Riffle Backstory: Q&A with Claire Kells, author of 'Girl Underwater'

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by Janelle Ludowise

Girl Underwater is a compelling survival and recovery story about Avery Delacorte, a college student and competitive swimmer who is one of only five survivors of a horrific plane crash. Stranded in the Rocky Mountains with her teammate, Colin Shea, and three little boys, Avery struggles to keep herself and her companions alive. Captivating from the first page, Girl Underwater is both a story about coming of age, romance, and the struggle to survive.

Girl Underwater is is available now and can be purchased here. Claire Kells was kind enough to answer some of my questions on inspiration, writing, and her compelling new novel!

Riffle Fiction: Hi Claire, thank you for doing this Riffle Backstory with me! I just finished Girl Underwater and I really enjoyed it. In your book, your main character, Avery, is one of only five survivors of a plane crash. Disaster clearly plays a very important part of the novel, but it seems that recovery from disaster is an equally important part. What drew you to the topic of disaster and recovery?

Claire Kells: I’ve always been drawn to disaster stories—one of my favorite books as a young reader was called Pompeii…Buried Alive! (I looked it up just now—apparently it’s still in print!). I must have read that book a hundred times. I just think there is something inherently fascinating about disasters, both natural and otherwise. We’re fortunate enough in modern times that we don’t have to fight to survive on a daily basis, but on rare occasions, we’re forced to draw on our basic survival instincts. As much as it scares me to think about these dire scenarios, I like to ask myself, what would I do in that situation (assuming I didn’t immediately die)? Girl Underwater started with that question.

RF: The survivors of the crash are stranded somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. How much research did you have to do for the scenes before they are rescued? What was the strangest or most interesting thing you learned while researching or writing Girl Underwater?

CK: I’ve been to the Rockies a number of times, so in that respect, the setting was fairly easy to visualize. Finding a lake that would work for the story, though, was harder. Initially I set the wilderness scenes on an actual mountain lake in the Rockies called Kroenke Lake, which, interestingly enough, was the site of a small plane crash in 1981 (four people were rescued). Later, while I was describing this “huge” lake and all the challenges it posed for Avery and Colin, I looked into Kroenke’s actual dimensions and figured out that it’s only about 300 feet wide, which Avery could swim in under a minute in a pool! So I decided to go with a fictional lake.

RF: In many ways, Girl Underwater is a very character-driven novel. It’s fascinating to see how the main characters, Avery and Colin, react both when they are stranded and when they return to civilization and begin recovery. But the story also has a very compelling plot, that of the crash and survival story. I’m curious which came first—your characters or the story?

CK: I don’t think a story will work without great characters, but I’m definitely a “story first” writer. I love analyzing story structure, both in books and in movies. I want my readers to connect with the characters, absolutely, but I also want them to be entertained. I think this book ended up being very character-driven because Avery experiences so many personal challenges along the way, and I really poured myself into her character. I don’t think the story works without that sense of emotional truth.

RF: Girl Underwater is your first novel. Have you always been interested in writing fiction, or is it something that came to you later in life?

CK: I’ve been writing stories for most of my life, but I didn’t get serious about it until my twenties. I was in medical school at the time, and writing started out as a hobby that took my mind off medicine for a while. Inevitably, the dream of being published took hold. It took me six years to get there, so it was by no means an easy or automatic journey.

RF: At a recent talk, you mentioned that the character of Avery’s father is a lot like your father. Are your characters more often inspired by real people or imagined? Where do you usually meet the characters of your stories?

CK: It took me a while to realize that fictional characters feel more like real people when you infuse them with quirks and habits that come from people you know. I wouldn’t say I ever take a real person and re-imagine them as a fictional character, but being observant of people and the world in general definitely figures into my process. My characters grow and evolve over the course of the story; I like to see where they take me.

RF: What is the first book you remember having an impact on you?

CK: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I just remember being so moved by that book as a sheltered ten-year-old.

RF: When you’re not writing, you’re also a medical resident and a swimmer! Is it difficult to find time to write? What do you do to get ready to write each day?

CK: It’s very hard! I wish I were more disciplined, but during the workweek, I’m usually too tired to sit down and write. I save my writing time for the weekends, when I can go to my usual bagel place, have a relaxed breakfast, and lose myself in a story for a while. I’m a very routine-oriented person, and I like writing in the morning at my usual haunts.

RF: What is your greatest fear as a writer?

CK: Losing the ability to finish a project. I have this fear every time I sit down to write.

Girl Underwater is available now and can be purchased here!

  • Girl Underwater