Emily Ruskovich on her Dylan Thomas-shortlisted debut Idaho

Emily Ruskovich on her Dylan Thomas-shortlisted debut Idaho

Beginning with an unthinkable act of violence, Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel Idaho (Chatto & Windus) is a profound look at love, sacrifice, family and friendship. 

Garnering praise from the New York Times - "a wrenching and beautiful book" - Ruskovich joins fellow debut authors Gabriel Tallent and Carmen Maria Machado on the shortlist for this year's Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize.

How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize? 
I am so honored! To see my name alongside the other nominees is truly special to me, and very humbling. I'm really grateful to have been included with such talented people.

What inspired Idaho
Years ago, my mom and dad and I drove a long distance one August to get some firewood. Usually, my dad cut our firewood, but his back was badly hurt that year, so we found some wood in the classifieds in the newspaper. The wood was already cut; we needed only load it. So we drove up a rutted mountain road a great distance, and just kept driving and driving, nearly to the top of a mountain. Once we reached the clearing where the wood was waiting for us, I got out of the truck, and I felt it immediately: Something terrible has happened here. I didn't know what it was, and I couldn't explain the feeling. I had never had a feeling like that before, and I haven't since. There was nothing exactly sinister about the woods; they were in fact quite beautiful. The light was yellow and lovely and catching insect wings; crows were sunning themselves on the birch wood; the trees were crackling and chattering. We could see ranges and ranges of mountains in the distance. But the beauty, the peace, the isolation, only served to sharpen the feeling I had that something was not right, that the place held a memory of its own that no one would ever access. I felt haunted by what that mountain remembered, even though I didn't know what it was. I carried this feeling home with me, and I think I almost immediately began writing, as an attempt to understand. Writing the novel was the process of uncovering the memory of that place, which I have not seen since and don't think I could ever find again.

What are the key themes you explore?
It's about grief and loss and memory and family and identity. But, ultimately, it's a story about love. Many different kinds of love. Love between mother and child, husband and wife, person and place. And though it's a very tragic story, what it makes me feel, above all else, is hope. Hope and love. If these people can endure, can go on living, after this terrible, terrible thing that has happened, if they can find friendship and forgiveness and understanding even when the event itself cannot be understood, then what are the rest of us capable of? I see female friendship as one of the great saving graces of the story. 

How was it grappling with such an extreme act of violence in the title? 
It was very emotional, and, to this day, I can't read aloud any of the chapters from May's perspective, or I would break down. I love her dearly. I love her like she is a person in my life, someone I knew and had to let go of. So it was very important to me never to write directly about her murder, to approach it only after many years had passed, and to approach it only from perspectives that were flawed and incomplete and speculative. I myself have no direct access to what occurred that day; though I am certain of it, it's still beyond my comprehension, just as it is beyond all of the characters'. I have come to a conclusion, just as Ann has (my central character), but I have a lot of doubt about it, too. I can never really know, and nor can she. But I think that I've come close to knowing what happened in the truck. I think I came as close as was possible.

The language is very lyrical and poetic. Was this a conscious choice? To contrast against the shocking subject matter?
Yes, language is one of the most important things to me. One review said that the language was a consolation, and I hope that that is true. I hope that through the musicality of the language, readers can find some peace and resolution, even if the most crucial questions of the plot are left unanswered. 

Why did you choose to set the story in Idaho? Was this inspired by your own experience growing up there?
I never made a conscious choice to set the story in Idaho. It was always there, right from that first moment; Idaho was the first breath of the novel's life. Just as I can't be separated from the mountain where I grew up, I really don't think this story can be separated from Idaho. The place was inside of the people, just as it is inside of me, guiding me still, the mountains of my childhood.

What are your other main influences?
My dad. At the heart of the novel is a song he wrote when he was only nineteen years old, and was grieving his father, who died of alcoholism. The song is called "Take Your Picture Off the Wall." It's a song about loss and love, but also about moving on. A song about letting go of an era of your life. He didn't know his song was in my novel until just a few days before the novel came out. I gave it to him as a gift. I'd kept it secret for years as I was working. His writing is a great part of me. He's written thousands of poems and many novels, too. He really formed me as a writer.

My other influences: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Steinbeck, my mom and sisters and brother, and my husband Sam.

And, of course, animals—especially rabbits and mallards and housecats and hounds.

The novel has quite an unconventional structure, flitting between many different perspectives and timelines. Why did you choose to structure it in this way?
I chose to structure it this way because it was the only way that I could approach such a horrifying moment without ever directly touching it, because I felt that the only way to write about such violence honestly was to write all around it, with various degrees of understanding, and always with compassion. The non-linear timeline allowed me to explore that violence somewhat outside of time. It is not a straightforward story, even though at the heart of the novel is an absolute event, an absolute moment in time from which everything else emerges. But the way that event is processed, understood, remembered, forgotten — all of that is very mysterious, and I feel that writing from various points of time, non-chronologically, helped me convey that mystery.

I feel also that this fragmented structure mimics the way I understand memory to work; there are great gaps in the timeline. There are things we as readers will never know. And there are things that we know that might not seem important to the overall plot, and yet are emotionally crucial.  

What was the research process like for the title? 
I did not do a lot of research, except to correct mistakes in later drafts; I tried to write from my heart and from my memory. I tried to imagine as deeply as I could and hoped that imagining so deeply would mean that I had created something close to what was real. I did learn some things about how a prison is run from my dad, who worked as a counselor at a correctional facility for young people. And, for a brief time, I co-facilitated a memoir-writing class at a medium-security men’s prison. But I have never been inside of a women’s prison. In a way, the best research I did was when my husband and I drove to the Women’s Correctional Facility in Pocatello, Idaho, and we just sat in our car in the parking lot, looking at the un-spectacular building that we knew held so much pain and longing, so many stories. We noticed the things that the women would see through the fence — the hills of sage and scrub-brush, the quaint garden that volunteers kept up just outside, and we just stayed there for awhile, trying to picture what it would be like to only know this one view, your whole sense of the world framed by a single window, your whole life defined by a single crime from many years before. It’s been something I have thought about a great deal since I was very young, because—and people think it's strange when I say this—as a child, I always had this feeling that someday I would have to go to prison for something I had done. And so I’ve imagined deeply, all throughout my life, what it would be like to go to prison, wondering if a person might find some way of protecting her interior life in spite of everything.

Why do you think psychological thrillers continue to be so popular among the public?
I think it's because we see little flickers of our own selves in these characters, struggling with who they are, struggling with their psychologies. And stories like these acknowledge and appreciate the infinite mysteries of human emotion and action. They make us think, but more importantly, they make us feel. That's why I read. To feel. And to find myself in characters who, on the surface, seem entirely different from me. But ultimately are not.

Are you working on anything new at the moment? 
Yes, I'm working on a collection of short stories, and also, now and then, on a memoir. I'm also editing my dad's poems.

What was your favourite book of 2017?
There are so many! But if I have to choose one, it would be Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury Circus) by Jesmyn Ward.

You can read about the full shortlist here