UNESCO City of Literature organization brings novelist to Iowa City

At the Iowa City Book Festival, writer Denise Bogard shares her inspiration for many of her stories.

Adrian Enzastiga, Arts Reporter

No matter the subject or matter, greatness is something that takes time, energy, and patience. Success, whether it be a simple goal or a far away dream, requires dedication and hard work.

Writer and founder of the St. Louis Writers’ Workshop Denise Pattiz Bogard is someone who exemplifies this. She came to Iowa City for the Iowa City Book Festival, organized by the UNESCO City of Literature, and gave a reading at Poindexter Coffee in the Graduate Hotel, consisting of one and half chapters from her newest book, After Elise, published this summer.

Before writing fiction, Bogard worked in journalism and ran a PR agency. She said she has always had a dream of writing a novel, and she eventually turned to what she was passionate for

“One of my goals was to write a novel someday,” Bogard said. “Then in my early 40s, I took this creative-writing class and just knew immediately, this is what I need to do, and this is what I need to pursue.”

Bogard brought the workshop together with contacts she made when receiving an M.F.A.

“I had the right background, the need was there, I had the right contacts,” she said. “It was just a matter of doing a little bit of legwork to make it happen.”

Bogard began working at Lift for Life Academy, a school program for children who come from low-income families.

“I wound up falling in love with the work, teaching at the school for 14 years,” she said. “Four years later, since retiring, I still go down and volunteer.”

It was inspirational and eye-opening to work with those students, she said.

“I felt really grateful that I was able to pursue [creative writing], because it also led to my work as a teacher, which I had never thought about becoming a teacher, and that’s probably the work I am most proud of, and not giving up on novel writing,” she said.

Bogard said many of her works are inspired by her life.

“The students came from homes, neglect, abuse, and homes of poverty,” she said. “I had this epiphany one day: I know what I need to write, I need to write my students’ stories.”

That is how, in her 50s, she got her first book published. The novel The Middle Step explores “race, family, and poverty.”

Her first novel to be published was not her first written. As her M.F.A. thesis, she wrote After Elise, the story exploring the events following a car accident and “the idea of how all of our lives can change in a moment.” This book was also inspired by Bogard’s own life, the car accident in the book drawn out by her own fear of her son starting to drive as a teenager. However, the book failed to gain traction with publishers.

“Eventually, I just put the book in a drawer,” Bogard said.

Twenty years after its original draft, Bogard said, she was trapped in an ice storm and decided to take a look back at After Elise.

“With hindsight, with the experience writing The Middle Step, I saw immediately what I needed to do,” she said. “I spent another year working on character development, deepening that, working on the writing itself, working on the pacing, what to tell when, when certain characters should enter the story.”

The final draft was published this summer as her second published novel, but first written. Bogard offers some wisdom for anyone wanting to pursue creative writing.

“If you believe in a piece of work, don’t give up. Give it time, give it space,” she said. “And then, if you you still believe in it, keep working at it.”