A Conversation with Emily Ruskovich
Emily Ruskovich grew up in Idaho’s Panhandle on HooDoo Mountain. Her debut novel Idaho won the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award in 2019, the most valuable annual literary prize for a single work of fiction in English. Idaho was also shortlisted as a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, The Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel, and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. The novel was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Buzzfeed Best Book of the Year, an L.A. Times Bestseller, and a Barnes and Noble Great New Writers Selection.
Ruskovich is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the recipient of an O. Henry Award, The Idaho Book Award, and a Pacific Northwest Book Award. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope, The Virginia Quarterly Review, One Story, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and LitHub. Her prose has been described as both “lyrical and psychologically acute” especially on themes of nature, childhood, and female friendship. Ruskovich currently teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Boise State University and lives in Idaho City with her husband and two children.
Literary Mama Profiles Editor Susan Bruns Rowe interviewed her by email.
Susan Bruns Rowe: I resisted reading Idaho for a long time because I knew the story includes a mother committing an act of violence against her child. After finishing the book, I felt deeply moved and hopeful. It’s one of the most grace-filled stories I have ever read. Have you heard from other readers who faced a similar difficulty, only to discover the book surprised them?
Emily Ruskovich: First, thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot to me that you found the novel so moving and hopeful; hope is what I feel too. Yes, this has been a common experience for me; readers hear my novel is about a mother who kills her child—and when the premise is described that way, it conjures, I think, a very different story than what is actually on the page. The novel is not about the crime itself; it is about how people must endure, must go on living and loving even in the light of an unanswered question. If, by the end, a woman who has done the unthinkable is able to still find a bit of grace, a bit of love in the world—then there is hope for all of us.
SBR: There is this idea in the novel that if someone is driven to her limits, even momentarily, she may do something violent—not of her own volition. This is a terrifying thought for anyone, but especially so, I think, for parents. Can you describe how you came to want to explore this idea?
ER: I’m not sure the character is driven to her limits; that might be too simple an explanation for the murder. I don’t think there will ever be an answer as to why Jenny did what she did, in that one moment in her life she was not herself. At one point, her husband says this of the murder: “It wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t something Jenny did on purpose. It was something that happened to her, and by her, and that’s it.”
But yes, it is a terrifying idea, that a person’s hand can move in violence before the person has fully comprehended the violence to come; that a person can do what she absolutely does not want to do . . . .This is something that has always haunted me: We all have the power, at any moment, to ruin our own lives. To hurt someone we love dearly. A mother, in an absent moment, destroys not only her daughter’s life, but her own, and the lives of everyone she loves. Almost against her will, even though the act was willful. I needed to explore that. I needed to study her, to think, how will she go on living, day after day, with the guilt of what her hand has done? It is terrifying, and I think I explored this premise because it’s so terrifying. Because I needed to find, somehow, in the face of so much loss—love.
SBR: The mother in the novel, Jenny, carries the emotional burdens of her daughters as well as her own, while also doing the physical work of caring for a household, animals, a garden. She does this in relative isolation, whereas her husband is able to pursue more of a life outside the family. It’s not uncommon for mothers to put their children and the family first, to diminish their own lives as a result. In the novel do you think this played a role in Jenny’s undoing?
ER: That’s not how I would characterize their family; I see Wade as a very kind man who carries those same burdens, who has an almost equal role in the household caring for the two girls, and is also isolated. He works from home, and so spends a great deal of time with his small daughters. And, again, I don’t think of Jenny as coming “undone.” I don’t think of her as losing her mind, or being pushed to an edge. It’s important to me that there is no equal sign in the novel. What happens happens—and the event itself is not the point; it’s the endurance afterward, it’s the search afterward, it’s people trying to hold on to something beautiful and dear even when they don’t believe they deserve it. And Jenny doesn’t believe she is deserving of even the smallest kindness. But kindness finds her anyway. That interests me more than the question of why the murder happened.
SBR: The novel has many points of view. One marvelous section is written from the perspective of a bloodhound! Another is from a minor character who returns near the end. Can you talk about your decision to include the perspective of these tangential characters?
ER: It all started with Ann, whose voice and imagination guide the novel. But after I wrote the first chapter, which I believed then was a novella, not the opening chapter of a novel, I realized I had all these other voices inside of me. The second voice to emerge, strangely, was Wade’s father, whose role is relatively small in the novel. And the third voice was Elizabeth’s—Jenny’s cellmate. And I knew I had to give these voices their due. For some reason, they were speaking inside of me, and I wanted to free them onto the page.
SBR: We learn about the violence that befalls this family early in the novel. Then, like a slowly developing photograph, the complete picture is filled in with jumps back and forth in time. How did you decide on this structure and what problems did it pose?
ER: I wanted to write all around the violence, but never put my finger on the violence itself. I never wanted to literalize the scene of a murdered child. It was such an ugly scene, too horrible to write about directly. So I approached the tragedy from all sides, all around that point of horror. This allowed me to find grace and hope and love where I might not have otherwise. It also amazed and deeply saddened me how much the loss of one person affects the whole world; one death reaches across time, ripples through generations, affects more people than any of us could ever know. And I wanted to create a sense of that, how much all of our lives touch each other’s. And exploring the death from so many points in time, from so many angles, I think accomplished that sense of eternity. This structure helped me more than it hindered me. It made me feel more free to explore rather than find myself trying to answer, over and over again, a question I could not answer—Why did Jenny do it?
SBR: Idaho is full of extremes. Women destroy lives in the novel, but women are also the ones attempting to make ruined lives whole again. Violence ends the life of a child, but we also bear witness to her gutsy bravado, the cocoon of love she knew. The novel’s characters resist our efforts to see them in only one light. How do you create characters that transcend the awful things that happen to them?
ER: That’s very beautiful, what you’ve written. I think the simple answer is that I wanted to love them all. I did love them all. Jenny does the worst possible thing I can imagine; she takes the life of her own child. But I could not have a force of pure evil in the novel. I had to find kindness in her. And so I gave her the qualities of my own mother—my own mother, who is the kindest, gentlest, most joyful person I have ever known in my life. I gave Jenny those qualities because she needed them more than anyone.
SBR: You write with wonderful insight into what motherhood is like. Yet you wrote the novel before you became a mother. How has becoming a mother informed or changed your perspective as a writer?
ER: This may sound very strange to say, but I’m not sure it has in any grand way. I feel that I’ve always known motherhood, deep in my heart. I feel that I’ve known since childhood what it is like to love someone the way a mother loves someone, because I loved my own family so deeply, always. I loved my siblings to the point of pain. I have thought all my life about the loss of them, and I can never bear it. In the novel, I based the murdered child on my own sister Mary. I gave Mary’s beautiful childhood to May. Writing about May dying was very painful, because she felt so much like my little sister. Anything in May’s voice, I can’t read aloud; it’s too painful.
SBR: You are married to writer Sam McPhee. Mothers (and fathers!) face a continuous struggle between caring for family and work and finding time to pursue a creative life. Can you offer any advice on how the two of you manage it?
ER: Sam and I have a schedule we try to keep. On our writing days, each of us will take the children for four hours to give the other person time to write. I write in the morning while Sam cares for our two year old and our infant; Sam writes in the afternoon while I take care of them. We spend evenings together. On work days, we do the same thing, but each of us does school work instead of writing. We spend all of the remaining time together, the four of us. And some days, we don’t even attempt to write; we just are together. We always have to be adaptable and never put too much pressure on ourselves. Some days, sticking to a schedule simply does not work for one reason or another. But we believe in each other’s writing, and so we strive to help each other in every way possible, to carve out spaces in the day for each other to be creative. Of course it is always a struggle to keep that balance. But we strive to.
SBR: You’ve had some renowned writers influence your career, including Marilynne Robinson, but I’ve also heard you speak about your father’s influence, that he wanted to be a writer. Did you always want to be a writer from a young age? What was your entry into the writing life?
ER: Yes, I wanted to be a writer from the time I was four years old. I saw what my dad did each day, recording our lives in his notebooks, turning our experiences into poetry, and I felt a deep calling to do the same. When I was that small, writing was a kind of magic. It felt like time travel, in a way. I began writing stories and poems before I could even write. I would dictate them to my mom and dad. I believed that in every household, there was someone who was a writer, who was holding everything together with words. My dad was that person in our family; I knew that I would grow up to be like him.