularly for the effects of memoir. What are the merits of straightforward prose in the memoir genre?
Reyna Grande: For my memoir, I found my style to work rather well because I was writing about the many difficulties I endured through my childhood and adolescence. A more direct, sparsely written style helped to tone it down a bit. Otherwise, it would have been a very melodramatic memoir. To me, a simple style allows the reader to become more emotionally engaged with the story because you–the writer–aren’t telling your reader how to feel or what to think. You are letting her/him experience the story in a straightforward and honest way and your reader will bring his/her own emotions and thoughts into the story, thus becoming an active participant. I always say, “less is more.”
McDonald: What was your writing process for memoir, and what tools you used to help the writing of such a vast narrative?
Grande: Well, to be honest, I kind of stumbled my way through it at first. I was a novelist trying to write a memoir and I didn’t know how to go about it. With a novel, you play God–which means you have to create the world and the characters that populate it. You have to figure out what happens in the story. Memoir is the opposite way. You have a ton of material and you have to pare it down to give it shape. So this is what I did when writing The Distance Between Us. First, I wrote the most vivid memories I had, in no particular order. Once I did that, I started to interview my family members (my siblings, my parents, etc) and I wrote down their memories. Next, I started to put all of those memories in chronological order. I ended up with a 300 page manuscript that spanned 30 some years. I realized I was trying to cover too much–my childhood, my adolescence, my writing career, motherhood, etc. A former mentor of mine told me that memoir is not an autobiography. He said I had at least three memoirs in that manuscript and I needed to decide what the story was about. To me that was very insightful and I realized that the story I really wanted to tell was about my coming-of-age. I took everything out that didn’t have to do with my coming-of-age and was left with about 100 pages. Now that I knew what time period of my life I wanted to write about, I decided to break it up into two parts to help me pin down the narrative arc and the themes. I realized that I was dealing with a “before and after” story. My life before coming to the U.S. and my life after. I knew then that the mid-point would be my border crossing. As I began to write the first half of the book, I discovered that everything I was writing was centered around my mother–or rather, my mother’s absence. That became a very important part of the first half of the story. By realizing that, I automatically realized that the second half of the book would then have to be centered around my father, since I spent my young adulthood with him. I also made a list of the themes I was addressing, and through my many drafts I began to see recurring images/metaphors and I tried to bring those out more and use them as threads to weave the story together.
McDonald: For The Distance Between us, how did you define truth and honesty before you wrote it, and how does that compare to after you finished it?
Grande: Well, before I wrote the book, I believed that truth was truth, no matter what. But as I began to write it, I realized that truth is subjective. My truth wasn’t my sister’s truth, or my mother’s truth. Honesty was also something I had to learn to define. Honesty isn’t just telling the facts as accurately as you can, honesty is also unveiling those deep, ugly emotions and thoughts you would rather keep hidden in the dark. Honesty is also admitting to yourself that someone else’s truth is as important as your own.
McDonald: I would like to hear more of your thoughts about the memoir genre in contemporary literary culture. I agree with you that it is important today, to keep people reading, and to act as a healthy alternative to a more visual stimulating medium, but what are your thoughts about rules in memoir?
Grande: I don’t believe in rules for writing. I believe in guidelines. Guidelines on character development and plotting help you create three dimensional characters and have a well structured story. Having said that, I don’t think there is ever a right way or a wrong way to write a book. As long as it works, I say, write your book however you think it suits the story. The story will usually dictate how it wants to be written. Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, is one of my favorites. He uses past tense and seamlessly switches to present tense within scenes. He uses the voice of an adult Frank and then suddenly switches to the voice of a young boy. We, the reader, are so captivated by the story he is telling that we don’t say, “Wait a minute, he just switched tenses!” The story works. Rules don’t matter when it comes to eliciting an emotional response from your reader. What matters is that you forge a deep connection with your reader through the pages of your book.
When I was writing my memoir, I had a few people tell me that I wasn’t following the rules, that I wasn’t approaching it right. My memoir is written like a novel in stories. Each chapter is wrapped around one particular memory and usually takes place in a day. My memoir doesn’t have much exposition, and the adult Reyna hardly ever comments on or analyzes what is happening in the story. I said, “this is how this memoir wants to be written.” And I made it work.
McDonald: Do you think that memoir has a set of unbreakable rules, or are there only certain ones that can be broken and ones that must be upheld?
Grande: When you write a memoir, you need to keep your facts straight and don’t say “this and this” happened when in fact it didn’t. There are many memoirs out there that should have been called autobiographical novels, or just plain fiction. When people find out that a certain memoir was fabricated, that puts all memoirs into question. I said truth is subjective, but facts are facts.
McDonald: What books influence you and keep influencing you from when you starting writing?
Grande: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, The Autobiography of my Mother by Jamaica Kinkaid, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.
McDonald: Who were your biggest mentors?
Grande: When I was at Pasadena City College, my English teacher, Diana Savas, became my first mentor. She was the first to tell me I had writing talent. She offered me affection, encouragement, and much more. When I was at UCSC my writing teacher Micah Perks and my Spanish teacher Marta Navarro, became my mentors. I learned a lot from them. Later on, two of my writing teachers also were a big influence on me–Leslie Schwartz and Leonard Chang. They kicked my butt and pushed me to become a better writer. Now that I am a creative writing teacher, I am putting to use everything I learned from my mentors. I offer my students a lot of support and encouragement, but I also kick their butts and push them to work hard.
McDonald: What is your writing space like, and how do you approach it? Do you hold the writing space a very sacred one, or do you go in not expecting anything?
Grande: I don’t really have a sacred space. I have learned to write anywhere, anytime. I write at my dining table, at a coffee shop, at airports, on airplanes, at hotels, at restaurants, anywhere I can get some time alone, that’s where I write. I have a 12 year old and a six year old, so I have to make time for my writing whenever my kids aren’t around. I also don’t write every day for hours on end. If I don’t feel it I won’t sit down at my computer because I’ll just be staring at the screen. I do a lot of writing in my head. While I’m washing dishes, doing laundry, sweeping, watering my plants, driving, I am in my head writing scenes. Then when I’m ready, I write.
McDonald: Do you listen to music when you write? if so, what type?
Grande: I don’t listen to music, not even when I’m not writing. I don’t watch TV. I don’t listen to the radio. When I’m alone I like the quiet, I like to be in my head and talk to my characters, find out what they want and why. Always why.