I’m delighted to welcome Michelle Brafman, who’s just published her first novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books). Talk about serendipity. I am not the only one writing about a hevra kadisha (a burial circle) right now. In Washing the Dead, the narrator, Barbara Blumfield, describes how participating in the tahara ritual for the dead sparks her journey toward healing her complicated relationships with her mother and daughter, as well as herself. It’s the spirit of the time—the zeitgeist—that women are suddenly becoming more and more fascinated with this ancient, mostly unknown ritual.
Diana Bletter: You just published your first novel, Washing the Dead. Congratulations! Can you talk about the process—from your first draft to finding a literary agent and a publisher?
Michelle Brafman: Thank you! My road to publication was rather long and winding. It began eight years ago, after I graduated from the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. I sent some short stories to an agent who had just sold a friend’s book. The agent told me that short story collections don’t sell and asked me if I had a novel for him. Of course I said yes, but I really only had a short story entitled “Washing the Dead” that I’d published in Gargoyle and only an inkling of how it might expand. I got down to work and knocked out a draft, although it took me years and dozens of revisions to figure out the heart of this book. I worked with more than one agent and finally found a wonderful person for the project, who in turn found the best home for the book.
Diana Bletter: Can you talk about your own trajectory becoming a writer and how you got the idea for Washing the Dead?
Michelle Brafman: I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my thirties but I’ve always been a collector of stories. Before I began writing, I was a documentary filmmaker and was so taken with the tales that surfaced after the cameras stopped rolling that I had to write them down. I wrote some bad short fiction, but I took classes and improved and then applied to graduate school and started honing my skills. I’m still as committed to learning and growing as a writer.
I got the idea for Washing the Dead from a friend who told me about the tahara ritual. Although I have a decent Jewish education, I was unaware of this ritual, and I became enamored of the beauty and compassion attached to this rite as well as the sensory details of the actual washing and shrouding. Once I discovered the tahara, I knew what I wanted to do with the characters who had been rattling around in my head. I wrote the short story, and the rest is history.
Diana Bletter: Some writers say they write fast and then fill in the details after the first draft. What’s your writing routine? Do you find your characters doing things that surprise you?
Michelle Brafman: I write a rough draft pretty quickly, but it takes time to get to know my characters and in turn flesh out the central conflict of the book. The plot typically remains pretty much the same throughout the drafting process, but I reframe the scenes depending on what I’ve discovered about my characters. In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she describes how a character emerges like an image in a Polaroid photo. I like that. I also think of my characters as people I’ve gotten to know over a period of time, yet who can surprise me by how they roll in various situations.
Diana Bletter: Do you have any suggestions for new writers? Are there any writing exercises you find helpful?
Michelle Brafman: I tell my students the following: Read as much as humanly possible and well beyond your comfort zone. Keep a notebook on your person at all times because you never know when a story will “happen to you.” Seek out mentors who will help you learn the craft and hone your voice, but take your writing as far as you can on your own before you ask for help. Then become a mentor to someone else. Keep your heart and mind wide open. Work really hard, and luck will find you.
I use many different writing prompts with my students, depending on the skill we are working on. My general advice would be to write every single day, even if only for ten minutes or so. Simply making marks keeps the creative pump primed.
Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?
Michelle Brafman: I’m working on a second novel. The setting and structure are entirely different, although once again I’m writing about family secrets and water.
Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog is called thebestchapter, and I write about trying to make the most of each day. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make each day a part of your best chapter?
Michelle Brafman: Thanks for the reminder! I try to take a few moments every day to share at least one laugh with my husband and enjoy the heck out of my kids. My daughter is about to enter high school, my son will become a bar mitzvah next summer, and the time is speeding by too fast. We have our little family rituals and jokes that I treasure, but sometimes I simply listen to them sing or joke with each other in the next room. I also try to connect my friends, via a phone call, a text, or if I’m lucky, a quick cup of coffee or a walk along the Potomac River.
Thank you, Michelle Brafman.
You can find Washing the Dead wherever you buy books. (And I hope you’re still buying books.)