Introducing 2017 Debutante: Emily Ruskovich

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Emily Ruskovich, author of One Story issue #190 “Owl” and the novel Idaho.

Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho begins with musician Ann’s struggle to care for Wade, her husband, who suffers from early-onset dementia. Ann knows Wade’s ex-wife Jenny committed a shocking act years ago, but she still doesn’t understand why. Unfolding across the lonely and beautiful landscape of northern Idaho, Ruskovich’s novel is both quiet and fierce, a song-like homage to all the things we cannot know.

Natalie Mesnard: Where were you when you found out Idaho was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Emily Ruskovich: I was living in a tiny apartment I had rented in Madison, Wisconsin on a quiet street across from an elementary school. I remember I answered the phone while sitting in my small and messy bedroom, looking out the window at the school. My agent told me that Random House had made an offer on my short story collection, but that they wanted a novel, too. I was in so much shock that I hardly reacted. I called my now-husband, who lived in Iowa, and then my parents in Idaho, and their extremely happy reactions made things a little more real for me, but it was still really hard for me to comprehend. The news had come to me so quietly, just a phone call in a messy room on a sunny afternoon. It was really hard for me to believe. I felt like crying.

I had already made plans to go out to dinner with my two closest friends in Madison, Seth and Jesse. I didn’t tell them at first. It was only after we had finished eating that Seth happened to ask me, “Emily, do you think you’ll ever write a novel, not just short stories?” And I said, with some uncertainty, “Actually, I’ll be starting a novel really soon. As soon as I can.” And he said, “Really? When did you decide to do this?” And then I said, with a strange, detached calm (I was still completely in shock), “Today, a publishing house made an offer.” Seth shoved his plate out of the way, leaned forward on the table, laughing, and said “What?” Then Jesse said, “What publishing house?” And I said, “Random House.” Then both of them leaned back in their chairs, saying “What? What? What?” over and over again. And then they both started laughing, and suddenly, I was laughing, too.

Natalie Mesnard: Your writing is so lush and lyrical. How did you develop Idaho‘s distinctive prose style?

Emily Ruskovich: That’s a really excellent question, but I’m not sure I know the answer to it exactly. I just tried to feel my characters’ voices as deeply as I could, and remain true to those voices in my prose. The language was so important to me, and I wanted it to be an extension of the characters I so dearly loved. I never wanted it to feel separate from them, above them, or like language for language’s sake. I really worked hard on the prose, allowing myself to be poetic, then reigning in the poetry if it ever felt untrue to the moment. I think that I rewrote certain passages fifty times or more, and it feels like maybe I completely abandoned over a hundred pages of prose. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm. When I write, I speak. I have muttered my entire novel to myself, word for word, more times than I can count, always trying to be true to the perspective and the characters. Everything had to be about character. 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.

Natalie Mesnard: The details of the prison setting in Jenny’s sections feel so accurate. How did you conduct this research?

Emily Ruskovich: I didn’t do a lot of research as I wrote. I read one book called Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System by Silja J.A. Talvi that was extremely informative and also heartbreaking. 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. A friend once told me something like that, and I really took it to heart. 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 my younger brother, who had some experience assisting a doctor in a prison. 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 Facility in Pocatello, Idaho, and we just sat in our car in the parking lot, looking at the un-spectacular building that we knew held so much pain and longing. 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 awhile, trying to picture what it would be like to only know 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.

Natalie Mesnard: In your One Story Q&A about the 2014 story “Owl,” you said that piece began as something very different. I also noticed your bio in that issue mentions work on “a collection of short stories called Idaho.” I’m fascinated by how your work seems to evolve. Could you talk about that process of change?

Emily Ruskovich: The first chapter of Idaho was once a stand-alone novella that was the first story in a collection. It wasn’t until years later that, at the urging of one of my professors, author Ethan Canin, I realized it wasn’t a short story but the beginning of the novel. So that’s when Idaho the novella became, slowly, over a period of years, Idaho the novel.

Natalie Mesnard: What are you working on next?

Emily Ruskovich: I’m working on both short stories and also a memoir. I am a little superstitious about talking too much about it before I’ve really found my footing! I am working right now, but slowly, not really sure of myself yet.

Natalie Mesnard: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?

Emily Ruskovich: I am looking forward to meeting the other debut authors and their mentors, and getting to meet Hannah Tinti in person, after all that she has done for me. I’m also looking forward to spending time with my mentor, Michelle Huneven. It will be wonderfully fun to celebrate with everyone.

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