Flight attendant Torri Newman was working on the red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York when the idea for her debut novel came to her. To be precise, she was blocking access to the cockpit, a security procedure required when pilots take a toilet break. “I was standing at the front of the airplane," lei dice, “looking out at the passengers. It was dark and they were all asleep. And I had this thought, ‘All of their lives, our lives, are in the hands of the pilots.’ That’s not exactly new – but the flipside of that also came to mind. With that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make a commercial pilot?"
Newman, speaking via Zoom from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, was rattled. “I just couldn’t shake the thought. A few days later, I was working a different trip with a different 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 didn’t crash the plane, they would be killed?” What was his reaction? “He had no clue what he would do – the thought terrified him.”
She realised she had the beginnings of a story. Working as a flight attendant, mostly in first class on red-eye flights, so named because they’re overnight, she often had the plane’s forward galley to herself, as the passengers slept. So she used the peace to sketch out a plot in her head. She started with her pilot, Bill Hoffman, discovering that his wife, son and baby are being held hostage by a terrorist. “It’s simple,” he is told. “Crash your plane or I kill your family. The choice is yours.” Newman says: “What does he do? I started there, then the story just kind of evolved.”
It became Falling, her much-heralded debut thriller. Bought for a seven-figure sum by Simon & Schuster, the novel was described by crime author Don Winslow as “Jaws at 35,000 feet”. Swinging from the dilemma on the plane – will Bill tell his crew, will they alert the passengers and risk panic? – and the nightmare unfolding for his wife Carrie and the children at home, Falling also delves into what lies behind the terrorists’ demands.
Mayhem in the sky is nothing new. From Airport to Snakes on a Plane, the lives-hanging-by-a-thread narrative has produced plenty of high-octane drama. But Newman’s background means Falling brings a freshness and depth to the genre. While the story is propelled by the impossible situation Bill and his captive family find themselves in, at its heart is the relationship between the tight-knit crew: Bill, his co-pilot Ben, his old friend Jo, and her fellow flight attendants Kellie (new to the job) and old hand Michael (known as Big Daddy). It’s an eye-opening look into the reality of working on a plane. As Jo says, the service side of the role – the drinks, the food, the smiling – isn’t the job. It’s just something they provide. “Five weeks of training," lei dice, “and in only one of those days did they go over food, drinks and hospitality.”
Newman elaborates: “For better or for worse, the light that flight attendants are most often portrayed in is slightly more salacious – you know, more low-hanging fruit. Most people don’t actually see flight attendants doing our job. They see us bringing food and drink and, sai, smiling – 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 was careful in her depiction of the people who take Carrie and her children Scott and Elise hostage: these are not your run-of-the-mill, anti-American baddies. “I worked hard to create three-dimensional characters that are not the stereotype of the terrorists we’ve seen so often. They’re the opposite. The antagonist storyline 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?"
Newman’s mother and sister are flight attendants, pure, but it wasn’t her original plan to follow them into the “family business”. She did a degree in musical theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University and moved to New York to start “hacking away at being an actor”. It didn’t go well. “It was failure after failure after failure after failure," lei dice. She moved back home to her parents’ house in Phoenix to “reassess where I was at”, and ended up working at an independent bookshop called Changing Hands. “I just absolutely fell in love with being surrounded by books and talking about books. It was exactly what I needed to find my balance again.”
She’d always written stories, starting and abandoning book after book, and decided that the flexibility of flight attending would let her properly work on her writing. She quit the bookshop in 2011, when Virgin America took her on. “It’s absolutely an enjoyable job," lei dice, “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 you question every choice you’ve ever made. And flying brings out aspects of people’s personalities. That can create very interesting interpersonal experiences, especially if you add alcohol or a medical emergency.”
It was some time before she was ready to show anyone the story she’d spent all those long nights writing. “When I came back from New York, after getting burned so badly, I felt my personal quota of public creative risk had been used up – that it was time to get serious, get a real job, hunker down and become an adult. And so I didn’t tell anyone. I convinced myself nobody needed to know, to just do it for myself, that if the story doesn’t go anywhere other than your own brain and computer, that’s enough.”
The feeling didn’t last. In giro 30 drafts later – with input from her old bookseller friends – she went searching for an agent. She didn’t know where to start, so she bought a copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and began making queries. She sent out 41 copies and got 41 rejections. It was a difficult time. “Rejection is hard," lei dice. “Even if my time in New York had made my skin a little thicker, it’s still hard, especially 41 rejections. But I never lost the bedrock belief that it was a good story people would enjoy reading.”
Her 42nd submission, late in 2019, was to Shane Salerno, il Hollywood screenwriter turned starry literary agent whose writing 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’s the biggest of the big. There’s not a chance he’s going to be interested.”
Salerno, famous for brokering major deals for his authors, signed her up immediately. They worked together on the manuscript while Newman continued to fly full-time – until the pandemic struck in March last year. She took a voluntary 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 do we go from here?’ It was just me and the voices in my head.”
By autumn, Falling was signed by the first editor Salerno approached: seven figures for a two-book deal. “I drove to my parents’ house,” says Newman, “because that was our little quarantine pod. I stood in their kitchen and I think my face just looked confused. It’s been a surreal, surreal experience. There was one time when I almost gave up. Then I went to a book-signing here in Phoenix. There were two authors talking about their books and doing a Q&UN. Just seeing them reminded me what I was working towards, why I needed to keep going until I got my yes.”
Falling will be published this summer and Newman’s first book-signing will be at Changing Hands. The author, who has quit her job as a flight attendant, is predicting there will be tears. “I can’t believe this is really happening," lei dice. “It’s an incredible, full-circle Cinderella story.”