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A Writer's Path

Despite life’s turns, both private and public, Helen Thorpe refuses to lose sight of what she always wanted.


by Amanda Ogle

Helen Thorpe sips water from the blue plastic tube connected to her magenta-colored backpack as she prepares for her hike through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains outside Denver. The remains of winter can be seen in the distance, where snow blankets the trails of the upper slopes. Still a minor hazard to trailblazers, the snow is packed tight by the cycle of bright days and freezing nights. But it’s spring now, warming faster each day, and the mountain air breathes crisp and fresh. Helen requires no adjustment to its thinness as she begins her ascent up the rusty red path that crunches beneath her Keen hiking boots. She pulls her graying blonde hair into a bun in the back of her blue baseball cap with a focused look on her face. She’s a slight woman with thin lips and a button nose. Though anything but frail, she might be mistaken for a school librarian.

This taste of the Rockies offers a slow-rolling creek meandering between towering spruce and willow trees, an outdoor playground for Denverites trying to get in a run or bike ride before rejoining the grownup world. But for Helen, it’s more than just a place to hike, it’s a writer’s sanctuary. Writers need time to be alone with their thoughts, and these mountains enable her to slip into what she calls “musing mode,” a twist of mind where she can access her creativity, think bold thoughts and shape big ideas — which, she frankly admits, is the hardest part of her writing process.

A speeding mountain biker whirls by as she hugs the inner edge of the trail and smiles, knowing these moments sometimes must be shared. She has shared them with others — many of them writer friends with whom she has surrounded herself since moving to Denver more than 13 years ago. During these mountain moments, whether alone or with others, she wrestled with how to structure the narratives in her first book, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, which won the Colorado Book Award and was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post. And it’s moments like this that helped her figure out what to include in her second book, Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, which was named the No. 1 nonfiction book of 2014 by Time magazine.

Although Helen has never known poverty — except perhaps as an aspiring young poet settling in Boston after college — each of her works shares poverty as a common theme. In Just Like Us, poverty takes the face of four young Hispanic women, two legal, two undocumented, as they experience life from their senior year of high school through college. In Soldier Girls, poverty looks like female recruits who use their National Guard enlistment as the means of escaping the poor circumstances of their lives.

Yet despite their similarities, each book presented Helen with its own unique writing challenges. With Just Like Us, Helen dove deep into the world of immersion journalism, structuring her narrative by following her sources for four years of their lives. She also spent four years reporting and writing Soldier Girls. Only this time, she reconstructed the scenes of her book from the recollections of three women who had soldiered through the ravages of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars only to face the harsh reality of coming home.

Whereas many writers struggle to negotiate precious time between two halves of their lives, personal and professional, Helen’s dance was trickier. She also had a public self, married for 10 years to John Hickenlooper — former brewpub owner turned mayor of Denver turned governor of Colorado. Although she was the first lady of a city and then a state, she came into her marriage with an impressive journalistic pedigree as a writer for the New York Observer, The New Yorker, and Texas Monthly. And while married, she became a celebrated writer of narrative nonfiction — but she did it on her own terms, immersing herself in parenting as well as story, refusing the distractions of public life and allowing ideas to simmer while hiking over that next rocky ridge. How did she manage this personal narrative? The writer in her has always run strong.

Zigzagging up the trail towards its peak, Helen pauses from her hike and looks at the red rocks in the valley below. These stratified rock formations pop out of the rugged terrain like boulders, and are similar to the ones found at nearby Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The historic open-air concert venue has hosted the performances of rock royalty such as the Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull, whose 1971 concert led to a near riot and a five-year ban on rock concerts there. Helen gazes across the blue horizon, breathing in the calm and reflecting on how even as a young child, she knew she wanted to become a writer.

Born in London and raised in New Jersey, Helen was the child of Irish immigrants who lived within a community of immigrants from Europe and South America. Among them was Helga, an Austrian artist who gave Helen an old typewriter for her seventh birthday. She began writing poetry on her prized typewriter, often during “poetry dates” with Helga. She loved the experience of putting words on paper, and like many writers, the approval she received from those who read them — like her father.

Like many immigrants who come to the U.S. in search of a better life, her parents were practical people and tried to instill that pragmatism in their daughter. At Princeton University she first chose to study physics, but the poet in her wouldn’t be denied, and in 1987 she graduated with a degree in English literature.

She moved to Boston to pursue her poetry and became a waitress to pay rent, receiving one rejection letter after the next, still hungry for approval and success. But writing about her inner life, she says, fed her introversion, and to get outside of herself she decided to turn to journalism, becoming an unpaid intern first with The Boston Phoenix and then with The Atlantic Monthly. Then it was onto New York, where she attended graduate school at Columbia University, and then to the New York Observer, a weekly newspaper that hired her as a mail opener and package deliverer until she convinced the managing editor she could write. Her work on a media column called “Off the Record” was strong enough to catch the attention of the celebrated editor at The New Yorker, Tina Brown, who hired her to contribute to its “Talk of the Town” section, where she wrote short narratives about topical subjects such as abortion legislation and the Bill Clinton campaign. But when a new section editor was hired, he let go of its entire staff, Helen included, and replaced them with his own people.

Helen turned to freelancing in New York, a highly competitive market, which demanded long-form home runs for long-term success. After her friend, Evan Smith, became deputy editor of Texas Monthly in 1993, she began to write for the magazine and moved to Austin a year later to join its editorial staff. For five years, she roamed Texas and wrote about a broad range of topics, from the assimilation of Texas Muslims trying to convince their neighbors they weren’t terrorists, to a profile of Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade, to the fall of a political patrón in a South Texas county.

She loved the work, but when a promised raise never materialized, she left the magazine and became a freelancer. For The New York Times Magazine, she wrote about the transformation of Austin, Texas, from a funky college town to a bustling high-tech metropolis; for the Texas Observer, she wrote about a Dallas hospital’s fight to keep infectious diseases out of the country, and she practically made a cottage industry out of George W. Bush, writing about his presidential bid for New York Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and George.

She loved Austin and developed a close network of friends, many of them writers, most of them invited to her 37th birthday party. John Hickenlooper, however, was not invited, but crashed the party anyway after learning about Helen from an old college friend. The 48-year-old Denver brewpub owner, who helped gentrify the LoDo district in Downtown Denver, made knowing Helen his next project, the one right before his successful run for mayor of Denver.

Over the next two and a half years, Helen’s life would change dramatically. She would leave Austin and move to Denver. She would become a wife and a mother. And she would become a first lady while fiercely trying to maintain her identity as a writer.

As she braces her hand on the giant auburn rock above her, strands of her bobbed hair fall loose underneath her baseball cap. The sun is stronger now, brighter. She adjusts her tortoise shell sunglasses, pushing them higher on her nose. She begins her ascent on the toughest part of the trail, and she does so with conviction, pushing off one rock to get to the next. It’s clear she has done this before, negotiating obstacles placed in her path.

When John became mayor of Denver in July 2003, Helen became a public figure, her perspective broadening from writing about the news to being in the news. While many first ladies have pet projects to complement their husbands’ policy agendas —Michelle Obama with her childhood obesity campaign, Laura Bush with her childhood literacy campaign — Helen refused those who wanted to involve her in their causes. “I am not prone to distraction,” she says. “I love writing and know that is what I want to do with my life, so I just said no to everything else and stuck to what made me happy.”

While John was doing up to 10 public events a week, Helen was only managing a couple a month. She did, however, prove a valuable asset when it came to honing his public image, helping craft his speeches, offering feedback on TV ads, dealing with media relations. “Helen had an incredible and well-deserved career before John,” says Patricia Calhoun, editor of Westword, a Denver news and entertainment weekly. “She’s managed to walk a difficult line and do it well.”

Rather than political handlers and hacks, she surrounded herself with writers, forming a group that met at least once a month for coffee or a hike. Among the collective, who would read their work out loud, offer each other critiques and even write side-by-side to make the process less lonely, were a science writer, a memoirist and a first-time novelist. “It’s a tough world being a writer,” says group member Lisa Jones. “It’s great to have friends who know how hard it is. Our group is where we get our support.”

With success and failure, marriage and divorce, the members of the group would come and go, but for more than a decade Helen drew support from this community of writers — and approval.

Keeping her public life a safe distance from her professional life was relatively easy; it was her personal life that sapped time from her writing. Before her son was born, she would get up each day and write, taking the “shortest time between pillow and computer as possible,” she says. Then came Teddy, and she struggled balancing motherhood and manuscript, particularly during his early years when she didn’t want to be away from him. She had more room to write after he started school, her workday defined by the hours of his school day. She wrote a personal essay about becoming a mother for 5280, the Denver city magazine, and a piece for Westword about an undocumented student. But writing on a tight deadline didn’t suit her lifestyle, and she began to search for something larger, a book project or documentary she could live with for a while. She wanted to write longer stories about ordinary people in situations that said something about the times in which they lived, people she could get to know intimately so readers could imagine themselves in their situations.

Being the child of immigrants, she had little trouble imagining the immigrant experience, finding the story of people uprooted to be rich with emotion. “Nobody makes a move like that lightly,” she says. “Immigrating involves a wrenching shift in cultures that makes a person see the old country and the new one with fresh eyes.”

By the mid-2000s, Colorado had become the unlikely epicenter of the contentious national debate on immigration. Colorado conservatives, alarmed by the growing Hispanic population, sought to limit government services to undocumented immigrants and insisted that laws remain on the books that restricted driver’s licenses to those residing in the country legally. Helen wondered what it would be like to come of age and be prohibited from driving. She remembered her own teenage years and the badge of independence that came with getting her driver’s license. Those recollections gave her the germ of an idea: What would it feel like emotionally and socially not to have legal status?

Helen began her research by conducting what she calls “informational interviews,” gathering string to get a sense of the issue and those most deeply affected by it. She would interview four high school girls, and was struck by the cultural and political storylines that drew them together as friends but might inevitably lead to their separation. All four girls were “A” students in the same Denver high school whose parents had entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico. Each grew up in this country, but only two were here legally. Helen was drawn to how their lives might be altered by this distinction, one placed on them by society but not of their own making.

For four years, Helen immersed herself in their lives, shadowing them to senior prom, high school graduation, college visits, witnessing their actions in real time and gathering vivid detail to bring their stories to life. Together, these scenes would become the narrative for Just Like Us, allowing readers to experience each girl as she came of age in a time marked by great political turmoil that cut to the heart of her very identity.

Their stories were not without consequence for Helen, who would later write in the introduction to her book that stepping into the girls’ world was often “a relief” from her public obligations as first lady. When she went to their neighborhood, few people had expectations of her being the mayor’s wife, and she felt freer to be herself. The girls taught her how to text and she dressed less conservatively, getting in touch with her “origins,” she says, as well as her youth.

This welcomed distance between her public and personal selves collapsed in May 2005 when an undocumented immigrant was arrested in connection with the murder of a Denver police officer. The suspect briefly had worked as a busboy at a restaurant co-owned by Mayor Hickenlooper, who was suddenly thrust into the forefront of the fiercely partisan immigration debate.

Helen frequently worried her work might have a negative impact on her husband’s political career, that something she had written might be used against him. She gave serious thought to dropping the project altogether, and sought advice from writing friends who reminded her she was a writer long before she was a “political spouse.” Helen could have continued with the same narrative about four “A” students, but decided that including the story of the murderer offered a more balanced perspective of the immigration experience. For the sake of the story, and with John’s OK, she would write about the murderer, his trial, her husband and herself.

Her first-person voice didn’t come off as jarring or out of context as she fluidly wove what might otherwise have been the fraying braids of narrative into a carefully coiffed tapestry. “My husband had chosen to run for office, and now the public saw me as the mayor’s wife,” she would write. “I still saw myself as a journalist, and could never accept that I would be defined by the actions of my spouse, just as the girls could never accept that they would be defined by the actions of their parents.”

The change in voice worked for The Atlantic Monthly book reviewer: “By casting the girls’ experiences, and her own, against the larger policy debate, Thorpe personalizes an often generalized problem, and delves into questions of opportunity and identity to examine the intersection between the terrible mystery of our being and the inevitably flawed fashion in which we govern ourselves.”

And John’s career didn’t sustain any permanent damage; if anything his popularity grew after the book’s release in 2009, as rumblings of him making a gubernatorial run began to stir.

Helen, in the meantime, would return to her mountain trail, slowly musing about her next big idea. With the rapid draw down of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, she grew intrigued by the large concentration of veterans coming home to reclaim their lives. She conducted about a dozen or so “informational interviews” and found women more forthcoming about their struggles adjusting to civilian life than men. Being embedded in a male-dominant culture where they were viewed as both different and desired seemed a story worth telling. Particularly compelling were the stories of those women who had joined the National Guard — units whose ranks historically had swelled with ordinary citizens interested in avoiding overseas combat. The three women whom Helen decided to write about became close friends during their first deployment to Afghanistan, never imagining their Indiana National Guard unit would send them into a Middle East war zone.

Helen took her time with the interviews, giving the women time to open up. Her patience paid off as they shared the intimate details of their deployment and its aftermath — a decade marked by camaraderie, roadside bombs, brain injury, illicit affairs and substance abuse while deployed; and broken relationships, depression, alienation and post-traumatic stress after coming home.

Whereas Just Like Us rendered its narrative through immersion journalism, Soldier Girls would be structured from events reconstructed from the memories of the women. Two of them had trouble recalling the kinds of detail necessary to recreate the emotional reality that narrative nonfiction needs. Missing were the kinds of sensory descriptions that make a narrative show rather than tell. So Helen gathered other sources to document this detail, poring over the women’s photographs, diaries, therapy notes, Facebook posts and emails to jog their memories, digging through their battalion newsletter which revealed daily weather conditions, examining secondary resources both online and in novels that chronicled the grit and gruesomeness of the war.

When she wrote magazine pieces, Helen could keep the entire story in her head, but a book was too big and she needed to systematize her interviews to manage the material. For Just Like Us, she marked key scenes relevant to each girl or the murder or the political debate with different colored sticky notes. To visualize the story’s structure, she placed the colored-coded notes on her office wall as the scenes unfolded chronologically. If she had too much red or blue in one section, she knew she was spending too much time away from her other characters.

She used the same sticky note system in Soldier Girls, but her second book proved even more of an organizational challenge. Whereas the interviews in Just Like Us unfolded in linear time, the interviews in Soldier Girls were gathered over a four-year period, and “were wildly achronological,” says Helen. The women didn’t remember things in any certain order, moving backward and forward with little regard for time.

To tame her transcripts, she pulled apart the interviews, making different piles on her office floor, placing the material in three-ring binders, not in the order the information was told to her, but in the order it actually happened. From these, she created a mega-timeline on a whiteboard in her office, a looming chart detailing the events of the book as they happened in chronological order.

While Helen was working on Soldier Girls, John waged a successful campaign for governor of Colorado, taking office in January 2011. Eighteen months later, the couple jointly issued the following news release: “After years of marriage that have added tremendous love and depth to both of our lives, we have decided to separate. This decision is mutual and amicable. We continue to have the utmost respect for each other, and we remain close friends. We intend to continue functioning as a family that spends a great deal of time together.” Helen would remain in their Denver home and John would move into the governor’s mansion. “Please feel free to include both of us in social gatherings as we will not find it awkward,” continued the statement. “Our chief concern right now is the well being of our son.”

A January 2013 New York Times op-ed column titled “Love, Marriage and Voters,” mentioned Gov. Hickenlooper, who expressed how the endless spin of political life never really suited Helen. “There was just always somebody interrupting. She’s someone who just thinks so deeply and feels so deeply — it was just so distracting for her. I didn’t appreciate that properly.”

The New York Times also wrote about Helen a year later with the release of Soldier Girls. Its favorable review exclaimed, “Ms. Thorpe’s sharply drawn portraits are novelistic in their emotional detail and candor,” and her handling of “highly complex issues” such as women in combat, and the stress of multiple deployments “are all made palpably real through the prism of this book’s three heroines’ lives.”

Days before the review, Helen traveled to New York to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to promote her book. Despite a frenzied, traffic-stalled limo ride that caused Helen to almost miss the show, she collected herself and seemed a picture of poise, looking well appointed in her black dress, dangling silver necklace and aqua-framed glasses.

Stewart, being the biting political satirist that he is, could easily have brought up her history as a reluctant first lady, her marriage to the governor of Colorado whose name was being bandied about as a future Democratic candidate for president. Instead, he treated her like the writer she always insisted on being. “What a wonderful book,” he said, holding a copy for a close up. “You know, war stories are so difficult to tell beneath the tent post or caricature vision that people have for it. To tell the story of women at war, such a different place to go with it, and really, the book feels very fresh in that way.”

Helen smiled slightly and nodded, appreciative of his approval. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.”

It’s nearly 4 p.m. and a slight chill returns to the thin mountain air. Helen works her way down a bend in the trail, about to complete the lollipop loop that pours into a parking lot and will end her two-hour hike. White noise from the highway can be heard in the distance and two rapidly descending cyclists whiz by.

The promotion for Soldier Girls has been going well. Being the former first lady of the state has made her something of a local celebrity and hasn’t hurt book sales. She does a monthly show on public radio called The Book Club and has given speeches and interviews about her book, but now it’s time to focus on the future. She’s been approached by Regis University in Denver about teaching a creative writing class. She volunteers in the library of Teddy’s school and can also see herself as a librarian —the work would be fulfilling surrounded by books, she says, though not financially rewarding.

And there is always another writing project to work on — some big idea slowly percolating in her head. Actually, she’s been writing about being a mother, and how she takes Teddy to the same lake every summer in New Hampshire, how what happens at the lake charts the course of his life. It’s nothing formal really, mostly for her own satisfaction, but thinking about it on this last stretch of trail, she knows she is in the right place to figure it out.

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Despite life’s turns, both private and public, Helen Thorpe refuses to lose sight of what she always wanted.
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