SOPHIE GRENHAM meets Emily Ruskovich, winner of this year’s International Dublin Literary Award …
I feel part of a secret club as I’m ushered into the basement of a swish Georgian office building to meet Emily Ruskovich, the debut author of Idaho (2017). It’s the day before her International Dublin Literary Award is announced, with a watertight embargo all week. They could only disclose her name over the telephone, it’s that top secret. Ruskovich is just one of three women to receive such an honour (most recently Nicola Barker, in 2000) in the award’s 24-year history. She saw off stiff competition from nine other authors for the €100,000 prize, including Sally Rooney, Bernard MacLaverty and Jon McGregor. It’s the highest monetary value of any award in the world for a novel published in English.
Ruskovich, 33, is a ray of sunshine. She positively beams with a wide, bright smile and a mane of strawberry-blonde hair. There’s not a hint of fatigue, considering her jetlag and hefty press schedule. “I’m so happy and so shocked. It is the greatest honour of my career.
It’s the biggest thing to ever happen to me as a writer.”
Ruskovich grew up in the Idaho Panhandle on the Hoodoo Mountain, the same dramatic landscape depicted in her novel. The central characters are Wade and Jenny Mitchell and their two young daughters May and June. One fateful afternoon, while the couple gather birch wood on a mountain, Jenny murders May, for which she receives a life sentence. Meanwhile Wade, who has early-onset dementia, takes a new wife, Ann. What unfolds is an unforgettable story of humanity, empathy, patience and forgiveness, as Ann inherits a family that she gets to know through her imagination and what remains of its broken structure. I was baffled by the inexplicable behaviour of Jenny, a fundamentally loving character. Some things simply can never be fully explained.
“I think I’ve always been afraid of what’s inside of me. It’s become an irrational component of my life,” says Ruskovich. “What would I be capable of? I’ve worried about it since I was a very small child. I used to worry that some day I would go to prison for doing something. I have never done anything wrong exactly, in any big sense. It’s something that’s always been with me, just a question of how can there be so much darkness and so much goodness in all of us.”
Idaho was originally part of a short story collection she conceived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2011. Her publisher, along with Professor Ethan Canin of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, encouraged her to take this thread and weave it into the haunting work we read today.
Ruskovich currently lives in Idaho City, where she teaches Creating Writing on the MFA programme at Boise State University. She has a one-year-old daughter, June, who she’s anxious to return to. “Having a baby has been the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to my husband and me, but it has come with the loss of a very active writing life,” she says. “I used to just have these days spread out before me, and now writing is done mostly with a recorder as I’m walking with the baby. I do feel the award is going to help financially in giving my husband and me both more time. I don’t think I’ve even comprehended all the ways in which this award will change my life.”
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich, €13.99, Vintage is out now.
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