Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Tuesday, April 6, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Falling

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Falling by T J Newman

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Falling by T J Newman

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Falling by T J Newman

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Falling by T J Newman


by T.J. Newman

In the propulsive thriller Falling, former flight attendant T.J. Newman imagines her crew's worst nightmare. The result is a Mission Impossible-worthy roller coaster, a quick read begging for screen adaptation.

The debut novelist, who only quit flying as of 2019, opens with quintessential family man Bill Hoffman, a Coastal Airways pilot who's missing his son's Little League game to steer a transcontinental flight as a favor for his boss. As he prepares to leave town, his wife, Carrie, isn't happy with him, but, alas, he's too focused on the task at hand to give her more than a guilty excuse. In a rather dramatic karmic response, as Bill launches his plane into the sky, he quickly learns his family has been taken hostage by the Internet repairman he passed without a thought earlier that morning.

The repairman-turned-terrorist sends Bill a picture of his family, bound and strapped with explosive devices. Through a live video stream, he presents the pilot with a choice: crash your plane when and where I instruct or watch your family die before your eyes. Bill refuses to make such a choice and hatches a plot to rescue both his loved ones and the souls on board his vessel. For that, he'll need to rely on his flight attendants: enigmatic Big Daddy, hapless but eager Kellie and dependable veteran Jo. Turns out, Bill's in luck--Jo has a nephew in the FBI, and all it takes is one quick text to him for the FBI to launch into full emergency-response mode. Soon enough, the White House is evacuated, the president's in his bunker, and a full-on search for the terrorist leaves Bill with hope that his family would be safe. As for the plane itself, he's got Jo and her team to ensure whatever attacks might come from within the cabin are anticipated and blocked.

The terrorist is apparently desperate for revenge, gunning to wreak havoc on a country that devastated his own. He reveals he's Kurdish, and he lost his family when American allies turned their backs on his people in the war against ISIS. Furious at the cushy American lifestyle, as well as how little its citizens seem to care about the plight of his people, he aims to demand their attention--and their respect--through a plane crash. He also has an ally on the plane, but who?

It's difficult to ignore the haze of 9/11 that hangs over this novel. Newman, to her credit, makes the terrorist an empathetic character, a man who's furious at how the U.S. has repeatedly made promises and then reneged, resulting in thousands of innocent Kurds killed. By the end of Falling, Bill finally seems to grasp the heedless violence from American apathy, and his conflict with the terrorist feels more nuanced than many we've seen depicted since the attack on the World Trade Center.

Falling works well within an insulated setting, mimicking the cramped, gasping feel of an airplane bumping through turbulence. Readers will have a hard time not clenching the pages as FBI agent Theo rushes through traffic to locate Bill's family. Every scene feels like it moves faster and faster; every choice Bill makes feels on the precipice of death. And Newman draws on her airline know-how to build a realistic portrayal of an in-flight emergency response. The members of the flight crew move through protocols, call on their training and protect the cockpit at all costs. No deus ex machina appears to save them; they're on their own in the air.

The book is flush with Newman's own pride for American flight crews, describing their duty and commitment with heartfelt sincerity. Despite their fears or their sardonic swipes at one another, Big Daddy, Kellie, Jo and Bill are heroes, devoted to ensuring zero casualties, and from the beginning readers know they will be--must be--victorious. Newman never gives readers any doubt that these characters have their passengers' best interests at heart, a comfort for those who might experience a Falling-induced fear of flying.

Plane thrillers are not a new genre--in fact, they're an established and successful one, especially in film, which is why it's no surprise the adaptation rights for Falling were snapped up in a heated bidding war earlier this year. Directors and casting agents will find plenty to expand upon with Bill and Carrie's tender love story, as well as Jo's deeply trusting relationship with Theo. As in many thrillers, there are a few logical leaps (why have the terrorists targeted Bill specifically?) but the action itself is satisfying, the plot builds at a steady enough clip to keep the pages flipping. The prose is tight--sparse enough not to lose the reader's focus, but still immersive. Through her many nights spent writing this book on red-eye flights, Newman has devised a visceral action-adventure that will leave those reading with bated breath. --Lauren Puckett

Avid Reader Press, $28, hardcover, 304p., 9781982177881, July 6, 2021

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Falling by T J Newman

T.J. Newman: From Flight Attendant to Falling

(photo: Melissa Young)

T.J. Newman was a flight attendant for Virgin America and Alaska Airline for a decade before turning to fiction. Now a full-time author, she made headlines when she garnered a significant deal for her first two books and the first novel, the in-air thriller Falling (Avid Reader Press, July 6, 2021), landed a $1.5 million film deal. Looking back on a whirlwind few months, Newman recalls the many red-eyes that led her to this moment.

You were a flight attendant for a decade. What took you down that career path, and how did it lead to your writing career now?

My mom and my sister were both flight attendants, so joining the "family business," as we call it, just made sense for me. But it was definitely a winding road to get there--and here. I studied musical theater in college and then moved to New York to pursue it as a career. Which was... well, I'll just put it frankly: failure. Nothing but rejection and failure. So I eventually left, moved back home to Arizona, moved back in with my parents and started trying to figure out what to do next with my life. That's when I got a job as a bookseller at Changing Hands Bookstore, which, as a life-long reader and writer, I loved. But when the opportunity to fly presented itself, I knew I couldn't pass it up so I left the store to go to training.

Throughout all of that I was writing stories. I didn't tell anyone I was. I didn't think I was smart enough or good enough to be a real writer. Plus, I was fresh off my mortifying bout of failure in New York, so I figured I'd already used up my personal quota for public creative risks.

But when I eventually had the idea for Falling, it was the first time my need to know what happened to the characters was stronger than my embarrassment and fear of failure. So I started working and I just didn't stop. I refused to let myself stop. I told myself I was going to finish it, and then I would make it better, and then I was going to get it published.

I'm curious where the first flash of an idea for Falling came from.

I was working a red-eye to New York and I was standing at the front of the cabin looking out at the passengers. It was dark. They were asleep. And for the first time a thought occurred to me--their lives, our lives, were in the pilot's hands. So with that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make a commercial pilot? And I just couldn't shake the thought. So a few days later, I was on a different trip, with a different set of pilots, and one day I threw out to the captain: "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?" And the look on his face terrified me. He didn't have an answer. And I knew I had the makings of my first book.

You wrote much of this book while you were actually in the air. Did it make the terror feel more visceral, actually imagining the plane you were currently on crashing?

Pilots and flight attendants spend a lot of time analyzing aviation accidents and incidents. We study what went wrong, why it went wrong, what the crew did right and what the crew did wrong. We're constantly mentally putting ourselves in emergency scenarios and asking ourselves what we would do, how would we handle it. It's how we learn. It's how we're trained to think. So imagining this particular scenario on the plane didn't feel all that odd, to be honest. It just felt like a heightened and more intense scenario than what I would normally be thinking about.

What was your writing and editing process while you were working full-time? Did you write most of the story in a jump seat?

I usually worked as a "Lead" or "A" flight attendant, meaning I worked in first class--which meant I had the forward galley to myself. And because I worked a lot of red-eyes (flights with a light workload since everyone is asleep), I'd have a lot of time to do my own thing. So I'd stand in my galley and write by hand--calmly turning over the paper or slipping it into the drawer beneath the coffee pot in a very "nothing to see here, folks" kind of way whenever a passenger or another flight attendant appeared. Then, on my layovers in my hotel room or at a coffee shop, I'd transfer my work to my iPad.

This has been a wild experience for you, with the seven-figure book deal quickly followed by the seven-figure film rights. How have you been keeping your head straight during this time period?

I'm so grateful and so humbled about everything that's happened. It truly has been a whirlwind experience and I don't know what I'd do without my incredible family who have kept me grounded through all of it. Plus, I've got another book due so I'm working on getting my pages in.

Other than a scary good ride, what do you hope readers will get from this story?

I'd love for readers to walk away with a broader understanding and deeper respect for what flight crews do. Especially flight attendants. I think there's a common misconception that FAs are on board for service. And that's just not true. I assure you, if it was, the airlines would have stopped paying us and replaced us with vending machines a long time ago. Flight attendants are there for your safety and security. Service is just something we gladly provide. So I'd be thrilled if a reader remembers that the next time they feel the impulse to roll their eyes at the flight attendant who asks them to bring their seat back up or to stow their bag. They're not trying to inconvenience you. They're trying to protect you. --Lauren Puckett

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