“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”—Joan Didion
Writers speak of “sense of place” as more than just a setting. A location can reflect plot, shape characters, evoke emotion, and ground readers in the writer’s imaginary world.
For author Emily Ruskovich, North Idaho’s Hoodoo Mountain is that place, looming over much of her work. The snowy, isolated landscape was her childhood home. It inspired her debut novel, “Idaho,” a bestselling story woven around memory loss, murder and love.
The mountain and characters she created there so hold her heart, she says, it’s been hard to move on.
“I went through a long grieving period when I had to send it to the publisher,” she said. “I have another novel I want to write, but I can’t let go of the first.”
For now, she can savor glowing reviews and, recently, a Pacific Northwest Book Award. And she’s settling into her new job as an assistant professor in Boise State’s acclaimed Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing.
On a recent, chilly night, Ruskovich discussed her book and life, sitting in the newly remodeled lobby of her campus office, waiting for husband Sam McPhee, also a fiction writer, to finish teaching. She rested a slender arm over a barely visible baby bump. It will be the couple’s first child.
She described how a powerful experience near her family home inspired “Idaho.”
“It was a beautiful day,” Ruskovich said. “We were loading firewood. And I had this feeling that something terrible had happened right there. My mom remembers I was in a trance, and I just knew something so bad, so horrible had happened there.”
When she has such a powerful reaction, she allows it to guide her writing. “I try to chase it and trap it into a scene,” she said.
The firewood experience happened the summer before she entered the prestigious University of Iowa’s graduate program in creative writing, where she met McPhee. She crafted a short story based on the feeling, and an editor later asked her to turn it into a novel, which became “Idaho.”
In the book, a mother named Jenny murders her young daughter as the family gathers firewood, and the other daughter disappears into the woods. Struggling with the loss of his family and his memory to Alzheimer’s, the father, Wade, remarries and his new wife, Ann, tries to piece together what happened.
Although Ruskovich’s childhood wasn’t defined by tragedy, her life on Hoodoo Mountain informed her beautiful prose. As a child, writing was her first passion. She wrote poems and stories, which she read to her mother. She watched her father stay up late writing poetry and a novel after he’d commuted an hour each way for his teaching job and did chores on their land.
“My father really shaped me,” she said. “(Being a novelist) is what he really wanted for his life.”
A song he wrote is the heart of “Idaho,” she says. Though he read dozens of drafts, she kept the song secret, surprising him with the first published copy.
Life on Hoodoo Mountain was idyllic but challenging. Her family first lived in tents without water or electricity. They built a barn, lived in it with their animals, had a well dug, and then finally built their house.
The family home was similar to Wade and Ann’s fictional one, located at the top of a road that didn’t get plowed in winter. Once, after her father injured his back, they’d parked their truck at the bottom of the hill in case they needed to get him to the doctor. Some neighbors, who like others nearby likely disagreed with editorials her father wrote for The Spokesman Review, stole gas out of the truck for their snowmobiles. Then they cut the truck’s gas line and drained the remaining fuel in the snow.
Ruskovich now lives in a log cabin in Idaho City with McPhee, and her parents sold their Hoodoo Mountain home and moved to Grangeville a few years ago. She wants someday to write a memoir about growing up on the mountain. She’s asked her family to write down their memories since her journals were filled with poems and stories.
Now beginning her own family, Ruskovich is over the moon to be back in Idaho after teaching in Denver. She’s more suited for life in the woods, where she and McPhee can raise ducks and share a writing life. “I love his writing, and he loves mine,” she said. “I feel so lucky to be able to talk about it with him.”
Boise State is thrilled to have hired her, said Mitch Wieland, director of the MFA program in creative writing. He calls Ruskovich “as kind a person as you will find. She’s the future of the program. Who knows what she
Associate professor Brady Udall, who taught Ruskovich as an undergrad at the University of Montana, remembers the strength of her language and sentences. “She brings a new energy to the program that we’ve needed for quite some time,” he said. “Let’s face it—none of us around here are getting any younger, and Emily’s youth and enthusiasm, her generosity, her intelligence and ambition, give the program new life and benefit the students in a myriad of ways.”
Natalie Disney, one of Ruskovich’s first Boise State
MFA students who will graduate in May, said Ruskovich had a profound influence on her writing when they first met at the University of Wisconsin, where Ruskovich was on fellowship.
“Emily approached our conversations about writing with incredible generosity—with a kind of heightened awareness of all interior life, whether it be human life,
or animal life, or even the life within a certain place,”
Ruskovich influenced Disney’s decision to apply to Boise State. All she knew about Idaho was that it was Ruskovich’s home. “With Emily, it seems you cannot separate the person from the place she comes from. She grew up in this sort of rugged, remote place, a place that required a certain kind of strength and alertness. But I think all things in the wild have a really beautiful vulnerability.