Wynne Hungerford

Interviewed by Savannah Horton

The narrator in your story, “Sacred Window Exhale,” is a former guest and current employee at an alternative medicinal retreat that spans the realms of the real and surreal. Could you explain a bit about how you developed this backdrop and whether you began with the environment or its characters? They seem perfectly matched. You so carefully balance the humor and strangeness without dipping into mockery—was that a concern while writing?

I had the idea of a trepanation retreat in the Smokies a few years ago, so that was definitely the first seed. No characters yet. My initial approach was to have it be journal entries covering a patient’s stay at the retreat, but that wasn’t working, so I decided to take that patient and have her end up becoming an employee later on. And I’d had this other idea floating around that I’d like to write something about a celebrity in the midst of a huge scandal, so I thought this could be an opportunity to drop that scandalized character into this trepanation story, and finally I got some traction. 

As I was working on this, I never intentionally wanted to mock alternative medicine or the retreat. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that I never thought of this as satire. I had to approach it as earnestly as possible, even if some of the details are pretty wild. I always imagined it as a mix of summer camp and health retreat. This allowed the itinerary to encompass pretty much anything I wanted––like ice cream socials, horseback riding, and rafting trips. This is also a high-end, expensive place, so anything I feasibly dreamed up could be there. Want a float tank? Boom. Sure. That gave me a lot of room to play.  

You manage to very successfully humanize and complexify an accused pedophile through his relationship with the narrator, who is driven not only by an urge to serve and care for others but also by her need to understand. The narrator asks herself: “The question is about me and him, and everything invisible we were wrapped up in together, apart. The question is what kind of a woman likes a pedophile?” When you were developing your story, what led you to frame the traditional villain in the eyes of someone empathetic to his situation?

The empathetic approach seemed like the only option to me––I never considered doing it any other way. I’ve always loved the play Doubt, which never explicitly says “yes, the priest did this” or “no, the priest didn’t do this.” I think it really makes the audience more involved. You get to address that gap in knowledge however you want to and that also teaches you something about yourself as a person––are you willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt? Do you assume the worst is true? How do you handle not knowing?

Another influence was “A Father’s Story” by Andre Dubus. In that story, the narrator has done something that is morally questionable, and it isn’t revealed until much later in the story, so you have all of this time in the beginning to get to know the character without any judgment. Then you find out what the narrator has done, and you understand why he has done it. I intentionally didn’t use the word “pedophile” until the end of my story. It’s a charged word. It drops and there are ripples, you know? I think if that had appeared on page 5 it would have been a totally different story. 

How did you decide to incorporate an unnamed celebrity into your story? The narrator claims: “I want to offer you the gift of seeing him as I saw him––without judgment. I want to give you the opportunity to like him and know him and remember that he is a person like everyone else. What is good about him is good about all of us.” What do you think this type of anonymity can do for contemporary fiction, especially when blurring the lines between real and not?

Incorporating an unnamed celebrity was there from the beginning. While Flip Goldberg is a fictional character, I definitely drew on examples of scandalized celebrities that I’ve read about in the past. The anonymity worked on a practical level, because the narrator’s job would require her to be discrete. Confidentiality and protecting privacy would be a huge deal, especially considering these guests are also patients. It also adds this other layer of the narrator wanting to protect Flip Goldberg and, in turn, protect herself. This narrator is very empathetic, but I think there’s also a degree of her trying to convince herself of these things as she’s going, almost trying to support the version of the truth that she wants. So, you can read this story and wonder if Flip Goldberg is guilty or innocent, but you can also read it and wonder if the narrator is super compassionate or totally delusional. 

Regarding the anonymity in contemporary fiction thing, I’m not really concerned with what’s “real” and “not real.” If something is published as fiction, then I read it as fiction, and everything is presumably the same degree of “real.” I do think that including known figures in fiction, which I’ve done more of lately, can be really fun. I recently wrote a piece about Andy Richter. And one about Tiny Tim. 

Your narrator’s backstory is subtle yet very poignant, especially because her desire to serve stems from a somewhat difficult relationship with her parents. When you are drafting, how do you typically incorporate a character’s background to ensure it seamlessly flows within the narrative without revealing too much? Do you often use backstory to enhance the events transpiring or to contextualize a character’s actions?

Hmm. It’s hard to generalize, but I hope that any included backstory is enhancing events or providing some necessary information. For this particular story, I knew that the narrator suffered from migraines and that’s why she was a patient at the retreat. A lot of the other details just…appeared as I was writing, and I trusted that they were correct. 

The retreat itself is very much based on undergoing invasive physical procedures to achieve inner peace and change. The narrator also admits to harming herself in an attempt to try to “heal old wounds by opening up new ones.” She refers to her head as a “pressure-cooker.” How did you think to combine these concepts of physical laceration and emotional trauma?

Honestly, I don’t think I consciously tried to combine those ideas. It just happened––maybe because it’s a biological quirk or something. I was going to say it’s a quirk in humans, but even birds will pluck out their feathers if they’re stressed out. I’m not sure if that technically falls under the umbrella of “self-soothing” behaviors, but it is interesting to think about the line when a self-soothing behavior becomes self-harm. The moment in the story where the narrator goes home and cuts herself, I remember that happening very suddenly while I was writing and then I looked back and thought that it actually made sense for this character. Kind of funny to think of stories as a balance between calculation and surprise.