Michelle Brafman’s Judaism informs the plots and characters of her novels, the latest of which comes out on June 13.
In “Swimming with Ghosts,” the former Milwaukee resident offers a summer read that tackles serious issues while also seeking to deliver a highly readable, page-turning story.
Set in her current hometown, Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2012’s destructive derecho (a rare land hurricane), Brafman introduces readers to best friends and fellow River Run swim club moms, Gillian Cloud and Kristy Weinstein. Plunged into seemingly endless days without power, the characters find themselves unexpectedly forced to face unresolved childhood trauma and present-day betrayals.
Weinstein, the narrator, is a Jew of choice. “She marries into a close-knit Jewish family to find the love and security she longs for,” Brafman said. “She learns how to plan a mitzvah and negotiate her feelings about her son’s trip to Israel. Her relapse into love addiction threatens to destroy her new family and faith, so she follows a suggestion to tap her Star of David necklace when her impulses get the best of her. Sometimes it works.”
Brafman’s third novel delves into the world of local competitive swimming, a sport that is biographical for this record holder from Whitefish Bay High School. Brafman is a former swim mom and NCAA all-American freestyler. She swam in college at University of California, San Diego, where she received her degree in political science.
Brafman’s essays have appeared in Jewish publications such as The Forward and Tablet Magazine.
Brafman, now 58, attended Congregation Beth Israel with her family in Milwaukee. She now has two children in college, Gabriella and Gideon. Her husband, Tom Helf, is an attorney and percussionist. They belong to Beth El Congregation, a conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Maryland.
She came into fiction writing after working in radio then in television, where she became a documentary producer.
“The documentaries were narrative based and I really just fell in love with telling stories. When I’d come back to my hotel room during these long shoots, I’d just start writing about people that I had met and that all turned to fiction.”
Brafman went back to school and earned a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. She now teaches in the master’s level writing program. She also leads creative writing workshops with primarily women. And she teaches at the Faye Moskowitz Writer’s Retreat, which is sponsored by the D.C. Jewish Community Center.
Brafman’s first book, “Washing the Dead,” has as its centerpiece the Jewish burial rite. “It’s a book about a mother-daughter relationship, about forgiveness. That’s a huge part of it.”
Her second book, “Bertrand Court,” is a collection of short stories that are linked together. They deal with Jewish ritual and Jewish subject matter, she said.
Brafman was influenced by her father, Stuart Brafman, a storyteller and gifted photographer. “He had a great eye for people and telling detail,” she said.
Her writing process begins with an idea and general arc of the story. Then she pounds out the first draft. “I just keep going and get to know the characters. I follow the sense of the story and then it comes out pretty quickly. The real work comes in the long revision process.”
For more information about Brafman, visit Michellebrafman.com. Pre-order “Swimming With Ghosts” on Amazon.