'I wrote my dark psychological thriller while cradling fluffy ducklings' – Emily Ruskovich

She’s the largely unknown 33-year-old who beat off stiff competition from literary heavyweights, including Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders and Irish writer Sally Rooney, to win this year’s €100,000 Dublin Literary prize.

Emily Ruskovich says she owes everything to her parents who began nurturing their daughter’s talent when she was a toddler.

“I was three or four when I first started telling stories and had my mom write them down,” she said. “It was magic to me that those little scratches on a page somehow were my words. I was enchanted by that.”

Of her earliest writing memory, she recalls: “Sitting on the porch with my mum in very rural Idaho and we were waiting for my dad to come home and I had a glass of water. I asked her to write something down for me and it was an odd little thing for a girl to have written down but it went like this, ‘When the world ends, my heart will be singing, when the world ends I will be very sad, but right now I am sitting on the porch with my mum having a glass of water’.

“That was the first impulse, I just wanted to preserve a moment, which is what writing is all about… then as soon as I was able to write, I started. I first put pen to paper at the age of five.”

Married to a writer, with a one-year-old child, the couple both worked part time as creative writing teachers and would wake each morning at 8am to craft their respective novels in adjoining rooms.

“I would get a coffee, get an animal – I always had to have an animal. I wrote with my cat or I had ducklings that would sit on my feet or my lap or a giant Flemish rabbit that was wonderful and occasionally I would just get her to sleep on the desk,” she says. “I always had to have my desk right in front of a window that looked out on nature.”

Despite her winning work being a dark psychological thriller about a mother who suddenly kills her six-year-old daughter without warning or provocation, Emily describes a fairy-tale scene of her creative process. “When I was cradling these ducklings it was just such a happy, kind thing to do and having them sit on my feet as I wrote, they would tuck their little bills into their wings and rest on my feet because my feet were warm. They connected me to my past because I grew up with animals and that was very important to me always to be in tune with my own childhood because it was from my childhood that I wrote [the book’s characters] May and June before it turns terrible. So I wanted them to have joy that I had.”

Emily’s novel is set in the middle of summer, on a forested mountain in the wilderness of Idaho. The idyllic scene implodes when the mother kills her six-year-old daughter May with the swift, swipe of a hatchet. May’s sister, eight-year-old June turns and flees deep into the trees. The girls’ father, Wade, is stunned about the unimaginable violence, and his wife – a usually sweet-tempered woman – is sentenced to life for murder.

Emily’s advice to other budding writers is straightforward: “Very simply, write from your heart and write about what is most important to you. Don’t be so concerned about whether or not it will be published so early on, just until you really have something in front of you that you want out in the world. Of course, writing is a ton of anxiety all the time but just try to remember why it is you are doing it: to engage with the world and to empathise with others and with yourself.”

On the prize money she says: “My husband and I are both full-time teachers and we have a one-year-old so if we can hire a nanny for a day or two a week that would give us a lot more time than we already have.”

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