A first novel examines memory and murder

Ruskovich’s depiction of Idaho’s dark beauty garners national praise

March 1, 2017
Author and CU Denver Professor Emily Ruskovich (Photo by Sam McPhee)
Author and CU Denver Professor Emily Ruskovich (Photo by Sam McPhee)

Writer Emily Ruskovich remembers northern Idaho as a place of struggle, where beauty and danger competed for attention. Her childhood terrain was mountainous; the winter days were short and dark, and the summers were bright and sweltering.

In such a severe landscape, questions of safety are constant, and this theme pervades Ruskovich’s first novel, Idaho. The rugged mountains in the panhandle serve as the setting for the novel’s exploration of memory, love, and violence.

Like the place, the novel is a study in contrasts: the story revolves around a moment of brutal violence—a mother’s murder of her child—the aftermath of which is examined through prose so beautiful it comforts as it probes.

A place of memories and mystery

Ruskovich, a CU Denver Assistant Professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and a contributing editor for Copper Nickel, the national literary journal housed at CU Denver, has always been drawn to write about Idaho’s complicated landscape and people. “I never decided I would write about where I grew up,” she said. “Idaho was in my writing from the beginning. It was part of a feeling I had.”

That “feeling” was the spark for a short story that slowly evolved into the novel. Ruskovich remembers a day she was gathering firewood with her family on a remote mountain in Idaho. It was a lovely day, but she was overcome by a strange foreboding feeling. What struck her the most was that she could sense something so dark in such a beautiful place.

“That mountain had a memory, one that we’ll never fully know,” Ruskovich said. “The process of imagining what that memory could be was the process of writing the book.”

From the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to Idaho

All of Ruskovich’s work starts with a feeling. Writing is her way of imagining the story, the characters, and the perspectives behind an intuition. Fleeting as a feeling may be, she learned from Marilynne Robinson, her mentor at The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Ruskovich received her MFA, never to ignore it. “Paying attention to mysterious feelings is important,” she said. “For many writers, that’s how a story begins.”

‘Writers should be a little uncomfortable, or they’re not pushing themselves hard enough.’

– Emily Ruskovich

Once Ruskovich began to explore that feeling in the woods, a short story emerged. Eventually that piece, at 70 pages, became a novella, and it lead a collection of short stories that she sold to Penguin Random House. When the publisher suggested she consider linking each story in the collection, she countered with the idea of turning the novella into a novel.

The potential for a novel intrigued Random House; they postponed publishing the short story collection, and Ruskovich went back to work. Up until that point, she had resisted the idea of a writing a novel because she was intimidated by the scope of the process.

Ruskovich's first novel, Idaho, is published by Penguin Random House.
Ruskovich’s first novel, Idaho, is published by Penguin Random House.

As it turned out, her short-story-writing experience paid off; she envisioned each chapter of the novel as an individual story. Through arranging and ordering the chapters, she played with revealing and obscuring the central memories of the characters. She learned to balance multiple story threads and voices across the narrative arc of the novel.

Over the course of five years, Ruskovich wrote and rewrote Idaho. “Turning that story into a book was a long process,” she said. “I had to teach myself how to write a novel and build up confidence that I could do it.”

A ‘masterly’ attention to language

Her hard work paid off. The New York Times Book Review describes Ruskovich’s use of language as “masterly,” and notes her poetic use of phonetics—the “chopping” sound of the letter ‘t’ contrasted with the “sonorous” sound of the letter ‘n’ in a line like “the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone”—as proof of her skill with rhythm and sound.

Emily Ruskovich signs copy of her first novel, Idaho. (Photo by Molly McPhee)
Emily Ruskovich signs copy of her first novel, Idaho. (Photo by Molly McPhee)

For Ruskovich, beautiful language is not an accessory to plot; it is part of the story. She reads poetry regularly, and the fiction writers she admires most—Robinson, Alice Munro, and Kazuo Ishiguro—are revered for their prowess with language.

“I can’t write without reading aloud,” Ruskovich said. “I’m listening for why one sentence seems to fit better than another.”

Writer as Teacher

Writing, according to Ruskovich, makes a person more awake and connected. Her classes at CU Denver, Introduction to Creative Writing and a Fiction Workshop, give her an opportunity to connect students to the literature she loves.

Drawing from her own experience, she urges her writing students to be ambitious, to not be afraid of making huge mistakes, to risk sentimentality in writing about things that matter. While it may be easy to write bitter, sarcastic characters, she doesn’t find that inclusive of real experience. In her classes, students write about what interests and challenges them.

“Writers should be a little uncomfortable,” she said, “Or they’re not pushing themselves hard enough.”