She didn’t know how the story would end, but she knew it would begin with a fatal accident.
Denise Pattiz Bogard imagined a wet pavement, a distracted driver.
In the tradition of a Jodi Picoult or Anna Quindlen novel, Bogard’s “After Elise” centers on a comfortable suburban St. Louis family whose lives are upended by the unexpected. And it involves a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God error many drivers believe will never happen to them as they take just a quick peek at a cellphone text or answer a call.
As the title hints and gravestones on the cover graphically show, someone is clearly going to die. No plot spoilers here: Within the very first pages, a woman named Teri drives down Olive Boulevard to pick up a few groceries for her family’s dinner:
“She pressed the brake and lightly skidded, surprised by the slickness of the damp road. Ahead, Teri noticed a car pulled over to the shoulder, hood up. The rain had increased to a downpour. A young woman stood beside the car, waving, drenched. On impulse, Teri switched to the right lane, intending to offer help, just as her purse began to ring.”
In an instance, she has hit and killed a stranded motorist. And the accident affects far more than Teri and the victim: There’s her husband, their two children, her own mom, and, of course, the deceased’s family.
Bogard says, “I thought about how the life of an ordinary person would be affected: What happens when a tragedy occurs, and you have to live with it?”
The family was living in a fragile “house of cards,” she says.
“After Elise” goes on sale Wednesday. The author will talk about it Aug. 6 at Left Bank Books. It’s her second novel, following 2015’s “The Middle Step.”
A lifelong St. Louisan, Bogard, 63, provides just enough local color to make her new book seem especially close to the bone. Among sites in the novel are Schnucks, Drury Inn and Parkway North High School, which Bogard’s two sons attended.
In fact, she got the idea for her novel when one son, now 35, was a teen with a new driver’s license. Typical parental worry gave her the germ of a story about the “rippling effects” of a tragic accident, how it didn’t just affect the person who caused it, but also relatives.
Bogard’s story is fiction; she’s never had such an accident. But completing the book took many years, even though she’d wanted to write a novel for decades.
During those decades, she studied with some of St. Louis’ top writers, such as David Carkeet and Mary Troy. When Bogard was in her 20s, however, Washington University’s famous professor Stanley Elkin destroyed her confidence by saying of one story: “This one’s not as terrible as the other ones.”
She’d go on to receive encouragement and praise, earning an MFA from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, running a PR company and beginning the St. Louis Writers Workshop.
She also taught writing herself for 14 years at Lift for Life Academy, a city charter school. Bogard, who now lives in Clayton, still volunteers at the school once a month and has paid for three students to publish their own novels (one of those talented students is now in med school).
Bogard describes her work at Lift for Life as what she was “meant to do”:
“I love the school, and I love the kids there,” she wrote by email. “I also found deep meaning in the sense that the work I was doing was important work and that, through writing and emotional support, I was helping to better the lives of kids who face so many challenges.”
While talking recently over coffee, she explains that the work informed her book “The Middle Step,” about a white woman teaching disadvantaged kids in north St. Louis. It came out in 2015, a year after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. Readers told Bogard that the fiction story helped them understand some of the ongoing social controversies.
Now with her children parenting their own offspring, Bogard has more time to focus on her work. She pulled her original manuscript for “After Elise” back out (it had been a thesis project at UMSL).
Rewriting, updating and reorganizing the book led to a contract from a small press in Alabama.
“A lot of the challenge in writing is the pacing, when to tell what,” she says. She also talked to a lawyer about criminal negligence and to therapist friends to make sure she got details right. Bogard has ended up with a page-turner that deals with grief, yes, but also includes humor, especially in the form of a tenacious grandmother.
“I like to read about dramatic relationships and well-written, good stories,” Bogard says. An author she admires, Jacqueline Mitchard, even agreed to read “After Elise” and gave her a blurb.
“The stuff of terrific fiction is mishap — the altering of everything you thought you could believe in — over the course of one brutal instant. In this shattering novel, a generous impulse gone terribly wrong sends two families spiraling down into despair and facing a steep climb back to higher ground. Denise Bogard has written her heart out on this story.”
“After Elise” is dedicated to Bogard’s three children, their spouses and four grandchildren. She now has two more novels in the works. One is about a longtime relationship that sours. The other is a historical story that Bogard is working on with her husband, Robert, a retired lawyer.
That book is based on a 19th-century court case in Bethany, Mo., involving a farmer who raped two neighboring sisters.
Bogard doesn’t predict when those books will be finished. They likely won’t take as long as “After Elise.”
But as she tells students: “If you want to write a novel, you’re in it for the long haul.”