Summer’s book is ‘Falling,’ about a pilot who must decide if his passengers live. It was written by a flight attendant.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into an airplane, T.J. Newman writes a novel, "Falling," about a commercial pilot in a completely unwinnable nightmare situation: Soon after taking off on another routine flight, someone kidnaps the pilot’s wife and children and (unbeknown to passengers and crew) gives him an option — crash the plane before it arrives in New York, kill everyone onboard or we will murder your family.
If that sounds like a thriller waiting to happen, well: Universal already bought the rights and Newman’s book agent is Shane Salerno, himself a successful screenwriter (“Armageddon,” the 2000 remake of “Shaft”) who landed Newman a two book, seven-figure deal. Even the blurbs sound more cinematic than literary: “This is ‘Jaws’ at 35,000 feet” (Don Winslow), “Like the films ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Speed’ on steroids” (Library Journal).
Now for the scary part:
If “Falling” reads like it was written by someone who knows their way around an airline and the day-to-day life of flight crews, that’s because Newman — until the pandemic pushed her into a furlough in March 2020 — was a flight attendant herself for more than a decade, with Virgin Atlantic. She wrote the book while her passengers were sleeping. Then she bought a copy of “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published,” and after a lot of rejection, bingo. Million-dollar deals later, she’s no longer a flight attendant.
Q: Was there an incident that led to the plot of the book?
A: There was a moment. I was working a red-eye, Los Angeles to New York, and I’m standing at the front of the aircraft and looking out at the cabin of passengers, who are all asleep. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s quiet. I had this thought that their lives, my life, the lives of my crew mates, we were all in the hands of this pilot, but then the flip side: With that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make a pilot? I couldn’t shake that. Over the next few days, it began to solidify into a scenario. One day when I was working a different trip, I just threw out to the captain — “What would you do if your family was kidnapped and you were told if you didn’t crash the plane, they would be killed?”
Q: You asked this out of the blue?
A: Out of the blue. And the look on his face terrified me. I knew he didn’t have an answer. That’s when I knew I had my first book, that spark. And so I just got to work.
Q: OK, but what an unnerving thing to hear, from a passenger’s standpoint, that this is what the flight attendant is actually thinking about.
A: I hope it would be reassuring! But I understand. Flight attendants and pilots are trained to be constantly thinking about what can go wrong and what they would do if it did go wrong. That’s just good precautionary thinking. We spent most of our time studying previous accidents and incidents to see how it was handled and what went right and what went wrong. What-if scenarios naturally come out of just doing the job. I’ve had people tell me that (how the characters respond) helped with their fear of flying.
Q: You were writing while flying?
A: I worked a lot of red-eyes in first class and I would have the forward galley to myself. So while passengers were asleep, I wrote. I wrote on the back of catering bills with hotel pens. I wrote on napkins and passenger manifests. I would be standing there writing long hand and a fellow attendant would walk over and I would turn over the paper or slip it into a drawer or under the coffee pot. Nothing to see here. Again, that was mostly driven by not wanting to put myself out there again. Now that the book is public, I do wonder if the pilots I worked with, if they’re like, “Oh, I see, I thought she was really curious about how flying works.” I was constantly asking questions to get details right.
Q: The book’s villain. Without giving much away, he’s harboring a grudge against the United States, though in a twist, his family had been friends with the United States. Which sounds like a pretty sensitive character to write into a 2021 thriller.
A: I can’t give away too much, but these are emphatically not the stereotypical terrorists we have seen. I had that in mind while I was writing. These are not America’s enemies. These are friends — friends we betrayed. I wrote the characters and told the story the best way I knew how and so far the book has been published in the UK and Australia, and there have been advance copies all over the United States for months, and the response has been all positive, because I think people understood what I did.
Q: But how do you waterproof a plot like that? Part of the fun of it, in a way, is trying to find the fallacy or the hole in the dastardly scheme. Which is pretty hard.
A: You do through a lot of revisions. When I started all I had was the concept. I never plotted it out before I began writing. I started with the scene where the pilot first learns about his predicament. Then I kept writing until I had all the characters and their problems. Which made for a real uphill revision process. It wasn’t waterproof for a while. It took like 30 drafts to get there. It’s so plot centered, it was a house of cards. You have to make sure everything is shored up tightly. There are times I would write out the entire story beat by beat, then print it off, cut up the beats and move them around my coffee table like a puzzle, until it made sense. Which I did several times. I also had trusted pilot friends who read drafts — I needed the perspectives from the other side of a cabin door.
Q: Any other horrifying commercial flying scenarios I should be worried about?
A: Well, it was a two-book deal.
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