Arts September 17, 2019

‘Idaho’ Is the Literary Toast of Ireland

Emily Ruskovich garners the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award

Author Emily Ruskovich has extra­ordinary moments while doing ordinary things. The morning after Mother’s Day presented a quiet moment after a long weekend of moving from Idaho City to Boise. While her husband, Sam McPhee, made one last trip to Idaho City to collect the remainder of their belongings, Ruskovich headed outside with their young daughter to play in the backyard with the rabbits. Those first sweet moments in their new space were interrupted by a phone call that would change everything. On the other end of the line was her editor. Ruskovich had won the International Dublin Literary Award for her debut novel, “Idaho.”

As she recounts that moment, the confusion and excitement are still evident on her face, “It was so shocking. I thought I must have misheard her. She had to tell me twice that, yes, I won the award,” Ruskovich said. She even told her mom to put her joy on hold because this could not possibly be real. But real it was.

While Ruskovich has received numerous literary awards, the International Dublin Literary Award comes with a hefty monetary prize of €100,000 ($112,000)—the largest award given in the world for a single novel. The award, given by the Dublin City Council, is unique not only for the large sum of money but for the nominating structure as well. Nominations come from invited public libraries around the world. Many of the other shortlisted novels received multiple nominations, but “Idaho” got just one. Ruskovich acknowledged, “I owe everything to a librarian in Belgium.”

Once the follow-up email arrived, the doubt slowly began to melt away. Ruskovich and McPhee traveled to Ireland, baby-free, to accept the award. Ruskovich is known for her intense connections to place and her experience in Ireland affected her profoundly. “It wasn’t real until I was in Dublin,” she said. “Everyone was so nice, I felt a deep connection to Ireland.”

Back in Boise, Ruskovich has been busy doing interviews, answering phone calls, and contemplating this new reality. She noted, “It’s still hard to comprehend it.” Indeed. This season of life has brought a whirlwind of changes for her young family. A move from the quiet respite of Idaho City to the busy capital city, where convenience is plentiful but quiet is not. Ruskovich and McPhee intend to move back to a more remote location once their daughter is older, but for now Boise is the dream. The newness of life in Boise and the convenience of it all delights and halts Ruskovich. She remembers how her father rose well before dawn to plow the road on Hoodoo Mountain after a heavy snowfall, an eight-hour task. Now, as a parent herself, the enormity of the task hits her.

The landscape of Idaho remains Ruskovich’s deepest inspiration. The land rises up through her pages as a character, and she credits the intensity of her childhood for being able to harness this gift. Ruskovich recalls those days on Hoodoo Mountain as sharp contrasts lived moment by moment. “You can take one step and there are lovely flowers to put in your sister’s hair and then three more steps and there is a decapitated animal laid waste by a person you will never see,” she explained. That juxtaposition of good and evil played a central role in her development.

As a child, Ruskovich was often overwhelmed by feelings of guilt over a crime she never committed. Unable to shake the feeling, she lay awake at night turning the scenarios over in her mind. “I think this feeling is in everyone, that fear of not being a good person. But for me it manifested in a very literal way,” she explained. Through her writing she was able to use those darker moments from her childhood as a way to thoroughly access the emotions of her characters. “That’s why I can empathize so deeply with Jenny and the guilt she felt. I had access to that guilt, even though I had never committed the crime,” she added. (“Idaho” centers on a mother’s—Jenny’s—killing of her daughter.)

Writing “Idaho” had moments of deep catharsis for Ruskovich. Her happy childhood on the mountain is preserved forever. And she was able to make something worthwhile out of the darker moments as well. Tragedy. Sisterhood. Joy.

“I’m always trying to immortalize my childhood on the mountain. It’s an impulse I’ve had since childhood, to save joy,” said Ruskovich. Joy these days comes in capturing the small moments and containing the bigger ones. A young child to care for, a big move, and an even bigger award has come racing toward her all at once. “I’ve always wanted to be a successful writer, but I’ve never wanted my life to look any different from the life that I love, which is being home with my family.”

This article appears in the Fall 2019 Issue of Territory Magazine.