Arlington Pool Haunted by Ghosts in New Novel
Michelle Brafman's 'Swimming With Ghosts' takes a satirical and serious look at summer swim team culture, as well as specters from the past.
Michelle Brafman’s new novel may center on a fictional Arlington swim league for children, but the most compelling aspect of the storyline is about the grown-ups.
“It’s really about what unresolved issues parents bring to their kids’ activities,” Brafman says.
Swimming with Ghosts, which debuted June 13, is the latest book from the Maryland-based author. It draws on her personal experiences as a parent in summer swim culture in the DMV for more than a decade.
“The stakes in community swimming could not be any lower,” Brafman says. “So this is really about when parents can get a little bit overboard. That was the question that interested me: What happens when I get a little too excited about this particular situation, and what could I possibly be bringing with me to this?”
The book is set in 2012, the summer of a real-life derecho that caused days-long power outages in Northern Virginia and beyond. “In the storm, all the secrets come out,” Brafman explains. “It leaves every single person in this community [needing] to face their demons.”
At River Run, a fictitious swim club in Arlington, the Manta Rays are competing in a summer swim league. Parents Gillian Cloud, Charlie Cloud and Kristy Weinstein are heavily involved, orchestrating everything from pasta pep rallies to custom polo shirts. Gillian feels deeply rooted to the pool, where she spent many summers as a child.
“This was the place where her [now deceased] father was sober,” Brafman explains, “so she hangs on to this piece of her childhood very, very tightly. She goes on to move into the same neighborhood, join the pool, and becomes kind of the queen bee of the pool and very involved in every aspect of it. She really just can’t let go of this particular place because it holds so much history for her.”
The ghosts in Swimming—both literal and metaphorical—are based loosely on Arlington lore about an alleged ghost at Overlee swim club. Brafman says tales of the Overlee ghost were partly what inspired her to set the novel in the county. For her character Gillian, the specter is a family member.
“[Her dad] is an alcoholic. But he was also kind of this larger-than-life hero,” Brafman explains. “It’s the summer when all these things conspire and he comes back to haunt his daughter and the community as well.”
Themes of addiction factor into the story arc in other ways, too, including the love dependency of one of the primary characters. To prepare for the novel, Brafman estimates she read more than 50 books on addiction.
The author—whose writing credits include the novel Washing the Dead and short-story collection Bertrand Court—lives in Glen Echo, Maryland, but grew up just outside Milwaukee. She moved to the D.C. area in her 20s to pursue a journalism career and soon found production roles in local news, including News Channel 8 and WJLA. Much of her TV work focused on personal stories from the community, a natural segue to the world of fiction writing.
“I was writing when I was out producing and traveling, and I was so curious about the people who I was interviewing,” she says. “I just started to make up stories about them.”
Brafman earned a master’s degree in fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where she now teaches others about the craft. She also leads local workshops in fiction and college-essay writing, and her work has been featured on sites such as Slate, LitHub and Oprah Daily.
As a former NCAA All-American swimmer and swim parent, she drew heavily from her own background for the book. Along with her children, now in their early 20s, Brafman and her husband were immersed in that aquatic microcosm for 14 years.
“It’s part of the summer, and then at the end of July, everyone leaves and it’s like it never happened. It’s this compressed period of time where … there’s a lot of camaraderie and community feel,” she says. “It’s just a way for people to come together and feel like they belong to something bigger.”
The novel, with its mix of satire and gravity, is an ideal summer read for book clubs, she says.
“This is a story about claiming a crippling family legacy. And it also is about our ability to transcend a painful family history.”
Join Brafman for an author event on July 16 at 4 p.m., hosted by the Overlee Community Association and swim club (6030 Langston Blvd., Arlington). The author will read excerpts from Swimming With Ghosts and will have signed copies on hand for purchase.