The Empress of Idaho is set in the suburb of Monument, Colorado. It follows the story of Adam, a 14-year-old kid with a football-star brother and enough angst for an entire Smiths record. But when Adam meets Beatrice, a mysterious thirtysomething who marries his family’s next-door neighbour, he is set on a path towards sex and abuse. Poignant but not preachy, this is a coming-of-age story that isn’t the stuff of John Hughes films.
Why Monument, Colorado?
TB: I grew up in Leduc. I think about Leduc. I think about growing up there, I think about summer mostly. When I started thinking about writing the book I thought, ‘I should just set it in Leduc or some version of Leduc.’ And, then, as I was moving along in the first draft, I realized that there was a plot element that would be missing if I set it in Leduc. The emotional plot would be the same, because in Alberta consent was still possible between a teenager and an older person. (Note: the book is set in the 1980s). I had to set it in a state that had these (statutory rape) laws and Colorado is a place I know and it feels like Alberta. It allowed me to feel that feeling without seeming too far away.
Do you know that area well?
TB: I do. I went to visit the modern Monument, which is, like Leduc, very different now than it was in the 1980s. It has very much expanded into a suburban community.
Were they excited that a book was being set in their town?
TB: They were interested, for sure. The police services were very helpful. They had nothing but time for me. It was wonderful, that American openness. The economic development office, they were really keen. There were a few unofficial historians I met when I was there. I met regular people in cafes and bars. They were always happy to talk to me. So friendly and, as soon as they know you want to write about their town, they’re just so keen.
One of the biggest challenges writers face, is, well, writing about sex. How difficult were the sex scenes for you to craft?
TB: It is a challenge. It’s awful. The advantage I had with The Empress of Idaho, though, was that it’s supposed to be all of those things. Sex is supposed to be confusing and awkward and wonderful and violent all at once. I didn’t have to think about having to make it pretty. I didn’t have to make it salacious or attractive to readers. I’m not selling this as soft porn. I think a lot of erotic novels do. I’ve never tried writing that kind of sex scene.
And there is an abusive nature to the relationship.
TB: I spent a long time trying to get it right. I had help. I had wonderful, smart editors who helped me with that. They made sure the reader is feeling all of that, all through Adam’s eyes. That’s the other advantage. If you’re writing from the point of view, the filter, the consciousness of a 14-year-old, that’s the experience the reader is going to have. You’re going to have an emotional reaction to that, it will be quite strong. I’ve noticed a difference in the way moms read this book and men of a certain age, how they read it. I wanted them to read if differently, I suppose. But this book would not have worked if it has the God-like omniscient narrator. It had to be confusing.
There is a double standard. If an adult male has a relationship with a teenage girl, we call it out for what it is. But when it’s a boy with an older woman, that’s the stuff of locker-room talk and teen movies. What’s the reaction been like?
TB: I was working out of town the day the novel came out. And I was telling a group of people about it, and a woman said ‘Todd’s book is coming out!’ They asked ‘what’s it about?’ and I explained. ‘Why that?’ And she said ‘something like that happened to him when he was young.’ The women were like ‘oh my God, that’s awful.’ And this guy leans over the table to give me a fist bump. So that was all happening within two minutes — the horror of the moms, and the ‘niiiiiccce’ fist bump from the man. And, of course, they attacked him for not calling it out for what it was.
How personal is the novel to you?
TB: It was percolating for a long time. I mean, it was a summer I had growing up. I thought about it a lot, but I never told anyone. So, the alternative: Like Adam, I didn’t see it as something to brag about. And, because, at a certain point, I shut it down and I was ashamed of that. It’s something I thought about a lot, now that my daughters are getting older, and I see how vulnerable a young teenager is. I see how open they are and how easy it would be to prey on them. I understood what happened to me better than ever, now. I wanted to explore the question in the book, without fundamentally answering it, ‘why did she do it? What did she get out of it?’
When you write something this close to the bone, how difficult is it to know family and others close to you will read it?
TB: I don’t think you ever get over it but you have to accept it. I have to say the people around me have been very good. Gosh, I’ve written things over the years that, for my close family, especially my mom and my brother, that would have been really hard for them. But they’ve been really wonderful. They understand what art is and where it comes from. They have known for as long as they can remember me, at least my mom, since Grade 6, when I started to write. I’d often write about personal experiences and my family and they would either find that funny or horrifying.It was something that made me peculiar and difficult, and I’m glad they accept me for my peculiarity and my difficulty.
What would you think if that woman from your past in Leduc read this novel?
TB: I’ve thought about it. I don’t want her to. I don’t want her to be real. I sort of think it would be impossible; I don’t think she is the sort of person to read a novel like this or keep up with me. The way I see her, she was someone who moved around a lot and did a lot of these sorts of things. I would have just been another one. I don’t think she thought enough of me to care.