How T.J. Newman went from flight attendant to Hollywood’s most valued disaster novelist

T.J. Newman sits in front of a turbine engine dressed as a flight attendant.
T.J. Newman’s “Drowning” cements her status as a top-notch writer of plane disaster procedurals, following up on her bestselling “Falling,” which netted a $3-million Hollywood adaptation deal.
(T.J. Newman)


'Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421'

By T.J. Newman
Avid Reader: 304 pages, $28

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What seems like a routine flight from Honolulu suddenly isn’t. A jet engine explodes. Disaster strikes in the first sentence of author T.J. Newman’s adrenaline-infused new thriller, “Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421.”

Like the passengers gawping at the flames, the reader cannot look away. It’s wired somewhere deep into our caveman brain — we’re bewitched by calamity. Newman expertly manipulates that impulse while drawing on her own experiences as a flight attendant who, judging by her latest novel, as well as her 2021 bestselling debut, “Falling,” has flown her fair share of unfriendly skies. Armed with the inside dope on what can go wrong at 36,000 feet, she has parlayed it into a pair of thrillers that are catnip to Hollywood producers.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Flight 1421 goes down. But before it does, we get glimpses of 12 survivors of the 99 aboard the doomed plane. Will Kent, an engineer who designs ocean oil rigs, and his daughter, Shannon, a precocious 11-year-old, live in the shadow of her sister’s death from an accident years earlier. In the cockpit is veteran pilot Kit Callahan, a natural leader who takes command. Working with her are an assortment of flight attendants and crew, as well as passengers — Ryan, widowed in the crash; Andy, the resident jackass; an elderly couple, Ira and Ruth; and Maia, a girl roughly Shannon’s age.


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How does one survive a sinking plane? There are various methods, many of them meticulously researched and painstakingly presented by Newman in a book that is primarily about problem-solving in the face of death.

In an early passage, as the pilots prepare to ditch, Kit looks up at a series of buttons she’s never had to push before. We learn they are called the “Help me, Jesus” buttons: Looking up reminds you to pray.

"Drowning," by T.J. Newman
(Avid Reader)

There is no shortage of unfamiliar buttons. By the time bright red letters in the cockpit spell out “ENG 1 FADEC FAULT,” you might think you need a degree in engineering to follow what’s going on. You don’t. Newman breaks it down in clear and unobtrusive fashion, her details as elemental and engaging as the minutiae of spycraft are to an espionage thriller. When made digestible and propulsively dramatic, the jargon elevates the material to its own new genre — the disaster procedural.

Years spent working for Virgin America obviously afforded the author intimate behind-the-scenes knowledge, as well as access to technical specialists. But much of the technology deployed in the book’s recovery effort required Newman to plow through confusing manuals and talk to people with esoteric expertise.

The work has clearly paid off; the author has found a winning formula and pitched it with stunning persistence. After being rejected by 41 agents, “Falling,” the debut Newman had written on the red-eye between LAX and JFK, sold to Simon & Schuster’s Avid Reader Press in a seven-figure preemptive offer and went on to become a New York Times bestseller. About a pilot given an ultimatum by terrorists — either crash his jet full of passengers or see his family perish — the novel set off a bidding war for film rights, with “Ozark” actor-producer Jason Bateman and “The Batman” director Matt Reeves in the mix. Universal eventually won out, with Newman serving as screenwriter.

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“Drowning” sparked yet another bidding war earlier this year with even bigger names involved: Nicole Kidman, Alfonso Cuarón, the Russo brothers, M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg. In the end, it came down to five parties with seven-figure offers; final contenders included Jerry Bruckheimer and Damien Chazelle. Warner Bros. prevailed at $1.5 million for the rights and another $1.5 million on the first day of production.

Drowning” is the type of story in which characters are constantly confronted with impossible choices. As in real life, options range from bad to worse. And once a path is determined, a new curve throws it off course, demanding technical know-how, ingenuity and sheer guts that seem beyond a character’s capacities.

Enter Chris Kent. She is Will’s estranged wife, Shannon’s mother and the owner and manager of an ocean salvage operation recruited by the Navy in the rescue effort.


Newman crosses the “t” in “blockbuster” many times over, but she is savvy enough to lean harder on archetypes than on stereotypes, finding genuine poignancy in the relationship between Will and Chris — frightened and alone, grappling with guilt and pain over the death of their eldest. Pathos also deepens scenes involving incidental characters — an old woman mourning the loss of her husband; ad hoc pallbearers descending the aisle of the submerged fuselage, relinquishing the dead to a watery grave.

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It’s difficult to imagine how the tension in “Drowning,” which is harrowing throughout, might escalate as the rescue reaches a climax. Determined to save her family, Chris courts death in the darkest reaches of the ocean in a last-ditch effort as the plane teeters on the abyss. The pace is blinding, the suspense electrifying, the human drama impassioned.

“Drowning” may not be a book you want to read on a long flight — nor right before bed, unless you’re prepared to stay up all night finishing it. Read it on the beach this summer with your feet in the sand, safe on dry ground where you belong.