At the end of medical school, Kathleen Coggshall ’05 often found herself in the sky, flying across the country for interviews for residency programs. During several trips, as her mind drifted to thoughts of airlines disasters, she was struck with an idea for a novel about a plane crash and a young woman whose medical expertise keeps the survivors alive.
In Girl Underwater, Coggshall’s debut novel, competitive college swimmer Avery and two of her teammates are on a red-eye flight from California to Boston when the plane crashes in a remote area of the Rocky Mountains. Only Avery, fellow swimmer Colin Shea, and three little boys survive, and the medical knowledge imparted to Avery by her physician father helps her care for them for five days until they are rescued. The book follows Avery’s fraught recovery at home and the crash’s aftermath. The novel was published under the pen name Claire Kells.
Like Avery, Coggshall is a competitive swimmer (though she didn’t swim for Princeton) who has lived on both the East and West coasts. An English major in college, she was “too nervous to share her work in a group of very smart people,” so she never took creative-writing courses. “I learned to write mostly on my own in med school,” she says. “The years it took to learn to write well were probably the hardest I worked at anything.”
Now in her first year of dermatology training as a resident at UCSF School of Medicine, Coggshall juggled working on Girl Underwaterwith her medical internship, writing up to 15 hours at a stretch on days off from the hospital. A psychiatry rotation at a veterans’ hospital provided insight on post-traumatic stress disorder, which helped her explore Avery’s emotional state after the accident.
Coggshall says Girl Underwater is at heart a love story: “I’m always inspired by two characters. I like to see them have a relationship, fall in love, and then go through hard times.” Medicine is important to her writing, and writing is important to Coggshall. She intends to keep doing both, and is already at work on another book in which medicine plays a role.