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‘Jaws at 35,000 Feet’: The Flying Woman, whose debut thriller sold for seven characters Books

Flight companion Torri Newman was working on red-eye from Los Angeles to New York when the idea for her debut novel came to her. To be precise, she blocked access to the cockpit, a safety procedure required when pilots take a toilet break. “I was standing in front of the plane,” she says, “looking out at the passengers. It was dark and they were all asleep. And I had this thought, ̵

6;All their lives, our lives, are in the hands of the pilots.’ It’s not exactly new – but the back of it also came to mind. With so much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make a commercial pilot? ”

Newman spoke via Zoom from his home in Phoenix, Arizona, was rattled. “I just could not shake the thought. A few days later I was working on another trip with another set of pilots and I said to the captain, ‘Hey, what would you do if your family was taken and you were told that if you did not crash planes, would they be killed? “What was his reaction? “He had no idea what he wanted to do – the thought scared him.”

She realized she was starting a story. Working as a flight attendant, mostly in first class on red-eye flights, so named because they are overnight, she often had the front galley of the plane to herself while the passengers slept. So she used the peace to draw a plot in her head. She started with her pilot, Bill Hoffman, and discovered that his wife, son and baby are being held hostage by a terrorist. “It’s simple,” he is told. “Shock your plane, or I’ll kill your family. It’s your choice. “Newman says,” What is he doing? I started there, then the story just developed. “

'Drinks, the food, the smiling - it's not working' ... Torri Newman.
‘Drinks, the food, the smiling – it’s not working’ … Torri Newman. Photo: Steve Craft / The Guardian

It was Falling, her much-anticipated debut thriller. The book was purchased for a seven-figure sum by Simon & Schuster and was described by crime writer Don Winslow as “Jaws of 35,000 Feet”. Swinging from the dilemma on the plane – will Bill tell his crew member, will they warn passengers and risk panic? – and the nightmare that unfolds for his wife Carrie and the children at home, Falling also dives into what lies behind the demands of the terrorists.

Chaos in the sky is nothing new. From the airport to snakes on a plane, the tale of life’s hanging-to-a-thread has produced plenty of drama with high octane. But Newman’s background means that Falling brings the genre a freshness and depth. While the story is driven by the impossible situation that Bill and his family are in captivity, the relationship between the close crew is at heart: Bill, his co-pilot Ben, his old friend Jo and her colleagues Kellie (new to the job) and the old hand Michael (known as Big Daddy). It is an open look at the reality of working on a plane. As Jo says, the service side of the role – drinks, food, smiles – is not the job. It’s just something they deliver. “Five weeks of training,” she says, “and in just one of those days, they went over food, drink, and hospitality.”

Newman elaborates: “For better or worse, the light in which stewardesses are most often portrayed is a little more blissful – you know, lower-hanging fruit. Most people do not actually see stewardesses do ours job. They see us bring food and drink, and you know smiling – but that’s not our job. Service is something we gladly provide, but we are there for safety and security at the end of the day. ”

Newman was wary of his portrayal of the people who take Carrie and her children Scott and Elise hostage: these are not your anti-American evils. “I worked hard to create three-dimensional figures that are not the stereotype of the terrorists we have seen so often. They are the opposite. The antagonistic story is not about America’s enemies. It’s about America’s friends. And the actions I portrayed are – what would happen if we betrayed our allies and our friends? ”

Loud jinks ... Newman during his fly days.
Loud jinks … Newman during his fly days. Photo: Regards TJ Newman

Newman’s mother and sister are also stewardesses, but it was not her original plan to follow them into the “family business.” She took a degree in musical theater at Illinois Wesleyan University and moved to New York to begin “hacking herself away from being an actress.” It did not go well. “It was failure after failure after failure after failure,” she says. She moved home to her parents’ house in Phoenix to “reevaluate where I was,” and ended up working in an independent bookstore called Changing Hands. “I just fell in love with being surrounded by books and talking about books. That was exactly what I needed to find my balance again. ”

She had always written stories, started and gave up book after book and decided that the flexibility of attending the flight would let her work properly on her writing. She left the bookstore in 2011 when Virgin America took her on. “It’s definitely a comfortable job,” she says, “but it certainly has its lowest levels. It’s a group of strangers inside a metal pipe. Who knows what is going to happen? There are days you question every choice you have ever made. And flight brings out aspects of people’s personalities. It can create very interesting interpersonal experiences, especially if you add alcohol or a medical emergency. ”

It took a while before she was ready to show someone the story she had spent all those long nights writing. “When I came back from New York after being burned so hard, I felt that my personal quota of public creative risk had been used up – that it was time to get serious, get a real job, go down and grow up. And I did not tell anyone. I convinced myself that no one needed to know, just do it for myself, that if the story does not go anywhere other than your own brain and computer, that’s enough. ”

Mayhem in the sky… Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset in 1970 thriller airport.
Hanging by a thread… Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset in 1970 thriller airport. Photo: Album / Alamy

The feeling did not last. About 30 drafts later – with input from her old bookseller friends – she searched for an agent. She did not know where to start, so she bought a copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and started asking questions. She sent out 41 copies and received 41 rejections. It was a difficult time. “Rejection is hard,” she says. “Even though my time in New York had made my skin a little thicker, it is still hard, especially 41 rejections. But I never lost faith that it was a good story people liked to read. ”

Her 42nd submission, in late 2019, was to Shane Salerno, the Hollywood screenwriter who became a star-studded literary agent whose author credits include Armageddon, Savages and Shaft. “I was like, ‘I have nothing to lose at this point.’ I’m 41 rejections in and this guy is the biggest of the big ones. There is no chance he will be interested. ”

Salerno, famous for mediating great deals for her writers, signed her up immediately. They worked together on the script, while Newman continued to fly full-time – until the pandemic hit in March last year. She took a volunteer furlough from the airline and spent every day at home alone, editing and rewriting. “It was a nice distraction to have that sense of purpose at a time when we were all just shaking our heads and going, ‘Where are we going from here?’ It was just me and the voices in my head. ”

In the fall, Falling was signed by the first editor Salerno approached: seven figures for a two-book deal. “I drove to my parents’ house,” Newman says, “because it was our little quarantine pod. I was standing in their kitchen and I think my face just looked confused. It has been a surreal, surreal experience. There was a time when I almost gave up. So I went to a book signing here in Phoenix. There were two authors talking about their books and making a question and answer. Just watching them reminded me of what I was working towards, why I should continue until I got my yes. ”

Falling will be announced this summer, and Newman’s first book signing will take place at Changing Hands. The author, who has quit his job as a flight attendant, predicts there will be tears. “I can’t believe this is really happening,” she says. “It’s an incredible, full circle Cinderella story.”

Falling by TJ Newman will be released by Simon & Schuster on June 10 in the UK and a month later in the US.

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