Her Own Private Idaho: An Interview with Emily Ruskovich
The author of ‘Idaho’ discusses growing up on the mountain, perseverance, and finding the language to examine a murder
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When I began reading Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel Idaho, I thought it was going to be a plot-heavy mystery. The book opens on Ann, a middle-aged woman living in northern Idaho, rummaging through her husband Wade’s truck and thinking about Wade’s two young daughters — June, who has been missing for 18 years, and May, who is dead. From there, the story unfolds not as a thriller, but as a lyrical meditation on memory, loss, and recovery. We learn early on that it was Jenny, Wade’s ex-wife and May and June’s mother, who committed the murder. The book spans over forty years, opening in 2004 and moving back and forth in time, from the mid-1980s, when Jenny and Wade were still together and a happy, young couple to the mid-2020s, when Jenny is released from jail. At the heart of the book is the relationship between Wade and Ann, who meet not long before the murder of Wade’s daughters and begin a romantic relationship shortly thereafter. Ann helps to care for Wade, who is suffering from genetic early-onset dementia, and she works to piece together his life with his ex-wife and two children before he is too sick to remember any of it. I spoke with Emily Ruskovitch over email about why this book needed to be set in Idaho, how she crafted its lyrical prose, and why she set a chapter eight years into the future.
Michelle Lyn King: In an interview with Salon, you mentioned how your childhood on Hoodoo mountain was an influence in writing Idaho. I would love to hear more about that. How exactly did growing up in Northern Idaho influence you? Why did this story need to be set there?
Emily Ruskovich: I never made an actual decision to set the novel in Idaho; Idaho was there from the very beginning, from the very first moment I started to feel my way around this story, and in that way, the story and the setting feel inextricable from each other. The feeling I get from these characters is the feeling I get from the mountains of Idaho. It is beautiful and quiet and secret and can also be very scary. The mountain where the Mitchells live is a version of the mountain where my family lived. Our houses look different, but the layout of the land is very similar. The rotting furniture and junked cars the characters find out in the woods were very familiar sights for my siblings and me when we would go exploring the land surrounding our own. It was not a very friendly place in a lot of regards, and it was often quite scary. People were often armed. There was a lot of racism and anti-government sentiment. I remember finding some haunting things out in the woods, and I remember that one day, our half-built chicken house simply disappeared. Even the cinderblocks that formed the foundation, all of it gone. We were in the middle of nowhere, on a property that was incredibly difficult to access, and yet someone had come up in the night to steal every last piece of lumber, right down to the last brick. Another time, very early in the morning, we were threatened by a dangerous man who was waiting for us in our garden, in the dark. These facts are shocking to me, of course, perhaps even more shocking now than they were then. I feel alarmed at them, because, in spite of it all, the mountain remains the place I love most in the world, because it was our place. My family carved out a beautiful and kind place, as many people did, in an otherwise hostile landscape, just as Wade and Jenny did when they were young. Our acreage, like theirs, was strange and beautiful. Streams of pinecones; the tree sap smelled like honey. It was a very wild place, and some of the best years of my life were spent there. There were a lot of wonderfully kind people to be found, if you looked. A couple who made knives for a living, who lived two miles up the dirt road from us, nearly at the top of the mountain, were our dear friends and closest neighbors. We relied a great deal on their help when we first moved there. The anecdote in the third chapter about Wade and Jenny buying the land on the promise that the road would be plowed by the county (because a school bus driver lived even farther up), was something that really happened to my parents. The man who sold them the land told them they did not need to worry about buying a tractor to plow. He spun a story about a school bus driver that didn’t actually exist, in order to convince my trusting parents to buy. So we were in a bind once winter came. We used to have to haul our groceries up the mountain in a sled, just like Wade does in the story. Sometimes we hiked two miles down through the darkness and the snow just to catch the school bus. .
MK: I wonder if you could tell me a bit about how you structured the novel. The novel spans forty years and provides insight into the lives of many characters, not just the three main ones. Did you know the framework for the book when you began it?
ER: I didn’t even know at first that this was a novel. The first chapter of the novel was once a stand-alone story that I wrote during my first year in graduate school at the University of Iowa. One of my teachers, Ethan Canin, told me that it wasn’t a story but the beginning of a novel, but I didn’t listen — or, at least I didn’t know that I had listened. I didn’t want to listen. The idea of writing a novel terrified me, and I worried that I would ruin the story that I very much loved by expanding it. But a few years later, when my editors suggested the same thing, I realized that I had been feeling the same thing, too. I realized that ever since Ethan Canin put the thought into my mind, the story had evolved, grown inside of me, almost subconsciously, so that when I devoted myself to it, finally, a couple of years later, many of the chapters came quite quickly, the voices already very real to me, especially that of May, whose voice is the childhood voice of my younger sister Mary. But the first perspective I wrote from, aside from Ann’s, was Wade’s father Adam. It’s strange that he was the one I chose to start with, as he was only mentioned once in the original story, just briefly, and his story isn’t integral to the overall plot, but I feel it’s integral to the feeling of the novel. The scene of him looking for his own home really haunted me. That scene seemed to evoke the tragedy of dementia differently than the Wade chapters. So writing about Adam was a way of writing about Wade, too. Once I wrote Adam’s perspective, the structure of the novel really opened up. I suddenly had a lot of freedom to explore.
MK: I’m very interested to hear about Eliot’s function in the book. You could have made the decision to never return to him, to have him just be this character that, in a sense, brought Ann and Wade together. I loved that we did return to him. Can you tell me about that decision and his character?
ER: My husband said something to me about Eliot recently that really struck a chord with me. He said that it was interesting that Eliot had built his whole identity around an absence. The absence of his leg. And what a fragile thing that was to do, to believe that the story of your life began the moment you lost something crucial. I’m not really sure how aware I was of this connection as I was writing, that Eliot has done the same thing that Ann has done, in a way: she has built her life around an absence, around Wade’s pain. Writing about Eliot was, therefore, a way of also writing about Ann. Sometimes Eliot feels the presence of his missing limb, just as Ann feels, everywhere and all the time, the presence of Jenny in her life — the start and end of everything.
But I was more conscience of writing about Eliot as a way of writing about June. June is the only member of the Mitchell family whose perspective isn’t in the novel. And so writing about Eliot was a way of writing about her. It was a way of getting close to her own vision of herself, without writing from her perspective directly, which I felt I couldn’t honestly do, since she is lost not only to her family, but to the novel itself, which never does provide a clear answer to what happened. But getting so close to Eliot was a way of getting close to June’s love. Eliot’s chapter also opens up the possibility that June is the one who set his backpack on the edge of the dock, that June has committed a mostly-accidental act of violence — violence born of love — by putting his backpack there, which resulted in the loss of Eliot’s leg. And I think this is an interesting and disturbing parallel to her mother’s act of horrific — and also almost-accidental — violence toward May.
So I feel that Eliot, even though he’s somewhat in the periphery of the main plot, is the beginning of everything, as you said. Without him, there is no Ann and Wade. And without his voice, we wouldn’t have what I think is this crucial access to June.
MK: Can you tell me about organizing the timeline? What goals does a nonlinear timeline allow you to achieve that a linear one does not?
ER: I think a nonlinear timeline, in this case, more closely mimics the way memory works, the constant intrusion of the past into the present. I also think that a nonlinear timeline allowed me to write more accurately about the violence of what occurred, because it 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.
MK: There are sections of the book set in the not-so-distant future, in the year 2025. I thought this was such an interesting and bold choice. How did your arrive at the decision to set parts of the book in the future? Were you ever encouraged not to do so or did you ever consider not doing so?
ER: I think that the feeling that exists between Jenny and Ann in the end is more complicated and more intimate than a context can alter. Their interaction is so personal that I don’t think it will matter if the world is different in 2025. Ann will still feel this way about Jenny, and Jenny will still feel this way about Ann. It’s the same as reading a book about the distant past. Even though many of the things people struggle with in those stories are so vastly different than our present day concerns, we still feel for them, and understand them, and empathize with them. We still are them. We love our families. We worry about each other. We fall in love. We feel hope and despair and anger and joy. And those things are untouchable, even by time.
“We love our families. We worry about each other. We fall in love. We feel hope and despair and anger and joy. And those things are untouchable, even by time.”
And because so much of Ann’s story is an act of speculation, it makes sense that the novel itself would be speculative in this very traditional sense. Ann is always looking into Wade’s past, but she is also painfully aware of stepping toward her future — her life after Wade. And it’s true that the novel will arrive at its own future, too. It will one day arrive at 2025, just as Ann one day arrived there, and at that moment, the novel will cease to be speculative; that dimension of the book will be lost. But I think that’s okay. I think that’s really interesting.
No one ever suggested that I change the timeline, and, while I had some nervousness about it at first, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was an important dimension to the novel. The reason I first thought to explore it was simply a practical one: I really needed June and May’s childhood to take place in the 1990s because I myself was a child in the 90s, and I wanted their world to look the same as mine did, so that I felt their childhoods even more deeply.
MK: What was the research process like for this book? I’m curious to know how you went about researching women’s correctional facilities in Idaho or Wade’s disease. I’d also very curious to know if you returned to Idaho at all while writing this book.
ER: I didn’t do a lot of research as I wrote. I looked up statutes regarding the murder of a child in Idaho, and information about sentencing in Idaho. This I did online, in a fairly quick search. And I read one book called Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System by Silja J.A. Talvi that was extremely informative and so heartbreaking and shocking. I learned a great deal from it. But I would say that mostly, as I wrote, I just imagined as deeply as I could and hoped that imagining so deeply would mean that I had created something close to what was real. (There is some author who says something like this; a friend quoted it to me once and it really stuck with me. I wish I knew who the author was.) 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. It was heartbreaking to see the little plastic slide out in the yard, and imagine the women playing with their children when they visited, trying to make it a nice time for them, trying to be cheerful. 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. 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.
“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.”
I can’t quite recall how much research I did on Alzheimer’s disease, but I don’t think it was substantial. I know that I looked up whether or not early-onset dementia was genetic, and at what age symptoms begin to show. I am sure there were a few other facts I looked up, too, but mostly, I felt like facts weren’t as important as the stories I have heard or read, which have affected me so much. Ever since I first learned what the disease was, when I was young, I have paid such close attention to stories about people coping with their loved one’s disease, and I feel that just from listening for so long, that I have learned a great deal. But it wasn’t from any focused research, it was just from years of listening and feeling. It was actually from a work of fiction that I learned the most. I read Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and the way she evoked the perseverance of a self — in spite of extraordinary loss — was one of the most moving things I’ve ever read. It had a profound influence on me.
And, yes, I did return to Idaho as I wrote! I returned many times. My parents were still living on the mountain where the novel takes place, so I spent my summers with them, working on the novel.
MK: I’d like to end with the subject of language. The prose in Idaho is, in a word, stunning. I kept finding myself rereading sentences over and over again. In many ways, the sentences mirror Idaho’s landscape. It also matches the interior landscape of the book’s characters. I’m curious as to how the narrative voice of the book came to be. Can you please tell me a bit about that?
ER: This is a really wonderful question, and I am so glad that you thought the language was effective, but I’m not really sure I know how the narrative voice arose. It arose partly because I had such a strong sense of my characters, and I felt their voices and tried to evoke those voices on the page. But it also didn’t quite “arise” — it was something that I had to really work hard on and struggle with. The language was so important to me, and so I did a lot of rewriting, deleting, starting over. It was a very long process. A few of the passages I’m sure I re-wrote fifty or more times, first allowing some poetry on the page, and then pulling it back, and then stepping it forward, over and over again. I never wanted the poetic language to feel indulgent or exploitive or inappropriate or separate of the characters, but rather a part of their understanding of themselves. If I ever felt that I was risking dishonesty by using poetic language, I was very disciplined about getting rid of it. It was a delicate balance to strike: How do you write honestly with poetic language about something that is absolutely not poetic, that’s horrifying and ugly? It’s a very difficult question, and I feel that I managed it only by getting close enough to my characters that the language was a part of their perspectives. I never wrote, in absolute or direct terms, about the murder itself. The murder is explored only through speculation and through memory, both of which are necessarily very flawed, and there is room for poetry in those flaws. It was by focusing on language that I found a way to express the impossibility of ever getting close enough to what occurred to understand it at all.
“How do you write honestly with poetic language about something that is absolutely not poetic, that’s horrifying and ugly?”
Also, I pay a lot of attention to rhythm. When I write, I speak. I read every single sentence aloud many times. I have muttered my entire novel to myself more times than I can count. One review mentioned that the language is a kind of consolation to the reader, and I was very moved by that, and hope that it is true. In the novel, there are many questions that are left unanswered, but that was what felt right to me, what felt most real. And so maybe the poetic language is a way of giving the sense of an answer, just a sense of one, that the story itself is unable to provide.