‘Idaho can’t be separated from the story and from me,’ writer says of debut novel

Idaho is the heart of her novel. ‘People like to see the landscape of their lives brought to life.’

'Idaho' author Emily Ruskovich draws inspiration from the mountains of Idaho and the animals that keep her company as she writes.
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'Idaho' author Emily Ruskovich draws inspiration from the mountains of Idaho and the animals that keep her company as she writes.

Boise is very different from the Idaho that Emily Ruskovich is used to. A native of the northern part of the state, her memories of a childhood spent near Athol and Blanchard conjure images of heavily wooded forests and rural mountain ranches.

Nevertheless, she’s adjusting to the Treasure Valley’s cherished Foothills and high desert landscape. Who knows? Perhaps it could end up as the setting for her next book.

Ruskovich, 31, rocketed to literary prominence in 2017 thanks to her dark and somewhat disturbing debut novel, “Idaho,” which won accolades in publications such as The (London) Guardian and The New York Times.

Ruskovich, though, is a departure from the emotions her novel evokes. Where “Idaho” is at times harsh, bewildering and brutal, Ruskovich is warm and affable.

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Ruskovich’s Flemish giant rabbit Marjorie is named for Emily’s mother. Pip, a Lionhead rabbit, keeps Marjorie company. Katherine Jones

Animals are such a part of my writing process ... a cat on my lap, the rabbits.

Emily Ruskovich

A broad smile plays across her face when she talks about the things she loves: teaching, her husband, her tawny Flemish giant rabbit, Marjorie, whose fur reflects the reddish-blonde of Ruskovich’s long hair. Those are the things that put her at ease, that she draws from when she writes.

“The novel that I wrote is very sad, but the moments that are happy are taken directly from my childhood,” Ruskovich said.

“Idaho” is an extension of the young author, who writes what she knows, she says. That’s a foundation she hopes to pass on to her students when she starts her new role as an assistant professor of creative writing at Boise State University later this month.

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Katherine Jones

“I really can’t separate myself as a person from Idaho. It can’t be separated from the story and from me,” she said.

The reason the novel is called Idaho is I couldn’t really separate the place from the people.

Emily Ruskovich

Teaching and writing

Ruskovich is the youngest of the full-time faculty in Boise State’s creative writing department.

And though she’s just been through the process of publishing, Ruskovich said she doesn’t want her students to focus on the world of book deals. In fact, she said it’s not something she even initially considered when she started work as a writer — and certainly not as she first worked on the 70-page novella that would become “Idaho.”

“The steps to publishing a book are still so fresh to me, and I feel passionately about sharing that and about telling students: ‘Don’t give up. Don’t think about publication right now. Just write and write and write,’” she said.

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Katherine Jones

‘Writing is a calling’

What called Ruskovich to write “Idaho,” which follows a music teacher in rural North Idaho as she tries to piece together the tragedy that tore her husband’s family apart?

Hoodoo Mountain — the secluded site where Ruskovich spent her adolescence — inspired the story. She was called by the sometimes-sinister feeling you get in the wilderness with hostile strangers as the nearest neighbors, and by her sister, who served as a character sketch for one of the ill-fated young girls at the heart of the novel’s plot.

“It was a love letter to my family,” she explained, emphasizing that her sister is thrilled with the portrayal.

And, in some ways, it was the novel that called her to Boise.

“Idaho” came out in January, right as Ruskovich — then living in Oregon and aching to get back to her home state — interviewed for the job at Boise State.

“(Bob) Kustra (the president of BSU) had already read Emily’s book when we called her in for a campus interview,” said Mitch Wieland, director of the university’s master’s program in creative writing. “He was about to email me and tell me he wanted her on his radio show.”

That “Idaho” was so well-received at Boise State was simply “a bonus,” Wieland said. Ruskovich fit right in.

“I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen a campus interview like the one she did,” he said.

She just mesmerized everyone with her confidence.

Mitch Wieland, director of the Boise State master’s in creative writing program

The start of something big

Ruskovich joins a department on the cusp its merge with the theater department that will create new graduate and undergraduate degrees in writing.

“For her to come in and add to our program, it creates just a lot of great energy because she’s growing and changing, and she’s coming in to a department that’s growing and changing,” Wieland said.

Ruskovich will teach fiction alongside Wieland, who launched and edits BSU’s award-winning literary journal, “The Idaho Review,” and has penned two novels. Ruskovich’s husband, Sam McPhee, will teach as a special lecturer.

She also joins Brady Udall on staff. She first met the former Idaho writer-in-residence and “The Lonely Polygamist” author when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Montana, where he taught.

“I remember everything (Udall) ever said. I’m going to be saying those same things to my students,” Ruskovich said.

Ruskovich is excited to join Idaho’s literary scene that includes Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr and Pulitzer finalist Kim Barnes.

“Idaho has more of a (literary) community than meets the eye. Everybody is so engaged and knows who’s writing,” she says.

Where her heart is

Though she’s eager to dive into her new department and Idaho’s writing world, Ruskovich and her husband settled down outside of town, in the mountains of Idaho City. The distance is no hurdle, Ruskovich said. This is just what she prefers.

“I’ve always lived far away,” she said. “It’s where I feel like myself.

“It’s such a huge part of who I am and why I started writing — to try to return to that feeling of just being isolated but not at all lonely.”

It’s the simple, peaceful appeal of the natural world that Ruskovich said she needs to write. That authenticity is part of what draws people to “Idaho.” There is a familiarity to Ruskovich’s scenes, tiny details that make the book feel like home: the feeling of dusty shoes on a summer day, the stillness of a remote mountainside.

“I really wanted Idahoans to connect with the novel,” she said. “People want to see ‘their’ Idaho reflected and brought to life. I think writing something that feels true can honor a place, and people like to see the landscape of their lives given to an art form.”

Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s social media editor.

Idaho book cover


By Emily Ruskovich

(Random House, $27)