With: Claire Kells
A nail-biting story of survival and a high-stakes romance.
GIRL UNDERWATER, the debut novel from Claire Kells has caught the attention of some of the biggest names in fiction. New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult calls it a “compelling coming-of-age love story that will have you rooting for its teen narrator.”
GIRL UNDERWATER takes us on an exhilarating ride after a major airline disaster, looking not only at the worst-case scenario, but also at what happens to survivors after they make it through the most terrifying event of their lives. The novel follows Avery, a competitive college swimmer, who boards a night flight from West coast to East, along with two team members and two hundred strangers. When the plane goes down over the Rockies, only Avery, three little boys, and Colin Shea, the only teammate who has ever challenged her to strike out on her own, survive.
For five days, Avery fights the sub-zero temperatures and unforgiving landscape, creating a makeshift shelter, foraging for food, and searching for rescue. But when that rescue does come, Avery finds her future almost more challenging than her days in the mountains. Her memories of the wilderness haunt her recovery, isolating her from her family and loving boyfriend, Lee. And the media is spinning a very different story about her ordeal than the one she remembers. As she attempts to piece her life together, Avery must question everything she thought she knew about herself, including her feelings for Colin, the boy who challenged her to survive and become her own person. The aftermath of the crash brings about a powerful love triangle as Avery must decide between the two men who love her—only one of whom can truly understand her five days in the mountains.
Like her main character, author Claire Kells is a former competitive swimmer. She has both a degree in English from Princeton and a medical degree from University of California. Her medical knowledge lends itself well to her writing—the gritty and realistic medical challenges that Avery faces in the Rockies are some of the most thrilling parts of the novel.
Crosscutting between the events in the Rockies and Avery’s challenging recovery, GIRL UNDERWATER is a riveting look at the story after survival. Both an action-packed tale of life-and-death and an intense love story, this debut is sure to delight readers of all ages and genres. As Jodi Picoult says: “Trust me—dive in!”
What inspired you to write Girl Underwater? Where did this incredibly gripping
story come from?
I think it came from a place of fear, to be honest! I was flying all over the country for
residency interviews, and I started to wonder—in vivid, excruciating detail—what would
happen if the plane went down. I decided that I would be doomed, but a tough, competitive
swimmer with an ER doc for a dad might actually have a shot. Avery’s story just kind of
unfolded from there.
You are a practicing resident-physician, and Girl Underwater is filled with gripping
medical emergencies. Does your training as a doctor affect your writing?
It does, for sure. Medicine is challenging on many levels but also deeply rewarding. I feel
fortunate to have that kind of background to inform my writing, and I hope those details feel
realistic to the reader.
Speaking of your day job, how do you balance the demands of your medical career
with the demands of writing?
It’s hard. I try to carve out time for writing whenever I can, and I’m fiercely protective of that
time. Sometimes it’s just an hour a week, and other times I can’t even manage that.
Residency is a tough job, both physically and emotionally, and I don’t force myself to write if
I’m exhausted. But I look forward to those times when I can set up camp in my favorite bagel shop and write for hours on end. And as any resident will tell you, residency doesn’t last forever!
How did you come up with the setting for Girl Underwater? The Colorado Rockies, and the danger they contain, are such an important presence in the book.
A few months after my college graduation, I flew to Colorado to visit my boyfriend at the
time, who was an avid hiker. He wanted me to climb an obscure ‘fourteener’ with him, and I
had no idea what that meant but it sounded cool. I remember he told me we needed to leave at 4 AM or we’d probably get struck by lightning—well, we left a little late (5 AM) and sure enough, we ended up sprinting down the mountain to escape the huge thunderstorm that hit just as we reached the summit. It was such a raw, visceral experience for me. There was no one out there except the two of us and the brutal presence of Mother Nature. We were totally at her mercy.
That the novel unfolds in dual time lines—alternating between flashbacks and the
present—is an interesting structural choice. How did you choose it, and what (if any)
challenges did it present?
All credit goes to my brilliant agent, Stefanie Lieberman, for that choice. She proposed it on
our very first phone call, and I gently informed her there was no way I could rearrange the
whole story to fit that format because I simply lacked the skill-set to do that. She told me I
could, and somehow it happened.
Claire Kells was born and raised outside Philadelphia. She received a degree in English from Princeton University and a medical degree from the University of California. She lives and works in the Bay Area. This is her first novel.
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