“Jaws at 35,000 feet”: the flight attendant whose debut thriller sold seven figures

“Jaws at 35,000 feet”: the flight attendant whose debut thriller sold seven figures

FLight agent Torri Newman was working on the red-eyed flight from Los Angeles to New York when the idea for his first novel came to him. To be precise, it blocked access to the cockpit, a safety procedure required when pilots take a toilet break. “I was standing in the front of the plane,” she said, “watching the passengers. It was dark and they were all sleeping. And I had this thought, “All their lives, our lives, are in the hands of the pilots. It’s not entirely new – but the flip side has also come to mind. With so much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make a professional pilot? “

Newman, speaking via Zoom from his home in Phoenix, Arizona, was shaken. “I just couldn’t shake the thought. A few days later, I was working on a different trip with a different group of pilots, and I said to the captain, “Hey, what would you do if your family got taken, and you were told if you didn’t crash? not the plane, they would be killed? What was his reaction? “He had no idea what he would do – the thought terrified him.

She realized she had the beginnings of a story. Working as a flight attendant, mostly first class on red-eye flights, so named because they are at night, she often had the front kitchen of the plane to herself, while the passengers slept. So she used the peace to sketch a plot in her head. She started with her pilot, Bill Hoffman, finding out that his wife, son and baby were being held hostage by a terrorist. “It’s simple,” he told her. “Crash your plane or I’ll kill your family.” The choice is yours. Newman said, “What is he doing?” I started there and then the story kind of evolved.

“The drinks, the food, the smile – that’s not the job”… Torri Newman. Photographie: Steve Craft / The Guardian

It became Falling, his much-heralded first thriller. Purchased for a seven-figure sum by Simon & Schuster, the novel has been described by crime writer Don Winslow as “Jaws at 35,000 feet.” Getting out of the dilemma on the plane – Will Bill tell his crew, will they alert the passengers and risk panicking? –And the nightmare unfolding for his wife Carrie and the kids at home, Falling also delves into what lies behind the terrorists’ claims.

Chaos in the sky is nothing new. From the airport to the snakes on the plane, the tale of life suspended by a thread has produced many high-octane dramas. But Newman’s story means Falling brings freshness and depth to the genre. As the story is propelled by the impossible situation Bill and his captive family find themselves in, at the heart is the relationship between the tight-knit crew: Bill, his co-pilot Ben, his old friend Jo and his fellow flight attendants Kellie. . (new to work) and old Michael (known as Big Daddy). It’s a revealing look at the reality of working in an airplane. As Jo says, the service side of the role – the drinks, the food, the smile – isn’t work. It’s just something they provide. “Five weeks of training,” she says, “and in just one of those days they covered food, drink and hospitality.”

Newman clarifies, “For better or for worse, the light that flight attendants are most often portrayed in is slightly more salacious – you know, more fruit on hand. Most people don’t see flight attendants doing our job. They see us bring food and drink and, you know, smile – but that’s not our job. Service is something we gladly provide, but we’re there for safety and security at the end of the day. “

Newman has been cautious in his description of the people holding Carrie and her children Scott and Elise hostage: they are not your ordinary anti-American villains. “I worked hard to create three-dimensional characters that are not the stereotype of the terrorists we have seen so often. It’s the contrary. The antagonist’s story is not about America’s enemies. These are the friends of America. And the actions I described are – what if we betray our allies and our friends?

High jinks… Newman during his flying days. Photography: Courtesy of TJ Newman

Newman’s mother and sister are also flight attendants, but it was not his original plan to follow them into the “family business.” She did a degree in musical theater at Illinois Wesleyan University and moved to New York City to start “turning away from acting.” It didn’t go well. “It was failure after failure after failure after failure,” she says. She returned to her parents’ house in Phoenix to “reassess where I was” and ended up working at an independent bookstore called Changing Hands. “I just fell in love with being surrounded by books and talking about books. It was exactly what I needed to regain my balance.

She had always written stories, starting and dropping book after book, and decided that the flexibility of theft would allow her to work properly on her writing. She left the bookstore in 2011 when Virgin America hired her. “It’s absolutely enjoyable work,” she says, “but it definitely has its lows. It’s a group of strangers inside a metal tube. Who knows what’s going to happen? There are days when you question every choice you made. And flying brings out aspects of people’s personalities. It can create some very interesting interpersonal experiences, especially if you are adding alcohol or having a medical emergency. “

It took a while before she was ready to show anyone the story she had spent all those long nights writing. “When I came back from New York City, after being burned so badly, I felt my personal quota of public creative risk had been exhausted – that it was time to get serious, to find a real job, to get real. squat down and become an adult. And so I didn’t tell anyone. I convinced myself that no one needed to know, to do it for myself, that if the story doesn’t go somewhere other than your brain and your computer, that’s enough.

Chaos in the Sky… Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset in the 1970 thriller Airport.
Hanging from a thread… Dean Martin and Jacqueline Bisset in the 1970 thriller Airport. Photographie: Album / Alamy

The feeling did not last. About thirty drafts later – with the contribution of her old bookstore friends – she went in search of an agent. She didn’t know where to start, so she bought a copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and started asking questions. It sent 41 copies and obtained 41 refusals. It was a difficult time. “Rejection is difficult,” she said. “Even though my stay in New York made my skin a little thicker, it’s still hard, especially 41 rejections. But I never lost the fundamental belief that it was a good story that people would love to read. “

His 42nd submission, at the end of 2019, was to Shane Salerno, the Hollywood screenwriter-turned-star literary agent whose writing credits include Armageddon, Savages and Shaft. “I was like, ‘I have nothing to lose at this point.’ I have 41 suckers and this guy is the biggest of the big ones. There’s no way he’s interested.

Salerno, famous for having negotiated important agreements for its authors, immediately registered it. They worked on the manuscript together while Newman continued to fly full time – until the pandemic struck in March of last year. She took voluntary leave from the airline and spent each day alone at home, editing and rewriting. “It was a good distraction to have that sense of purpose at a time when we were all shaking our heads and saying, ‘Where do we go from here?’ It was just me and the voices in my head.

In the fall, Falling was signed by the first publisher Salerno approached: seven figures for a two-book contract. “I went to my parents’ house,” Newman says, “because it was our little quarantine pod. I was standing in their kitchen and I think my face looked confused. It was a surreal and surreal experience. There was once I almost gave up. Then I went to a book signing here in Phoenix. Two authors were talking about their books and doing questions and answers. Just seeing them reminded me of what I was working towards, why I had to keep going until I got my yes.

Falling will be released this summer, and Newman’s first signing will be at Changing Hands. The author, who quit his job as a flight attendant, predicts that there will be tears. “I can’t believe this is really happening,” she said. “It’s an incredible Cinderella story on repeat.”

Falling by TJ Newman is published by Simon & Schuster on June 10 in the UK and a month later in the US.


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