Zibby interviews award-winning author Hanna Halperin about I Could Live Here Forever, a poignant and brutal novel about an intense, all-consuming relationship between an MFA student and a recovering addict. Hanna shares how her writing is informed by life experiences: her own MFA program and past relationships with the cyclical complexities explored in the novel—intoxicating attraction, low lows, and the struggle for balance. Hanna also details her whirlwind writing process during the early pandemic days. The episode concludes with a discussion of Hanna’s life outside of writing and her advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hanna. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Could Live Here Forever.

Hanna Halperin: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Sure. Your novel was beautiful, just like Something Wild, which I also loved. Thank you for this. I feel like you write so well about these heavy feelings, grief, disappearance, loss and also writing and this coming-of-age search for self through everything, and family. It’s so good. All these themes get wrapped right up. It’s really powerful. Thanks. Really good.

Hanna: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Tell listeners what I Could Live Here Forever is about.

Hanna: I Could Live Here Forever is about this young woman, Leah, who moves to Madison, Wisconsin, to get her MFA. When she’s there, she meets this guy, Charlie, in line at the grocery store. They very quickly fall in love. They fall into this intense relationship. He is a recovering heroin addict. It follows their intense and tumultuous relationship.

Zibby: I feel like it also is about her processing her mother’s disappearance and what it means to have a mom who — her brother said she was looney tunes or whatever — who was, perhaps, mentally ill, who left the family early, and how to reconcile that sort of loss, not through death, but trying to wrestle with that. Talk to me about that whole piece. I found that so poignant and interesting.

Hanna: A big piece of the novel is you get to know both Leah’s family and Charlie’s family pretty well. You learn right away that Charlie’s father had abandoned his family before he was born. Leah’s mother had abandoned the family when she was thirteen. Right away, this bonds them. This is a big theme in Leah’s writing. She’s constantly writing these stories about childless mothers or daughters without mothers. This is something that she’s thinking about all the time. It haunts her. It was something that I actually — in the first draft, it was there. It was kind of a brush stroke. It came out more in revision. What was this missing piece for Leah? What was she searching so desperately for? She gets to know Charlie’s family really well. She gets to know Charlie’s mom really well. Charlie’s mom is this incredibly warm maternal figure. Part of her draw towards Charlie is this sense of home that she finds in Charlie and Charlie’s mom and the feeling she has when she’s at Charlie’s house. It’s very complicated because what’s going on in the house, it’s not so simple. Charlie, into the relationship, he very quickly relapses. Leah is in total denial about what’s going on. Her relationship with his mother is not so simple either. In her mind, she wants it to be simple. She wants this very simple maternal love that she’s always craved. That’s part of what keeps her so wrapped up in the world of Charlie.

Zibby: I feel like that’s not enough written about enough, how when you date someone for a long time or whatever, you really inherit their family for a while. You get to slither in and see all the little secrets and everything. You grow really attached. Then you break up. It’s like, what happened? I have families that I still love. I love them like they are family, but they’re no longer in my life, really.

Hanna: Exactly. You get to be part of another family for a little bit. It’s kind of foreign, but you can grow, as you said, extremely attached. That happens with Leah. She’s in a totally new part of the country. She’s always felt a bit like an outsider. That’s the character that I wrote. Whether it’s in her own family — she’s part of this MFA cohort. Whether she actually is an outsider or not, that’s just how she perceives herself. Again, I think part of why she’s drawn to Charlie is he’s a bit of an outsider too. They resonate with each other that way. There’s something about Charlie’s home. Ironically, there’s a steadiness to it that she’s never quite felt, even though the relationship that she’s gotten herself into is complete chaos. There’s something about that home life that she really is quite drawn to.

Zibby: I also really like the scenes of the MFA program and all the anxiety of writing and all of the writing within the book. At one point, I turned it over, and I was like, this is a novel, right? Just making sure here. Just triple-checked. There’s the scene where she’s trying to defend her idea of writing about mothers and daughters. She’s like, I had a mother. She didn’t die, but she left. Everyone has a mom. I am a daughter. It was just funny, this need to defend what you’re writing about and what you’re doing and make excuses and all that insecurity all wound up with her as well.

Hanna: It is a novel. I did go to University of Wisconsin, Madison, for my MFA. I did pull a lot of details from that time and from what it was like to be in the MFA. The cohort is made up. The people in the cohort are made up. We did have an agent come, and it stirred up quite a bit. Starting to submit to journals and this really strange mix of — in my experience anyway, I felt so close to the people in my cohort. At the beginning anyway, I actually didn’t feel that much competition. Then as we continued on and there was more of this anxiety of, “What’s going to happen after we leave?” I did start to feel more competitive. Probably, I was starting to feel anxiety about my future. It had less to do with the other people in the cohort. It was that strange mix of feeling competitive and then also feeling like these were the people I felt closest to. I would draw on some of the feelings and some of the actual events, but the people and everything was fictionalized. I was drawing on some intimate things in this book.

Zibby: Having not received an MFA or having gone there specifically, it was a nice little glimpse, even the neighborhood bar with the games. I was like, is this Bar 73? There’s a bar that looks exactly like it. I was like, she must be talking about that place. Different. Of course, I haven’t been there in thirty years or something. I’m not that old. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I pulled out a couple quotes that I wanted to talk to you about. There was something beautiful about the mom. You said, “I remember my mother as someone who was always searching for something. She seemed lost, like she’d ended up in our house, in our family by accident.” That was so beautiful, this haunting dislocation. Then when she talks about her family, you say, “My mother’s presence was bigger than my father’s. She talked more, hugged tighter, cried harder, laughed louder, yelled scarier. We inherited our father’s height, but other than that, we all look more like her.” You go on to talk about her as an artist and all of that. Then it relates to when you finally say, “The nice thing about writing was it took pain and warped it into something useful. I could shape it into a beginning and a middle and an end. It was manageable that way, and it was mine, sharp and beautiful. By the time I was done with it, it was just a story.” What stories of your own have you used writing to make your way through?

Hanna: Everything I’ve written, I think I’ve been trying to work something through. What you just read, that’s part of why I write. With this particular novel, I started writing it because I was thinking about the feeling of what it’s like to be in relationships where there’s really high highs and really low lows and what it’s like to be in a relationship where it feels loving and terrible at once and how it can be so cyclical, and not necessarily an abusive relationship or not necessarily having the words to describe or the labels to describe a relationship, but knowing that the relationship felt impossible to get out of. I’ve been in relationships like this before. It can feel so impossible to describe what those relationships feel like and why they can feel so difficult to leave. I’ve never been addicted to a drug, but I feel like I know the feeling of what it’s like to be addicted to another person. It felt really interesting to me to, what would it be like to write about a relationship between a young woman and a man where the man was addicted to something that, in my mind, is probably the most addictive thing you could be addicted to and then where the woman almost begins to be addicted to the relationship in maybe not the same way, but in way where she resonates with him in that way? That’s how I got the idea for Leah and Charlie. I pulled from my own experience and my own feelings. The story is fictional. The characters are fictional. I drew from both the feelings of pain and the feelings of love that I’ve had in my past.

Zibby: It’s hard — this is an understatement. If you’re so in love with someone and they are addicted to something else or have something that competes with you, then it’s never really in balance. It’s that lopsided feeling of when you give of yourself and you can’t get back an equal measure. Do you keep giving? Do you not keep giving? Is it really a choice after a while?

Hanna: It kind of feels impossible. I don’t know if there’s an answer.

Zibby: It’s good to have it out there. The innermost secrets of relationships — obviously, there are lots of books written about love and all of this, but it is very complicated. There need to be stories like this that are a little bit more not so clear-cut. Of course, this person will leave. Of course, this person won’t leave. It’s good to get into the mess of it all.

Hanna: When I was writing it, it felt pretty messy to me in that there were times where I was writing about Leah and Charlie and it seemed to me like I was writing a love story, and then there were times where I was like, this is a story about two really codependent, manipulative, perhaps abusive people. It was constantly going back and forth. I was like, I can’t stop and analyze and try to figure out what this relationship is. I just need to stay in the moment and really try to honestly describe, how would Leah react in this moment? How would Charlie react in this moment? Not try to judge, what does that mean about them as a person or as a character? Then just write the whole novel, and maybe I can try to figure it out afterwards. I still don’t even have a grasp on how to necessarily describe their relationship, but just know that it’s complicated and messy. People can be complicated and messy. I don’t have to necessarily give it labels.

Zibby: Whatever this relationship parallel was in your life, you managed to get out of, I’m assuming, or not?

Hanna: Yeah. Again, Leah is not me.

Zibby: I know. I know. I know.

Hanna: The relationships that I did draw upon for inspiration, it is all in the past.

Zibby: It was funny how in the beginning of the book, Leah is worried because she perceives him to be so much cuter. He’s so handsome. She’s not attractive enough to be with him. Later, you reference when Leah’s talking about her writing role models, one of which is Curtis Sittenfeld. Then it’s so funny because her book just came out, and that is sort of the premise. What is it like when more attractive women end up with less attractive guys? This imbalance of perceived good looks within a couple. I just found that timely and funny.

Hanna: It’s a big thing that comes up in the book. Leah, she’s always describing what Charlie looks like. She’s so enamored by how beautiful he is. In some ways, she can’t see him clearly at all. She’s always trying to figure out, is he lying? Is he nice? Is he not nice? Is he using? Is he not using? One thing she can see very clearly is that he’s incredibly beautiful. That doesn’t really change for her. People are always asking her, why are you with him? Why do you keep going back to him? It’s deeper for her than just that she’s attracted to him, but that attraction is so intense for her. It feels almost like a superficial answer to say, well, I’m attracted to him, but it’s a huge piece. She’s incredibly attracted to him.

Zibby: We are all animals at heart. It’s hard to ignore, especially when you have him smile and all this. I have this fictional guy in my head now. When you think about him, do you have someone in mind? Is there a movie star? Is there somebody who he looks like to you? Is he more just this fictious guy?

Hanna: I don’t know if I have a movie star in mind. I’d have to think about that. I describe in the book in an early scene as a mix between Johnny Depp and Jake Gyllenhaal. I do imagine him with this very boyish charm good look, very sweet smile.

Zibby: I don’t know why, as I was reading, I had more of a Chris Hemsworth type of guy. Lighter hair. Still brown. That smile.

Hanna: That could work too.

Zibby: Tell me about writing this book. Did you write it during the pandemic? Was it before? Tell me about that whole process.

Hanna: I wrote it during the pandemic. It was pretty early pandemic days. I wrote it very quickly. It started from an essay that I was writing. It was having to do with Something Wild. It was something about domestic violence. I kept going off onto these tangents about what I was talking about, relationships with high highs, low lows. I was realizing I’m much more interested in writing something fictional about what it’s like to be in a relationship that is so cyclical that way. Once I realized what I was actually interested in writing about, I had the idea for Leah and Charlie. I started writing it one day, and I just kept writing. I wrote the first draft in about two months, which is much faster than I’ve written anything. I became so caught up and involved in the world and in the relationship. I was kind of in a weird place. It was very isolated. It was early days pandemic. Even though it’s kind of a disturbing novel, it was soothing to me to go into this very reclusive world and just lose myself in it. I was able to write the first draft really quickly — it was a very raw first draft — and then spend a lot more time on revision, fill in a lot of the gaps. The first draft was almost entirely Leah and Charlie. Then it was a lot figuring out, what’s the world that they’re in? Okay, they’re in Madison, Wisconsin. Leah’s in an MFA program. Who are their families? Really fill in those gaps.

Zibby: Interesting. I love the scene — it’s sad, but at her bat mitzvah when her mom doesn’t show up. You just wrote that scene so clearly. I could so see it, the celebration mixed with the sorrow. The two are often so closely linked with any sort of loss or bad thing going on. I loved that moment, her being lifted up in the chairs and yet the one she wanted to be there not being there. Everyone can relate. Are you working on anything new? Did you whip out three more novels during the pandemic?

Hanna: I have some early stuff that I’m thinking about, but nothing formulated ready to talk about.

Zibby: What do you do with your days? What are you up to when you’re not editing, working on a new project, all of that?

Hanna: I’ve been working as a domestic violence counselor. I actually left my job about a month ago right before all the publication stuff started. I’m kind of at a weird transition point. I’d been doing that for about seven years. Now this book came out. I’m reassessing everything and will begin my next project and then decide what’s coming next. This last month has been mostly filled with publication stuff and working on essays and getting everything out. It’s been pretty busy.

Zibby: At least you can focus on it fully. That’s nice, not having to do the juggle. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Hanna: The advice I would give would be the same advice I’ll probably give myself as I’m starting my next project. Give yourself permission to write the thing that makes you really excited. If you find that there are either ideas or characters or themes or whatever it is that keeps coming back into your head again and again, allow yourself to go where the excitement or the energy is. If you’re enjoying or having fun writing it, people are going to resonate with that.

Zibby: That works. That’s good advice. Very good advice. The ending, I won’t give anything away, but very, very powerful. The whole thing, oh, my gosh. Thanks for coming back on. I really love the way you write. I can’t wait to read what you write next.

Hanna: Thank you so much, Zibby. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: It’s true. Have a great day. Thanks so much. Enjoy the ride. Bye.

Hanna: Bye.



Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts