From $35K a Year to 5 Seven-Figure Deals: Flight Attendant-Turned-Author T.J. Newman is Living Her Dream

The author is following up her heart-pounding debut novel, Falling, with her second, nail-biting thriller, Drowning, The Rescue of Flight 1421, which debuts May 30

Jesse Rieser, SIMON & SCHUSTER T.J. Newman
Jesse Rieser, SIMON & SCHUSTER T.J. Newman

T.J. Newman still drives her trusty 2011 Hyundai Sonata and lives in the one-bedroom condo she's called home for the past 11 years.

But she's also one of the publishing world's newest superstars — a newly minted New York Times bestselling author who scored a seven-figure book deal for her first two thrillers, her edge-of-your-seat debut novel, Falling (described by author Don Winslow as "Jaws at 35,000 feet") and her much-awaited second book, Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421, which debuts May 30.

Her newest page-turner, Drowning, spins a harrowing tale about a flight from Honolulu to San Francisco that crashes into the ocean six minutes after takeoff. The plane sinks with 12 people sealed inside, including a father and his 11-year-old daughter.

"Their hope of survival lies with an elite rescue team on the surface led by her mother — and his soon-to-be ex-wife," Newman tells PEOPLE.

"It's a deeply emotional story about love and loss and family and the lengths we're willing to go to protect the people that we love," she says.

Falling, which debuted in 2021 as a No. 1 national bestseller, No. 2 on The New York Times bestseller list and became Simon & Schuster's fastest-selling hardcover fiction debut in nearly 20 years, tells the story of a pilot faced with a Sophie's Choice-type of ultimatum from terrorists: crash the plane full of passengers that he's flying — or his wife and young children will die.

Newman is riding high these days, especially since Universal and Working Title, and Warner Bros., respectively, just optioned the two books in high-profile bidding wars. She entertained seven-figure offers from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Top Gun Maverick producer Jerry Bruckheimer and La La Land director Damien Chazelle.

"I am still pinching myself every single day," the Arizona native says of the tsunami of good fortune that's come her way in recent years. "I cannot believe I get to do what I love and have always wanted and dreamed of doing. It's winning the dreamer's Powerball. I don't know how I got this lucky."

Though Newman has achieved the holy grail for aspiring authors, this lifelong dreamer remains as grounded as ever. She spends her days working on her craft and with her circle of family and close friends — including the flight attendants she bonded with while working the red-eye from L.A. to New York for Virgin America for ten years.

Courtesy of T.J. Newman T.J. Newman
Courtesy of T.J. Newman T.J. Newman

"With everything that has changed in my life, which is literally everything, I still feel like I'm authentically me," says Newman. "And I kind of hope that never ever changes."

Admittedly, her new job responsibilities do border on the surreal at times. Recently, she had to scramble around her apartment to quickly pick up clothes off the floor, fix her hair and swipe on some lip gloss before an impromptu Zoom call with Nicole Kidman about the film rights to Drowning that her agent forgot to tell her about.

"My first thought was, "I have to wash my hair!" she says, laughing. "I told him, 'Next time please give me a heads up if we are going to have a meeting with any big name."

Her agent, The Story Factory founder Shane Salerno, is able to book such high-level meetings because Newman is delivering with the best of them. Her fasten-your-seatbelts-it's going-to-be-a-bumpy-ride'-style novels have been compared to iconic thrillers such as Jaws by Peter Benchley and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. That's no surprise, considering she herself finds it hard to pass up an action-packed story.

"I'm a woman, but my favorite movies and books have always been big blockbusters action thrillers." (Top Gun is one of her favorite movies of all time. "If you work in aviation, it is the thing," she says.)

Her love of everything fast and furious comes in handy as a female thriller writer in a genre dominated by male authors.

"The books that I've written have been explosions and plane crashes and fire, and not the typical stuff that a woman writes," she says. "I write those stories, as seen through a female lens."

Newman deftly mixes sweat-inducing plots and cliffhanger-ending chapters with what she describes as the heart of her stories: relationships, love, betrayal, fear, loss, grief and hope.

"Those emotions don't have a gender," she says. "I always find it such a huge compliment when a reader will say to me, 'My father-in-law loved it.' I feel like when I get the father-in-law stamp of approval, it means something."

From Broadway to Bookselling

Newman's life these days is a far cry from serving drinks and dinner as a First-Class flight attendant who jotted down dialogue and plot points on cocktail napkins in the galley when her well-heeled passengers were sleeping.

"It's so weird to know I was up there daydreaming and working on my story while plating the chicken entrée – and then serving a producer who would later be pitching me about securing rights to my movie," she says.

Once upon a time, Newman was dreaming another big dream: to become a star on Broadway. After studying musical theater in college she moved to New York, supporting herself with "survival" jobs including passing out fliers in Times Square in between going on theater auditions. Despite all her efforts, "I fell flat on my face," she says. "I failed miserably."

Feeling dejected, she moved back home with her family in Arizona, noting how she was trying to "figure out my life on every to-do list I created," she says in an "Open Letter to Dreamers" she recently wrote for Deadline Hollywood. "I meant it sincerely. It never got scratched off."

Since she'd been scribbling down stories since she was a kid and is a "huge, huge reader," her mom suggested she get a job at Changing Hands, a local book store in Phoenix.

"When I got the job at the bookstore, it was like coming home on multiple levels," says Newman. "That's when I started to give myself permission to dream again, because I thought I had used up all my personal quota of creative risk. It was like, 'Be an adult. Get a job. You failed at what you dreamed of, so now it's time to be serious.'"

Hard as she tried, she couldn't shut off the creative tap in her brain that kept flowing with ideas for dramatic scenes, dialogue and plots. So she kept writing, even when she joined "the family business" in 2011 and became a flight attendant like her mother and sister.

Courtesy of T.J. Newman
Courtesy of T.J. Newman

"It's a wonderful job," she says. "An opportunity came up with Virgin America I knew would be a perfect fit and I felt like I couldn't pass it up," she says.

Since Newman's brain is always in high gear when it comes to ideas, it's no surprise that the high-concept idea for her debut novel came to her at, you guessed it, a high altitude.

While working a red-eye from Los Angeles to New York, she recalls, "standing at the front of the plane, looking out into the cabin. It's dark, cold and everyone's asleep.

"I had this thought that the lives of everyone on board are in the hands of the pilots. I thought of the flip side of that: with that much power and responsibility, how vulnerable does that make the pilots?"

She couldn't get that horrifying scenario out of her head. "A few days later, I was working a different trip and I said to the captain, 'What would you do if your family was taken and you were told that if you didn't crash the plane, they would be killed?'

"The look on his face terrified me because I knew that he didn't have an answer and I knew that that terrified him," she says.

"That was the moment that I knew I had the makings of my first book."

Courtesy of T.J. Newman
Courtesy of T.J. Newman

Armed with a gripping plot, she began working on her first novel, writing as many as 25 drafts before she began sending a query and sample pages to prospective agents.

Never, Ever Give Up

Just like her attempts to break into the theater world, Newman was now faced with the harsh realities of the competitive publishing industry when 41 agents turned her down.

"I felt those rejections," she says. "Even with my history in New York, it still hurts. You can only build up thick skin so thick.

"But I just kept telling myself, 'I didn't come this far just to come this far.' And I knew that if I stopped, I would regret it."

So she kept going and sent her sample pages to Salerno.

At this point, she says, she felt like she had nothing to lose, and tossed a note she scribbled on a yellow legal pad in the envelope at the last minute. It said something to the effect of, "This is destined to be a best-seller/you'd be a fool to pass this up," she recalls.

"It was a bold pitch from someone who could not have felt less bold," she says, laughing.

"The craziest part of the story," she notes, is that Salerno doesn't normally open the mail in his office. But the day her manuscript arrived, fate intervened when his assistant was out sick and Salerno opened the envelope.

"And it was because of that brash note that he turned the page to the query letter and read in the first paragraph, the concept of the story. And when he read it, he was like, 'Dang, she's right.'"

Salerno, whose screenwriting credits include Avatar: The Way of the Water, Armegeddon and Shaft, immediately saw movie potential in Newman's pages.

"Falling was the first and only unsolicited manuscript I've ever become involved in," Salerno tells PEOPLE. "There was something special about T.J., her idea and her commitment to becoming both a better writer and to bettering her life that was impossible to ignore. In my opinion, if she stays on this path, the only ceiling that will exist will be the one she sets for herself."

The rest, as they say, is history.

"It's extraordinary that an author, any author, let alone a new author, would debut at #2 on The New York Times bestseller list, have her books sold in over 30 countries around the world, win widespread critical acclaim, be named to high-profile best book of the year lists, and then follow that incredible success with two separate massive seven-figure film deals with Universal Pictures and Warner Brothers," says Salerno.

"T.J. has really become Hollywood's favorite new author and that is reflected in the Oscar winning filmmakers that have pursued her work and the financial level of the deals she has made."

On the eve of her next book debut, she's busy working on the screenplay for Falling and "deep into" her third novel.

Courtesy of T.J. Newman T.J. Newman
Courtesy of T.J. Newman T.J. Newman

No matter what happens, she says it's a privilege to be able to write for a living.

"I'm still doing exactly what I always wanted to do, which is think up big stories in ways that people will be entertained by," she says. "I've got so many stories in my head.

"I'm having the time of my life."

For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on People.