A Conversation with Michelle Brafman

The novelist talks pools, addiction, and the aftermath of the DC derecho.

A Conversation with Michelle Brafman

Michelle Brafman’s Swimming with Ghosts explores the inner workings of a Northern Virginia swim club, focusing mostly on a group of team moms and best friends with (depending on how you look at it) too much or not enough time on their hands. It’s also a story about addiction in all its forms. And about ghosts in all their forms. Plus, there are marriages — both strong and strained — to consider. The novel, Brafman’s third, delights in taking its characters and throwing them into the deep end. (Insert sink-or-swim cliché here.)

In keeping with the adage to write what you know, Brafman was both a competitive swimmer and a swim mom. She says that, with this new book, she “wanted to write a fun summer novel and also conjure a way to free parents,” and maybe herself, too, “from the ghosts that can materialize at any kid-related arena, be it a pool, hockey rink, or soccerplex.”

So, let’s dive in (sorry).

River Run is a major character in the book. I know you based it on an actual club in Arlington called Overlee, which is rumored to be haunted. Did those ghost stories influence your novel’s setting and its title?

I can’t say I based River Run solely on Overlee; it’s more of an amalgam of the pools where my kids competed. That said, early in my drafting of Swimming with Ghosts, a friend came over for dinner, and while we were saying our goodbyes, she stood in the hallway and told my family the Overlee Pool ghost stories. We stood mesmerized as she described the little girl who died in 1913 and her haunting of the Victorian-era clubhouse that once belonged to her family. This tale must have found its way into my bones.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question before. I actually do believe that the spirits of the departed can pop up to say hello if we have outstanding business with them or if we need them.

The word “addicted” appears in the first sentence of the book. The main characters are all addicted in one way or another, some more obviously than others. What interested you in writing about addiction — especially the love addiction suffered by one of your characters?

In researching this novel, I discovered how my family history of addiction has informed how I live, love, parent, write, breathe. I also started noticing how frequently the addiction trope crops up in television and literature. I remember comparing my alcoholic patriarch and the destruction he reaped on his wife and children to the corresponding Pearson family featured in the hit television show “This Is Us.”

Can you talk about your history as both a record-holding swimmer and a swim mom?

I competed from the time I was 8 years old until my late 20s. As a child, I was known in my little Wisconsin town as “the swimmer.” After my husband and I moved to Glen Echo, Maryland, we discovered that we could walk to a community pool. We all succumbed to the magic of summer swimming, and soon, I became a team rep, which meant that I planned the meets and hired the coaches. My husband timed and announced the meets, and my kids eventually became coaches. The whole family basically lived and breathed summer swimming for 14 years.

Lastly, what were you doing during the derecho? Why was it important for you to place your story during this time period?

The derecho was so epic that most DC-area folks can tell you exactly where they were the night it hit. I personally was asleep during the five minutes the storm blew into town, but in the days that followed, like everyone else, 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.

I got the idea to write a novel about the derecho while my family was living in our basement and my then 11-year-old daughter was polishing my exhausted husband’s toenails periwinkle blue. While I researched the topic of relapse, it occurred to me that, like the derecho, [addiction] is a perfect storm of sorts. My characters hear the siren’s call of their old ways and feel defenseless against their compulsions, as powerful and surprising as a derecho. What a way to conjure the destructive, beautiful, charismatic, and hopelessly addicted swan-diving patriarch. And here I am talking about ghosts again.

[Photo by Sam Kittner.]

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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