As a former competitive swimmer and swim mom, Michelle Brafman was drawn to the idea of setting her latest novel, SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS, in the world of summer swim leagues.
Having previously spent 14 years immersed in year-round work as the representative of her kids’ county swim league, she observed the good and the bad of parental behavior.
As Brafman reveals in the Q&A you will find below my signature, “I [also] had a few less than stellar moments during my tenure as a swim mom. Yikes!”
In the wake of the derecho of June 2012 she decided she wanted to explore what lies beneath the surface for adults in these spheres. After all, emotional baggage isn’t left at the door just because someone is a parent.Using the Washington, DC area’s derecho storm as the backdrop, Brafman finds the perfect vehicle for conjuring psychic ghosts, just as during the actual derecho when Brafman says, “At times, we lost our manners, our filters, and sometimes, our secrets.”
“I really enjoyed SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS, for the excellent characters, unusual plot inside the world of local competitive swimming, the fine writing, and the frequent insights and humor. I raced right through it.”—Anne Lamott
“Lurking beneath the seemingly mundane surface of swim clubs and pasta parties and petty squabbles are dark secrets. Best friends who have much to hide, marriages that are not what they seem. In this page-turner of a tale, Michelle Brafman leads the reader into the deeper waters of deception, loss, and self-destructive obsession. This is a story that creeps up on you and then holds fast. It will stay with me for a long time to come.” —Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace and Gateway to the Moon
“Who knows when a perfect life might be ripped out by the roots?... Michelle Brafman is such a sharp observer of suburban life and Gillian, and #bestie Kristy, are a deliciously written, female friendship. So compelling, I snuck out of bed at night to finish it. Dive in!” —Helen Simonson, New York Times bestselling author of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and The Summer Before the War
“SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS dives into the world of children’s competitive swimming with sharp observations and an abundance of empathy. I was thrilled to spend time at the picture-perfect River Run swim club, caught in the swirl of family secrets and friendship. Moving perfectly between humor and darkness, Michelle Brafman delivers a delicious and compelling book about jealousy, addiction, and legacy.” —Jennifer Close, bestselling author of Girls in White Dresses and Marrying the Ketchups
“Beneath the surface of Michelle Brafman’s propulsive SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS, with its delightful humor and sharp observations of suburban mores, swirl dark undercurrents. Hidden as the tensions whitewashed in the Facebook posts of stalwart Gillian Cloud and the intergenerational betrayals lurking behind the potlucks and luaus she organizes at the community swimming club, riptides threaten two families. With open eyes and extraordinary compassion, Brafman tackles the shame of love addiction, illuminating its links to other addictions and what true recovery entails.”—Lisa Gornick, author of The Peacock Feast and Louisa Meets Bear
“I devoured Michelle Brafman’s latest book SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS in
a single day, tearing through one unputdownable chapter to the next. A
perfect book club pick, Brafman writes with loving sensitivity and humor
about two close
friends, their families, and the secrets that join them together.”—Bethany Ball, author of The Pessimists and What to Do About the Solomons
ABOUT SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS:
SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS is about what it takes to overcome our hidden legacies of disgrace and discover a once unimaginable freedom made possible by confronting life’s greatest storms with the people closest to us.
With shades of Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm and Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, the characters in SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS are certain to immerse readers in their world. Infused with humor and wisdom, Brafman’s latest is not one to miss.
A Conversation with Michelle Brafman, author of SWIMMING WITH GHOSTS
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: I’m not sure that I could NOT have written this book. For fourteen years, my family and I devoted ourselves to the wondrous, all-consuming cocoon of our county’s summer swim league. Both of my kids swam and later coached; my husband announced the Saturday morning competitions, and I repped the team which meant running the meets and getting too involved in the hiring and managing of coaches. It’s a year-round gig. No buffer exists between parents and swimmers because volunteers operate the meets. Within this tight community of hard-working adults, I watched more than a few moms and dads periodically lose their sense of equanimity.
And guess what? I had a few less than stellar moments during my tenure as a swim mom. Yikes! Full disclosure, once my daughter caught me looking up the times of a swimmer who was trash talking my son. We had a good laugh, but I had to ask myself what was pulling me into the dark corners of my psyche? What of my own stuff was I bringing to the pool? Who were my ghosts? My novels typically begin with such an uncomfy reckoning.
Back to your question, though, the specific pathway into Swimming with Ghosts materialized in the aftermath of the 2012 derecho, a fast and furious Washington D.C. area land hurricane that downed massive trees and left the city and suburbs without power for almost a full week. All the ghosts came out to play.
Q: Talk more about why you chose to feature the derecho in the novel?
A: First, the derecho, like other epic weather events which are sadly growing more frequent, was so dramatic for the D.C. area that most folks can tell you exactly where they were the night the storm hit. We tell stories about how we hunted down ice and batteries and camped out in our cars to charge our phones and/or blast the A/C for a glorious reprieve from the stultifying heat. At times, we lost our manners, our filters, and sometimes, our secrets. I got the idea to leverage the derecho while my family was living in our basement and my daughter was polishing my husband’s toenails periwinkle blue.
I’d already started reading tons of books about addiction during my research for the novel, and it struck me that relapse, like the derecho, is a perfect storm incited by a very specific set of circumstances. I mapped out the whole plot out to a friend who was kind enough to let me use her washing machine during the latter part of the power outage when we were all running out of clean unmentionables. I told her that the characters in Swimming with Ghosts hear the siren’s call of their old ways and feel defenseless against their compulsions, as powerful and surprising as a derecho. The storm would also serve as the perfect means to conjure a psychic ghost. Enter the destructive, beautiful, charismatic, and hopelessly addicted Sebastian Norton.
Q: Can you talk about the specific damage the ghost of Sebastian Norton spawns?
A: Oh, he wreaks havoc on the lives of the main characters. He causes a friend breakup of enormous proportions. It hurt my soul to write this because I’ve experienced more than one friend breakup in my life, and my God have they hurt. The two main characters, best friends Gillian Cloud and Kristy Weinstein, shred each other’s hearts in Swimming with Ghosts because they are both responding to the lasting effects of Sebastian Norton’s addiction. They share a surprising bond with Sebastian, whose alcoholic cruelty, absence, and erratic behavior have crippled them in different ways. Social researcher and author, Brene Brown, claims that “. . . addiction, like violence, poverty, and inequality is one of the greatest societal challenges we face today.” While I was revising the novel, I kept noticing how the theme of addiction was embedded in numerous popular films and television shows— This is Us, Grey’s Anatomy, The West Wing, and Breaking Bad just to name a few—and maybe this small story about a community pool could contribute to the conversation about a larger social ill. When it came to the actual writing, though, I had to tuck away such grandiose thoughts as well as my research and focus on the specific nature of my characters’ trouble. Otherwise, the book risked coming off as preachy, which I did NOT want to happen.
Q: Tell me more about the research you did conduct on the topic of addiction. Also, why did you focus on love addiction?
A: I read a ton, likely more than 50 books. I powered through How Al-Anon Works for Families and Friends of Alcoholics the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, and myriad memoirs about addiction like: Bill Clegg’s Ninety Days, Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath as well as Susan Burton’s Empty, an excellent narrative that delves into the intersection between food addiction and competitive swimming. That’s the easy answer, though. The more difficult answer is that addiction runs on my mom’s side of the family, and I learned how my own family history has informed how I live, love, parent, write, breathe. And in so doing, I listened hard to many, many people tell their stories about addiction, relapse, and recovery. I’m still listening.
I picked love addiction because I thought it would be fascinating to look at a lesser known and perhaps misunderstood form of the disease. Whereas sex addicts get high from sex, love addicts rely on romance, fantasy, or intrigue for their dopamine hits. But when all is said and done, addiction, no matter what form—sex, shopping, alcohol, food—is a destructive force for addicts and the people who touch their lives. In Swimming with Ghosts, Kristy, is an addict in repose, meaning she’s not “using” but she’s not in recovery either, and I thought that was an incredibly electric juncture to place her character, and of course, her family too, because according to Al-Anon, addiction is a family disease.
Q: So does this pertain to the term “no-fault fiction” you’ve talked about in your essays and interviews.
A: Exactly. I try to think about my characters in the context of a larger system which is why I often turn to the Bowen family systems theory as a guide for figuring out their broader emotional landscapes. I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of crisis shall befall my peeps and how each one will respond to these “derechos.” In Swimming with Ghosts, Gillian over-functions, her best friend, Kristy, starts “using” again, and Gillian’s child, Justin, wears himself down trying to avert impending disaster. And Gillian’s husband, Charlie, can’t forget him, makes some really bad judgment calls as he alternately gains and loses his sense of self. If I’m doing my job right, the reader will feel compassion for the entire cast of characters even when they are up to no good.
Q: Talk about the humor and hope in this novel.
A: I do entertain myself while I’m writing, but I didn’t actually think the novel was that funny until I was reading the proofs. I think the humor comes from slightly exaggerating how ferociously these parents invest in the traditions of the summer team (catered versus potluck pasta pep rally nights, band versus a D.J. at the big luau, etc.) I chuckled and cringed at some of my own ridiculousness and inflexibility when I was a swim rep, and um, now as a human.
Regarding hope, the author Margaret Meyers, one of my mentors, wrote a blurb for my first novel that I keep taped to my computer. She generously said, “Brafman offers a fresh, vital narrative about . . .the necessity of wrestling with the dark angel of a painful family legacy until it blesses you.” I do believe that these fictitious River Run parents, and my loved ones too, can ascend the multi-generational challenges they think they are doomed to repeat, and maybe transform these legacies into blessings to boot. One moment at a time. And one more thing about hope, my wish for this book is to convey this very notion to a wide swath of readers and of course to provide an entertaining read they can pop in their summer totes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
PHOTO CREDIT: Sam Kittner
Michelle Brafman is the author of Bertrand Court: Stories and the novel Washing the Dead.
Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Slate, LitHub, The Forward, Tablet, and elsewhere.
She teaches fiction writing in the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program.
A former swim mom and NCAA All-American freestyler, Michelle has never lived more than a mile away from a lake, ocean, or river.
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