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New bestseller ‘Falling’ was written on napkins by a flight attendant while passengers slept

TJ Newman was a flight attendant for 10 years. She quit when she got her book deal. (Photo courtesy of TJ Newman)

TJ Newman had worked as a flight attendant for a decade when she got the idea for her New York Times bestselling novel, Falling, while working a shift.

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“It was a red eye that I was working, from Los Angeles to New York,” Newman said. “I was standing at the front of the cabin looking out at the passengers who were all asleep. I had this thought that all of our lives are in the hands of the pilots. For the first time, another thought comes to mind: With that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make the pilots? I couldn’t shake the thought.”

“One day, I said to the captain that I was flying with, ‘Hey, what would you do if your family was kidnapped and you were told that if you didn’t crash the plane, they would be killed? What would you do?’ The look on his face terrified me because I knew, in that moment, he didn’t have an answer and that terrified him,” Newman said. “That was the moment that I knew I had the makings for my first book.”

Newman wrote much of the book in the air, while passengers slept, jotting down passages on cocktail napkins. She said asking the captain that terrifying question wasn’t taboo; aircraft staff are trained to be highly observant and anticipate worst case scenarios so they can be fast on their feet.

“There’s a misconception about what flight attendants are on board to do. We’re on board for safety and security and to be medical first responders. Period,” she said. “If you only ever see us pouring drinks and smiling, then that’s awesome. We’re not doing our job that day and that’s great.”

But drink pouring does come with the job, and Newman has a couple of service related pet peeves.

“Diet Coke,” Newman laughed. “Diet Coke is the bane of flight attendants’ existence. I don’t know if it’s the chemicals or what they put it in it but it takes four times as long to pour Diet Coke than it does anything else because the bubbles are nonstop. We actually laugh and call it our union break when we’re pouring Diet Coke because you have no choice but to sit there and wait for the bubbles to go down.”

Something most people don’t know is that flight attendants aren’t paid for all the time they spend with you.

“Pilots and flight attendants are both paid hourly, and we’re only paid when the aircraft door is shut and the plane is moving,” she said. “So the whole boarding process, the whole deplaning process, we’re not getting paid at all! So just know when you’re frustrated, when you’re on a long delay, and you think that we’re somehow making out like bandits, oh no. No, no, no, we’re just as frustrated as you are because we’re not getting paid.”

Newman quit her flight attendant job when she got the book deal and is truly stunned by her success. She had no connections in publishing. She read a book called The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and followed its advice.

“I can’t believe that any of this is happening. When you throw in something like a movie deal — and to get to that movie deal there was a heated bidding war for the rights to it. I came from failed dreams. I was in Broadway trying to make it and that didn’t work out. When I started writing this I wrote over
30 drafts before it became what it is now, I queried 41 different agents before I got my one and only ‘yes’ on my 42nd submission. When you say things like ‘New York Times bestseller’ and ‘movie rights,’ it’s really hard to wrap my mind around,” she said. “I just feel so lucky to be here.”

Her message to everyone with a dream is keep going, keep working.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.

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