Jeanne Winer on The Furthest City Light's spiritual coming-of-age story
After 35 years as a criminal defense attorney, Jeanne Winer has published her first novel. The Furthest City Light is set in Boulder and draws on her life in the courtroom, but it's neither a mystery nor a legal procedural. Instead, it's a wise and often humorous examination of a life fully lived. Winer will read from her novel at the Tattered Cover LoDo at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, February 28.
The book is set in the 1980s. Like Winer herself, the protagonist, Rachel Stein, is gay -- and she's also an adrenaline junkie who relishes the fight for justice in the courtroom, is passionate about human rights in general, has a third-degree black belt in karate and goes rock-climbing to relax. In 1985 and again in 1987, Winer went to Nicaragua to support the Sandinista revolution -- and Rachel Stein does the same.
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"Ultimately," says Winer, "this is a story about a woman who is trying to come to terms with the world as it is and not as she wishes it would be. It's so typical of that kind of person that after a grueling trial, she'd go off to Nicaragua: If you can't save one woman, why not go off and save a whole country?"
She laughs. "It's a spiritual coming-of-age for the main character, to come to some kind of peace with the way things are, to learn the crucial art of balance," she adds. "Toward the end, she starts to have a different sense about the world and what she can or cannot do to make any dent.
"It's a little heartbroken, the whole book."
The overall tone, however, is anything but heartbroken. It's smart, swift, and sometimes cynical, and there are little nuggets throughout about the realities of practicing law, as well as the system in Boulder, a town that Winer characterizes as "one of the best places to commit a crime anywhere in the United States, other than maybe Aspen."
Winer herself was a public defender in Jefferson County for five years before coming to Boulder. In Jeffco, she says, "Everyone was tough and mean-spirited and not at all sympathetic to stories about your clients, and in every case they wanted to file the habitual criminal. You show up in Boulder, and they're just nice. It was a mindfuck -- and also such a pleasure."
Rachel Stein's first client in The Furthest City Light is a woman named Emily, who has killed her abusive husband. These days, the battered-wife syndrome is well understood, but self-defense was difficult for Stein to argue in the 1980s. She draws on the work of real-life psychologist Lenore Walker, who at that time lived in Denver and first argued that abuse victims suffer a "learned helplessness." The trial is emotionally draining for Stein, who comes to care deeply for Emily.
The character of Emily, says Winer, "is a composite of those lovely clients who break your heart and whom you want to save. I did represent a young woman who stabbed her father to death with a pair of scissors. I used self-defense because he had beaten the crap out of her a number of times. I insisted on going to trial, and she was acquitted. So Emily's based on some real people, but really she made herself up. She became who she was and took over. I didn't plan for her to have such a big role in the book, but she elbowed her way in and I fell in love in her."
Winer is now absorbing the impact of being a published writer. "It's still a little unreal that I have a book that I can pull out of my bookshelf and say, 'I wrote that,'" she says. "And the feedback has been quite wonderful."
Still, she suffers all the usual writerly insecurities. "Last night I had this dream," she says. "I was in a clay class, and we were all beginners. I made a primitive ashtray with a couple of stumps on the bottom, and this other guy had various colors mixed together on his, all smooth, something you would sell in a souvenir shop in Cozumel. And I just looked at my little ashtray and thought, 'My God.' Sometimes I think my book is quite wonderful, and other times I think it's a primitive little ashtray."
But her readers disagree. And Winer is currently hard at work on the next novel.