An interview with Claire Kells

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.

A searing love story emerges from tragedy, and Avery must choose between two men who love her. What is the secret to writing an effective love triangle?

I honestly never set out to write a love triangle; it just emerged organically from the story. I might even go so far as to say I tried not to write a love triangle because they are so hard to execute well. But Avery’s relationship with Lee is important to the story, and I didn’t want to neglect that. In the end, I tried to cast each of them—Avery, Lee, and Colin—as unique characters with their own wants and needs and flaws. Among the most moving passages in the novel are those that follow care that adults bestow on children who are not their own.

What is your message on this point?

One of the themes of this story is family, and in Avery’s case, it takes many forms. Her complex relationship with her own family, and later, the family she comes to know, play a critical role in Avery’s survival and recovery. For Colin, he has a very clear sense of what family means—and it drives him in different ways. So much of Girl Underwater is about the psychological toll that the disaster has on the survivors.

Did you research PTSD while writing the book?

Yes, I did a great deal of research. In medical school, I worked directly with PTSD patients and psychiatrists at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and that experience played a role in this story. I am in no way an expert on PTSD, but I tried to portray it as accurately as possible.

Like Avery, you were a competitive swimmer in your youth. Is swimming still an important part of your life?

Yes, definitely. I burned out after high school but started swimming again with a local team three years ago. A bad shoulder injury hampered my return for over a year, but I’m back swimming with my team three times a week, and I love it. I’m so very grateful I’m able to do what I love again.

If Girl Underwater were to be adapted as a movie, who would you like to see play Avery, Colin, and Lee?

Well, I’m unhealthily obsessed with movies, so this question makes my heart skip a beat. There are so many talented young actors and actresses working today—my only request is that he or she knows how to swim!