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Taking Off

Story by Matt Wing

A series of rejections didn’t stop Torri “T.J.” Newman ’06 from writing a story that has become a New York Times bestseller and landed a seven-figure movie deal.

Newman poses in one of the many airport terminals she grew to know well during a decade as a flight attendant.
Newman poses in one of the many airport terminals she grew to know well during a decade as a flight attendant.

Torri “T.J.” Newman ’06 stands in her parents’ tidy kitchen in Mesa, Arizona, sipping coffee between glances at an iPhone emitting a cacophony of beeps and buzzes.

It’s a rare day off for Newman in the midst of a book tour to promote her debut novel Falling. Crisscrossing the country at 35,000 feet and working out of airport lounges is nothing new for the former flight attendant; it was her time in the skies, after all, that prompted her introduction to the literary world.

But it’s here in Mesa she is spending some downtime on a mid-July morning, fresh off a flight and only a matter of hours before she boards another. She’s wearing a casual black dress accented by a double-layered necklace and a denim shirt tied around her waist, though she’ll hardly need the latter on a Mesa day calling for temps in the triple digits.

Newman’s phone comes to life every few minutes, a steady stream of emails and text messages causing it to rattle against the kitchen counter. Suddenly she recognizes a number and knows she has to pick up. It’s Shane Salerno, her agent.

He’s calling with good news, something he’s done frequently the past few weeks.

Falling by T.J. Newman. A kidnapper demands that a pilot crash his plane with 144 passengers on board to save his family,” Salerno says, reading the book’s familiar tagline.

The hand Newman uses to hold her phone is trembling. Tears well up in her eyes. She knows what is coming next.

“Number two on the New York Times print bestsellers list,” Salerno continues. “And number three on the bestseller combined print and e-book list.”

Newman takes a long pause before letting out a sigh pregnant with emotion. She wipes her eyes. She thanks Salerno.

“I can’t believe we did it,” she says.

· · ·

Newman sat alone in her Phoenix condo, the silence interrupted by clicks and whirrs from her printer as it began to spit out the first two chapters of her manuscript. For the 42nd time, she was sending a portion of her unpublished book to a literary agent. The results up to that point had not been great.

Forty-one submissions. Forty- one rejections.

“I was so deep in rejection and doubting whether or not I should even continue doing what I was doing,” Newman said in August 2021, a month after the book’s release. “These professionals were telling me that it wasn’t good, it wasn’t publishable. I kept asking myself, should I listen to them?

She had felt the sting of rejection before, perhaps never so acutely as in the years after leaving Illinois Wesleyan and following her Broadway dreams to New York City. Newman never got the big break she so desperately sought through countless auditions. She found fulfillment in workshopping shows and exploring other creative avenues, but never experienced the success she envisioned by way of sold-out shows and curtain calls.

Torri “T.J.” Newman ’06 shows off her debut novel Falling, a New York Times bestseller, at a book signing event at Chicago’s Roscoe Books.
Torri “T.J.” Newman ’06 shows off her debut novel Falling, a New York Times bestseller, at a book signing event at Chicago’s Roscoe Books.

Newman retreated to her home state of Arizona and found work at a local bookstore, where she rediscovered a love of writing. She eventually followed in her mother and sister’s footsteps and joined the family vocation as a flight attendant, spending nearly a decade flying with Virgin America and Alaska Airlines. She enjoyed everything about the job: the travel, the opportunity to meet new people, the camaraderie among the flight crew. But she also relished the time alone the job afforded her, especially during red-eye flights when she wrote the first pages of Falling, often five or 10 minutes at a time, while passengers slept.

Confident her story was one readers would enjoy if she could only get it into their hands, Newman persisted in her agent search. As she collected pages hot with fresh ink from the printer tray, she decided she would do something she hadn’t done before with the cover letter she would attach to the manuscript pages. She grabbed a yellow legal pad and pen and began a handwritten query letter.

“I just remember doing what they tell you to do — be confident and bold in explaining why an agent should represent you — and that was the spirit with which I wrote it,” Newman recalled. “It was a have-your-people-call-my-people type of note, and I was laughing when I wrote it because nothing could have been further from the truth at that time, in terms of my confidence and self-assurance.”

Newman’s pen rolled freely over the paper, inspired by a confidence that, if not felt initially, grew with each word she scrawled. Punctuating the letter with a signature discernible only by scribbled initials, she stuffed the letter and manuscript pages into an envelope and dropped it in the mailbox, forgetting about it almost instantly in a learned defense mechanism.

Weeks later, Newman’s phone buzzed and displayed an incoming call from an unfamiliar Los Angeles phone number. She rejected it without a second thought. Days later, a call from another unknown L.A. number appeared. She dismissed it again.

All of a sudden it dawned on her. Were the numbers the same? Were they from the agency she had sent the last copy of her manuscript? As the terror swirled, her phone buzzed again. She had a voicemail.

It was the agent. He liked her manuscript. He wanted to talk.

“I’m freaking out because the only agent that has contacted me, the only person showing any real interest in this book is calling me, and I’m declining their calls and ignoring their messages,” Newman said.

A game of phone tag ensued and Newman feared she had missed her big break. Days later, with a backpacking trip planned that would take her into the Arizona wilderness and away from such comforts as cell phone service, she called and left a message for the agent, explaining she would be unreachable for the next week. Newman and her friend then set off on the trip, driving through the Arizona desert to the starting point of their excursion. With one last night in civilization, they stopped for dinner before setting a course for their hotel.

On the drive, Newman’s phone rang. It was the same L.A. number as before. She pulled the car onto the shoulder of a desolate highway. Before answering, Newman turned to her friend and warned, “this is going to be really weird, and I promise I’ll explain everything afterward, but I have to take this call.”

Newman pressed the green button on her iPhone screen to answer the call. She had finally connected with Shane Salerno, founder and president of The Story Factory. He loved the first two chapters of Newman’s manuscript. He wanted to read the full draft. Newman promised to send it as soon as she was able. They made plans to talk again.

Newman ended the call and turned to her friend.

“She was staring at me with this bewildered look,” Newman remembered. “And I said to her, ‘I don’t know for sure, but I think there’s a really good chance my entire life just changed.’

“And it has.”

· · ·

Newman’s readers include many former co-workers, including this flight crew she snapped a photo with in July 2021.
Newman’s readers include many former co-workers, including this flight crew she snapped a photo with in July 2021.

There is a common misconception that flight attendants are servers of the sky, tasked primarily with delivering snacks and beverages to passengers once a commercial aircraft has reached its cruising altitude.

It couldn’t be less true. Flight attendants are the eyes and ears of a flight crew. They have to be able to assess and respond to an infinite number of scenarios. Has a passenger had too much to drink? Does a strange noise require investigating? Is there a security threat on board?

Newman has that awareness. Some might call it intuition. The stories she tells range from humorous (she has an uncanny ability to guess a passenger’s beverage selection) to quite serious (responding to passengers’ medical emergencies).

And it was that sense of awareness that triggered a thought that became the main premise for Falling. Working a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to New York — that’s LAX to JFK, in air travel speak — Newman looked out over a crowded cabin and was struck by the vulnerability of the unsuspecting passengers.

“I had this thought that their lives, my life, and my crewmates’ lives — all of our lives — were in the hands of the pilot,” Newman said. “And I just couldn’t shake it.”

The thought ruminated within her mind for days. She thought of all the sinister ways in which that vulnerability could be exploited. Finally, she approached a pilot with a scenario.

“I asked him what he would do if his family was kidnapped and he had to crash the plane or his family would be killed,” Newman recounted. “And the look on his face terrified me because I realized it terrified him, because he didn’t have an answer.”

“And that was the moment I knew I had the idea for my first book.”

Newman began writing almost immediately, and she did so mostly at 35,000 feet. She jotted notes onto scraps of paper and tucked them away safely in her apron. At the end of the day, she’d transfer the contents of her pockets — thoughts scribbled on cocktail napkins and the backs of flight manifests — into her iPad.

The unconventional writing process didn’t lend itself to the speediest writing. Falling took years to write, but by 2017 Newman felt she had taken the story as far as she could and began the search for a literary agent. Little did she know the search would be just as daunting as writing the story.

The crushing rejection Newman experienced while shopping agents was washed away with one phone call from Salerno, whom she now calls a “creative partner.” The two began work on a final edit of Falling in November 2019. The process took more than a year, but was expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought air travel to a screeching halt and offered Newman the time she needed to polish her work.

“(Writing) was frankly something that helped me stay afloat,” Newman said. “I loved having something to focus on and disappear into and work on during that time.”

By early 2021, Newman and Salerno were ready to begin shopping Falling. And while every step to that point had been a struggle, finding a publisher was not.

“The first publisher we showed it to was like, ‘Yeah we want it. We absolutely want it,’” Newman reported. “And that was that.”

Newman’s two-book deal with Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, has been reported as a seven-figure deal. If that wasn’t enough, a week later, Salerno secured a seven-figure movie rights deal with Universal Pictures.

Newman acknowledges such deals are “exceptionally rare and pretty incredible,” and that the financial security she has been granted allowed her to leave her job as a flight attendant earlier this year.

“I just wanted to write a story and get it published, so things like movie deals never entered my mind,” Newman said. “This is just so beyond my wildest dreams.”

· · ·

Newman visits with Bob Murray ’82 at a book signing event in Chicago. Murray recruited Newman to Illinois Wesleyan at a college fair in Phoenix two decades ago.
Newman visits with Bob Murray ’82 at a book signing event in Chicago. Murray recruited Newman to Illinois Wesleyan at a college fair in Phoenix two decades ago.

Torri “T.J.” Newman has seen her name in the bright lights of Times Square. She’s been featured in the biggest newspapers in the country. Falling is on bestseller lists everywhere, and a top seller on Amazon and Apple.

Newman’s success is the result of years of work and perseverance, but also a lifetime of experiences.

That includes her four years at Illinois Wesleyan. She serendipitously discovered IWU at a college fair in downtown Phoenix during her senior year of high school. Within 15 minutes of meeting then-Director of Admissions Bob Murray ’82 and learning about the University some 1,600 miles from her hometown, “I knew I had found the university I would attend,” Newman said.

Reminders of her time at IWU are ever-present. Her condo is filled with furniture she’s reupholstered with skills learned from a senior honors project. Hanging above the desk where she wrote and edited much of Falling is artwork created in a scenic painting class at IWU.

“I can say with bedrock conviction that my time at Illinois Wesleyan has been vitally important to my life story,” Newman said.

Other experiences proved similarly vital. Her struggle trying to make it on Broadway. Rediscovering a passion for writing while working at the bookstore. And, of course, the firsthand experience of working on a flight crew.

“It’s funny now, I look back and everything makes so much sense. Every step along the path and every piece of the puzzle just makes sense,” Newman said. “As I was experiencing it all, it did not feel that way. It did not make sense. It did not feel like there was a grander plan. I just kept moving toward what I thought felt right.”

Newman finished her book tour in September. Sales of Falling remain strong. She’s started on her second book, but isn’t sharing details. She doesn’t want to jinx it.

It’s been a whirlwind success for someone who fought hard to find it. There’s been little time to stop and smell the roses, but moments like the one in her parents’ kitchen back in July have prompted reflection.

“Those moments have popped up every so often during this process,” Newman said. “And they’ve just made all the late nights, all the early mornings, all the rejection and doubt and insecurity, it’s made it all worth it.”