For many kids in the Baltimore area, joining the neighborhood summer swim team is a rite of passage. It’s a seasonal sport intended to be low stakes and fun but, in a region that produces Olympic champions like Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, it’s no surprise the summer ritual often becomes extreme. I’m a former North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer turned Central Maryland Swim League summer coach, so I can attest to the chlorine-induced madness.
Yet as fellow ‘swammer’ and now author Michelle Brafman explores in her new novel Swimming with Ghosts, summer swim team intensity doesn’t always remain in the water. It floods onto the pool deck where parents become entrenched in all sorts of drama, both big and small. Of course, these swim-parent theatrics often have nothing to do with the sport itself.
Brafman, who swam competitively through college and raced for the University of California San Diego, experienced this spectacle firsthand when she became a swim-mom. The idea for Swimming with Ghostswas born when she witnessed herself and other parents get carried away during the summer swim season. “This intensity isn’t just about swimming,” she thought. There was more beneath the surface.
In the novel, team moms and best friends Gillian Cloud and Kristy Weinstein – known around the pool by the combined name ‘Krillian’ – enter the summer of 2012 expecting another idealistic season at their beloved River Run swim club. But as the season unfolds, the duo faces harsh truths about their individual and shared pasts. When confronted with the ghosts that follow them from summer to summer, Gillian and Kristy must determine if they will let these lingering traumas drown their relationship.
A Wisconsin native, Brafman now resides in Glen Echo, Maryland, and teaches fiction writing in the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Swimming with Ghosts is Brafman’s third book following the publication of Bertrand Court: Stories and the novel Washing the Dead. Her essays and short fiction have also appeared in Slate, LitHub, The Forward, Tablet, and elsewhere.
I met with Brafman to discuss the inspiration behind Swimming with Ghosts and how her teaching at Hopkins intersects with her own writing process. Read on to learn why this equally devastating and humorous novel deserves a spot in your pool bag this summer.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Tell us about your competitive swimming career and eventual ‘swim mom’ experience. How did these experiences inform Swimming with Ghosts?
Michelle Brafman: I swam competitively from the time I was 8 years old until I was maybe 25, but the local high school pool was where it all started. I went to a Jewish day school that didn’t offer P.E., so my mom signed my brother and me up for swimming because she wanted us to get exercise.
Where I grew up in Milwaukee, though, there was no summer swim league. So, when I later got married and moved to Glen Echo, Maryland, I was surprised because it seemed like every neighborhood had a community pool with a summer team. I eventually signed my kids up for the neighborhood team because I wanted to waterproof them, and then our family got totally sucked in.
I thought my competitive swimming days were over, but suddenly I was back on the pool deck. My husband started announcing meets, and I became a team rep. The environment was very different from my childhood summer swimming experiences – there was all this team spirit, and people gathered for barbeques and pep rallies. But I also noticed the parental intensity, and I was not immune. There’s this unique energy in summer swimming, and I started to think this is something I might explore in my fiction.
I wrote a couple of short stories featuring the characters that ended up in Swimming with Ghosts and that’s how I started feeling my way into the novel. As I played in this arena, I realized there was a lot there – magic, fun, and all sorts of unexpected drama to investigate.
BFB: While one might look at the book’s cover and assume it’s a story about competitive swimming, it’s really a tale about relationships. Can you tell us more about what inspired Gillian and Kristy’s relationship, and why you decided to put ‘Krillian’ at the forefront of the novel?
MB: I was fascinated by the closeness of the swim community and the deep bonds between some of the moms. And I started to wonder what would happen if I blew up one of the relationships in this tight community. I played with this idea, and then I then started asking myself questions like, “Why does the relationship blow up?” and, “Who are these characters to each other?”
Before I started even drafting the novel, I wrote a short story called “Whoopie Pies” where Gillian and Kristy have an incident involving a batch of whoopie pies and an interloper and really hurt each other. This, of course, becomes a big moment in the middle of the book. I wrote the story because I wanted to understand the nature of the tension between them.
BFB: One of the most prominent themes in the novel is addiction, and it appears in many forms. What made you decide to focus on love addiction for Kristy’s character rather than a more commonly known addiction – like sex addiction, for instance?
MB: Well, with love addiction, the dopamine hit comes from interactions, attention, and love. But with sex addiction, the dopamine hit comes from sexual contact. I thought it would be interesting to give Kristy a love addiction because she so wants this love. She has a history of playing second fiddle to her half-sister because her mother was ashamed of having Kristy out of wedlock. She’s always felt kind of dirty and unseen.
When Kristy realizes she has another half-sister who had the full attention of both parents, I thought her character chasing love would allow me so many more opportunities to flesh her out psychologically. The addiction had a unique relationship element to it and provided an opportunity to explore her childhood. We find out that from an early age, she was really hurting and damaged and in need of love.
BFB: Another fascinating theme you explore in the novel is the toxic nature of social media. Why did you feel it was important to explore this theme?
MB: Gillian, as the adult child of an alcoholic, is very invested in appearances and making sure that everything looks great on the outside. That’s just how she’s wired from all those years of covering up her father’s drinking. And so, the picture she took as a child of Sebastian Norton doing his swan dive was Gillian’s first “post,” pre-dating social media. She edited out the beer bottles and has been ‘Fakebook-ing’ ever since.
Gillian’s obsession with Facebook felt so in keeping with her character because social media allows you to present this patina, this exterior. It’s what she did her whole life. And that’s what the pool is to her, too, because it was the one place her father almost never drank. At the pool, her father could be Sebastian, the swan diver – not Sebastian, the alcoholic. This sacred space also enabled her to cling to a healthy version of her family that really didn’t exist outside the pool.
BFB: What is a technique you teach your students in the John Hopkins University MA in Writing Program that you use in your own work?
MB: I think the biggest one for me is that I want my students to take the time to embrace the freedom of writing the “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott calls it. There are different names for this – some call it the madman phase – but it entails not censoring or editing. To me, the shitty first draft is the nerve center of the whole process. In this phase, you’re writing and surprising yourself.
I want them to understand there’s a magic that happens when you’re just kind of spewing, and I don’t want to forget that myself, either. I want to make sure I’m journaling every day and giving myself prompts, because that’s where the joy comes from. It doesn’t come from chasing publications.
BFB: What are you working on next?
MB: I’m working on another novel that I’m about 70 pages into, and it deals with something that makes me uncomfortable. I’m using the novel form to think it through, and ultimately just feel more compassion when it comes to understanding different points of view.
That’s really what I did with Swimming with Ghosts as well. I wanted to understand the intensity, my own included, I was witnessing at the pool – what are these ghosts, these unresolved issues we’re bringing with us? We can also bring them into kids’ activities – whether it’s through swimming, soccer, dance, or music. It happens to many parents.
Upcoming events for Swimming with Ghosts
Thursday, July 6
6pm at The Ivy Bookshop
Thursday, July 27
7pm at The Writer’s Center