Ann Hood, FLY GIRL: A Memoir

Ann Hood, FLY GIRL: A Memoir

Zibby interviews bestselling author Ann Hood about Fly Girl, a warm coming-of-age memoir about her time as a TWA flight attendant in the 70s and 80s. Ann describes the origins of her wanderlust, comments on the blatant sexism she witnessed on the job, and shares her most memorable in-flight stories, from playing Boggle with a passenger to seeing a man die to writing her first novels in the jump seat! She also talks about her brother’s tragic passing, her wonderful book tour (filled with flight attendant fans!), and the books on her TBR list.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ann. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Ann Hood: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: I really, really enjoyed your book. I was just telling you I read every word. I could not get enough of not only your experience being a flight attendant, but your whole coming-of-age and how you got to where you were and how you started with your teacher, telling him — your college advisor — saying, “I want to be a writer,” and him being like, “You can’t do that,” to now where not only are you a wonderful author, but have also written this beautiful memoir about your whole experience getting here. I loved it.

Ann: Thank you. You’re exactly right. It took me so long to write this book. That’s because I had to figure out that it was a coming-of-age story. People would always say when I’d tell some anecdote about what happened on the plane — my famous line, “When I was a flight attendant…” They’d say, “You should write about that. You should write a book about that.” I’d think, that would just be a series of anecdotes. It wouldn’t be that interesting. When I realized, wait a minute, it’s my coming-of-age story, the writer in me could do that. I was like, oh, I get it. Now I know how to write about this.

Zibby: Interesting. Maybe give a little more context for people listening, since I just jumped right in, about the trajectory of the story, why you decided to write this memoir now.

Ann: I wanted to be a writer from the time I read Little Women. I was in second or third grade. I think it’s the curse of every female writer that Jo March ruined us for life. She went out and did it, so we could too. I also had this great desire to leave my little hometown in Rhode Island and see the world. My father was a career navy man. My bedtime stories were him telling me about all the exotic places he’d traveled to and all the things he’d done. He went skiing in Greece. He ate all this strange food in Morocco. He just had incredible stories. He really fueled my wanderlust. At a young age, I thought, I don’t have a lot to write about. I live in this small town. I live a pretty quiet life. If I became, back then, an airlines stewardess, I would have adventures, and that would fuel my writing desire. My junior high guidance counselor nixed both those ideas. He said, “People don’t become writers. Smart girls don’t become airlines stewardesses.”

I had read a book called How to Become an Airline Stewardess. The first line in that book was, “Would you like a boyfriend in every city in the world?” That kind of capped it for me. I’d already had the wanderlust thing going, the need for adventure so I could become a writer. Then I could have a bunch of boyfriends? I was like, I am ready. I interviewed in 1977. They had only recently become flight attendants. That’s because men won the right to have the job. That’s why the term airline stewardess actually stopped. 1977, they had just stopped the requirement that you had to quit if you had a child. Just ten years earlier, they had stopped the requirement that you had to quit if you got married. Fifteen years earlier, they stopped the requirement that you had to quit when you turned thirty-two. As TWA said, if a man doesn’t want her, we don’t either. Can you believe this? I stepped eyes wide open into this sexist job.

Zibby: Didn’t you also say it wasn’t until 1991 when they stopped weighing you in?

Ann: Yes, weigh-ins. The weight restriction was what the airlines held onto the longest. I think — maybe not think. Maybe I know that it’s because flight attendants were free marketing tools for airlines, the way they dress, the way the ads were. They said things like, we’ll shake our tails for you. They’d have a sexy flight attendant bent over. It’s unbelievable. It was a strange time to start because, yes, all this was there, the sexism, the weigh-ins, all of it, but feminism was happening. We kind of had one foot in one world and one foot in the other. It was a very interesting time to have the job. I do have to say, as you know from the book, my darling roommate was fired for being five pounds overweight. You got three chances to lose that weight. I have to say, we were all pretty thin young women. Once you were one pound over, you were on a watch. Then you’d get these surprise weigh-ins. I came home from a flight one day. She was crying, bags packed going back home.

Zibby: It’s so sad. You also mentioned that it wasn’t even fair because a lot of you dieted so much just to get the job, so it’s not like that was your natural set point anyway.

Ann: Exactly. When you applied — gee, I really wonder what they do about this now because you’re not supposed to do weights. I’m going to do a fake application to find out. You had a chart. It had heights. Next to the height was the maximum weight you could weigh to even get an interview. Everybody wanted to be skinner than that. You would diet or starve yourself for a few days just to drop a couple pounds. Then you were hired at that weight, so you couldn’t go back up to that weight that was on that chart. You had to stay at your hiring weight. That’s really what did my roommate in. She had gotten down to about ten pounds less than that weight, but she had to stay at that. Unfair, unfair, I know, but it’s gone, finally.

Zibby: I did not even realize — this was just setting the stage for your particular story. You did give the reader a lot of information about even how stewardesses came to be back when you were working there, which I had no idea about. I don’t know if the laypeople out there also know that, really, they started as nurses. It was a marketing campaign to say — men were so afraid to fly that if you had a woman up there, he would to have say, well, if women are up there, I can’t be seen being too afraid to do this.

Ann: I love that story. This woman is one of my heroes. Ellen Church was a nurse, but she had a pilot’s license. This is back in the early thirties. She knew that aviation was the future. She figured it out. This is going to work. She applied as a pilot to what would become United Airlines. It was called Western at the time. They laughed her out of the office. She was determined to work on those airplanes. She came up with the idea that, hey, people are afraid to fly. Men will feel better if a nurse — they worse nurse’s uniforms — if a nurse is there taking care of him, giving the airsick bag, which was their biggest job. They flew kind of low at the beginning, so it was very bumpy. When she got approval, she hired seven of her nursing friends. The eight of them, they’ve been memorialized in so many ways. There’s so many pictures of them in their nurses uniforms. It was really World War II that changed it because nurses were called into the war effort. Then all these young women were like, that’s a fun job. You get to go everywhere. They flocked to airlines. A smart marketing executive way back in the forties were like, wait, let’s take the pretty ones. Then it began.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You started by saying that one of the draws was having a boyfriend in every port, so to speak. You did write about some of your relationships, not so in depth, but enough to pique everybody’s interest. I have to say, I was really rooting for you to end up with the Boggle guy. Could you talk about him a little bit?

Ann: I know. That was a big disappointment.

Zibby: It was. I know. In the novel version, you could end up with the Boggle guy.

Ann: I have to fictionalize this so it can turn out differently. I was working this great flight. It was my favorite flight that I think I ever worked by pairing. We left Boston at dinnertime. We fly to Newark. People think I’m crazy for loving this because it was so much up and down. It was in the middle of the night. We flew to Newark, from Newark to LA. On that flight, we did the big, fancy coast-to-coast service. I always say — people are shocked. I was just telling someone this the other day. In coach, you got a menu and a choice of three entrées. There was an appetizer service and an after-dinner drink service with those little bottles of amaretto and Drambuie and stuff. It was a big, fancy service. Never mind what they were doing in first class, which was even more. It was a big, fancy service that I loved doing. Then from LA, you went to San Francisco in the middle of the night. I think we got to San Francisco at about five in the morning. Very few people were on it for that whole thing because why would you fly so many stops? There was a couple, or so I thought, sitting in the front of the cabin I was working in. They got on in Boston. They were with us the whole way to San Francisco. On that long Newark-LA flight after we fed everybody and put the lights out and people were going to sleep, there was this really obnoxious noise. Cha-cha-cha-cha. Cha-cha-cha-cha. People were trying to sleep. Some guy says, “Can you go stop them? What’s going on up there?” I said, “Yeah, it is annoying. I will go check, sir.” I went up. I looked. This man and woman who had gotten on in Boston were playing the game Boggle. If people don’t know what Boggle is, it’s one of the most fun word games. I love it.

Zibby: I loved it. Loved.

Ann: A bunch of cubes with letters in a plastic container. You shook it quite a bit and then dropped it down, pulled off the top. You had to make words out of the letters that had fallen. Instead of stopping them, I was very intrigued. I said, “What are you doing?” The guy says, “We’re playing Boggle.” He explained how it worked. He said, “Do you want to play?” I actually became the contributor of the noise. I sat down. I played a lot of games. The woman kept giving me the stink eye. I thought, this is kind of weird. Is it his girlfriend? I sound very shallow, but I have to say — the lights are very dim on those late-night flights. He looked fine and nice and sweet and a Boggle player. I had to get back to work, but he asked me out. I was so excited because, as I say in the book, my roommates always were getting dates with passengers, and I just never was. I don’t know what it was about me, but I just did not get asked out that much. I was so excited I finally got a date from a passenger. He shows up at my apartment in Boston. I hear the elevator ding. I open. Let’s just say I could tell immediately he was not my type. He’s got this wrapped box. He shakes it. It was a Boggle game. I still have that very Boggle game.

Zibby: No.

Ann: Yes, I still have it. I just knew. It was maybe one of the worst dates ever. We played a couple games of Boggle to break in the thing. We went to dinner. Alas, the Boggle man was not for me.

Zibby: I love how you wove in stories like that. Then you also go really deep into emotion and feeling. Not only did you have this horrific experience where a passenger basically died in your arms and vomiting in your — oh, my gosh, I couldn’t believe you went through that. Also, even where you are the beacon of comfort for people going through the most horrific things, like when one passenger had recently lost a sibling. You were the one standing there trying to get them through it. Then you fast-forward again to what happens in your own life, which I don’t know if you’re willing to talk about or not. Then the tables have turned. Now you are being comforted by — I got goosebumps at the whole thing. I was like, oh, my gosh, it’s the universe giving this back to you, in a way.

Ann: You’re in this metal tube. I flew international and coast-to-coast flights mostly. I did my share of the little, short hops. You’re there with passengers for hours and hours. Life unfolds on airplanes. Things happen. I saw people fall in love. I saw people try to save relationships. I saw people fight. I saw people on their honeymoon. You just see people going about their lives. The airplane is moving them to their next place. I was always so aware of that and had such an appreciation of that. One of my favorite things to do was sit on the jump seat and watch, just watch what people were up to. The man dying on my flight was still, for me, one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. He came on. This was on a short flight. It was from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. He was dressed so dapper and kind of old-fashioned. It was 1980. He had a fedora on. He kind of looked like my dad. I think that made me notice him more or something. I did notice he was very out of breath and kind of flushed, but people used to run to planes. You could get on at the eleventh hour. It wasn’t like now. Gate agents would say, run like hell, you’ll make the plane. They’d run on. It didn’t really strike me as that unusual. Right on takeoff, something happened. He was sitting very close to my jump seat. The man in his row said, “Help! Something’s going on.”

We jumped up. We were taught that you can’t stop giving CPR until a professional arrives. Had there been a doctor on the plane, we could’ve stopped. There wasn’t, so we had to wait until we landed and the EMTs got on. That man died way before that, maybe an hour before, forty-five minutes before. Even though it was very clear he had died, we had to keep doing it. It was horrible. I got hired when I was twenty-one. I was young person. That’s why I say the job is so empowering. You start at this young age, but you deal with so many situations. The other one you brought up is really a good example of that. It was an international flight. I was just standing in the galley. This guy came in. He was clearly upset. That was actually kind of common. People would find a flight attendant — it sounds weird to say in the dark, but again, those dim lights; it’s safe and cozy — and just spill out whatever was on their mind. I had so many people tell me, I want to leave my husband. I want to quit my job. I want a different life. I was so young. What I learned was to listen. That’s what I felt I did with this man whose brother had died. He came in and told me. He was drinking whiskey. I kept him supplied. He needed that. I just listened. I remember thinking, this is so much bigger than where I am in my life. I had great parents. I have one brother. Big Italian family. It seemed so scary and real but also kind of distant or like what happens out there. It wasn’t that much later that my own brother died. I was on a layover in Los Angeles when I got the call. I got the last flight back to Boston. I was the person in the galley getting comfort from the flight attendant.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. Did your brother die from something that happened in the bathroom, or was that just an example of what could’ve happened?

Ann: He fell in the bathroom when he was filling the bathtub and banged his head. Literally, he drowned in two inches of water. He just fell face-first. I always say a freak accident, but we were actually told that that’s not that uncommon. It’s more common than being struck by lightning. It was just one of those things.

Zibby: How do you go through that and then pick yourself back up and go back to what you’re doing?

Ann: That’s a great question, Zibby. I didn’t, actually, for a long time. I took a leave. First of all, I felt very responsible for my parents and their grief and making sure they were okay. He died on June 30th. My father’s birthday is July 4th. It was just this weird time. It was so hot, I remember. I moved back home. I stayed with them. I have fabulous parents. I had been set to move to New York. I had transferred from Boston to New York. I’d been waiting for so long for that transfer. I called and took a leave. That August, my mother said, “You have to go live your life. Your life isn’t to be here taking care of us.” I moved to New York to a tiny, tiny apartment in Greenwich Village. I think that great act of generosity is what kind of saved me and put me back on track. I said, “I’m ready to come back to work,” but there was a little bit of a delay before they could put me back into the system and when they needed me again. I had a couple months to write my book I was working on and to get to know the city and to just keep moving through it.

Zibby: I’m so sorry that happened to you and your family. I’m so very sorry. The way you shared so much in the book when it happened, I really felt I was there with you as a friend watching someone go through something horrific. My heart just goes out. I know it was a long time ago, but that never matters anyway.

Ann: It doesn’t matter.

Zibby: You talk about the development of your writing throughout your career. You had this wonderful scene where you had sold a book. There’s this jerk guy, basically, working. You said something like, “I’m an author too.” He’s like, “You don’t look smart enough. You look too dumb to be an author.” Oh, my gosh.

Ann: This guy. Right? I know. He gets on. It was a flight to Tucson from New York.

Zibby: How do you remember all these flights? I can barely remember flights that I’ve been on. It’s amazing, your memory.

Ann: You know what’s so funny? I wonder what I don’t remember. I’m sure a lot of fascinating things happened which I don’t remember. When I was writing this book, before I actually started — it was right before the pandemic. I was trying to get my memories together. I went and visited my roommate. We’re still friends. She lives in Santa Barbara. She didn’t remember anything I remembered. She remembered a whole bunch of other stuff. I’m like, that’s so interesting. “Remember when Kathy fainted from not eating?” I was like, “Nope.” This guy, this was Tucson. I think one of the reasons this sticks with me is, when I became writer, I realized he was on his way to the Tucson Literary Festival. I thought Tucson was so random. He said, “I’m on my way to give a talk.” He got on the plane. He sat in first class. In those days, people who flew first class flew first class all the time. There weren’t frequent flyer miles that someone saved for ten years to have that one flight or whatever. It was all businessmen. They were pretty savvy flyers.

This guy looked like he’d never been on a plane before. He doesn’t know how to do the seat belt. He’s playing with the light and the flight attendant call button. He was like a toddler. I finally had to ask him where he was going because I was so curious about his sense of being in a new place and unfamiliar and kind of cranky. That’s when he told me he was a writer and he was going to a literary festival or to give a talk. I had just sold my book, I swear, weeks earlier. I said, “Oh, I’m a writer too.” It was the way he looked me up and down that I’ll never forget before he said, “You look too dumb to be a writer.” He really thought about it. Then he landed on, “You look too dumb.” TWA training, it was fabulous. I wanted to punch him in the nose. I said, “I’m sure what you mean is you don’t expect a flight attendant to also be a writer.” He looked at me again. Then he said, “Nope. You look too dumb to be a writer.”

Zibby: I’m dying to know, by the way, who this author was, this guy.

Ann: I know. I never tell. I don’t want to embarrass the guy. I have to tell you, he was a best-selling author at the time. Probably, no one has heard of him now.

Zibby: That’s sad.

Ann: I did get my schadenfreude because he showed up in a very long line at a book signing of mine. I spotted him. I’ll never forget that guy. I said, I cannot believe that guy’s here waiting in line for me to sign this book. When it was his turn, he kind of put his elbows on the table. “I bet you don’t remember me.” I said, “Oh, I will never forget you.” Then I signed the book. There’s a PS that isn’t in the book. A friend of mine, not that long ago, said, “I had dinner with this guy,” a couples’ dinner. “He said that you were his flight attendant and that you two had such a good time talking on the flight.” I was like, “Gee, we have different memories of that.” Isn’t that wild?

Zibby: Wow. I think I need your TWA training in discretion. I think everyone could use a little dose of that, of moderating our reactions. Take it down.

Ann: Take a deep breath before you say something.

Zibby: A little mindfulness. I feel like if that happened today, it would go viral. There would be a whole thing.

Ann: He’s lucky.

Zibby: He’s lucky. I just loved the image of you sitting on the — what did you call it? What is it called?

Ann: The jump seat.

Zibby: Sitting on the jump seat writing books and stories that became fabulous, amazing, impactful, it’s just a wonderful image.

Ann: I love it. It was really a precious time, writing my first book in that way. I do have to say one thing. I think I put it in the book. I’m pretty sure I did. That fabulous Ellen Church, the first flight attendant, invented the jump seat.

Zibby: You did put that in.

Ann: Which I always love. I see it differently now that I know that. She put it there because people couldn’t tell the bathroom door from the exit door. She was afraid someone was going to fall out of the plane. I thought that was so brilliant. It was so lovely because I was doing something I loved, which is working these flights, talking to people, landing in Madrid or Cairo or somewhere that I’d never been or that I’d love to be. I always had this time that was just mine where I could get in my story. Everybody was asleep. There was a few times when I wasn’t so happy that they wanted a Coke or something. I’m writing a book here. For the most part, they stayed put. I would get at least an hour or something. There was that feeling of writing in notebooks by hand. I carried my story with me. I have very clear memories of being on the liquor cart, serving drinks — there’s two of you, one on each end — and wheeling it down the aisle and thinking about my book. I just have a really clear memory of doing that.

Zibby: Amazing. It just goes to show you cannot take the writer out of some people. You’re just born to write. It’s a calling.

Ann: One of the things I hoped was that after reading the book people might see the person handing them that drink and those stale pretzels, see them a little bit differently. You never know. I would be with people studying for the LSATs to be a lawyer or real estate licenses, all sorts of things. The uniform leads you to believe something different.

Zibby: I think people rely on all sorts of shortcuts and make a million wrong conclusions about basically everybody. There’s no way to know anything about anybody from this and what they’re doing in their job. Everybody has such interesting stories. It’s such a shame when people are too busy to even try to dig a little bit into that. It’s just a waste.

Ann: Exactly. We fall right into the stereotype.

Zibby: Now that this book is out there, are you working on something else? Are you going back to fiction? What’s the plan?

Ann: I am. I have a book. I have to revise it. It’s in that stage, full draft. It’s called The Museum of Tears. I have been wanting for a while, but I hadn’t landed on the right story, to write a story about someone who has to make a big decision, and they don’t know if they made the right one. It affected other people. It’s a man who did that who’s now older and is at the end of his life and wants to find out what happened as a result of what he did. He hires a young woman, a college dropout, to come help him. It’s sort of a mystery. He has to uncover what happened as a result of something he did sixty years earlier.

Zibby: Wow. It’s like the opposite of Sliding Doors.

Ann: I love that too.

Zibby: It’s like the conveyor belt sidewalk going backwards or something. That’s exciting. Has there been anything that’s come out of this process of writing the book that you were particularly delighted to go through emotionally or connecting with others? Is there some piece of it that you’re like, I’m so glad I wrote it because…?

Ann: It has been the best book tour and events of my writing life because flight attendants are coming out in droves. Somebody came to one of my events. She was a retired Eastern Airlines flight attendant. I was invited to their luncheon the other day at this restaurant on the Upper East Side. I went. There were thirty flight attendants, and sharing stories. When you get a bunch of flight attendants in a room, it’s really a fun, exciting thing. It just brought back so much. My favorite thing is that a TWA flight attendant, slightly older than I, but she had the same uniform I did, came in her uniform. She was sitting in the front row. This was on Cape Cod at a library. I said to her, “I’m so impressed that you still have your uniform, but I’m even more impressed you still fit into it.” She said, “Oh, I don’t.” She lifted up her shirt. The zipper was broken on . She sat there with her scarf tied. It just reminded me of what a great group of people flight attendants are. It really takes something for a person to want to do it and to love doing it. To be in their company again after all this time has been just delightful.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Ann: Yes, I really do. Just write every day. No matter what you have to do every day other than your writing, do it with good intentions and a big heart and an open heart. As long as you’re writing, someday, it’s going to flip. You’ll be the writer doing that other thing secretly or quietly. If you don’t do it because your job is taking over your life, then you’ll always be sorry.

Zibby: Very true. Good point. Last thing, what are you reading now?

Ann: I’m reading the new Anthony Marra book. It’s called The Mercury Project, I think. I’m a big fan of his. The Tsar of Love and Techno and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are two of my favorite books in the last few years. This is his new book, which I’ve eagerly been awaiting. I’m digging deep into that. It’s about Hollywood in the forties. It’s a really fun read.

Zibby: Amazing. This has been so much fun. I really loved your book. It was such a joy to talk to you about it after reading it. Thank you. Thanks for sharing.

Ann: It was great meeting you, Zibby. Thank you for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. Great to meet you too. Take care. Have a great day.

Ann: Bye-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

FLY GIRL: A Memoir by Ann Hood

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