Hanna Halperin, SOMETHING WILD

Hanna Halperin, SOMETHING WILD

Debut novelist Hanna Halperin joins Zibby to discuss how the writing she produced during her MFA intersected with her role as a domestic abuse counselor to lead her to her book, Something Wild. Hanna shares how she immersed herself in the story so much that her characters surprised her, the research she conducted to accurately portray a nearby neighborhood as the backdrop for the plot, and what conversations she hopes her novel will spark.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hanna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Something Wild.

Hanna Halperin: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I literally had a dress, by the way, with this exact same pattern. I’m going to have to find it and send you a link or something. You can wear it to match your cover if you want. This is your debut novel. It’s really exciting. Congratulations.

Hanna: Thank you.

Zibby: Could you tell listeners what Something Wild is about?

Hanna: Something Wild is the story of two adult sisters, Nessa and Tanya Bloom. They go home for the weekend to help their mother clean out their childhood house. That weekend, they discover that their mother is in an abusive marriage with their stepfather. They both have very different reactions to finding this out and different approaches to trying to get their mother to leave the relationship. It ends up stirring up for the sisters, this incident that happened to them when they were teenagers that they’ve never spoken about before.

Zibby: Wow. I know you have an MFA. Was this part of your program? Was this your thesis? How did this whole thing happen?

Hanna: It wasn’t my thesis, but I did write a short story while I was in Wisconsin at my MFA. It was about these two teenage girls that had this traumatic incident happen. This story just stuck with me. It was haunting me. I knew that I wanted to do something more with it. It was this story that I wrote back in 2015 that I ended up expanding. It eventually became the novel. It did grow out of that time in Wisconsin.

Zibby: The scene was with the girls and — his name was Daniel, right?

Hanna: Yeah, the girls with Dan. It was actually, the story, the two girls were friends. They weren’t sisters. The story was really about the fallout between the two girls. This traumatic thing happens. It was really about the friendship between these two girls after this thing happens, the fallout between them. I started asking myself, if they were sisters and you don’t really have the same option to go your separate ways, if you’re sisters, what happens to that relationship? It became a story about sisters and family rather than just friends.

Zibby: The scene that most rattled me in the whole thing was the night of the abuse of the mother when they came to clean out the house and finding their mom slumped over in the kitchen, her eyes are all bloodshot, and having to take her to the hospital, one of the sisters standing guard against the stepfather coming back and all the complicated feelings they have about the stepfather. Just earlier that day, one of them had been out for walk. They’re all desperate for approval at the same time, in a way, like all children are of their parents. Yet what happens when that figure is so flawed? It was just so haunting to see a mom in such a position of weakness, almost, with her kids. Tell me about how that element of the story came to be or what you were looking to explore or anything about it.

Hanna: Thanks. I was writing this story about sisters, and I became really interested in their mother. Another piece of what was going on with me or my life, after the MFA, I took this job as a domestic violence counselor. I started thinking a lot about how trauma and violence is passed down in families from generation to generation. This was something that I was thinking and exploring a lot in my fiction before I took a job as a domestic violence counselor. In my job, I was seeing that play out in stark ways that I hadn’t, maybe, before. I started asking a lot about the Bloom family. What was going on? What had they seen as girls both in these loud ways but also in this very subtle, insidious ways? Nessa and Tanya have, as you said, very different perceptions of their stepfather or their parents. I was really interested in how two sisters could grow up in the same family, grow up with the same parents and the same stepparents, and see them all so differently. I see Nessa and Tanya as very close even though they have a very complicated relationship. That was something that I wanted the book to explore.

Zibby: Also, even the effects on their own sexuality in their relationships and how they end up navigating that after everything that’s happened and what they’ve seen and the self-destruction that can come with picking the wrong partner at times or not being fulfilled. Working in the psychiatrist’s office and going through the files to snoop on a potential patient — it’s like, how could I find a worse-suited person than somebody who, A, I shouldn’t even go for and you already know they’re a problem — although, I don’t know. Maybe it’s better just to know going in, what you’re dealing with, as opposed to meeting a stranger at a bar and finding out.

Hanna: There was many dysfunctional relationships in this book. That was one of the ones that you saw right off the bat. Both of them were using each other in various ways.

Zibby: I also really liked how — sorry, I’m just jumping around here. I liked how you depicted the stepmom and how at first when she first arrived sitting in the — it wasn’t a convertible, but in my head, it is — sitting there to pick up the girls for one of their weekends and how years later it turns out that’s someone that they felt comfortable, or one of them felt comfortable enough confiding in, and the role of stepparents. I don’t know if you have stepparents. Do you have stepparents?

Hanna: I don’t. My parents got divorced in the middle of me writing this book.

Zibby: No!

Hanna: Yeah. That was kind of strange for me because the book is so much about divorce. I had written most of the divorce scenes. Then my parents got divorced. In a way, I felt closer to my characters after that happened. The character of the stepmother, Simone, was someone who surprised me while I was writing it. At first, I saw her the way that Nessa and Tanya saw her, as sort of an invader into their family. Then the more I wrote her, I started seeing her in this more three-dimensional way. First, I saw her as someone that they project a lot of their anger and fantasies onto. Then she became, as you said, someone, actually, that they can trust. Most of the adults in their life, they can’t trust. In a way, all the characters are pretty flawed. She was someone who I actually really enjoyed writing because she kept surprising me as I was writing her.

Zibby: Wow, I love when authors say that, that their characters surprise them. You never know what they’re going to do. That’s great. It was also interesting how the town itself changes. The bourgie-ish — what’s the word? Gentrification, almost, of — maybe that’s the wrong word still. How this tiny town outside Boston became the hipster, new, hot place and the people who had been there forever, how you have to cope with that, that happens all the time. All these neighborhoods keep changing. There are all these old remnants or a ranch house or a dilapidated this next to this super trendy hot yoga studio or something. How do the townies, if you will, deal with their town being taken over? Examining that in all of their lives, really, but particularly the mom’s as she packs her bags and heads on out, tell me about that plotline.

Hanna: I chose to write it in Arlington, which is pretty close to where I grew up. Now I’m living very close by to Arlington. I took a lot of walks around where I knew the Blooms grew up. Then I chose the house that I was like, okay, they live here. I would take a lot of walks around their neighborhood. I did a few interviews with people who have been living in Arlington for a long time just to get an idea of, what did Arlington used to be like? What is it like now? Did some research on, how has Arlington changed? It was really interesting to find out how it’s changed throughout the decades. I wanted to give a sense of both why Arlington was becoming not a viable place for Lorraine and Jesse to stay anymore and what it had been like for them to grow up in that town.

Zibby: It’s so funny that you talk about picking a house because I’ve noticed a bunch of authors do that. They have a specific house in mind. I just interviewed Sunny Hostin, Summer on the Bluffs. The book on the cover is one, she’s like, “Oh, yeah, I used to walk around that house all the time like that was their house.” Even J. Courtney Sullivan said it was her old babysitter’s house that she described in detail. I’m thinking about all these characters wandering through these actual houses and how it’s almost like non-historical fiction. It’s like alternative reality, in a way. It’s almost like we’re all making up these imaginary friends. All of a sudden, I’m like, maybe I’m just talking to crazy people all day long.

Hanna: It is a little nuts. It’s all these dramas going on in our minds. When I first wrote the novel, I didn’t have much of a setting in the book. That was something my editor, Allison, really — she was like, “I want more of a setting there.” That was something that came out much more in revision. I hope that it made the novel stronger.

Zibby: For sure. There are some books I pick up after I’ve read them and I’m immediately in that place. This one was in the neighborhood and looking in the windows and restaurants that have replaced ones. Now you can’t even afford to go in. This whole neighborhood, even the random guy on his little bike about to have that crash, this poor little boy, I feel like this is very much on the sidewalks of the town. All to say, well done.

Hanna: Thank you.

Zibby: Did you always want to be a writer? Did you know you wanted to be a novelist? How did you end up becoming a domestic violence counselor? That’s a very interesting choice of job after an MFA program.

Hanna: I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I’ve always been writing. I’m kind of blown away that it’s actually happening. It’s very exciting. The domestic violence job, at the time, I thought it was random. Now looking back, I don’t think it was a random choice at all. It was close to the MFA ending. I remember I was like, what am I going to do? I was googling. I knew that I wanted to move to Martha’s Vineyard. Again, I am not really sure why. I just had this dream of moving there at some point. I googled jobs on Martha’s Vineyard. This opening for a domestic violence position came up. I decided to take it. I moved there not really knowing what I was getting into. I moved there alone. It was just very interesting. I really loved the work, I’m still doing that now part time, and was writing alongside it. I don’t think it’s random. Those are dynamics that I’ve explored in my writing. It’s impacted my life in ways. I’m very grateful to be doing it. It’s very humbling work.

Zibby: That’s really great you’re doing that. It must take a lot out of you to have that immediacy. People are calling the hotline. The people who make that call are already at a certain point in their journey. To get to that point, it would take a lot, I would imagine.

Hanna: The work that I was doing on Martha’s Vineyard, I was doing direct services, so I was working on a hotline. The work that I’m doing now, I’m working in an abuser education program. It’s a program for abusers. We provide counseling and education. I’m in contact with the partners and ex-partners of the abusers. It’s less direct services. I find it really, really meaningful and important work. I’m just very grateful to be doing it.

Zibby: Have you had experience with violence in your own life in any way?

Hanna: Yeah. The book explores very severe physical violence, but I’m just as interested in emotional violence and psychological violence. One thing this job has taught me is there’s no hierarchy. I’m interested in all of that. I hope that the book opens up conversation and sparks conversation to discuss all of that.

Zibby: What happened after you wrote this book? Have you started working on another book? Was there a long time of revisions? What happened after it sold? Tell me the whole story.

Hanna: We sold this back — I think it was 2019. We did a lot of revisions on it. I’ve been working on that. Then during quarantine, I wrote the first draft of another novel. I’m really excited about that. That’s what I’ve been working on now. It’s kind of a balancing act because now we’re very much doing things for this novel. I’m very excited to be working on the second novel too.

Zibby: Can you say anything about that one?

Hanna: What I can say about it is it’s kind of a portrait of a relationship. It has to do with addiction and codependency and obsession. That’s where I’m at with it at this point.

Zibby: That sounds great. Awesome. How do you feel with this novel coming out into the world after all this time? It’s so exciting to be a debut author.

Hanna: Yeah, I’m excited. I’m nervous. It’s very surreal to think of people reading it. I’m excited, but I’m kind of terrified as well.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Hanna: My advice would be to get to know yourself as a writer and figure out, what are the conditions under which you write? I think it’s different for everyone. If you’re the kind of writer who writes best when you know that people are going to read your work or you work best when you have deadlines, figure out ways to give yourself deadlines or get some friends together and make a writing group or join a writing class. I think a lot of people tend to write more when they’re reading, especially when they’re reading writers that resonate with them. Find those writers that, when you’re reading them, make you want to put down the book so you can start writing. Sometimes I think we actually almost play tricks on ourselves in order to get us to write, convince ourselves, okay, our parents are never going to read this. Certain people are never going to read this. You have to really get to know yourself to figure out, what are the things that are blocking me? What are the things that are going to make it really happen? Then give yourself those things.

Zibby: I love that. Did you end up having regular times? What was your process like in writing it?

Hanna: For me, I tend to have pretty long periods of intense productivity and then followed by long periods where I don’t write at all. I know when I’m having those really productive periods, that’s all I do. I just go for it. I don’t really let things get in the way. I make that the priority. I’m someone who does really, really well when I’m with a writing group. I love workshops. Some people hate workshops. I do really well when I know that I’m going to be reading other people’s work and people are going to be reading mine. Ever since college, I’ve always been signing up for writing classes or getting friends together in writing groups. That really, really helps me. For people who do well with that, I would recommend it.

Zibby: Excellent. Awesome. Thank you, Hanna. I’m going to go digging now for the dress so I can send you a picture.

Hanna: I’d love that.

Zibby: You can order it or something. Maybe you can expense it to your publisher. I’m excited for you. I think it’s really awesome that you’ve chosen to spend your time helping other people in such a direct, meaningful way for, honestly, all of society. That’s really amazing of you, especially as you have to deal with your own parents and your own family and your own writing and all of that. I think that’s pretty awesome. Congratulations.

Hanna: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you talking to me and reading my book. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It was great. It was really moving and memorable. It was really vivid. I’m ready to write a little short story where I have your characters go meet some characters in some of these other books. Then I can live in this make-believe world a little bit longer. Have a great day. Good luck with everything as it unfolds. Enjoy the ride.

Hanna: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Hanna Halperin, SOMETHING WILD

SOMETHING WILD by Hanna Halperin

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