T.J. Newman, DROWNING: The Rescue of Flight 1421 (a Novel)

T.J. Newman, DROWNING: The Rescue of Flight 1421 (a Novel)

Zibby speaks to flight attendant turned New York Times bestselling author T.J. Newman about Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421, a gripping new thriller about a plane that sinks with passengers trapped inside and the extraordinary rescue that ensues. TJ gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the world of flight attendants, from the rigorous training to the professional people-watching (both of which were rich sources of inspiration for this novel). She also talks about her incredible screen adaptation deals, her ideas for future books, and the unique career path that brought her to this moment (it involves Broadway, a bookstore, and writing on red-eyes).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, T. J. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, Drowning.

T. J. Newman: It’s such a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: I’m so excited. I made the mistake of starting to read this on an airplane. I was like, it’s totally fine. I know what’s coming. I can read it on the plane. No worries. Then I was like, no, this is not going well.

T. J.: People say that all the time. I’ve got a trip coming up. I can’t read it. My thought is always, I wrote these books, my first book and now this one, I wrote them on planes. I feel like it’s like being on a Disneyland ride. You’ve got the sounds and the smells and the feeling, the turbulence. It becomes an even more immersive experience.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s like a virtual reality book. In fact, we should advise people, only people read it on planes if you want the real experience, if you want the edge-of-your-seat, literally, experience.

T. J.: It’ll make the flight go faster, right?

Zibby: It absolutely did. I was so blown away by your mechanical knowledge of the plane. You know everything about every piece of equipment. I know you were a flight attendant to start, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re this — do you know what I’m talking about? You go into a lot of details of the plane and machinery and how everything works and all of that.

T. J.: Thank you. I think it surprised a lot of people with my first book, Falling, that behind-the-curtain look at the world of flight attendants. I don’t think a lot of people realize that flight attendants are, first and foremost, safety professionals. If you could see the training manual that we use and that we carry with us on our trips, it’s an eight-hundred-page document that we have to know backwards. All of that foundation of my experience as a flight attendant — I flew for ten years. It’s really fun to now put it into this big, fictious world and have those two worlds come together. With regards to the piloting side of things and the actual mechanics of flying an aircraft, I’m not a pilot, but I became very close friends with a lot of pilots after flying for a decade. I would call them, and I would consult with them. I have, I call them my phone-a-pilot friends that I call and ask questions to about, okay, so if I wanted this to happen, then what if I did this? They would walk me through the mechanics of how to make the scenario of the book happen.

Zibby: It’s so crazy that flight attendants, they are such safety experts, know so much, are in charge of your lives, and yet people are like, can I just have some more Diet Coke? It’s so misaligned in terms of expertise and how they’re deployed in the plane. It’s like, oh, have the ambulance drivers hand out lollipops in the waiting room or something. You know?

T. J.: I know exactly what you mean. It’s this weird paradox of, if you never see a flight attendant doing their job, that’s a great day. What you typically see a flight attendant do is service, which is a service that we provide. That’s not what we’re there for. We love bringing you a Diet Coke. We love bringing you your chicken entrée. We love passing out the pretzels. We love that because it means we’re not doing what we’re actually there for, which is attending to a medical emergency, attending to a mechanical crisis, attending to any sort of crisis because we are there, first and foremost, as safety and security professionals. That’s just it. Full stop. That’s the end of the story. It’s been really validating for an industry that I love so much, so much so that I’ve written several books on the industry because I find it so fascinating and wonderful, to hear that nod of respect to a position that is all too often dismissed and not seen for what it is.

Zibby: How much training did you go through yourself? How much recurring training? Is it like doctors where they have to get recertified all the time?

T. J.: Yep. We go through initial training. Each airline has their own parameters with which they do it. The airline that I started with, which was Virgin America, we did a six-week training course in which you’re there every single day all day long. There is practical physical testing. There is written testing. If you get below, I believe it’s ninety percent on a test, you have to retake the test the next morning. If you don’t retake at one hundred percent, you’re kicked out of class. The standards with which you are held are exceptionally high. Then every year, we do an annual recurrent training, which is a multiday course in which you come together and get retested on everything in your manual to make sure that you are current and up to date with what you need to know.

Zibby: Interesting. It shows in your character Molly. You say she’s learned this so many times that it became totally automatic. When the crisis happened, she could say, go this way. Go to this door. Do this. She didn’t even have to think about it.

T. J.: That’s the entire point of the way that flight attendants are trained, which is how a lot of safety professionals are trained, is so that those procedures, in the event of a crisis, they’re there. You can be thinking about and focusing on other things that are the extenuating circumstances of that particular situation because everything else is hardwired. You’re on autopilot. You don’t even have to think about it. You’re screaming your commands. You’re showing people where to go while your brain is somewhere else.

Zibby: In structuring Drowning, you have all these characters in every seat, which is fascinating because I’m always wondering what the backstory of every person on an airplane really is anyway. What is up with them? How are they related? What’s their story?

T. J.: You’d make a great flight attendant. I always said it was like a job where I was paid to be a professional people watcher. That’s where these stories come from. For ten years, I would sit and look out at these passengers and think, what’s their deal? They seem to be fighting. What is that person traveling to? It’s a never-ending source of potential.

Zibby: With a constantly rotating cast. Really fun. How did you narrow it down? How did you decide which roles would be filled by who? The blue polo shirt guy here and the child traveling alone, how did you figure out — who did you want to star in your movie and also your book?

T. J.: That’s really interesting. I’ve never thought about how I came to each character’s — why they were there. These are all characters that I flew with. I took care of unaccompanied minors for ten years. In the back of my mind was always that protective position of, gosh, if something goes wrong, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, I’m responsible for that child. Your protective maternal instinct really takes over. You realize, this is going to be tough because I’m going to be also responsible for everybody else on this plane, but this little child is also with me. I wanted to put that into the story. It has a nice mirror component in the story in that there is another little girl on the plane, but her father’s there. All the twelve passengers who are inside the plane at the bottom of the ocean, they take on a family component. They take care of each other. They look out for each other. Like a family, they also fight and have competing agendas and have ulterior motives.

I always described a plane as a classic bell curve. On every plane that you fly on, you’re going to have a little bit of a sampler platter of all cross-sections of humanity. I just narrowed that bell curve down to twelve people and said, what are the different spectrum of people that you would run into in a situation like this? The book really is also — this is why I’m so fascinated with — I did the same thing with Falling. I realized after I wrote the second book, I’m like, oh, I think this is kind of my thing right now, is ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I’m fascinated by, just like you said, when you’re on a plane and you’re looking at the people and you’re trying to do that Rorschach test and figure them . What would these people, like you, like me, ordinary people in an extremely heightened situation, what do we do? What do we do? I’m fascinated by what the answer is to that because I think we all discover parts of ourselves that we didn’t know were there when we’re in hot water. I’m fascinated by that.

Zibby: Even people who froze, you don’t know what they were going to do. They either froze, or the people who were pushing people out of the way — shock plays into it too when you’re in things like that. Then Will stepping up and being the total hero, all of his knowledge. This is what we’re doing. Would I be like that? I don’t know enough, but I do like controlling things.

T. J.: That’s exactly it. What you just said is exactly it. Would I do that? I think that that’s why — it’s been so lovely to see. I think that that’s why with both of my books now, people relate to them in a way that’s a little bit closer than other big action/thriller books like this, because there is that component of, I’m placing myself in that. I love to read a book or see a movie about an astronaut in outer space, but I’m not going to space. That’s not in the cards for me, so there’s a little bit of distance there. I’m on a plane all the time. So are you. When people read these stories, I think the psychic distance between characters’ experience and your own, it closes in. When you can overlay your own personal lived experience on a story, for me, it just enriches it. It just makes it better. It’s a natural gateway to exactly what you said, Zibby, which is, what would I do? I don’t know. If I’m in a situation like this, how would I react? We don’t know, so it’s fun to kind of live that experience through a lot of different people and see how they do it and try it on for size safely from the comfort of your couch where you can just put the book down if you want to. It’s a fun exercise.

Zibby: Wow. Back to the screen adaptations that we were talking about, what is the latest with Falling? Drowning just sold in this massive deal. You must be so excited. It was all over the news. Where are you with all of those? How are you balancing all of it? I’m assuming you’re already writing new books. How are you dealing with everything?

T. J.: Sleep is a fun concept that I remember from a past life. Sleep, I haven’t heard that name in forever. It’s been incredible. I’m still reeling from the entire experience of the film sale for Drowning. It was a week-long process where I was on Zoom calls with people like Nicole Kidman, which is absolutely insane. My agent called me. Sometimes he could only call for thirty seconds because everything was happening so fast. He called me. He’s like, “Get ready. Fifteen minutes, you might be on a Zoom call with Nicole Kidman. Get ready,” and then just hangs up. I’m standing there with the phone to my ear. What? Zibby, I feel like you might appreciate this. The first thought that came to my mind was, I have to wash my hair.

Zibby: I was literally just going to say, did you run to do your makeup? What is the first thing you do after that?

T. J.: Exactly. Women and their hair, there’s a schedule. It wasn’t a day in my schedule that I would have wanted to have met Nicole Kidman. I’ve got fifteen minutes. The first thing on my mind is, I’ve got to wash my hair. That just shows you how out of body the entire experience was. For the record, she was the loveliest, most genuine, most sincere, down to earth, really smart — she was very, very cool. I’m still reeling from that. The fact that both of my books have been optioned for film is just beyond a dream come true because I definitely never even dreamed that big. I truly don’t know how to wrap my mind around it. It’s crazy. Falling, my first book, I’m also adapting. I’m writing the screenplay, which has been a wildly big learning experience. It has been the most fascinating and interesting process to learn a different language. Writing a screenplay really is learning a different language. In a book, you’ve got ten pages to tell a scene. In a script, you’ve got one. It’s the art of compression. How do you take a story that took ten pages to say what you meant to say and get every single thing across in one? It’s a high-wire act. It is extremely difficult. I’m really interested to see how it’s also affecting my fiction writing, my novels. It has because it really forces you to hone in on, what’s the story? If I don’t have the luxury of all those words, what am I actually trying to say? If I only have so many words to say it, I better know exactly what it is that I’m trying to say. It’s really helped my novel-writing process.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. We did this retreat in Charleston last weekend. Mary Alice Monroe, who’s this beautiful, descriptive, Southern writer who does a lot of environmental writing, she was saying how when she reads a book that has too much dialogue, she’ll say, this is not a book. This is a screenplay.

T. J.: Interesting.

Zibby: I know. People come at it from all different — she’s like, I love the description. I feel like that’s what makes the novel. Many novels now, because of attention spans and what people want, have far less description than they used to. She said she’s actually scaled back on her description a bit.

T. J.: Interesting. To that point, she’s exactly right. They’re totally different mediums. I think that’s why there’s so often this conversation of, the book is better than the movie, or the movie is better than the book. I think that some of that is that there’s things that work in a book that just won’t play on a movie and vice versa. That doesn’t make one better or worse. It’s just a reality of the medium in which the story is being told. A film is a, to sound on the nose, it is a moving picture. You are only aware of what you are told and what you see. It’s a moving picture. Whereas with a novel, you get into those beautiful descriptions. You get to get into the skin of the character and know their thoughts. Whereas unless, in a movie, a character says, “I am thinking this,” you don’t know what they’re thinking. They’re just totally different mediums, both of which are fascinating to me, the different ways there are to tell the same story. That’s what was so cool about that whole process with the film sale. I got pitched by these incredible filmmakers, what their visions for what this story, for Drowning, could be as a movie. This is a story that I know intimately, that I’ve spent so much time with. I know it backwards and forwards. Here are these brilliant, creative minds saying, yeah, but have you thought of it like this? It was just like, no, I didn’t. It’s really good. That’s really good. That’s why you are in the position that you’re in. It’s fascinating to see all the different creative approaches to a story.

Zibby: It’s so funny. I’m imagining it like an old-fashioned ad agency pitch where they come in and give you the samples ads. Here’s Drowning this way. Here’s Drowning that way. Try it on this whiteboard.

T. J.: That’s what it was. It was so inspiring to see these people. It made me want to work harder than I’ve ever worked just to keep having opportunities like that. It was just so inspiring to see these people come up with such incredible ideas like that. They were all varied. Everybody had a passionate pitch. It was a nearly impossible decision to make, never mind the fact that I had to convince myself every single day that, okay, this is actually happening. There’s that disbelief. I just can’t believe any of this is happening either, but I don’t have time to deal with the emotional disbelief and imposter syndrome. No, own it. Own the moment. Lean into it. Just go. We don’t win every day.

Zibby: Do you have others in this series? Are you going to keep doing different flights? What’s your plan here?

T. J.: I’m loving working in this space. Both novels are standalone novels. The only character that carried over, which wasn’t even intentional — I just realized it after the fact — was the airline that these incidents that have happened on, this completely fictitious airline, Coastal Airline, that these terrible things happened to their flights. That’s it. Everything else is separate. I’ve got a few more stories that I do want to tell. You don’t work in an industry as fascinating and incredible as aviation for ten years and only walk away with a couple good ideas. I’ve got a few more ideas.

Zibby: I’m not surprised. I was thinking, what -ing word will they be? Will they always follow this, at least naming convention? I won’t give you my bad ideas of other titles.

T. J.: I told my agent when we were in the process — you know this. When you hit a point in the process where you’re tired — the characters aren’t behaving as you want them to. You don’t know how they’re going to get out of this situation. Everything was just like, I don’t have an answer. I told my agent, I’m like, “The next book is called Napping. It’s about people taking a nap and then going for coffee and just sitting around having chill conversations. That’s it. That’s the book.” I was just over it.

Zibby: So funny. You should do something with that. Make it a little magazine. Do a gift with — I don’t know. An insert. It’s so funny. A Mother’s Day special edition of Napping. That’s what you should do. Hurry and get it out. When you were little, did you want to write? Was this a lifelong thing, or it just came from the things you saw and the need to get them down in some way?

T. J.: Absolutely. I’m a voracious reader. I’ve read and wrote my entire life. My first creative dream that I pursued was to be an actress. I got a degree in musical theater. Then I moved to New York and did my best at becoming a Broadway star. Considering that we are not having a conversation about my next big role, you can guess how well that attempt went. It was nothing but failure, nonstop failure.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

T. J.: You know, that’s showbiz, baby. It was hard. It was really hard. I ended up leaving and moving back home to Phoenix. I moved in with my parents. I’m now, at that point, doing the mid-twenties, living in their childhood bedroom with a degree in musical theater who was just told by everyone in musical theater that you’re not good enough. What do I do now? It was at that point that I got a job at Changing Hands Bookstore, an indie bookstore up the street from my parents’ house. I would not be here right now if I had not had that experience as a bookseller at Changing Hands. It saved me creatively. It saved my future. It was the first time after that that I let myself dream again and let myself say, you are a creative person. You will always be a creative person. This is an outlet for you to do that. I started writing again. I’d kind of put it down when I was in New York pursuing theater. It let me be creative on my own terms. Nobody knew I was writing. Nobody knew I was dreaming of being a published writer.

When I was shelving books by an author with my last name, Newman, I used to take my thumb and cover their first name as I shelved it, and I would pretend that it was my book. I didn’t tell anybody this. Nobody knew because I’d already done the public, I’m following my dreams. I’m going to do something incredible. I fell flat on my face. I was hurt. I was licking my wounds. I privately began to dream. My time at the bookstore let me do that. I’m forever grateful for that. I wouldn’t be here without it. I left the bookstore to be a flight attendant. My mom is a flight attendant. My sister was a flight attendant. We call it the family business. When the opportunity came up, I knew I had to take it. I left, and I became a flight attendant. I’m so glad I did because it was at work on a flight that I had the idea for Falling. I started writing that book by hand in the forward galley on red-eyes while my passengers slept. Somehow, that turned into number two on the New York Times best-seller list. Now my second book, Drowning, is coming out at the end of May. Two movie deals. None of it happens without a long path of failure and that time in the bookstore that let me dream again and let me find what my path truly was.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Now you could sing and dance your way through one of these films. You could give yourself the starring role. You never know. You could change things up a little bit.

T. J.: Drowning: The Musical. In the circumstances the passengers are in, I’m not sure starting a full-blown stage musical would’ve helped the situation. Nothing like jazz hands to .

Zibby: You never know.

T. J.: You never know. Exactly.

Zibby: All your dreams in one. Oh, my gosh. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I know that was sort of advice already in terms of not giving up your dreams and pursuing opportunities in life because life often gives more material to write about, or processing failure. Even from the writing itself, you could’ve been writing, and it could’ve been not good. How do you make sure what you’re writing is actually good and riveting and attention-grabbing and all the things that you do so well?

T. J.: I think you start by writing things that are bad and not attention-grabbing and not good. Then you just work on them until they are. You start with a good idea, and you just persist. I really do think if I can give advice to any aspiring writer, it’s that, keep going. It’s going to be bad. It’s going to be hard. Look, Falling was rejected by forty-one agents. I didn’t get anybody to even take a look at this book in a serious way until my forty-second agent submission. I know that you have that legacy too. You’re nodding because you’re like, yeah, I’ve been there. I get that. What I love about your story and my story, too, is that model, that example of, who says not you? Why not you? Why can’t it be you? I feel like especially as women, we get into our own minds too much. We say, oh, I hadn’t done it by the time I was twenty-five. That’s what everybody likes to tell you. The new “25 Under 25.” It’s like, I passed that, so therefore, I can’t do it. I don’t have a degree in this. I don’t have the right connections. I don’t have this. I don’t have that. We believe these narratives, and we shouldn’t. I didn’t know anybody in publishing. I didn’t know anybody in film. I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know anything about anything. I literally bought a book called The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, and I read it and followed the directions. Along the way, it was nothing but failure and rejection, just like you, but we’re here. I think it’s because we just kept going, reinventing ourselves. The podcast was kind of out of nowhere. Now look at what it’s grown into. By the way, do you have the same twenty-four that the rest of us do? I don’t know how you get done everything that you get done. When I look at your Instagram, I’m just like, does she have a time-turner like Hermione Granger? How is she doing this? I’m so impressed.

Zibby: Thank you. I do have a team. That helps. Not with the podcast, really. Although, that’s not true. I guess with the descriptions and stuff. I don’t know. We all are just doing our best and hustling and trying to use what opportunities come our way. I don’t know. I’m excited. It’s hard to stop.

T. J.: That’s exactly it too. Use whatever opportunities come your way. You exemplify, to me, a person who, when opportunity comes, you grab it with both hands. It may come from an unexpected place. It may be a podcast that you weren’t thinking, and now it’s grown into this. It may be, for me, an idea that I had in a galley on a plane that has now turned into this. Find that spark where you go, ooh, that’s something. Then grab it with both hands, and don’t let go. Hang on. Don’t let go. Surround yourself with a team, like you said, people that believe in you. Just keep going.

Zibby: You’re inspiring me. I got to go do something else now.

T. J.: I’m not sure that’s possible. Boy, if anybody could, it would be you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re so sweet. You’re so sweet to even know what I’m doing. I have so much respect for you. Yours was one of three books I gave my teenage son who was like, “I don’t feel like reading.” I was like, “You’re not reading the right stuff. You’re just not reading the right books. You have to find the right book. When you do, you won’t be able to put it down. You will love reading.” He loved your book and couldn’t put Falling down and was like, “Oh, my gosh, you’re right. It was awesome. It was amazing.” He got so into it. Then he started reading the other books I gave him. I’m not even kidding. I’m not kidding.

T. J.: You made my day. The two stamps of approval that I really, really cherish is the teenager stamp of approval who’s getting into reading and the father-in-law stamp of approval. Those are the two that I feel like people say that I’m like, okay, that’s a hard-to-reach demographic. That’s a very difficult reach, demographic-wise. That means the world to me. Tell your son thank you. That means so, so much to me.

Zibby: I will. Now that I’m done, I’ll give him this one. That was so much fun. Bye. Thank you so much for coming on.

T.J. Newman, DROWNING: The Rescue of Flight 1421 (a Novel)

DROWNING: The Rescue of Flight 1421 (a Novel) by T.J. Newman

Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts