A flight attendant drafted her novel on cocktail napkins. It took off

The author and former flight attendant TJ Newman at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, June 11, 2021. Newman received a seven-figure advance for “Falling,” her debut book imagining what could happen in not-so-friendly skies. (Jesse Rieser/The New York Times)
TJ Newman remembers when “Falling,” her debut suspense novel, started to take shape.

Newman, a veteran flight attendant, was on a Virgin America red-eye from Los Angeles to New York, looking out at a cabin filled with dozing strangers. Even if you haven’t been on a plane recently, you can imagine the view: slack mouths and lolling heads, fleece blankets draped every which way, a handful of insomniacs bathed in pools of light.

“Suddenly I have this thought, that all of our lives are in the hands of the pilots flying the plane,” Newman, who is 37, recalled in a video interview from her home in Phoenix. “With that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make the pilots?”

Even though aviation is the family business — her mother and sister also worked as flight attendants — there was one worst-case scenario Newman had never considered.

A few days later, she presented it to a pilot on a different flight: “I said, ‘What would you do if your family was kidnapped and you were told that if you didn’t crash the plane, they’d be killed?’ I knew by the look on his face that I’d struck a nerve. He was terrified. He didn’t have an answer. And I knew I had a story.”

That story — of a hijacking and an abduction happening simultaneously, with a compromised pilot as the common denominator and a quick-thinking flight attendant taking charge — is the crux of “Falling,” coming out from Avid Reader Press on Tuesday.

Newman wrote the book during downtime on long flights, using hotel pens to jot scenes on cocktail napkins and catering bills before typing them up on layovers. Imagine reading this line over the shoulder of the person who just showed you how to use an oxygen mask: “The bloodied mass hung in weightless suspension before being sucked out of the massive hole in the side of the aircraft.”

Newman said her characters are entirely fictional but acknowledged the authorial convenience of coming into contact with 150 fresh faces per journey. After all, she said, “flight attendants get paid to people-watch.”

She did not tell many people that she was working on a book, believing she had depleted her “personal quota of public creative risk” when she moved to New York City in 2007 to pursue acting.

“I did the starving artist route and had multiple survival jobs, and it was a lot of rejection and doors slammed in my face,” said Newman, who graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University with a degree in musical theatre in 2006. While living in Sunnyside, Queens, she made ends meet by babysitting, working in restaurants and passing out flyers in Times Square.

Two years later, she was back in Phoenix, living in her parents’ house — a humbling end to a dream that took shape when she starred in a junior high school production of “Annie.”

Newman found solace in a job at Changing Hands, a bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, that she said helped her get back to her roots as a reader and writer. “I’m always going to be a creative person,” she said. “I realised those impulses are never going away. If I’m writing and no one reads it except me, that’s a lot less scary than putting myself out there in New York in front of an entire table of casting directors who won’t even look up at me.”

“She was Torri to us then,” said Cindy Dach, the bookseller’s chief executive. “She had a passion for books and community and was a star on the floor. Some booksellers love books, but they’re introverts. Torri is the best of both worlds because she can connect with people easily.” (TJ stands for Torri Jan.)

In early 2011, Newman left to work for Virgin America. She held onto her Changing Hands staff badge and continued to help out during the holiday rush and at events at the Tempe and Phoenix locations, but she could no longer ignore the tug of wanderlust. “I grew up traveling on my mom’s passes,” Newman said. “Travel is just about my most favourite thing in the world to do, which is why I wanted a job that paid me to do it.”

There were challenges to her new role — entitled passengers, the beverage cart — but Newman believes her time in the air helped lay the groundwork for a writing career. “You become really good at reading people: Has this person had too much to drink? Is this person showing a proclivity for noncompliance?” she said. “We are in a metal tube traveling hundred of miles an hour, miles up in the sky. We’re always aware of the margin of error.”

Those high stakes are on display in “Falling,” which alternates between a cockpit under attack and the captivity of the pilot’s family on the ground. When Newman completed a draft, she consulted “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published,” by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, at times ripping out sections to take on trips with her so she wouldn’t have to carry the whole book. “I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have any connections,” she said. “I researched each step along the way.”

Forty-one agents declined to represent her. (“Turns out, an unpublished flight attendant without a platform is a tough sell,” she writes in the acknowledgments section.) The 42nd agent, Shane Salerno, worked with her on revisions — Newman shared drafts with pilot friends to make sure the logistics were correct — before sending the manuscript to Jofie Ferrari-Adler, vice president and publisher of Avid, who acquired “Falling” for seven figures in a two-book deal.

“I read it in less than a day, and I just was knocked out,” Ferrari-Adler said. “I had my heart in my throat the entire time. I was putting myself in the shoes of every single character in the book.”

Newman left her airline job. Foreign rights have now been sold in 24 territories, and Universal Pictures snapped up the film rights in a bidding war. In a blurb that appears on the cover of advance copies of “Falling,” Don Winslow describes the book as “‘Jaws’ at 35,000 feet.”

On Monday, Changing Hands will host its first-ever hybrid event, with guests celebrating the publication of “Falling” via Zoom and in person at the bookstore’s Phoenix location. The significance of the location is not lost on Newman.

“That’s where my dream of being a writer really took on legs,” she said. “When I would shelve a book by an author with my last name, I would take my thumb and cover up the first name and pretend it was mine. I would envision what a book would look like with my name on the spine.”

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