‘Something Wild’ weaves sibling dynamics and domestic violence into a powerful debut

Q&A with UW–Madison MFA graduate Hanna Halperin, author of 'Something Wild.'
Side by side view of Something Wild book cover on the left and author Hanna Halperin on the right
Courtesy of Viking/Penguin Random House. Author photo by Sharona Jacobs.
UW–Madison MFA graduate Hanna Halperin's debut novel will be released on June 29.

“Something Wild” is a deceptively easy read of a gut-wrenching story told from the rotating perspective of two sisters and their mother. Tanya and Nessa share a traumatic childhood experience, the details of which are revealed through flashbacks and present moments over a weekend as they return home to help their mom, Lorraine, move out of the family house. Debut author Hanna Halperin, a 2015 University of Wisconsin–Madison MFA graduate, deftly demonstrates how differently siblings can be shaped by the same experience; how we hold ourselves responsible for other people’s behavior, the generational impact of trauma, and how helpless we feel when our loved ones need help most. It’s rare to find so nuanced and accurate a fictional take on intimate partner violence as author Hanna Halperin manages to pull off in “Something Wild,” to say nothing of the complexities of sibling relationships and family dynamics. I’ve already gone back for a slower, closer read, and couldn’t wait to connect with Halperin on a virtual call recently to discuss the upcoming launch of “Something Wild,” due out from Viking on June 29.

How did “Something Wild” come about?
It started as a short story that I wrote when I was in Madison doing my MFA, about this traumatic incident between two teenage girls and the fallout between them. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail, but it plays out differently for each of them and there’s so much shame following it. And it haunted me, I felt like there was more to the story. How would this event follow them into their adult lives? But in the story I’d written, the two girls were friends, they weren’t sisters. When you’re friends, you more have that option to go your own separate ways. But if you’re sisters, you stay in each other’s lives. When they became sisters, it changed the whole game for me and became more of a family story. I started asking all these questions, like, who is their mother? And it kept growing from there.

Their mother is Lorraine, who is in an abusive relationship. After Madison, you moved out east and took a job as a domestic violence counselor. How did that experience affect the novel you found yourself writing?
I started thinking a lot about how trauma and violence is passed down in families. Everything in the book is fictionalized. I wasn’t using my work as research — so many of those threads were already in the book — but my work gave the larger story a texture it didn’t have before. Being in hospital rooms following assaults and being in the courtroom just made me more aware. A lot of times when people think of abuse, they’re thinking of physical abuse—and obviously this book is a lot about severe physical abuse, but it made me think a lot about emotional and psychological abuse, gaslighting, financial control, all the different types and how they weave together — and the effects of abuse on children. It made me a lot more aware about how these things are not private issues, or ‘domestic’ issues, even though we think of it that way. Abuse is so common. Most people have experienced it. And I think once my eyes were opened to it, I was seeing it everywhere.

I felt that this portrayal of the family dynamics surrounding intimate partner abuse was one of the most accurate and powerful examples I’ve ever read in fiction. Were you consciously creating empathy for all the characters or did it naturally fall in line with the story?
I think one of the things I’ve learned is that it doesn’t work to give advice or to tell somebody to leave. I think one of the most painful parts about being in an abusive relationship is having all these people who you love telling you what to do. When I was writing this, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m writing a book about domestic violence.’ It seemed very much like a book about two sisters and their mother and their relationships with each other. When I was thinking specifically about Lorraine and Jesse’s relationship, I tried to just make them very specific characters with their own very specific relationship. The abuse that happens between them, I made it up. When you speak to enough people, you start to notice patterns; the cycle of abuse and how that looks. But the safety and confidentiality of my clients was my top priority, always.

How did making Nessa and Tanya siblings allow you to bring nuance to that relationship between Lorraine and Jesse?
Nessa and Tanya grew up in the same house with the same parents, but they somehow had very different childhoods. There are a lot of flashbacks in this novel and I thought it was important to show how they took on different roles and, in a way, were given different roles as children. I see Nessa as someone who is still stuck, in a way; she’s more ruminating, and constantly blaming herself for things that happened in the past. Tanya has been able to move on, and maybe one of her coping mechanisms is that she compartmentalizes more than Nessa does. And somehow they’ve been able to see their parents and stepparents in very different lights, and I just think that’s interesting, when siblings have different radars for abuse and how that happens.

What was your time in the UW–Madison MFA like?
I loved Madison. My experience in Madison was incredible. I wrote more there than I’ve ever written, and I think that was where I really started to figure out what I like to write. In some ways, I feel like I grew up a little in Madison. I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life, but it’s where I started to take it really seriously. My teachers and my cohort were my first readers of this novel. I wrote the first few chapters the summer after I graduated, when I was still living in Madison. I’d written this one short piece that my cohort friend Lucy [Tan, author of “What We Were Promised”] read, and I remember having dinner with her in Madison and she said, ‘I feel like this could be the first chapter to a novel.’ And I just kept writing the next day. It didn’t end up the first chapter, but probably like the 7th chapter. Everything started weaving together then. It was just a really happy time in my life.

Have you kept other Madison connections?
Lucy published a book a few years ago so she’s been the person that I’ve been calling and asking what does this mean, is this normal, what happens next. My friend Jackson Tobin, he was in my cohort, we have a writing group together now with a few people from Grub Street and we meet about once a week and share writing. Liv Stratman, who just published “Cheat Day,” was in the fiction cohort above me and she started an online group for debut and sophomore authors that’s been a supportive space for me while publishing during a pandemic. And then I’m working on my next book — basically a portrait of a relationship that has to do with addiction and codependency and obsession — and it takes place in Madison.

Speaking of publishing during a pandemic, what has that been like?
I think at first I was sad because I imagined having all of these in-person things, but I’ve kind of come to terms with it and I’m just grateful that people are still reading a ton. I think people are connecting in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise, and that makes it accessible to everyone rather than just locally. It allows for friends and family all over the country to tune in, which feels really special.

Find more about Hanna Halperin and “Something Wild” on the author’s website.

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