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michellecroppedDo you feel weird interviewing yourself?

Um, not really.

 

Say more.

When I was in junior high school, I wanted to be Phil Donahue (not to be confused with Dr. Phil who is neither as smart nor as badass). I raced home during my forty-five minute lunch break, turned on the tube, made myself a sandwich, and tried to figure out what piping hot question Mr. Donahue or one of his audience members would ask next. I prepped for these sessions by interviewing myself, using a hairbrush as a mic, and trust me, it was a whole lot easier guessing my next question. After the show was canceled, I moved on to Oprah, Charlie Rose, and my current idol, Terry Gross.

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Phil Scott, January 20, 2005

 

I’m hungry. But that’s not why I’m standing in front of the McDonald’s on Columbia Road at 4:37 on a freezing cold Tuesday afternoon. I’m waiting for Amy Solonsky.

A week ago, I watched her fall on her heart-shaped ass trying to get off the #42. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, but I recognized her hair — miles of black curls — and her glasses with the tiny purple rectangular frames. Graphic artists sport hip eyewear as a rule.

I was standing across the street, so I couldn’t help her up. She put her hand on her swollen belly right away and smiled with her eyes closed, as if she’d just heard some good news. She didn’t notice me until she brushed off the tumble and was about to cross the street. I let her decide whether or not to come to me, and I was so glad that she did. “Phil,” she said, and hearing my name coming out of her mouth moved me. Ever since I saw her, I’ve wanted something, but I don’t know what it is, as if I’m kicking back on my couch after a grueling shoot, my bones aching, an ice cold beer in one hand, remote in the other, clicking and clicking, searching for a ball game, an old movie, a Law and Order rerun, anything that will unlatch me from myself.

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Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books, 2015) is, above all things, about the healing power of love and forgiveness, about letting go of the toxic wounds of betrayal and hurt. In fact, Brafman experienced a similar transformative purge; she admits that she felt “fluish” at times when writing it. The novel, told in first person by Barbara Blumfield when she is 17 and also when she is  53 (the two narratives woven together in what Brafman calls a double helix), centers on her family’s expulsion from their Orthodox Jewish community after her mother has an affair with a gentile. After Barbara is called back to the community thirty-five years later to perform the ritual burial washing of her beloved teacher, she is forced to confront her mother’s sins and secrets, as well as her own.

 

JEN MICHALSKI: Washing the Dead explores themes of exile, forgiveness, and redemption in an Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee, and you start it off with a bang: an affair. So where did that come from?

MICHELLE BRAFMAN: Yes, the inciting event in the book occurs when the main character, Barbara, discovers that her mother is having an affair, and so begins the family’s exile from their spiritual community. I’ve been told that the story reads a bit like a mystery, and as you read on, you learn that nothing that happens in these opening pages, including the affair, is as it seems. Affairs are complicated, I think. Perhaps they are often less about succumbing to some hot sticky lust and more about escaping an unbearable emotional intensity or healing old wounds or filling unmet needs for love or myriad other motivations. I wasn’t thinking so clinically, though, when I decided to use the affair as a means to launch this family into the diaspora. The idea evolved from digging into my characters’ family history and imagining how the carnage from their secrets might be expressed via misdirected and destructive efforts to secure love.