Michelle Brafman’s Characters Are Under Water

Michelle Brafman’s characters are under water. Literally. Set in a pleasant suburb, the novel is ostensibly about a summer swim league, but is really an exploration of the intimate lives of two couples who don’t fully understand the complicated ways in which they are connected. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to the author about how Swimming With Ghosts (Turner Publishing, $26.00) makes waves. 

YZM: So why set a novel in the world of amateur swimming? 

MB: I swam competitively until well into my 20s and then after my husband and I had kids, we spent fourteen years in this all-consuming cocoon of our county summer swim league. It was a family affair. My kids swam and coached; my husband announced the meets, and I was the team rep which meant that I helped hire coaches and run the meets. In summer swimming, there is no buffer between parents and kids since the competitions are dependent on volunteers. Within this tightknit community, I noticed a few moms and dads periodically lose their sense of equanimity, myself included. I alternately laughed at myself and wondered about 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?  

YZM: Kristy is a Jew by choice; what does her conversion mean to her? How does it protect and fortify her? 

MB: Kristy had always felt marginalized from her family of origin, partially because she was conceived from her mother’s affair. She saw her husband David’s world as a fortress between herself and her mom’s shame about her very existence. Jewish customs and holiday gatherings brought her a sense of comfort and security. Kristy is also a love addict, and to reign in her impulses, she taps the star of David charm on her necklace. This ritual reminds her to protect the life she’s built with her husband.  

YZM: This novel explores the bonds—and limitations—of friendship between women; can you say more? 

MB: Kristy and Gillian, the two main characters, meet at a park when their children are young. They feel familiar to one another, like they’re continuing a conversation they’ve been having for their whole lives. They in turn bond quickly and with great intensity. Gillian invites Kristy to be a part of her beloved summer swim club, and soon they earn the nickname Krillian. Their instant connection stems from an unknown similarity in their family history. As a perfect emotional and physical storm rolls into their community, they are forced to confront a psychic ghost that haunts them both. As deep as their friendship appears, the strain of such pressures snaps apart what they’d always considered an unbreakable friendship.    

YZM: Shame threads through this novel.

MB: Shame plays a huge role in addiction, and the novel features the alcoholic family patriarch who during this particular summer comes out to haunt both his daughters, one of whom is a love addict fighting a relapse. When addicts succumb to the call of their substance, they often feel shame, which they numb with their drug of choice, which creates a deadly feedback loop. Kristy’s shame over her lack of control over her love addiction causes her to spiral downward fast. Gillian grew up feeling embarrassed by her father’s drunken behavior and affairs. She wards off these intolerable feelings of shame by mythologizing her father, curating a rosy Facebook narrative, and trying to control every detail of her world and the people who occupy it. Throughout the course of the novel, Gillian and Kristy come to realize how very powerless they are over the multi-generational ripples of addiction. 

YZM: Both Gillian and Kristy have mothers who have failed them deeply, each in a different way; true or false? 

MB: True. One-hundred percent. Gillian’s mother failed to protect her children against her husband’s crippling drunken rages and the humiliation surrounding his affairs with neighbors, family friends, employees, and babysitters. She enabled his bad behavior by staying in the marriage and cleaning up after his messes. Yes, she threatened to leave often, but he would woo her with promises to quit drinking and then relapse, rinse and repeat. Kristy’s mother, Flo, failed her by projecting her shame about her affair onto Kristy. Flo wanted to build a family with her new husband and their baby, and although she loved Kristy in her own way, she was uncomfortable with her daughter’s beauty and sexuality. As a young girl, Kristy started to prove to herself she was loveable by seeking out attention from emotionally unavailable men. Both Kristy’s and Gillian’s lives would have been different had their respective mothers had the capacity to show up for them emotionally. No judgments. Both moms were trying to do the best they could, given what life had thrown them.    

YZM: As painful as this story was, I sensed a glimmer of hope, and even redemption at the end; was that your intention and if so, why? 

MB: Oh, definitely! I’m so glad that you felt that way about the ending. Without giving too much away, I will say that after the characters face their demons or ghosts, they are forced to make real choices about whether they will work to transcend their painful family legacy.