Writing

How a Flight and a Drink Inspired My Latest Book

Photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Chris Bohjalian is the number one New York Times bestselling author of twenty books. His new novel, The Flight Attendant was just published.

The following confession is either going to make my life sound unbelievably glamorous or suggest that at mid-life I’ve become someone’s embarrassing drunk uncle: My new novel, The Flight Attendant, was born in a bar.

That’s actually appropriate given the amount of tequila – and vodka, gin, and vermouth – my fictional flight attendant tosses back in the course of the book. (Just for the record, very little of that booze is consumed when she’s at 35,000 feet. I mention this because the flight attendants I interviewed for the novel were pretty clear: You don’t ever want to fail a random drug test, or what one called the “whiz quiz,” while working.)

I had just flown into New York from Europe and was meeting a friend for dinner at an Armenian restaurant in Manhattan. I was an hour early and so I went to the bar and ordered arak, an anise-flavored alcohol from the Middle East that is clear until you add ice. Then, magically, it becomes the feathery white of a cirrus cloud.

Often, I’m not sure what the precise inspiration for one of my novels really is. I usually begin with but the vaguest of premises, and then depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. (Exhibit A?  My novel, Midwives. I started that book knowing only that it would be narrated by the daughter of a hippie midwife. But I had absolutely no idea that it would be about a woman who would die in labor and become a courtroom drama.)  “Writing is like driving at night in the fog.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” E. L. Doctorow observed, and that is certainly how I work.

In the case of The Flight Attendant, however, I had three ingredients at the restaurant bar that combined almost alchemically for me. First of all, there was the reality that I had just landed after a transatlantic flight. I fly a lot, but I have never lost my wonder at the miracle of aviation. Likewise, I have always been a little awed by those women and men who choose to become pilots and flight attendants, especially these days – an era of regional jets, airline consolidation, and passengers willing to get into cage fights to the death over space in the overhead bins. Some people assume that a flight attendant’s life is a glamorous world of escape to faraway lands, but it’s not.

Maybe in 1965 it was more exciting and more romantic, because the layovers were longer and we passengers were less likely to travel in sweatpants and flip flops, but for most flight attendants it was never really a world of bacchanalian splendor. (And for women who once upon a time who were stewardesses – a.k.a., “trolley dollies,” “sky muffins,” and “air mattresses” – it could be a horrific, sexist, #metoo moment waiting to happen.) While researching the novel, the more I learned about flight attendants, the more I grew to respect them.

Second, there was the booze before me. I was at a handsome bar and I was jet-lagged just enough to see the aesthetic beauty in the rituals around which we drink: The colors, the bottles, the labels, the glasses. The impeccable rows of shakers and jiggers and stirrers and spears.

And, third, there was the arak before me, an alcohol I am most likely to drink when I am in the Middle East, in such cities as Istanbul and Beirut.

So here was the premise: a flight attendant who is a functioning alcoholic – but otherwise an absolute mess and blackout drunk – wakes up in Dubai after drinking a lot of arak. She’s in bed beside the passenger from seat 2C, a fellow she had picked up on the plane, and he’s dead. Someone has cut his throat and he has bled out on the white sheets and pillow beside her.

I asked the bartender for whatever scrap paper he had and I started to write. I wrote for the next half an hour, completing what would prove to be the first three pages of the novel.

It was two days later, when I was home in Vermont, that I began my research into the life of a flight attendant and why my fictional character’s hook-up might have been executed in Dubai.

One of my goals as a novelist is never to write the same book twice. I’ve written twenty now and some are certainly better than others. But they’ve ranged from historical fiction about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, to contemporary literature about domestic violence, animal rights, and human trafficking.

This new one?  I wanted to combine my obsessions with aviation and travel with my fascination with espionage and, yes, the Russian soul. There are plenty of urban legends about flight attendants as CIA and KGB spies, and great stories (or myths) about the role Pan Am played in the Cold War. Likewise, there are tales of flight attendants as drug couriers and money launderers and all manner of international criminal.

But I was after something different: a flight attendant who isn’t a criminal and is, in fact, a wounded bird who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was thinking of that wonderful Alfred Hitchcock movie, “North by Northwest,” in which hard-drinking ad man Roger Thornhill (the always impeccable, even when soused, Cary Grant) is drawn into a dangerous whirlpool of Russian and American spies, and he’s unsure precisely who wants to kill him and why.

I was well into the novel when two narrative gifts fell into my lap: the news stories of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 Presidential election and the absolutely terrifying anecdotes a commodities trader told me while we were traveling together in Armenia of what happens when a business deal goes bad in places like Donetsk and Dubai. Suddenly, I had anchors for the novel that were at once timely and universal.

My daughter once said to me that my sweet spot as a novelist is “seriously messed up young women.” She was on to something. In the case of The Flight Attendant?  My heroine is just a little bit older – and, yes, in a lot more trouble.

But the good news for anyone who has a fear of flying? All that danger and all that trouble occurs at sea level.