Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Emily Ruskovich
Random House Reader’s Circle: What was the inspiration for Idaho?
Emily Ruskovich: The novel began with a feeling. When I was twenty-three years old, my mom and dad and I drove a long way up mountain roads to a clearing where firewood had been cut for us, and we needed to load it into our truck. As we were working, I had a feeling that something terrible had once happened in this clearing. It was a sunny day, and the air smelled sweet, and I remember hearing the clicking sound of katydids all around us—and yet I felt something deeply unsettling, and I began to imagine what it could be. I began to imagine a family doing just as my mom and dad and I were doing, and then I felt something terrible, something unthinkable, happen to this other family. I carried this feeling around for the rest of the summer. Trying to understand what happened to that other family was the process of writing the novel. It was after I read Alice Munro’s short story “Dimensions” that the shape and structure of my story became more clear.
RHRC: Are any of the novel’s characters based on people you know or have known?
ER: Yes and no. I have never heard of a family enduring the situation that I wrote about. The central event of the story is completely fictional. But the best parts of Wade remind me, in many ways, of my dad. They even look a lot alike. There is a moment in chapter one when Wade knocks his knuckle on the piano as if to test the quality of its wood, and that moment is my dad exactly. Of course, they are very, very different, too. Similarly, I see my mom in both Jenny and Ann. This may be a strange thing to say, considering I see my mom as the gentlest person on earth, and yet I have given some of her kindest qualities to Jenny, who has committed an act of horrifying violence. But lending Jenny some aspects of my mom was a way of empathizing with Jenny, a way of complicating her, a way of loving her in spite of what she’d done, which I felt was very important. And I do love Jenny. I needed to, in order to continue this quite painful story. May, too, was inspired by my sister Mary. This is the closest that I came to writing about someone so directly, though it wasn’t at all my intention. Mary came alive in May so naturally. I have a photograph of my sister when she is young taking a “swim” in a garbage can filled with water that has been warming in the sun. When I look at that picture, I see both Mary and May, almost equally. It made writing May’s perspectives both very personal and very painful. I feel May’s loss even more deeply because of her resemblance to my sister. Some parts of the novel, in fact, are painful for me to return to because of that. June, also, reminds me a lot of what I was like when I was young.
RHRC: What is your favorite part of the book?
ER: It’s when May and June are in the woods together in the second-to-last chapter, and May is looking at June with so much love, and she sees, because the sun has caught them, the tiny hairs running down the slope of her sister’s nose for just an instant. This feels like the most intimate moment in the novel to me.
RHRC: The landscape of northern Idaho is so prominent and vivid in the novel. How did you come to write about this place, this landscape?
ER: I never made an actual decision to set the novel in Idaho; Idaho was there from the very beginning, from the very first moment I started to feel my way around this story, and in that way, the story and the setting feel inextricable from each other. Idaho was the first breath of the novel’s life. The feeling I get from these characters is the feeling I get from the mountains where I grew up. It is beautiful and quiet and secret and can also be very scary. The mountain where the Mitchells live is a version of the mountain where my family lived. Our houses look different, but the layout of the land is very similar. The rotting furniture and junked cars the characters find out in the woods were very familiar sights for my siblings and me when we would go exploring the land surrounding our own. It was not a very friendly place in a lot of regards, and it was often quite scary. People were often armed. There was a lot of racism and antigovernment sentiment. I remember finding some haunting things out in the woods, and one day, our half-built chicken house simply disappeared. Even the cinderblocks that formed the foundation—all of it gone. We were in the middle of nowhere, on a property that was incredibly difficult to access, and yet someone had come up in the night to steal every last piece of lumber. Not even a brick of the foundation remained. Another time, very early in the morning, we were threatened by a dangerous man who was waiting for us in our garden, in the dark. These facts are shocking to me, of course, perhaps even more shocking now than they were then. I feel alarmed at them, because, in spite of it all, the mountain remains the place I love most in the world, because it was ours. My family carved out a beautiful and kind place, as many people did, in an otherwise hostile landscape, just as Wade and Jenny did when they were young. Our acreage, like theirs, was strange and beautiful. Streams of pinecones; the tree sap smelled like honey. It was a very wild place, and some of the best years of my life were spent there. There were a lot of wonderfully kind people to be found, if you looked. A couple who made knives for a living, who lived two miles up the dirt road from us, nearly at the top of the mountain, were our dear friends and closest neighbors. We relied a great deal on their help when we first moved there. The anecdote in the third chapter about Wade and Jenny buying the land on the promise that the road would be plowed by the county (because a school bus driver lived even farther up) was something that really happened to my parents. The man who sold them the land told them they did not need to worry about buying a tractor to plow. He spun a story about a school bus driver who didn’t actually exist, in order to convince my trusting parents to buy. So we were in a bind once winter came. We used to have to haul our groceries up the mountain in a sled, just like Wade does in the story. Sometimes we hiked two miles down through the darkness and the snow just to catch the school bus.
RHRC: Why did you choose to include the perspective of Eliot in the novel?
ER: My husband said something to me about Eliot recently that really struck a chord with me. He said that it was interesting that Eliot had built his whole identity around an absence: the absence of his leg. And what a fragile thing that was to do, to believe that the story of your life began the moment you lost something crucial. I’m not really sure how aware I was of this connection as I was writing, that Eliot has done the same thing that Ann has done, in a way: She has built her life around an absence, around Wade’s pain. Writing about Eliot was, therefore, a way of also writing about Ann. Sometimes Eliot feels the presence of his missing limb, just as Ann feels, everywhere and all the time, the presence of Jenny in her life—the start and end of everything. But I was more conscious of writing about Eliot as a way of writing about June. June is the only member of the Mitchell family whose perspective isn’t in the novel. And so writing about Eliot was a way of writing about her. It was a way of getting close to her own vision of herself, without writing from her perspective directly, which I felt I couldn’t honestly do, since she is lost not only to her family, but to the novel itself, which never does provide a clear answer to what happened. But getting so close to Eliot was a way of getting close to June’s love. Eliot’s chapter also opens up the possibility that June is the one who set his backpack on the edge of the dock, that June has committed a mostly accidental act of violence—violence born of love—by putting his backpack there, which resulted in the loss of Eliot’s leg. And I think this is an interesting and disturbing parallel to her mother’s act of horrific—and also almost accidental—violence toward May. So I feel that Eliot, even though he’s somewhat on the periphery of the main plot, is the beginning of everything, in a way. A little girl loves a young boy, and from that point, the whole story emerges. Without him, there is no Ann and Wade. And without his voice, we wouldn’t have what I think is this crucial access to June.
RHRC: How did the poetic narration arise?
ER: This is a wonderful question, but I’m not sure I know how the narrative voice arose. It arose partly because I had such a strong sense of my characters, and I felt their voices and tried to evoke those voices on the page. But it also didn’t quite “arise”— it was something that I had to really work hard on and struggle with. The language was so important to me, and I did a lot of rewriting, deleting, starting over. It was a very long process. A few of the passages I’m sure I rewrote fifty or more times, first allowing some poetry on the page, and then pulling it back, and then stepping it forward, over and over again. I never wanted the poetic language to feel indulgent or exploitive or inappropriate or separate from the characters, but rather a part of their understanding of themselves. If I ever felt that I was risking dishonesty by using poetic language, I was very disciplined about editing it out. It was a delicate balance to strike: How do you write honestly with poetic language about something that is absolutely not poetic, that’s horrifying and ugly? It’s a very difficult question, and I feel that I managed it only by getting close enough to my characters that the language was a part of their perspectives. I never wrote, in absolute or direct terms, about the murder itself. The murder is explored only through speculation and through memory, both of which are necessarily very flawed, and there is room for poetry in those flaws. Also, I pay a lot of attention to rhythm. When I write, I speak. I read every single sentence aloud many times. I have muttered my entire novel to myself more times than I can count. One review mentioned that the language is a kind of consolation to the reader, and I was very moved by that, and hope that it is true. In the novel, there are many questions that are left unanswered, but that was what felt right to me, what felt most real. And so maybe the poetic language is a way of giving the sense of an answer, just a sense of one, that the story itself is unable to provide.
RHRC: 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?
ER: 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 horrifying uncertainty, because the answer will never actually be an answer. There never is a “reason” to kill a child. There is a passage near 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.” Jenny’s motive, if there is one, ceases to matter the moment she commits this shocking act, because compared to the act itself, the explanation will always be so inadequate as to feel nonexistent. So I felt that providing an absolute motive would diminish the shock, the complexity, the mystery, and the horror of what Jenny has done. I’m not sure even Jenny knows. And if she does know, I imagine that her “reason” would feel so shockingly insignificant now that she would have difficulty believing it was ever real. What happened to her that day seems to me so much larger and so much more mysterious than can be summarized with a “reason”: a lapse of self, a compression of self. It is impossible to summarize this infinite act. To answer directly, to “reveal,” simply did not feel real to me. And what I wanted more than anything, even more than a reader to feel satisfied, was to write what was true.
And this is also the reason that June is never found: To write an ending in which she is found, miraculously, would have been untruthful, even if it might have been satisfying for a reader. I think of the horrifying statistics about how every hour that passes after a child goes missing, the chances of finding him or her decrease significantly. If I were to find June in this novel, I feel that I would betray a painful reality that many thousands of families are living every day. It would have been a kind of fantasy that would have felt wrong of me to write. I have received letters from readers asking where she is. One reader even wrote his own ending, about June living her life somewhere else. I completely understand the frustration a reader feels, but I never considered having June “found” because it simply wasn’t the story. It simply wasn’t the truth. But the novel is not wholly without an answers. Ann gives us the answer she has found as to “why” this terrible thing happened. 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. 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 we’ll never know if what she was singing had any bearing on what occurred, and Ann will never know, either. But this is as close as she can come, as any of us can.
RHRC: What kind of research did you do as you wrote?
ER: I didn’t do a lot of research as I wrote. I looked up statutes regarding the murder of a child in Idaho, and information about sentencing in Idaho. This I did online, in a fairly quick search. And I read one book called Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System, by Silja J. A. Talvi, which was extremely informative and so heartbreaking and shocking. I learned a great deal from it. But I would say that mostly, as I wrote, I just imagined as deeply as I could and hoped that imagining so deeply would mean that I had created something close to what was real. I did learn some things about how a prison is run from my dad, who worked as a counselor at a correctional facility for young people. And, for a brief time, I co-facilitated a memoir-writing class at a medium-security men’s prison. But I have never been inside of a women’s prison. In a way, the best research I did was when my husband and I drove to the Women’s Correctional Center in Pocatello, Idaho, and we just sat in our car in the parking lot, looking at the unspectacular building that we knew held so much pain and longing, so many stories. It was heartbreaking to see the little plastic slide out in the yard and imagine the women playing with their children when they visited, trying to make it a nice time for them, trying to be cheerful. We noticed the things that the women would see through the fence — the hills of sage and scrub brush, the quaint garden that volunteers kept up just outside—and we just stayed there for a while, trying to picture what it would be like to know only this one view, your whole sense of the world framed by a single window, your whole life defined by a single crime from many years before. It’s been something I have thought about a great deal since I was very young. I’ve imagined deeply, all throughout my life, what it would be like to go to prison, wondering if a person might find some way of protecting her interior life in spite of everything. I can’t quite recall how much research I did on Alzheimer’s disease, but I don’t think it was substantial. I know that I looked up whether or not early-onset dementia was genetic, and at what age symptoms begin to show. I am sure there were a few other facts I looked up, too, but mostly, I felt like facts weren’t as important as the stories I have heard or read, which have affected me so much. Ever since I first learned what the disease was, when I was young, I have paid such close attention to stories about people coping with their loved one’s decline, and I feel that just from listening for so long I have learned a great deal. But it wasn’t from any focused research, it was just from years of listening and feeling. It was actually from a work of fiction that I learned the most. I read Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” and the way she evoked the perseverance of a self—in spite of extraordinary loss—was one of the most moving things I’ve ever read. It had a profound influence on me.
RHRC: Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
ER: When I was twenty-five years old, my now-husband and I went on a pilgrimage to meet Alice Munro. We drove fifteen hours from Iowa City to Clinton, Ontario, in order to deliver an artisan broom to her door. The broom was one we made out of vines and sticks we found in Iowa and bound with twine. We thought it was quite beautiful. I had written her a letter explaining that we had a gift for her, and told her why we wanted to give her this giant and unruly broom: “In the stories you write, the stories that have meant so much to me, the hearts of very ordinary people—housewives, fox farmers, well-drillers, maids—are revealed to be places of wilderness. Their modest farmhouses are ‘deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum,’ and everything inside those houses—even the most familiar domestic object—is crucial, unearthly, and looming. Which is precisely a description of this broom.” She was very kind and wrote back. I think she thought it was funny, and I had hoped she would. She said it was a splendid idea, and that brooms were an integral part of her life. She said we could drop by to deliver it. At our meeting in her yard, we spoke only a few words to each other (she was quite busy and had an interview to get to), but I cherish the experience deeply.
RHRC: What scares you the most as a writer?
ER: I get anxious if I am ever in a place for more than a few days that doesn’t have a large desk and a window in front of it. Sometimes, I get scared if I feel I’m not working hard enough. And other times, I get scared that there won’t be time to write all the things I want to write. But overall, I find writing to be one of my greatest comforts. I can’t express what a comfort it is to know that my novel will be on the earth long after I am gone. I find a great deal of meaning in that. My book now is this physical thing that I can hold in my hands and know that this piece of me, this piece of my family, will be here for a long, long time. It is a feeling that brings me an immense amount of peace.
RHRC: Has a book ever changed your life? If so, which one, and how?
ER: Yes, many times. I feel like I based a lot of my life on Anne of Green Gables. I even chose my first graduate school based on that book. Prince Edward Island didn’t have a graduate degree in creative writing, so I went to the closest place that did, which was the University of New Brunswick in northeastern Canada. Anne of Green Gables was the sole reason I chose to go there. I don’t think I even applied anywhere else. (It turns out that it’s a wonderful program with great professors, but I didn’t know that when I applied. While there, I met one of my dearest friends, who chose UNB for the same exact reason I did, which was to be close to the world of Anne Shirley.) Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, also had a profound effect on me, though that effect was much less straightforward and is difficult to describe. I had never seen language used quite that way before. (My husband and I have also given Marilynne Robinson a broom.) And, of course, any book by Alice Munro went straight to my heart, and her influence on me is impossible to measure.
RHRC: What has surprised you the most about the process of publishing your first novel?
ER: It was surprising to me how many people were involved. It was really very moving. Each time someone new read the book—a copy editor, an outside reader—I felt very touched by how much attention he or she gave to my novel. There were problems everywhere that I never would have noticed on my own. I found the generosity of my editors and readers and copy editor and proofreaders overwhelming. It was also surprising how, when my main editors would give suggestions, sometimes it would be incredibly hard for me to take them, and I would decide not to take them, in some instances for years! But then, at the very last moment, in copyediting, I suddenly saw all the ways in which I had been wrong and they were right, and at that stage, alarmingly, it was so much easier to let things go. I made a great many important changes at the very last minute. That surprises me, too.
RHRC: How did your father’s song “Take Your Picture Off the Wall” become a part of the novel?
ER: My father wrote “Take Your Picture Off the Wall” when he was only nineteen years old, shortly after his father died of alcoholism. It’s a song about saying goodbye, particularly to a lover, but the song feels much broader than that, too. It feels like a goodbye to an era of one’s life. It’s beautiful and sad and filled with love, and he sang it so often throughout my childhood that it really became a part of me. At my wedding, he sang a modified version, “Put Your Picture on the Wall.” So the song has been with me through all the eras of my life, happy and sad. But he didn’t know his song would be a part of my novel. He read every single draft of it, but when I gave it to him to read, I would always delete the song and put in something else. It was a secret my family kept from him for five years. Then, about a week before my novel came out, on Christmas Day, I gave him my first copy. It was a moment I will always cherish, when he first realized that his song was inside my book. His poetry has had such an influence on my life, as a person and as a writer, and it felt crucial to me that my first novel revolve around something that came from him. He and my mom are the reason that I am able to do this with my life. They have worked so hard all their lives in order to give their children the opportunities that we had, and they found such beauty in simple things, and such pleasure in that beauty. They taught us to feel it, too.
RHRC: What are you working on next?
ER: I am working on a few things right now, and am waiting to know which one I will devote myself to. One is a memoir; one is a collection of short stories; and one is a novel. I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes the most difficult task is choosing which idea to focus on. I am sure I will choose one very soon, but for now, I am working a little bit on all three of them, trying to find my footing.
1. Though at the novel’s center is an act of shocking violence, this is also a story about many different kinds of love. What are these various forms of love? What role does love play in this novel, and how does love contribute to the feelings you are left with in the end?
2. When Wade’s memory begins to fail, Ann endures humiliation and physical pain because of his actions, which, to someone outside of the relationship, would look like domestic abuse. Discuss the ways in which she copes with these episodes. How does Ann interpret these acts of violence, and what does that say about her as a character? Did you feel nervous and uncomfortable about the fine line she is walking between her love and her safety?
3. What are other examples of sacrifice in this novel?
4. Consider the structure of the book: the shifting narrative voices and the shifting timeline, spanning nearly fifty years. How does the book’s structure influence your understanding of each character and his or her story? Discuss also the inclusion of minor perspectives, such as the bloodhound’s and Eliot’s.
5. What role does art play in this story? Consider music, painting, and poetry. How do you understand Tom Clark’s motivations?
6. Near the end of the novel, Ann remembers learning about the history of Idaho’s name. How does this history inform her own life? Why is Idaho the title of this novel? Discuss also the role the landscape plays in the interior lives of all the characters. How would you characterize this landscape?
7. Female friendship and sisterhood are major themes. Discuss the various relationships between the female characters, including the children. Is female friendship the saving grace of this story?
8. How do you interpret the act of violence that is at the heart of this story? Do you feel that Ann’s interpretation is correct? Do you feel the novel provides an absolute answer? Why do you think the author chose to tell only as much as she did?
9. Do you sympathize with Jenny, in spite of what she’s done? Why or why not? If you had to choose only one moment in the story that characterized Jenny, would it be her act of violence, or something else? How do you think she understands herself?
10. Are you surprised by the end of Ann’s story? Jenny’s? Why or why not?