An Interview with Emily RuskovichInterviewed by Connor Guy, May 2017 · Digital Exchange
Emily Ruskovich grew up in the Idaho Panhandle on Hoodoo Mountain. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Zoetrope, One Story, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Paris Review, among other publications. A winner of a 2015 O. Henry Award and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently teaches creative writing in the M.F.A. program at Boise State University. Idaho is her first novel.
One of the most striking features of your writing, and one of its greatest strengths, is its sharp sense of place. How did place figure in your conception of Idaho?
The place and the story cannot be separated. I never decided to set my novel in Idaho; Idaho was there from the very beginning, the first element of the story, the first breath of its life. It was not just a place; it was a feeling, a tone, an atmosphere, a character of its own.
In your biography and elsewhere, I’ve read that you also grew up on a mountain similar to the one where the main characters in your book live. Is the mountain in the book based on your mountain? Are there similarities between the way that the characters in your novel relate to their mountain and the way you relate to yours?
Yes, the mountain where the Mitchells live is a fictional version of the mountain where I grew up. It was called Hoodoo. It was a beautiful, scary, fascinating place. There are some differences between the Mitchell’s house and my childhood house, but the layout of the land is very similar. The mountain was a place of joy for me, the landscape of my happy childhood. But for the Mitchells, of course, it’s a place that’s haunted by the absence of Wade’s first family, and so the beauty everywhere is touched by immense pain.
But there is one way in which Ann and I are similar in how we relate to our mountain. Like Ann, my family was always looking for traces. A long time ago, there was a family who lived on our property. I’m not entirely sure of the timeframe, but based on the artifacts we’ve found, I would guess they lived there in the late 1800s. Knowing how difficult it was to live on that land in modern times, it is shocking to think of a family surviving up there so long ago, before there was anything there at all, before there was even a road. My siblings and I would find traces of their homestead when it rained. Broken antique porcelain would trickle in the water that cut through our dirt road in tiny streams. My sister found a tiny porcelain hand, about the size of a fingernail, so we imagined that a little girl lived there once, and that this was what remained of a cherished doll. There were irises planted at the head of a small bit of square, sunken earth, which we always imagined was her grave. It was a sacred place to us. We found barbed wire, rusted tin cans, and, deep down in the soil, mattress springs so rusted they were brittle and flaking, a deep blood red. The most cherished thing I found was a woman's boot that was so old that it had been made with tiny nails to keep the sole on. I still have this boot, filled with soil. It was very vivid and haunting and also moving to spend our lives up there, feeling a kinship with this family lost to history except in these traces.
I understand you studied with Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and it’s hard to resist comparing Idaho, as the New York Times Book Review did, to her first novel Housekeeping. As I read your book, I was continually reminded of when, in that book, Robinson describes the small (fictional) town of Fingerbone, Idaho as “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” To what extent does a sense of remoteness inform your narrative?
I am very touched and humbled by the comparison to Marilynne Robinson. A sense of remoteness was crucial to my narrative, but, at the same time, it doesn’t feel like a choice I made. It was a part of the fabric of the Mitchells’ lives, this vastness and intimacy and isolation. I feel it really formed the Mitchell family.
The physical setting is a part of everything; it’s the landscape of the characters’ interior lives, and it holds its own memories, which the characters sense and respond to within themselves. The Inland Northwest is a crucial part of who I am, and so I feel it might always be the setting of my fiction.
Your novel is essentially built around an act of violence, a killing that we as readers never quite understand. There is a kind of moment of resolution that comes later in the book, but the specifics are never brought into focus. There are no answers. Why did you decide to leave the central event in the story so ambiguous?
What I wanted most was to be honest, and for my novel to be real. And what is most real to me, when thinking about a sudden and shocking death, especially the death of a child, is an unanswered question that the living victims will be forced to chase forever and forever, without resolution. How terrible it must be for those families never to know “why” their loved one was killed. I can’t imagine the pain and frustration and agony of that unanswered question. But I also think that the families who do know “why” are still forced to live in the same kind of uncertainty, because the answer will never actually be an answer. There never is a “reason” to kill a child. There is a passage at the end of the novel, from Elizabeth’s perspective, that hints at this: “Why would anyone choose to believe a thing so ugly as an equal sign?…When compared to all that blood, when compared to that new, swimming dimension ripped into the world by her act, intention is nothing. It is diminished to the point of nonexistence.” So in a novel, to try to summarize such a thing by providing a motive or a reason, diminishes the total shock of what occurred, the complexity, the mystery, and the horror, and to diminish those things to any degree doesn’t seem true to me. And what I wanted more than anything, even more than a reader to feel satisfied, was to write what was true.
But the novel is not wholly without an answer to the question “Why?” Ann gives us the answer she has found. She has imagined the event so deeply that she feels that her imagining has brought her close to truth, and she has found herself in that truth. But this answer comes through her perspective only, and that’s the closest the reader can come, to knowing “why” it happened. And maybe Ann is right. Sometimes, I really feel that she is, that maybe she has come closer to the answer than anyone. She has felt her way through this tragedy for years and years, trying with all her heart to understand. She has searched for this answer with compassion and with pain. And she has let us into her understanding. We'll never know what May was singing in the truck that day, and Ann will never know, either. But this is as close as she can come, as any of us can.
For me, one of the most intense elements of your novel was Wade’s struggle with a hereditary disease that gradually saps his capacity for memory. There’s a particularly haunting passage late in the book, in which Wade is playing the piano and Ann is turning the pages of the music—and as the weeks pass and Wade’s ability declines, Ann must turn the pages of the book backward. And at times in the book’s narration, we’re doing just that, moving backwards chronologically. Is there a connection between Wade’s disease, the way he experiences time, and the way the book is set up chronologically?
Yes, you are very right. The novel is structured in part to mimic Wade’s disease, the way memories are lost, and return suddenly. As the disease progresses, he is grasping at memories he only half-understands, and they arise in him without order, with cruelty, but sometimes as a source of peace.
Music seems to play an important role in your storytelling, and in how your characters perceive and interact with each other and with the world around them more generally. At times, you seem to be emulating musical concepts and techniques with the pacing and intensity of your narration. What connection do you see between music and storytelling—and how does this play out in your novel?
Music and rhythm are very important to me in my fiction. I read aloud everything that I write, many times. I can’t really write without speaking. And so the musicality of the language was both something I labored over a great deal, and something that I also couldn’t do without, because it was often through the musicality of the language that I learned the most intimate things about my characters. One review mentioned that the language, the music of the language, was a kind of consolation, and I am very moved by that, and hope that it is true. I do feel that my novel is a kind of song, in that it moves forward in feeling. Its structure is more instinctive than it is rational, guided by feelings and refrains.
Aside from music, there are so many other forms of artistic expression depicted here in the book that in many cases are deeply meaningful to the characters—drawing, poetry, etching, even collage. Why is this? Do you see an interconnectivity in these different forms of creative expression?
The collage on the prison wall was a way of seeing the overlapping of lives in a very physical way, and that was of great comfort to Jenny and Elizabeth, even as it was painful. The drawing, sent from one life to another, one era to another, is beautiful and painful to Jenny, because she can now hold in her hand this actual piece of her old life. It's a work of art, imperfect, yes, but it has endured through her, past her, separate of her, and yet it still is her, saved from all the rest of her life and the horrible things in it. And poetry is the only way for Jenny to access what is too painful to face directly. Poetry gives her the ability to read between Ann’s words, to find in them some small forgiveness both women know is not Ann’s to give, but the fact that she wants to give it, even as Jenny would never accept it, makes Jenny feel just a little more connected to the world.
I'm not sure if I have a resounding statement about what all of this means about art and how it connects people. I just feel that it does. It’s so beautiful, so unbelievable really, that we can actually save a moment by writing it down, or drawing it, or turning it into music. When our feelings become physical things on the earth, even if they’re just casual sketches or journal entries or snatches of song, I just think it brings us closer to who we are, and therefore closer to each other, because we can actually put our feelings into someone else's hands. My novel, just as an object, just as a thing that I can hold in my hands, brings me so much peace. It is a moment of my life, a piece of myself, and I can just hold it, look at it. The book as an object has a texture, even a smell of ink and paper and glue, holding who I am inside of it. It’s astonishing that I have been given this privilege, that we all have been given this privilege if we want it. I can’t express what it means to me to have made physical something that for so long seemed intangible, so deeply mysterious that it sometimes seemed impossible that it could ever become a thing that I could hold. But it has. And that’s how I feel when I read, too. Like I get to hold in my hand a physical piece of someone else’s interior life. It is deeply meaningful to me.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.