Content warning: This article mentions partner abuse.
Denise Williams-Klotz shed a tear when she observed a consumer purchasing a copy of her book, “How to Fail at Flirting,” at Dogeared Books in Downtown Ames. Written with perspectives from her own experiences and aiming to incorporate an inclusive array of characters, Williams-Klotz, assistant director of multicultural student affairs at Iowa State, wrote with the hopes of getting out of a rut she was stuck in.
“I felt kind of buried in 'momming' and work and stress, and I feel like I just needed a creative outlet,” Williams-Klotz said. “I sat down to write what I thought would be a fun short story, just to get something down on paper and get creative. I loved it, I thought I found a part of myself that had been lost, so I went back that night and did it, and the next night and the next night and eventually that turned into a book.”
Williams-Klotz has fulfilled many roles and positions at her alma mater since earning her doctorate in education in 2015 from Iowa State. She has hopped around at Iowa State since then, from admissions to new student programs to the College of Human Sciences and where she currently is with multicultural student affairs. Her research includes military-connected student experiences, student veterans of color and racial identity development.
“I do think a lot of the things I’ve taken from my work in multicultural student affairs and the other areas I’ve worked in on campus and teaching has been around how identity forms and how different people experience that in different ways,” Williams-Klotz said. “All of my heroines are people of color, and they have people of color in their lives. I want to show them as real, funny, quirky, romantic, whatever, people. But also to show realistic experiences to them around identity.”
Alluding to her own experiences as a professor, Williams-Klotz wanted readers to know that they, too, have a life outside of school and work.
“It was really important to me to show that professors do a lot of their research and their teaching, but they’re also people,” Williams-Klotz said. “That’s where the story started, it grew in a lot of different ways. The heroine is a survivor of imminent partner violence, and that definitely comes up in the book with her own healing, processing, and I’ve seen that impact so many people.”
Williams-Klotz teaches an honor seminar revolving around using romance novels as tools for social justice, listed in the catalog as “Moving Past Bodice Ripping to Shredding the Patriarchy: Romance Novels as Tools for Justice.”
“Romance is a genre that takes a lot of flack for being silly or not as serious, but ultimately, romance are love stories, which are so accessible to everybody,” Williams-Klotz said. “It’s being able to see someone who looks like you, or acts like you, or loves like you, getting the 'happily ever after' they deserve and kind of winning at life in so many different ways. In that way, I love bringing my author life into my work because I think there’s a lot of powerful lessons there.”
Williams-Klotz wants to show and allude to the fact that individuals impacted by partner abuse are still worthy of love and being in a relationship, pulling from her own experiences of being in a toxic relationship.
When beginning the writing process of “How to Fail at Flirting,” Williams-Klotz knew that if she wanted to take it to the next level, she needed assistance. After signing with a literary agent, her drafts were then sent to a publisher, and the process was in full swing.
“The writing process, like any other process, is very iterative,” Williams-Klotz said, “You write a first draft, and you think, ‘this is really good,’ and you show it to people and you’re like, ‘nevermind.’ And that’s challenging when writing anything. But it’s kind of exciting, too, because it gets better every time. And I look at the finished product now, and it’s miles and miles and half a world away from where the book started, and I’m so happy for that.”
One aspect of the writing process that Williams-Klotz is relieved of is the amount of time it now takes her to finish a draft. “How to Fail at Flirting” took Wiliams-Klotz a year and a half to write; meanwhile, she just completed a draft for her second book in a month and a half.
Before her book hit shelves, Williams-Klotz was invited to be part of Romance Writers of America and attend a conference where she was a finalist for the 2019 Golden Heart award, which recognizes unpublished romance authors.
At the conference, Williams-Klotz remembers being in awe and in shock of meeting authors whose novels she has enjoyed and can remember poring over.
“I also got to meet all of these other wonderful authors who were in the same boat as me, we all started out at the same time and our books came out at the same time; finding community is so huge,” Williams-Klotz said. “Finding community is always so huge and makes what can be a very isolating career like writing feel much more like a connected activity.”
The surrealism attached with having a published novel on the shelves of local and chain retailers, such as Dogeared Books, Barnes & Noble, Target and Amazon, is a feeling that Williams-Klotz relishes in constantly.
“I’ve always loved to write, but I never thought I would be an author,” Williams-Klotz said. “That’s in part because I pursued other things, my career went down different avenues, I didn’t really believe I could be a published author and make that a part of my career, probably until I connected with my literary agent and the book was selling.”