Aspen author Amy Bourret finds her way with words

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesAspenite Amy Bourret will talk about and sign copies of her debut novel, "Mothers and Other Liars," at 4 p.m. Friday at Explore Booksellers in Aspen.

ASPEN – Amy Bourret began her novel “Mothers & Other Liars” with a big “What if?” – or make that the big “What if?”: What if the most fundamental things you knew about your life, about yourself, turned out to be false?”It’s always intrigued me: What if? What if you wake up one morning and the world as you thought it was wasn’t true? That everything you built your life on was a lie?” Bourret said.Such musings of existential horror spring from the work Bourret has done in child advocacy. Handling kids in troubled circumstances, she often saw children separated from their parents, brought into new surroundings. Even when the changes look from the outside to be a marked improvement, she was still struck by what must be going through the child’s mind as his life was upended.”You get a kid who, for the first 10 years of his life, thinks this is the way the world is,” the 48-year-old Bourret said. “Then one day he gets yanked out of his home and he realizes, this is not the world anymore. It can be a totally black-to-white experience. Even a kid who thinks it’s normal for his parents to be drug addicts – he can be taken into another world, and it can be better, but it’s a different reality.”Lark Leander, the 9-year-old who is one of the central characters in “Mothers & Other Liars,” has little reason to question the stability of her existence. “This is no sand-castle life that could wash away in the evening tide,” as Bourret writes on the first page of her debut novel, which was published Tuesday, and which she celebrates with a talk and book-signing at 4 p.m. Friday at Explore Booksellers. True, Lark has no father, but her adoring mother Ruby has explained about the tractor accident, and life has proceeded just fine with no man in their little house. The domestic existence may be somewhat offbeat – after all, this is Santa Fe – but Lark’s surroundings, filled with lesbians and artists, Catholics and tourists, are warm and nurturing.Until, in an instant, it all changes. First, Ruby’s past catches up to her, and her worst fear, long suppressed beneath her affection for her daughter and the near-normal life she has made for her, smacks her in the face. Ruby weighs the options: flee to Mexico? Dig in and deny? Tell the truth? She chooses the last, most honest of these, and gives Lark the truth. Ruby is not her biological mother. Worse still, the relationship between Ruby and Lark is not a sanctioned one. Ruby found the infant girl in a truck stop trash can and took her and raised her as her own, no authorities involved.Bourret, a part-time Aspenite who also lives in Dallas, says that her book has stirred up a debate among readers over Ruby’s dilemma. But it is not the decision about whether to tell Lark about her true origins that is the heart of “Mothers & Other Liars.” That one is a cinch, wrapped up in the early pages of Bourret’s engaging, caring novel. Far more provocative is what Ruby calls her “plan” – a way of handling the situation that calls into question where a mother’s instincts lie, the nature of parenthood, and how you cope with a problem that has no right answer.”The choices Ruby faces are devastating,” Bourret said. “I’ve had some people say no mother would ever make the decision she makes. I’ve had people say they understand the decision she made, but they couldn’t make it. One reader said the decision was ‘so disgusting.'”Bourret, who is not a mother, has lived for years with the characters she has created, and still doesn’t know exactly where she stands on the plan. But it is a credit to the novel that Bourret says she understands Ruby’s decision more than she agrees with it, or feels able to defend it.”I don’t know what I would have done in her situation,” Bourret said. “The one thing I hope people take away from this book is the definition of family isn’t this tight little thing. It’s much broader. Family is what you make it.”••••Bourret has had her own experience of the ground being pulled out from under her, even if on a relatively small scale. After earning a liberal arts degree from Texas Tech, she went on to Yale Law School, to study in the clinical program in child advocacy there. “This was what I was going to do,” she said of her plan to be a child advocate.”Then I got there and realized I couldn’t do it full-time,” she continued. “The kids stayed with me, in my mind – in bed, in the shower. I can still recite chapter and verse what these kids’ stories were. I was either going to have to develop a really thick skin or get burned out in no time. I really respect people in the trenches, social workers, advocates. I don’t have enough of the filter to do it full-time.”In what she considers a 180-degree turn, Bourret became a lawyer in the corporate world, an associate in the mergers-and-acquisitions department of a large firm. Instead of dealing with the immediate needs of children set adrift, she found herself maximizing the profits of big companies. “It was the grind of big-firm law, where they grind you up, spit you out and ask, ‘How many hours can you bill?'” she said. Nonetheless, Bourret found she enjoyed the work. And to ease her conscience, she always volunteered some hours to do child advocacy work. “So when I tired of turning people’s money around, I turned to little Annie, whose mother’s boyfriend dunked her in boiling water,” she said. “And when that got to be too much, I went back to people’s money. That was a good balance for me.” Bourret was involved with various organizations that addressed children’s issues; she currently serves on the board of Presbyterian Children’s Home and Services, based in Austin.In 1995, after a few years as in-house counsel to a Santa Fe real estate development company, Bourret took a sabbatical. She cared for her sick grandmother in Iowa, and settled in as a part-time Aspenite. But mostly she returned to her childhood love of writing, and participated in writer’s workshops, including the one at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, where she also taught a children’s summer camp.”I have poems from when I was 6,” said Bourret, who despite moving frequently as a kid, calls her childhood happy and secure. “I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I found journals from when I was a kid that said, ‘I am a writer. It is what I am. It is my destiny. It is my soul.'”During her time off, Bourret began writing a novel, assembling scraps of ideas from various places. She began the book in Santa Fe, and used the local color – the art scene, the tourists, the mountains – extensively. She dug out a short story she had written at the age of 16, about a girl finding out she’d been adopted. And she drew on the mothering instinct that she has never used on a child of her own.”I think I always assumed I’d have kids. There was a time I was certain I’d have them. And it just never happened,” Bourret said. “There are times my arms ache with that emptiness.” Bourret adds that lost children had been a common theme in her writing: “I asked a shrink if I had abandonment issues, or was this my yearning to have a child?”Instead of kids of her own, Bourret has a pair of nieces she is close to, an acceptance of her motherless status – “I feel like my life is what it is supposed to be,” she said – and a novel, published by St. Martin’s Griffin.Writing “Mothers & Other Liars” seems to have been fairly pain-free; Bourret doesn’t mention multiple drafts and rewrites, or difficulty coming up with a subject. She knew what she wanted to write about: “I think the key was realizing how well I knew the characters, and how much of their lives I was involved with,” she said.Getting published was a different story. After finishing the novel, in 1998, Bourret made some half-hearted efforts to find an agent. Then she quietly stuck the manuscript in a drawer.”Fish and house guests, after three days, stink. You want them to go away after awhile,” she said. “So I was happy to have other voices get in my head. Other stories were feeling more urgent; those voices were screaming to be exorcised.”Rather than lavish attention on getting “Mothers & Other Liars” in circulation, Bourret began writing a second novel, one that she said was “burning to get out.” In 1999, she moved to Dallas, to resume her law career. Three years later, she retired for health reasons, and focused again on writing. Her fellow participants in a writers’ critique group encouraged Bourret to pursue getting “Mothers & Other Liars” published. The very first agent who read the manuscript accepted Bourret – but Bourret is quick to point out that, between the time she sent off the manuscript to her agent and being signed on as a client, she was rejected by 52 other agents.Bourret insists that writing for her is more about the stories and craft than getting published. The day I spoke with her was the day before the publication date for “Mothers & Other Liars,” and was indeed noticeably nonchalant about the big ‘P’-day. She seems less focused on publicity strategies for her published novel than on writing the book she has in progress. “There are mothers. There are children. Some of the children are lost, in metaphorical ways,” was the most she would say about the new book, which has also been picked up by St. Martin’s Griffin.But she is thrilled with the idea that people are not only reading her story, but talking about it, and debating Ruby’s “plan” and sympathizing with Lark’s plight.”You’re really being invited into someone’s home for this time,” Bourret said of her readers’ relationship with the characters she has created. “That people want to talk about it tickles me.”She is also pleased to have a second career, a counterweight to her years in law, and a way to explore issues of children in peril.”People who knew me from that part of my life thought I’m type A, hard-driven,” Bourret said of her years practicing law. “But I think I lived right in the middle, between the creative and analytical. Finally I recognized what my 8-year-old self knew – that I needed to be writing.”