1) How did you juggle writing and medical school?
A lot of late nights! I was a night-owl back then—not so much anymore. Writing during medical school wasn’t too much of a challenge thanks to all the unstructured time, which I certainly used to study, but there was time to do other things, too. Writing during residency has been far harder.
2) Where did the inspiration for Girl Underwater come from?
I’m actually terrified of flying, and my mind tends to go to worst case scenarios every time I get on a plane. Girl Underwater was the fleshed-out version of one of those scenarios. As for the characters, Avery and Colin were certainly inspired by my love of swimming—but their personalities evolved over the course of many drafts.
3) How did your studies influence the content in your story?
Medicine always seems to find its way into my stories, probably because I spend so much of my daily life doing it. I also think it provides a natural backdrop for exploring universal themes about life, death, and loss.
4) What was the hardest part of writing a story that’s realistically gritty and challenging?
I try to write scenes that are as realistic as possible—which makes it hard when I’ve (thankfully!) never experienced a true survival situation. When I’m writing scenes that have no basis in my own reality, I try to draw upon personal experiences that affected me on an emotional level. I don’t know what it’s like to swim out of a plane in freezing cold water, but I know what fear feels like. My hope is that if Avery’s fear feels real to readers, her situation feels that way, too.
5) Tell us a bit about what happened for you went through on the road to publication?
I wrote my first query letter in 2009 (for a different novel), and my debut was published in 2015. That may tell you a little bit about my publication journey! I wrote a number of manuscripts, queried a ton of agents, and wallowed in hundreds of rejections. Even after I got an agent and went on submission to editors, my first two manuscripts didn’t sell. For the most part, those failures pushed me to work harder, to write better, but there were definitely times when I thought about giving up. I didn’t, though—and that’s essentially how I got published.
6) What plans do you have for future stories?
I’m working on a few ideas now. Even when I’m bouncing between projects, I always like to be working on something.
Rapid fire questions:
Cat, dog or unicorn? Dog
Hot chocolate, coffee or tea? Hot chocolate
Romantic comedy, horror or sci-fi movies? Romantic comedy
Snowy mountain, forest or beach? Beach
Blue, yellow or red? Blue
You can WIN a copy of Girl Underwater by answering this question in the comments: Claire is terrified of flying, what terrifies you?
Two winners will be drawn at random on May 30, 2015.
She successfully performed the Heimlich once.
Last year she set the hospital cafeteria’s microwave and toaster on fire.
She didn’t start writing fiction until her first year of medical school.
She learned to swim at the age of 3 thanks to her mom, who put her in lessons because she was afraid of the water (also because a relative accidentally dropped her in a lake the year before and that was rather unpleasant for the whole family).
She swam the 50 free for the duration of her swimming career because she always hit a wall after the second lap.
She will swim only if a coach is barking at her to get in.
GIRL UNDERWATER, the debut novel from Claire Kells (Dutton Books, On-Sale: March 31, 2015), 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!”