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Living in a remote house on a mountain inspired this €100k-winning novel about a murder

Idaho is inspired by author Emily Ruskovich’s childhood.

THERE ARE THINGS that happen in everybody’s childhoods that could lend themselves to a story.

But for author Emily Ruskovich, a very unique childhood helped inspire a debut novel that recently won the richest prize in literature.

Her book, Idaho, scooped the Dublin Literary Prize – worth €100k – after being nominated by a library in Belgium. It’s not just a huge win for the young American writer in terms of monetary value: it also proves her worth against her fellow nominees, who were authors like Sally Rooney and Bernard McLaverty.

To be a debut novelist and win such an award means that your book must be very fine indeed. And Idaho is an impeccably written book. More about memories and words than about plot, it follows a family living on a remote mountain in Idaho, who undergo a traumatic experience.

The book opens with a young married woman sitting in her husband’s car, thinking about how his first wife is in jail for the murder of their daughter (their second daughter disappeared that same day, and has not been found).

The book follows this woman – Ann’s – story, that of her husband Wade, as his mind has holes punched in it by dementia, Wade’s wife Jenny, their daughters May and June, and a number of other connected people. It is a murder novel, but not a murder novel. We get lots of questions, but they are not all answered by the time we close the book.

‘It’s been difficult to process’

When TheJournal.ie spoke to Ruskovich about her win, she had the energy of someone who was both profoundly grateful and surprised about her fortune. Ruskovich has had her heart set on writing since she was a child, and so it was perhaps always inevitable she would end up penning a book like this.

Remarkably, the book bears a huge resemblance to her own childhood – she based Wade on her father, and the girls on herself and her sister. Her mother shares traits with Jenny. But because Ruskovich grew up in a family where her father wrote every day and the members all placed a huge value on words, they understand why they inspired such a dark book.

Writing has always been part of her life. Her family lived in a remote house on farmland, in a house which they built themselves. Like the family in her book, theirs was a life intimately connected to nature and the land of Idaho.

“My own life is everywhere,” she says of the novel. “There’s hardly a detail in the novel aside from the murder that isn’t in some way a piece of my life. You know, I wanted to love Jenny in spite of what she’d done and so I gave her characteristics that my mum has.”

Lots of little real-life details made it into Idaho, which is why the book feels so vivid. “We didn’t have running water on the mountain when we first moved there, and we’d fill up at the public park and bring the water back,” she recalled. 

She had a “wonderful, very happy childhood up there” on the mountain. Like in the novel, Emily and her sister would fill garbage cans with water, leave them in the sun to heat, and then get inside to bathe.

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“I’m really happy to do it – I feel like I always have the impulse to try to preserve things,” said Ruskovich of capturing her childhood in her work.

The fact that I took running through the woods chasing a cat, some little moment from my past, I’ve made permanent. And then somebody when I die maybe will still be reading this book and it’s a way of honouring and exalting a childhood that I love so much. It brings me a lot of peace to preserve the things I do feel I have preserved.

She doesn’t feel that it comes with any risk – and her family are all happy about it. “I think that’s kind of unusual. A lot of people who are writers, their parents don’t get it or find it offensive,” she acknowledged.

What’s notable about both Ruskovich’s childhood and that of the children in Idaho is how absent technology was.

“I do feel that childhood as a general thing is changing and I do deeply mourn that,” she said. “I think that technology does so much for our lives but I do think children are being introduced to iPads and all this technology so young, and so much of who I am was given to me by being in the natural world all the time.”

At one point, her family lived in tents on the mountain; at another time they lived in a barn. “There was nothing more formative to me than being allowed to the time to play,” she said. “We just created everything and I do feel that’s something that’s being lost: the space to play like a child.”

She learned how to tell stories through playing with dolls (she mentioned being embarrassed about the fact she played with them until she was 13), making them go through ‘major dramas’.

‘It is unbelievable’

The book started life as a short story, and was due to be included in a collection published by Penguin Random House, when the decision was made at the very last minute that Ruskovich would instead write a novel.

“I just didn’t have confidence yet. I was quite young and I just didn’t think I was good enough yet to write a novel,” says Ruskovich of her early days as a writer. “And [short] stories were… if a story went terribly wrong it was OK because I could just not include it, but if a novel went terribly wrong I just wasn’t ‘good enough’.”

To abandon the book of short stories was a risk that paid off. “I’m really lucky that they saw something in me – my editors and agent – they saw something in me before I saw it and I feel it was just the right thing to do,” said Ruskovich. “And I’m so lucky that they were upfront with me and that they had convinced me.”

Ruskovich was “so shocked” to hear about her win that she doubted that it had happened and worried she had misheard her editor. “And that’s how difficult it’s been to process this,” she laughed. “It is unbelievable.”

She feels very grateful to “some very kind-hearted librarian” who put her book forward to be considered for the Dublin Literary Award. The small beginnings of this big award are fitting for Ruskovich’s situation. This is a writer who has spun a small family story into something larger.

She and her husband met while both at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a place where they got to work with extraordinary writers like Marilynne Robinson (also an Idaho native). Both their lives are based around writing, and Ruskovich said that she holds her work very close to her.

“The first feeling that I had when I finished the novel and when I did my very last editing, when I was no longer allowed to touch the novel at all, my first feeling was one of grief. There is no greater honour than publishing a novel – such a rare, rare thing.”

She felt, she said, lonely without it to work on. The grief and loneliness ended when it was out in the world, in the hands of readers. The book mines some dark depths – murder, dementia, missing children – and she is often approached by people who have suffered through similar incidents.

‘I was trying to write honestly’

The book does not give solid answers to the questions it poses. “It’s not like I wanted to keep something secret,” said Ruskovich. “I was trying to write as honestly as I could about what I knew and I didn’t know anything about where is [the missing sister] June and how to explain why a child is murdered.”

She said she doesn’t want readers “to go into it thinking things will be tied up neatly – I want them to go into it thinking this is the closest I can get to honesty and how life works”.

There are things in our lives, most important things, that we will never know and that’s what’s true.

Courses like the Iowa Writer’s Workshop can sometimes be criticised for the potential for the participants to share a similar voice. But Ruskovich says that’s not the case, and that such workshops help writers to improve the voice they already have.

“My peers that I really respected, I don’t think anybody changed their writing in some fundamental way,” she said. “I don’t think my writing changed fundamentally based on what I learned at Iowa. You are accepted to Iowa based on something they think you have and that’s what you bring to that programme. You are just trying to get better at the thing they’ve seen in you.”

The Dublin Literary Award will help her write her next novel, which is currently percolating away. As she and her husband have a one-year-old daughter now, their time and space for writing has been changed somewhat.

“What I have now is the entire plot of a novel inside of me and what I don’t have yet is the language and the structure because I have all this time to think,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of time to sit down and physically write it. Even having a child has changed ideas about what ’m going to put in my next book.

“This award is going to help me so much with time.”

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is out now.

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