Todd Babiak's The Empress of Idaho explores vulnerability and sexual power
This interview originally aired on June 21, 2019.
Alberta-based novelist Todd Babiak is a former finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. His books often feature emotionally complex and conflicted characters.
His latest novel The Empress of Idaho is a portrait of teenage vulnerability, sexual power and the menace that can move under the surface of a small American town. It's the story of a 14-year-old boy named Adam and his growing obsession with Beatrice, a dangerous and manipulative married woman.
Babiak spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Empress of Idaho.
Turning 14 years old
"I remember the summer I turned 14. I can smell it and taste it and see it in every way, for some reason. I think my brain was heightened at that time. Maybe we all are. I'm a dad with a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old. I wanted to explore that fear that I have as a parent that they're becoming adults. I as a parent have no idea what's going on in their minds and in their hearts. I think that's that's the case with the main character, Adam.
"I think there's a reason why so many teen novels are set in this time. It's a crackling moment in our lives... You're a kid and an adult at the same time and I think it's the first time I began to see the world in a more Machiavellian way."
Status in middle-class America
"[Adam's] a football player in small town America and so he has a certain status. That said, his mom doesn't make much money. She works at a veterinary clinic. He's growing up near the railroad tracks in probably the poorest neighborhood you could live in Monument, Colorado at the time. His friends are higher status than he is in the town. It starts to affect him in certain ways. He wishes himself out. He feels guilty sometimes. He feels shame sometimes when he would go to his girlfriend's home and her parents are leaders, aristocrats in the town. It makes him feel a certain way, which actually is how I felt when I was young. I grew up similarly so I was able to really play with that feeling of just beginning to understand that it's hard to be lower middle class in this revolution of rising expectations that was happening, especially in the 1980s.
"Beatrice shows him the world. I think she talks in an elevated fashion he's never really heard before. He likens her almost to Masterpiece Theater. He explodes with joy and lust when it seems she has an interest in him that most adults don't have with him. He grows up fast and he's deeply confused… it just causes him to live in disorder."
Todd Babiak's comments have been edited for length and clarity.