Legal briefs and legal drama

Local lawyer looks to practice for debut novel

Stephanie Riesco | Boulder Weekly

Jeanne Winer and Rachel Stein share a common worldview. Adrenaline junkies as well as staunch feminists, they both grapple with “spiritual tantrums” in their compulsive pursuit of justice. Though these women rally against the world, they are always searching for a safe harbor of inner peace where they can lay down and rest for a while.

In these ways, the Boulder author and her protagonist are almost identical. But to Winer, there is a key difference.

“I kind of make a joke and say that Rachel is much more flawed than I was,” Winer says. “The truth is that there was a lot of me in her when I was 35, which is sort of horrifying to re-read as I was getting ready to send my proofs off to get published. Especially seeing this person behave in ways I would never think of behaving now.”

In The Furthest City Light, her debut novel released in December, Winer draws upon her 35-year career as a criminal defense attorney. Emotionally charged with Winer’s voice, the book is a fast-paced legal drama filled with urgent tension. Winer says she worked closely with her editor, Alan Rinzler, to ensure the book moved at an exciting clip.

“I think in this day and age there’s no reason to write a boring book,” Winer says. “I really like what we’ve come up with here, which is well-written entertainment.”

The story begins in Boulder and follows Rachel — who, in essence, is Winer — during her sleepless years as a public defender. Representing as many as 120 clients at once, Winer’s work was taxing to say the least. She says public defenders can’t do their jobs without living and breathing pure adrenaline.

“You’re really holding someone’s life and future in your hands,” Winer says. “It really does depend on being skilled, clever, innovative, passionate and eloquent. You have to do your best to save each person that you represent.”

However, there’s always one special case that is, as Rachel says, “going to hurt if it doesn’t come out right.” Rachel finds this case in Emily, a battered woman who killed her abusive husband. Though Emily is actually a composite of clients she and other friends have had, Winer says every public defender has their “Emily.”

“I didn’t expect Emily to have such a major role in the book, but she elbowed her way right in,” Winer says. “I mean, I fell in love with her and I could see why Rachel did too. She’s just a lovely, literate, kind woman and the kind of person who you, as a reader, could root for. You could understand why winning her case would mean so much to Rachel.”

Author Jeanne Winer

Winer has done her fair share of standing up for victims and was actively involved in overturning Colorado’s Amendment 2 during the ’90s. The amendment would have nullified existing state laws protecting the LGBT community from harassment and discrimination, as well as prevented passage of future legislation of this kind. Winer, who self-identifies as lesbian, worked on the team of lawyers fighting the amendment that brought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Winer sat at the counsel table and watched the proceedings. In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Amendment 2 was unconstitutional. Winer says she’s grateful to have been involved in this victory.

“I think it definitely affected me as a person, it was one of my proudest achievements,” Winer says. “Up until that point I had been a public defender for five years. I got to use all the skills I had gained for such a wonderful cause.”

Though Rachel only battles for Emily in the courtroom, she does live out other exhilarating passions of Winer’s life, like her rock climbing and her activism during the ’80s in war-torn Nicaragua. Winer says the draw of Nicaragua is obvious for someone who survives on thrill.

“The same pull you might experience being a public defender you might feel toward going to Nicaragua in the ’80s,” Winer says. “Very impetuously the heroine joins the brigade and is dealing with a more stressful situation than she just got out of. Like always, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

However, living this heightened existence can only last for so long, and Winer just recently completed her transition from lawyer to a full-time writer. Over a span of 10 years, she split her time between working as a criminal defense attorney and retreating to her Taos, N.M., vacation home to work on her novel. Used to her usual left-brain, logical thinking, Winer laughs when she remembers certain encounters in her dreamy writing state.

“One time, I went to visit a friend at a restaurant after writing all day long,” Winer says. “I sat down and said, ‘How are you?’ and she said, ‘Is that your car that’s running, parked haphazardly outside the restaurant?’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah.’”

Writing has been a dream for Winer ever since she composed a book of poems when she was 7 years old. Over the years Winer did publish some of her work in literary journals, but her love of the law always came first. Though part of her may always miss the courtroom, Winer says writing gives her the best of both worlds.

“It was definitely time to change, and I love writing about my past,” Winer says. “I think I’m luckier than most people. In my mind I still get to do what mattered so much to me.”

Whether she’s grappling with the world’s evils or simply trading adventure for a quieter life, coming to peace is a constant theme both in The Furthest City Light and in Winer’s own life. Though Winer is much more serene than the take-no-prisoners lawyer she once was, she says this is one area where Rachel surpasses her.

“I’d be enlightened if I was in a constant state of peace, but I think I have finally learned to accept the world on its own terms,” Winer says. “My heroine actually figures that out a lot sooner than I did.”

The Furthest City Light is available at Boulder Book Store, Tattered Cover Book Store, and Winer will sign books at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Boulder Book Store and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at Tattered Cover LoDo.