Interviews

A Mesa Native's Debut Novel Is the Hottest Thing in Publishing Right Now

A Mesa Native's Debut Novel Is the Hottest Thing in Publishing Right Now
TJ Newman

Working the red-eye between New York and Los Angeles, Virgin America flight attendant TJ Newman had a lot of downtime while her passengers were sleeping.

In Newman's case, she put the long, quiet hours to good use. She wrote a novel.

The Mesa native's first book, Falling, will be released Tuesday, July 6, and it's already making headlines for Newman's seven-figure advance.

"It took a while to accept that any of this was real," she says. "I’m still working on that, actually."

The idea for Falling, a thriller set primarily on a cross-country flight, came to Newman during one of those red eyes.

"I was standing at the front of the aircraft looking out at the cabin," she recalls. "It was dark. It was cold. It was quiet. Everyone was asleep. And I had this thought that their lives — all of our lives — were the in the hands of the pilot. And for the first time, it kind of occurred to me that with that much power and that much responsibility, how vulnerable does that make a commercial pilot?"

With the question lingering in her mind, a few days later she asked a pilot colleague the question that became the plot of Falling: "I said to him one day, '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?' And the look on his face terrified me. I knew he did not have an answer. And I knew I had a story."

In Falling, Captain Bill Hoffman is faced with that impossible choice by a ruthless terrorist who has taken his wife and two children hostage. While he attempts to figure out a way to keep the plane in the air and his family alive, it's flight attendant Jo Watkins who tries to keep the passengers calm and find a way to get a message to her FBI agent nephew.

It might be Bill's story, but Jo is the heroine of the novel, keeping her cool amid unthinkable events. But Newman doesn't see much of herself in the character.

"I would love to think that if I was faced with a situation like the characters in this book were that I would react as bravely and valiantly as Jo does," she says. "She’s not modeled off me or anybody, but I do look now and I think I see a lot of my mom in Jo. Which wasn’t on purpose; it’s only now in hindsight that I say, you know, I think that’s a lot of her. This woman who is kind and compassionate and attentive to details, but when faced with a situation becomes a force of nature that can handle business."

Newman's mother was also a flight attendant, as is her sister; she says aviation is "the family business."

It didn't bother Newman to be writing about terrorist threats and flight disasters while up in the air, she says; flight attendants are trained to always to be thinking about worst-case scenarios.

"We’re constantly looking at what could go wrong and how would we react if it did. ... It’s the way that we’re trained to think so we’re always ready for a problem. So thinking about this really felt like a more intense scenario of what I would be thinking about anyway."

When the novel was finished, Newman looked for a literary agent, a process that proved to be much more difficult than she was expecting — she got 41 rejections before she heard a yes. It took a toll on the writer.

"When you get told 41 times that this is not good — which is basically what it’s saying when you get a rejection — I felt every single one of those rejections," she says. "I wanted to give up, and it got tempting several times. And I would just kind of lean into my family and their belief in me and my belief in my story and I’d just keep going.

"It was a long hard road of constant rejection, but I just kept telling myself that I didn’t come that far to come that far. I just kept querying until I found the right fit, and it was the perfect fit."

The perfect fit was literary agent Shane Salerno, who connected with Newman in late 2019. She spent 2020 making changes to Falling, and when it was time to start taking it to publishers, the first house they approached, Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, said yes — a big yes, with the seven-figure advance and a two-book deal. (Moreover, foreign rights have been sold in 24 territories, and Universal Pictures bought the movie rights.)

"That took me a long time to accept that that had actually happened and that I had heard yes when I tried to do something," Newman says.

She has now left her flight attendant job, although she still lives in Phoenix, and she's already deep into working on her second book, while promoting Falling and getting used to being a big-time writer.

"I’m trying to keep all the plates spinning in the air," she says. "This is the first time I’ve done this, you know. This is my debut novel. I don’t know what I’m doing! Every day is a new learning experience. It has been nonstop and I just feel so overwhelmed in the best way. I feel so lucky to be overwhelmed with incredible things to do."

Next on the list of incredible events is a hybrid in-person/Zoom event at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on Monday, July 5.

That may seem pretty run-of-the-mill for a hot new author promoting her novel, except Newman is a former employee who dreamed of one day signing a book of her own at the store.

"It means everything" to her to bring Falling to Changing Hands, Newman says, "so to now have it actually be happening is just more than I could ever want."

In-person tickets for the July 5 Changing Hands event are sold out, but the pay-what-you-can virtual event will be held at 7 p.m. Get the link on the Changing Hands website. Also, Newman will be present on Tuesday, July 6, at Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 North Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale, for a signing. Get more info on the Poisoned Pen website.
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Jennifer Goldberg is the culture editor and Best of Phoenix editor for Phoenix New Times.