Tabitha Forney joined Zibby for an IG Live to talk about her debut novel, Paper Airplanes, which follows one woman’s journey to recovery after losing her husband on 9/11. The story was inspired by those of Tabitha’s own husband and his co-workers who fortunately escaped the North Tower safely, as well as the what-ifs that Tabitha and so many others were left to process after that day. Tabitha also tells Zibby about the painstaking process she went through doing such detailed research and how the dedication to honor the lives lost was what ultimately kept her going.


Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. Today, I am doing an Instagram Live which was rescheduled from 9/11 with Tabitha Forney who wrote Paper Airplanes. See this, everybody? It’s a novel. Tabitha Forney wrote it. It’s really amazing. I should have done this, but I was a little bit too upset on 9/11 to do a podcast, so here I am. Hi, Laura. Hey, Leslie. It’s so nice to see everybody. Tabitha’s here. I’m going to let her join in. We’re going to talk about Paper Airplanes, which is amazing. Hold on one sec. Here is she. Hold on. I don’t know why I keep doing these Instagram Lives when they bother me so much. Tabitha, it says “unable to join.” I don’t know why it says that. Tabitha, if you’re not on an iPhone, you have to get on an iPhone instead of on your computer. Then request to join. I’m really tired. I’m not sure I can just talk into the ether today too much. Anybody here, while we’re trying to get joined by Tabitha and see if this works, why don’t you tell me what you’re reading? I’m always curious what people are reading. I can tell you what I’m going to be reading this weekend if you’re interested. I’m not feeling the best, so I’m trying to take a little bit of time to rest. The launch of Zibby Books took a lot out of me. I’m trying to rebound from a crazy two weeks.

If you’re interested, my actual bedside table, I’m going to be reading Ghosts by Dolly Alderton who wrote a phenomenal memoir. Now it’s the fictious version of her life, essentially. It’s what I’m going to be reading this weekend, start to finish, and also Competitive Grieving — these are all my podcasts next week — by Nora Zelevansky. If I have time, I’m going to read Cloud Cuckoo Land, which I am dying to read. This is pretty big, so who knows if I can get through it? Also, We Are the Brennans, I’m dying to read. Two more that I’m reading this weekend, Don’t Let it Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body by Savala Nolan Trepczynski and finally, Shoulder Season by Christina Clancy. That’s what I’m reading this weekend. Tell me what you’re reading. Here she is. How’d I do in my little interlude here? Let’s see if this works. There we go. Hi, Tabitha.

Tabitha Forney: Sorry. Instagram isn’t my original platform.

Zibby: That’s okay. I don’t know why I do these Instagram Lives. There are always some hiccups getting started. Anyway, now we’re here. How are you?

Tabitha: I’m doing great. Thank you.

Zibby: I’m very excited to talk to you today about Paper Airplanes and Erin and Daniel and their families and this whole journey. I’m sorry we had to reschedule from 9/11, but thank you for understanding.

Tabitha: I totally understand, absolutely. It was a rough day. It was a very rough day. I get it.

Zibby: Right? This twentieth anniversary, I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I wasn’t the only one hit hard. Chances are if I’m hit hard by something, other people are too. Turns out that’s true. Excuse me.

Tabitha: Yes, something in the zeitgeist. I kind of sound a little frog-ish. I don’t know if it’s a cold or you’re just having allergies, but I’m right there with you.

Zibby: I have terrible allergies. Oh, hi, Meg. It’s always nice to see people joining our discussions. Okay, let’s talk about Paper Airplanes. I can summarize, or maybe you should summarize, what it’s about. Why don’t you go ahead and tell people what it’s about? Then I’ll ask you questions about it.

Tabitha: Paper Airplanes is my debut novel. It’s about a woman who loses her husband on 9/11. He is in the North Tower on the 101st floor. There’s one prologue from his perspective. Really, it’s mostly in Erin’s voice, his wife. It chronicles her journey to recovery, to overcome the guilt and all the grief and just learn how to live again.

Zibby: We really do go on Erin’s journey. You take us all the way through from — first of all, this is complicated grief, as often grief is, because she feels so much guilt. Erin was sitting on a beach. She had gone off on this girls’ trip when she should have perhaps stayed to go to her mother-in-law’s birthday party. Her best friend had broken up, and so she decided she just has to go and be a good friend versus being one of many at the mother-in-law’s party. She finds out while she’s sitting on the beach in — what was it? Marbella? Where were they?

Tabitha: Mallorca.

Zibby: Mallorca, oh, my god, I cannot — my husband Kyle’s on here. He knows I cannot get these two places straight in my brain. I have some sort of mixed wires. In fact, we even booked a trip to one intending to go to the other, but that’s okay. Anyway, she was on the beach and felt horribly guilty because felt like if she had been home, maybe he would’ve left to go to the World Trade Center a little bit later. She lives with this grief for so long. In addition to the unsettled feelings of not getting closure with the loss, as so many of us had on 9/11, it’s also her responsibility. Then of course later, you find out the friend also feels responsible for even asking her to come on the trip. Everybody is feeling a part of this situation. By the way, what ends up happening to tie that all together at the end, oh, my gosh, just brought tears to my eyes. People are asking better questions than me. What compelled you to write this story? Tell us about your husband’s journey that day. I want to hear more about it. You referenced it in the book, but not that much.

Tabitha: He was on the 85th floor of the North Tower. His experience was obviously very different from Daniel’s. I was really a little bit obsessed by how random it was that day. Where you were so much. He was on the 85th floor. I feel like anybody 92 and above, obviously, I think that was the line in survival and not surviving. He and his colleagues, company called SMW Trading Company, he was actually about to go down the elevators West Side Highway to the World to start his day trading, commodities trader. He only spent an hour in the office every morning getting ready. I actually didn’t know where he was, if he was still on the 85th floor, if he was in the elevators, if he had gotten out yet before I talked to him. He was there on the 85th floor. His boss actually saw the plane heading for their building. That part in Daniel’s story is authentic because their offices faced north. He thought it was a plane that had taken off from LaGuardia and was flying too low. As he kept watching and kept watching, he realized that it wasn’t going to crank up. He was on the phone with his wife. This is my husband’s boss. Threw the phone down and jumped into the middle offices as . Not that that was going to do anything if a plane is headed right . That was his experience.

He was so close to seeing the plane that he actually saw the pilot’s hair. We all know that that was Mohamed Atta. His boss knew what had happened. Told them all that it was a plane. Within five minutes, they were heading down the stairwell. He just went down eighty-five flights of stairs. It was very quick at first. People began to flood to stairwells. It got more congested. His story is that people were very polite. People were very orderly. There was no pushing or shoving or yelling, like, get out of there. said that it was very mild. For the most part, New Yorkers just orderly descended. It took a long time. It took him almost an hour to get out. They were directing people down through the tunnels where the subways were where that shopping mall was. They were directing people down and out that way so that when they came out onto the street, they were several blocks from the World Trade Center. He was down in those tunnels when World Trade Center II . He was very close. If you’ve ever seen World Trade Center, he was forty yards from where the Port Authority officers had gotten trapped. He had just turned a corner he was walking down with. That was the second time he said he thought he would die that day, first when the plane hit and the building swayed back and forth and then, second, when he was down there in the tunnels and that blast came from World Trade Center II and just blasted through the tunnels. I feel like if he hadn’t turned that corner just a few seconds before, it might have been a very different story for him.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Does he feel survivor’s guilt at having made it out? How does he feel about the whole thing? Let’s get him on here.

Tabitha: He did for a long time. When people would tell him, God has plans for you, he would think, so God didn’t have plans for all the people who were above me? I know people mean well, but it doesn’t really answer anything to say that God had plans for him. I think he did have guilt for a long time. He talks about his experience a lot. That helps him to process it. He’s also just a very steady personality. He has managed it better than some colleagues, I know for sure.

Zibby: How did you as a spouse experience that? How much did you know at the time? Did you talk to him at all as he was escaping? Would you have known had anything happened? How do you put your life back? Then how did it culminate in this book?

Tabitha: There’s similarities to Erin. I had taken the red-eye flight to London on September 10th. I was there for business. I had two friends who were going to come join me on that Thursday. We were just going to have a fun weekend in London. Obviously, that did not happen. I had just arrived. I had gotten there seven AM London time. I talked to him on the phone while he was getting ready for work. It was seven thirty, something like that. Then I went to lunch with my colleague over there. We came back to our — we had a one-person office based in London in the financial district. We were just working away. My colleague, his name was Ian, he got an email. He sat back in his chair like this. He kind of had this smile on his face, an incredulous smile like you’re not really quite sure what should have yet. He leaned back. He said, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I looked at him. I said, “My husband works in that building.” His face just dropped. His eyes went wide. “What are you talking about?” Then of course, we tried to get on the internet. You couldn’t get on any internet pages. It was probably not as redundant as it is now. We tried getting information all these different ways. We were just getting information from our colleague office who was giving us little bits and pieces of what was going on. Finally, he got an email from one of our colleagues that said, “WTC II just collapsed.”

We were like, what are you talking about? That cannot happen. That cannot be true. We are not getting good information. Finally, I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to find a TV.” He led me down to the street. We went and found a pub. I walked into a pub at two o’clock in the afternoon in London. Everybody was smoking and drinking. I just remember the smoke made me feel so nauseated. We sat there for a while watching the news. Everybody was watching the news. We watched as his building fell down. In that sense, my story and Erin’s are very similar. Obviously, very different because she’s a fictional character. She had a lot of guilt issues that I didn’t have. I wasn’t in a spat with my husband, but I thought, what if we had been? A lot of her story comes out of my what-if. What if this? What if that? What if I had been there? Would he have left later or earlier? Would he have been in the elevators? There’s just so many little what-ifs because every little thing you did that morning made a difference. Then for me, what if I had never heard from him? To answer your question, I did hear from him after we watched the building fall down. Time seemed to stop for me. I don’t even really remember how we got back to my hotel. My colleague Ian, I was like, “I can’t stay here any longer,” and he pulled me out of the pub. We somehow found my hotel.

I somehow mustered up the courage to walk up to the front desk and say, “Hello. I’m in room 613,” or whatever. “Do I have any messages?” She said in her very lovely British accent, “Oh, yes. She’s just called. She says your husband is fine.” Of course, she had no idea what she was talking about. I just broke down in the lobby. Ian grabbed the piece of paper and was like, “Thank you very much.” From there, it was just an onslaught of people calling me, calling people, and me trying to get ahold of Billy, my husband. We finally talked later. It was nine o’clock at night in London. It was four o’clock in the afternoon in New York after he had walked all the way back up to the — we lived on the Upper West Side at 94th and Broadway. He had walked all the way home and even gone and gotten checked out at Columbia University Hospital. Finally, we were able to connect. All the cell phones didn’t work because the tower was on the World Trade Center I. We were able to connect with his friend in San Francisco. Finally got through to him. He said, “Jay, the first thing I want you to do is call my wife right now.” This friend in San Francisco patched us in, three-way conversation, San Francisco to New York to London. Actually, I was in the middle of the English countryside by then because my colleague wanted to go to his parents’ house in Gloucester or Winchester or something like that. We were driving through these country roads in England at night. I was talking to my husband. It was very bizarre and surreal. That’s the first time I was able to talk to him.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, what a story. I just can’t believe it. It’s unbelievable. When did you decide you wanted to try to fictionalize this? Did you try to write about it from a memoir-type perspective over the years? Why now? Why is it coming out now?

Tabitha: I went to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in September of 2015. I was up there. My husband had a business trip. I tagged along with him. I was leaving that afternoon. That morning, we went to the museum. It had just opened. We had been to the memorial before, but not the museum. It was just so impactful. It brought it all back. Right after the event, it was very difficult to process the event, what happened, and so we went on with our lives, as you do, and mourned those who were lost. We started having kids. We moved back to Houston. We just got busy with our lives and our careers. Then when I went back to that museum, it all came back. All the artifacts and the audio from — I remember sitting in that pub hearing the newscaster say nothing. I wanted nothing more than information. I wanted to know what floor was hit. I wanted to know how many people were in the building. I wanted to know if they were evacuating people. I wanted to know everything. Nobody knew anything. I just remember how frustrating that was. It all came back when I was listening to news, the morning anchors. They play that audio in the museum.

Then really, what was most impactful was walking towards the back of the museum and walking around a corner. There was an alcove back there with warning signs to those who entered that the images could be disturbing. It was images of the people who fell to their deaths. It struck me as so, so sad that those people, not only did they die in such a horrific way, but they are sometimes just not acknowledged. I think they’re largely unknown, their identities. I’ve read a lot of stories about, the families of people who potentially were the people who fell don’t want to acknowledge that their loved one might have died that way because of religious beliefs about suicide being a sin, which I think is so sad. Obviously, they didn’t go to work that day intending to jump out of a 110-story building. There was nothing that they chose about it. I just felt strongly like, as a writer, I wanted to shed a little light on their stories. I went straight to the airport, went through security, sat down at my gate, and started typing out Daniel’s story.

Zibby: How did you recreate the first part? I’ve also wondered so much about what those moments were like. How did you piece that all together? The floor heating up and sitting on the desk and the stairwell, was that from people who had been there? How did you do that?

Tabitha: It’s a very good question. A lot of it, I had my husband vet in terms of the layout of the floors because he worked in that same building. I had him vet, is this realistic? What kinds of things did you see up here? What could you see? After that, it was just a lot of research. Obviously, there’s no eyewitness accounts. There are a few from the floors underneath. That’s where I got that things were really hot. The state of the stairwell being covered like a scree field of debris, that was all just from research I did. It took forever. I did painstaking research because I did not want to get it wrong. I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. It took, probably, years to write that prologue. I probably edited it for years. It’s the most heavily researched and edited chapter in the book, for sure.

Zibby: It’s so gripping from that moment. It’s just so emotional and intense. How do you feel having written it? How do you feel now that it’s out in the world?

Tabitha: It feels good. I feel like a lot of people ask me about 9/11. I’m certainly not an authority on 9/11 or overcoming grief. I was really hesitant to put it out there for a long time, as you are being a writer and putting all your thoughts out to the world. There’s a point at which you just decide, I know my purpose in writing this was to honor the victims. I think it’s good. You just have to be brave and take that step and put it out there. It’s really scary. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to pull it back. I was like, I can’t do this. I can’t do this. This is so scary. Then you get to a point of no return. You’re like, it’s okay, I can do this. I can be brave and put it out there. You get to that point, and there’s no turning back. I do feel good. I do feel like I did my best. I had an agent tell me that it needed to be bigger. It needed to be a bigger story, and so I spent a year rewriting it for her to make it bigger. Then we ended up parting ways. I took it back to Erin’s story because bigger isn’t always better, as anybody who’s watched The Lorax knows. I wanted to honor their stories. I spent so much time on that Daniel chapter that I felt like I just wanted the world to get a peek as to what it was like to be there on that day and what it was like to be impacted by that day. That was my goal for writing it. I know from my husband’s experience that there’s so much interest in his experience and what it was like to be there.

Zibby: I don’t know if you’re seeing all these comments coming in on this Instagram Live. So many people are lauding your braveness and bravery and how much they want to read it now and how much you’re honoring all the people who were affected by this by telling your own story and theirs as well. Other questions include, why is it called Paper Airplanes? which I know having read it. Do you want to address that?

Tabitha: Sure. There’s a few meanings. First of all, paper airplanes is how Daniel and Erin met. I don’t remember how that came to me. I think that was just one of those moments where you’re sitting down in the zone, and that comes out. I love, love, love the chapter — that’s actually chapter one — where they met. Daniel sent a paper airplane flying towards her and lit it on fire because it was his burning desire. He was into paper airplanes. He was a paper airplane craftsman, I guess. I don’t know what the word is or if it really exists. That’s how they met. Then that’s also how they got engaged. He sent a paper airplane flying towards her when she was sitting at a park bench in New York. Then also, the paper has another layer of meaning. When the towers were hit, a plane went in — obviously, the airplane is symbolic of the plane, but the plane went in, and what came out was paper, paper and smoke and fire. I just remember the images of the paper floating down to the ground. I had this thought. Isn’t it sad that people can’t float down like that? A lot of that paper was intact and survived. It’s kind of got a triple meaning there.

Zibby: Someone’s wondering if that’s how you got engaged.

Tabitha: No, it is not.

Zibby: Hi to from Africa, is here too. We have people from all over the world tuning into your story and the global nature of this tragedy, really. Now that you’ve written this and spent all these years and time getting this story, having us live through Erin, all of the stuff she goes through, her coping mechanisms, her eating issues and drugs and alcohol and how she gets by and regroups — ultimately, it’s through helping others that she finds her meaning again in the world in the way that he wanted her to do. As so many of us, you have to latch onto something that gives you meaning and purpose. I don’t think that’s giving anything away too much, hopefully. Are you writing more books now? Is this it? Are you one and done? Do you have plans for more books? Also, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Tabitha: Definitely not one and done. I’m definitely a writer first and impacted by 9/11 second. I think I wrote it because I am a writer. I’ve actually got another book that’s finished. Going back to that story I had with the agent where I took out half the story and tried to make Erin’s story bigger, I brought in a character named Rosie who’s a 911 dispatcher. I just adored Rosie and had all these chapters dedicated to her. I braided their narratives, kind of retrofit Erin’s story with hers. Then when I had the revelation that I needed to take it all apart and take it back to Erin’s story, I had all these wonderful chapters of Rosie’s life. I really wanted to explore that. She had a very complicated relationship with her mother who died when she was ten. I actually went off and wrote that first and finished that story called The Seven Best Ways to Die. That is Rosie. She still is in Paper Airplanes. She is the 911 dispatcher who takes Daniel’s last call. Then she’s the firetruck driver that Erin sees when she’s down at Ground Zero looking for Daniel. That’s my next book. Then I’ve got another one. I’ve got two more in the works. One is half-finished. I’m going to keep writing.

Advice for writers, just don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t let imposter syndrome get you. Just keep writing. Keep writing what’s in your heart. I write when I’m called to write. I write what pulls on me or tugs at me. It would be easy to quit because the odds are so stacked against you. I write because I have to. That’s how I process the world and feelings and emotions and things that happen. Just don’t quit. Keep going. Every day, do a little bit even if it’s just reading what you wrote the day before. Every day, stay connected to it. Keep going. Don’t quit. I think that’s good advice for everything.

Zibby: It is. Tabitha, thank you. Thanks for doing this IG Live today. This will eventually be a podcast about Paper Airplanes. Thank you for giving us another perspective on what happened and even perhaps some closure for all of the people wondering what it might have been like. Thanks for letting me reschedule this. I’m glad we finally spoke. Thank you so much.

Tabitha: Thank you. It’s so great to chat with you. You’re amazing. You’re an inspiration. All the stuff that you do, I don’t know how you do it. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Tabitha: Bye, everybody.

Zibby: Bye.


PAPER AIRPLANES by Tabitha Forney

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