Thursday, September 16, 2021

Tabitha Forney Interview - Paper Airplanes

Photo Credit: Chris Cander

Tabitha Forney writes books to appease the voices in her head. She’s a mom, attorney, and yoga devotee who lives in Houston with her three kids and a husband who was on the 85th floor of the North Tower on 9/11 and lived to tell about it.

Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
I am a huge believer in the power of words to guide us, show us, heal us, and inspire us. On a basic level, words are what set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Without the ability to communicate our thoughts and write them down for posterity, humankind wouldn’t progress. We would just keep re-learning the same things over and over in each lifetime, without the ability to preserve the knowledge gained from those who went before.

While words set humans apart, storytelling makes us human. It fosters a collective consciousness and allows us to empathize with other people. As Lisa Cron pointed out in her book Wired for Story, handing down stories is essential to our very survival because it allows us to identify potential dangers and rehearse what we would do if faced with similar situations. Stories connect us with other people and their experiences in a way that is so essential to our lives and well-being that our brains crave them and revel in them. Reading or hearing a good story is not just a way to escape, it’s living life in its most engrossing and connected sense.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
It’s all been so rewarding and overwhelming at the same time. Writing a book is not at all the same as publishing and marketing it. I wasn’t prepared for the steep learning curve or the emotional highs and lows of sharing your innermost thoughts with the world. Probably the biggest high along the way was the moment I opened the box containing the advance reader copies of PAPER AIRPLANES. Some of my best friends were in my kitchen and we were enjoying a fun Friday afternoon when one of them carried the box in from my front porch. I wasn’t expecting the books to arrive that day. I was genuinely surprised and so incredibly excited, and it was wonderful to share that moment with good friends after a dark and lonely year of Covid, and after many years of writing in quiet solitude without acknowledgment from the outside world.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I have one other book finished, called THE SEVEN BEST WAYS TO DIE. It alternates between the story of Rosie Callahan (who makes a brief appearance in PAPER AIRPLANES as the FDNY operator who took Daniel’s 9-1-1 call), and that of her mother Mary, who dies under mysterious circumstances when Rosie is ten. Mary is a Welsh housewife who has dreams of being a famous singer but instead ends up stuck in Staten Island with two kids and an abusive husband. I’m also working on KEEPER OF THE BONES which follows the 16th century skeletal remains of a young queen to current day as they are handed down to Annie, the last in her line of female descendants. And finally, I’m working on a fictionalized account of a six-figure PTO embezzlement scandal that happened at the posh public elementary school where my kids attended. That one is a lot of fun.

Can you tell us when you started PAPER AIRPLANES, how that came about?
PAPER AIRPLANES began its journey in September of 2015, when I toured the September 11 Museum for the first time. My husband Billy and I lived in New York City from 2000 to 2003, but we had since moved back to Texas to raise a family. He was at work on the 85th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 when the first plane hit. Like most people on the 91st floor and below, he was able to escape the building and get out safely, and even helped people along the way. After that day, we tried to move on. We had kids and jobs and busy lives and we tried not to dwell on the “what if” scenarios that inevitably snaked their way into our thoughts.

But when we visited the museum, it all came back. I was emotionally overwhelmed by the intensity of the displays at the museum, especially the artifacts found and excavated from the site, the speakers overhead playing clips of news footage from that day, and, tucked away in an alcove with warning signs to those who dared enter, images of the victims who fell to their deaths. The line between my husband and those images, between life and death, was disturbingly close. I studied their faces, scrutinized their stories, wondered how their wives and husbands and parents and children moved on. After the tour, I went straight to the airport, and at the gate I opened my laptop and began to write the prologue. I am lost for words to describe what the victims and their loved ones must have experienced that day, but I did my best to acknowledge them, remember them, honor them.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I want readers to feel inspired to keep going even in the midst of tragedy and uncertainty. I want them to see the connections between the bad and good things that happen, and that sometimes good things can’t happen without the bad. And to never take things or people for granted. I also want them to have an appreciation for what it was like for people trapped in the WTC towers in New York on 9/11/01. We have so much information about the events of that day, but we know next to nothing about what it was like to have been on those floors with no chance of escape. This is why I wrote the prologue, the one part of the book told from Daniel’s point of view.

In the North Tower, the gap between those who survived and those who didn’t was less than twelve feet. If you were on or above the 92nd floor, you died. If you were on the 91st floor or below, you had a 99% chance of survival. As the wife of a survivor who was uncomfortably close to that bright line, I wanted to explore what it would have been like if my husband had been on the other side. To plumb the emotional depths of how I would have survived if he hadn’t. The writing and the research were taxing and emotionally charged.

In the end, I want readers to feel the redemptive power of being alive, and feel strong enough to make it through the tragic or difficult situations in their own lives.

What part of Erin did you enjoy writing the most?
Erin was a challenge because I really wanted to show her arc from being more of a superficial, perfection-seeking young woman to a deeper, more thoughtful human. It was difficult to make her relatable before 9/11, when she was more self-centered and shallow. Digging deep into her childhood to explain how both personalities could exist in the same person, with the turning point being a national tragedy and the loss of her husband, was a challenge I enjoyed because I learned so many things about her as a person, many of which never showed up on the page but all of which informed her character and her journey. I also think this is a transformation that many of us who lived through 9/11 could relate to, even if we didn’t lose anyone on that day.

Did you learn anything from writing PAPER AIRPLANES and what was it?
So much! I learned that I could write and finish a book, and rewrite and edit the book ad nauseam, and rewrite it again and again and survive the process. I learned to follow my heart and write what I am called to write, rather than what someone else thinks will sell. I learned to be true to my characters and their story and give them everything I have, and then release it all to the world. I learned that the industry is fickle, and that experts don’t always know what they’re talking about. I learned to never give up on writing.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
This is such a great question! And one that made me think. I guess I would introduce Erin to Scarlett O’Hara, because each went through difficult circumstances, lost her true love, and came out stronger in the end. And Scarlett was just a badass, like Erin.

Tell me about a favorite event of your childhood.
Reading books to my heart’s content while hiding from my mean stepfather in my elderly neighbors’ book nook, with my kind neighbors bringing me lemonade and cookies.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Write a book! Also, visit Telluride.

Best date you've ever had?
I have to give this one to my husband. On one of our first dates, he brought me a dozen long-stemmed red roses and took me to Game 7 of the NBA Finals, where we sat courtside as the Rockets defeated the Knicks for the championship. Spike Lee sat behind us. None of the other dates quite matched that one. I also like to go on dates with myself and get lost in a museum or a book store for hours.

What was the first job you had?
I worked in my parents’ video stores when I was growing up, starting around age 12. I don’t think I was paid for that work until I was 16 though. My first job where I was not employed by force was as a server at the Rice Faculty Club when I was in college.

Which incident in your life totally changed the way you think today?
A recent legal battle against my stepfather has made me realize how strong and capable I am, and how much power there is in the truth. It has also helped me to recast my view of the patriarchy from something natural and comforting to something controlling and abusive that no longer has a place in my life. Stay tuned for this event to show up in my work!

What were you doing the last time you really had a good laugh?
I was at the Hotel Zaza celebrating my birthday with a group of my very best friends in the world. It was about 1 a.m. and we were having a ball. I can’t even remember what we were talking about or why we were laughing, but it was the best night I’d had in a long time.

First Heartbreak?
Tom Cruise, when he didn’t find me and ask me to marry him right after he made Top Gun.

What was a time in your life when you were really scared?
There was an approximately two-hour period between learning that a plane had crashed into the building where my husband worked and receiving a message from the front desk at the London hotel I had just checked into, via my husband’s father’s secretary in Houston, that he was okay. That was an incredibly scary and difficult two-hour period. I was more numb and in shock than scared, but it was terrifying. In hindsight, the message could have been a false reassurance. He might have been okay when he left the message but not subsequently. But at the time, I clung dearly to that piece of paper, which I still have.

  • 1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • 2. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  • 3. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • 4. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • 5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
  • 6. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  • 7. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  • 8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • 9. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
  • 10. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes from PAPER AIRPLANES
Here are a few of my favorite passages and quotes from the book. Enjoy!

EXCERPT 1 – pp. 9-10
A paper airplane hung in the afternoon air and glided to a landing in front of the park bench where Erin sat reading. It was a design she recognized, angles sharp and intentional. Daniel’s paper airplanes were works of art, sleek and aerodynamic. She smiled, standing up and searching among the people walking, jogging, standing nearby, but couldn’t find him. As it sank, the sun painted streaks of gold across the Hudson. Peals of laughter rang out from a knot of children playing a few hundred yards away. It could have been child’s play, but something told her it was him.

In the years to come Erin would think back on this moment often, as we do later in life about the moments that define us. Dissecting why we make the decisions we make, choose the people we choose when, on paper, other people would do just as well. On paper, Daniel and Erin weren’t necessarily suited—a girl from Texas and a boy from the Bronx—except, of course, that paper started it all. But how can one ever identify or sort out what makes one person attracted to another? It’s chemistry or kismet or pheromones or the subtleties of facial structure, or some combination of it all. It’s genetics and upbringing, nature and nurture and timing and choices made by you and the other person and a million other people before you that lead you to that one moment when you make your decision.

She said yes.

But what if she hadn’t? What if, instead of her heart thrilling at the sight of a paper airplane flying toward her out of nowhere, she’d been scared, or hesitant, or impressed with his intrepidness but not at all ready? After all, before Daniel, she’d never imagined this moment. Never wondered what her new last name would be, never folded up those paper fortune-tellers in middle school to divine the number of kids she’d have and all their names. Never dreamed of planning her wedding or what her dress would look like. She might have said no, or not yet, or Can I take a rain check? Or what if she’d said yes but then dreamt dreams where her subconscious brought out her fears—dreams about sitting at a table with impossibly tall stacks of invitations to address, being chased into corners, wanting to flee but feeling weighted down, limbs mired in molasses? Maybe things would have turned out differently.

Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have. We can’t rewind. Fate is hard to challenge since we never know its contenders.

EXCERPT TWO – p. 178
The harsh spotlight of the sun belonged to producers and overachievers, not drug-addled widows throwing in the towel on life. But night hours formed a widow’s shroud. They passed without comment or judgment, without the useless activity that occupied the day. There were no banal platitudes or affected smiles, only drinks and pills and shadowy corners. The self-inflicted physical pain of a hangover was far better than grief-induced emotional pain, and there was the benefit of the blissful numbing that preceded it.

Erin had found her cure.

EXCERPT THREE – pp. 195-196
Erin crawled out of bed, pushed the curtains back, and unlocked the sliding glass door. Walked out onto the cold floor of the balcony, grasping the black metal railing. Cars and trucks zoomed by on a four-lane road below her. It was cloudy and drizzly, the sun hidden behind a thick layer of fog. Even if she could see the sun, she wouldn’t know which direction she was facing.

She was high up. From the buildings around her, she guessed about ten floors.

Her legs quavered, long stalks the color of skim milk. She hadn’t worn lipstick in a year but she was still superficial, this body all she’d ever be. Deadened synapses, air on skin, the rail at her fingertips. Pills and liquor a substrate for her own thin veneer.

She slipped bare feet onto the bottom bar and climbed to the top. Teetered as she lifted to tiptoes, grabbing the rough concrete of the building beside her. Below, a few pedestrians walked. A light breeze ruffled her hair. She wiped the strands from her eyes, lips.

The distance between Erin and the ground was the only thing separating her from Daniel.

She wondered how it would feel to just drop, let go of everything and finally know exactly what he’d experienced. But no, she would never really know. There was no raging fire behind her. He had been over ninety floors higher. Ninety floors. What must he have experienced—disbelief, horror, abject terror?—when just these ten floors caused her stomach to flip, anticipating the plummet to certain death.

Erin had always been good at math. She liked it because it was logical and universal. It applied to everyone equally, regardless of race, gender, religion. And so Erin had done the math, a million times, sick and twisted as it was:

9.8 meters per second per second

101 floors, 1,256 feet, 383 meters

Ten seconds to impact, ten seconds of flying

Speed at impact = approximately 170 miles per hour

It would have felt like getting hit by a race car at the Indy 500.

Her toes teetered on the narrow edge of the banister. From where she balanced, it would take about three seconds. Three seconds of the wind whipping her hair, her dress. Three seconds to freedom.

But she couldn’t. She was a coward, not brave like Daniel. She pushed off, back to the cold concrete of the balcony, as someone shouted and a hand pulled her from behind. She fell into him, landing hard. Spencer thudded into the glass door, locked his arms over hers and said, “Not on my watch, you crazy bitch.”

EXCERPT FOUR – pp. 216-220
For a moment, Erin stared straight ahead at the sliver of candy-apple metal on the horizon. Dirty, never washed, yet stubbornly bright red, like the hard-lacquered nails of a woman who has it all and wants more. It contrasted starkly with the gaunt, sharp-angled woman she had become. This had been her dream car. The car that belonged to Erin James, the one she drove to Harvard Law and then to New York City, keeping it at a ridiculous cost even though she and Daniel rarely used it. Daniel called her a Texas girl in a Texas car. He pointed out that if they sold it they could have bought round-trip tickets to Europe every three or four months and still pocketed money. But to Erin the car was a symbol of freedom. A level of luxury that most New Yorkers didn’t have access to, and a means of escape in an emergency.

A lot of good the car had done Daniel when he was in trouble.

She turned the key in the ignition and it caught smoothly, purring to life. There was power underneath her fingertips, straining at the gears. She could release it and go wherever she wanted. Families, relationships, possessions are all sharp nails driven into the fabric of life, pinning you down. When they’re ripped away, it gives you freedom but leaves you in tatters.

Erin shifted the gear stick into drive, rolling away from the curb and onto the fog-laden street in front of Laila’s apartment. It was the southbound side of a boulevard lined with museums and old brick apartments and hipster restaurants. The strip of park in the median was bisected by a walkway flanked by bare-branched trees, park benches dotted along the way. Good people were acting as though it were any other day: walking their dogs, sitting cross-legged on park benches watching their kids play, drinking Starbucks coffee from paper cups.

Instead of making a decision, Erin let the impatient car choose its path. After a few blocks a red light stopped her, but the way was clear for a right turn and the car took it. Erin and the Mercedes passed churches and office buildings, trees starkly naked next to trees with bright green leaves. In front of them, a highway was the path of least resistance.

Clouds thickened and reclaimed the day from the sun. They passed low rolling hills beneath a charcoal-gray sky as rain clouds swelled and churned their way inland. Tall shrubs whizzed by, morphing into warehouses, strip malls, gas stations.

Beyond the city, orange public storage units, boat stores, and used car lots gave way to low one-story homes nestled in with trees and tucked behind fences, and eventually to yellow fields dotted with scrub and scraggly pines.

Small towns with worn gas stations and run-down churches, mobile homes and weathered markets calling themselves food stores. Rural scenes that seemed obsequiously committed to existence despite the odds.

Roads became more winding and pine trees thickened, the smell of sap tingeing the air. Low mountains made sporadic appearances from behind the clouds. For almost an hour the car drove, beckoned by the roiling clouds ahead.

And then, a sign.

On the right side of the road stood a square green highway sign on a post, the type Erin had seen many times on many other roads. Three black numbers inside a white bubble shaped like a police badge: 101 North.

Just like Daniel’s floor.

I must be hallucinating, she thought. But no, there it was again, up ahead, this time mounted to a metal truss bridge straddling the road: 101 North to Seaside and Astoria, along with an arrow pointing to her fate.

The world sharpened and became Technicolor. Black beneath, green on both sides, blue above, red all around.

She took the exit.

Wide placid roads, grasses and scrub brush, low hills and the smell of sap. Homes and farm stands selling produce. She drove behind flatbed semis burdened with lumber. Erin embraced head-on every decision she’d made or not made, her father’s betrayal, Laila’s fair-weather friendship, every twisted branch of fate that had brought her here.

The tires hugged the curves of the asphalt path scratched along the Pacific coast. A ray of late afternoon sun streaked through a thinning cloud and shone off the red hood, the garish color of life—the color of fire and hostility, shiny apples and clown noses. Blood, ambition. Lipstick.

The car was an anachronism, a throwback to the brief, happy life that was destroyed along with the towers. It didn’t belong in the gray purgatory of Erin’s present. She gunned the engine, daring the perfect machine to veer from the painted yellow stripes.

Night fell. She crossed over a short bridge and then a much longer one, trussed with steel beams. It looked like one of the many bridges that crossed into and out of Manhattan and led to a glorious stretch of coastal highway. A thin row of boulders bordered the highway on the left and beyond that, the ocean. She cracked the window and heavy salt air infiltrated, bringing in pine and beach and seaweed.

She sped along the dark, jagged coastline and the curves came faster. Tires squealed and rubber burned. Erin gripped the wheel like a race-car driver. The gash in her foot protested as she hit the gas harder. Fat raindrops fell on the windshield, distorting her vision. She flicked on the windshield wipers as she veered left around a curve. Lights flashed behind her.

In the next instant, the windshield cleared and there was no time to react. She braced herself for impact and closed her eyes, hoping for a pain-free ending for both her and the deer. Her breath went in and out in slow motion as the car sped on. The seconds stretched into eons, time in which there was no time because Einstein was right, it was a stubbornly persistent illusion that dropped away when the veil was pulled back. Still no impact. She opened her eyes, expecting to see the deer bounding across the road and to take the next curve to the right. Instead, she stared into glassy doe-brown eyes as the car took out delicate deer legs.

A thud-pop on the windshield, change in air pressure. Cold wind and shattered glass rushed her nose, mouth, hair. Skidding tires, smoking rubber. Screeching of metal on metal and then the car was flying across sharp-edged boulders. Something stopped the car but Erin was flying free, floating through the air. Beneath her was the Mercedes, the boulders, the deer, and in front of her, the wide expanse of the ocean. The joy and freedom of flying.

She closed her eyes and everything went dark.

It’s the end of summer, 2001. Erin O’Connor has everything she’s ever dreamed of: good friends, a high-powered career at a boutique Manhattan firm, and a husband she adores. They have plans for their life together: careers, children, and maybe even a house in the country. But life has other plans. Daniel is a trader who works on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center.

Erin is drinking margaritas on a beach in Mallorca, helping her best friend get over a breakup, when she hears a plane has crashed into Daniel’s building. On a television at the smoky hotel bar, she watches his building collapse. She makes her way home with the help of a stranger named Alec, and once there, she haunts Ground Zero, nearby hospitals, and trauma centers, plastering walls and fences with missing-person flyers. But there’s no trace of Daniel.

After accepting Daniel’s death, Erin struggles to get her life back on track but makes a series of bad decisions and begins to live her life in a self-destructive fog of booze and pills. It’s not until she hits rock bottom that she realizes it’s up to her to decide: Was her destiny sealed with Daniel’s? Or is there life after happily ever after?

You can purchase Paper Airplanes at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you TABITHA FORNEY for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Paper Airplanes by Tabitha Forney.


  1. The first day I left my home town for good and got out on my own. It was an awesome feeling of freedom. Thanks.

  2. The day my daughter died so I could stop it.

  3. "If you had one day in your life to live over, which would you choose and why?" The day something unfortunate happened.

  4. July 3rd, 2021, so I could rethink my choice.

  5. July 25, 2019 - the day my grandson died. I would try to stop his trip to the lake where he drowned.