Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Q&A with Michelle Brafman


Photo by Sam Kittner



Michelle Brafman is the author of the new novel Swimming with Ghosts. Her other books include Bertrand Court. She teaches in the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program, and she lives in Glen Echo, Maryland.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Swimming with Ghosts?


A: I swam competitively as a kid and well into my 20s, but I’d never experienced anything like the community pool scene! As you know, summer swimming is super fun and super intense! My kids swam and coached for our neighborhood team, my husband announced the meets, and I was the representative for years.


We literally lived at the pool during the season, eight to 10 weeks jam-packed with pasta parties, pep rallies, karaoke nights, lots of meets, and a little bit of drama too. I couldn’t NOT write about this fascinating subculture of competitive swimming.  


Q: How did you choose your four point of view characters?


A: Before I knew that I was going to write a novel set in the summer league, I wrote a few short stories featuring each of the four narrators in the book.


I started with Charlie Cloud, a former swimmer, drowning in his midlife torpidity and soul-sucking job; then Charlie’s perky wife, Gillian, materialized as did her best friend, Kristy Weinstein. I wrote about a painful incident in their friendship involving a whoopie pie, an interloper, and a Saturday morning swim meet.


Enter Justin Cloud, son of Charlie and Gillian; I published and recorded an audio version of his disturbing, nocturnal visit to the pool.


I kind of fell in love with this crew, and I continued to ponder who they were, what the pool meant to them, and which secrets threatened to alter their lives.

Q: The writer Lisa Gornick said of the novel, “With open eyes and extraordinary compassion, Brafman tackles the shame of love addiction, illuminating its links to other addictions and what true recovery entails.” What do you think of that description, and why did you include the topic of love addiction in the novel?


A: I was so honored to read Lisa’s generous words because she draws her characters with such sophistication and heart. In order to intubate my Swimming with Ghosts squad, I needed to understand what unresolved issues informed their tensions and their fierce attachment to the pool and to one another.


I chose the multi-generational ripples of addiction, and then I kept digging. Kristy, my love addict narrator, is conceived via an illicit affair. Her mother is ashamed of her very existence, and Kristy always feels like the odd person out when her mother and her new stepfather start their own family. This specific brand of early shame and rejection informed her later struggles.   


Q: Why did you decide to set the novel in the summer of 2012 in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, during a period that featured a terrible summer storm?


A: The derecho hobbled the D.C. area for weeks. Featuring this unique storm in the novel helped me address the age-old Passover and plot question: why is this summer different from all other summers?


A derecho is also the quintessential perfect storm, which made it a great metaphor in the story. An exact set of variables need to conspire to cause these land hurricanes.


The real and metaphorical derecho in the novel wreaks havoc on the swim community, and here too, a cluster of events transpire early on to set the storm, or the narrative, in motion.


Charlie horns in on Gillian’s beloved pool, Gillian in turn hangs on even more tightly, and Kristy learns a piece of information that threatens her sobriety. And we’re off to the races.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m about 70 pages into a new novel, but I decided that I needed to stop drafting and write a few short stories about my point of view characters. I’m excited about taking this sidestep because I know they’re going to surprise me, and that’s the very best part about writing fiction.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Michelle Brafman.

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