How did you go from flight attendant to travel writer?
I’ve spent most of my life trying to travel for free or even get paid to travel. After college, some of my friends did the whole backpacking through Europe thing, but I didn’t have anything resembling a savings account let alone a trust fund, so I became a flight attendant. I got to live abroad, travel to almost every state and to dozens of countries, and I had an unlimited stash of free write-your-own tickets that would get me anywhere I wanted on my days off. It was unbelievable to have that kind of freedom.
Then after 9/11, I got laid off. I was based in London and my work visa was voided, so in a pretty ironic twist, they sent my broke, unemployed ass back to the U.S. – in first class. I desperately didn’t want to leave London or my flat or my friends or my job, so I sat in that first class sleeper suite crying into my Dom Perignon and gourmet cheese plate.
Seriously, though. I was 24 and thought I would die if I had to go back to a gray cubicle. So I spent the entire 10-hour flight working through the What Color is Your Parachute career guide. And I had a brilliant idea. “I know…I’m going to be a travel writer!”
I was so naïve. I didn’t know anything about the media and publishing industries, but I read everything I could and talked to everyone I could and spent every last penny of disposable income on classes. And now I’ve written for the publications I dreamed of, worked as a magazine travel editor, and have a book out.
How did your novel come about?
Honestly, I think I just couldn’t let go of the past. I wrote a lot of short stories and essays about my time at United, partly to process my grief about 9/11, and partly to relive the glory days. But then as those pieces accumulated and gradually started morphing into a novel, I was on a mission to bring the world an authentic, emotional look at the flight attendant life, something more than the caricatures we usually see – the perky bimbo, the battleaxe, the catty gay man. I wanted to really explore what it means to live everywhere and nowhere.
I was completely committed to showing a deeper side of the airline world – funny, serious, good, bad, ugly, sexy, lonely. That said, if I had written this book before 9/11, it probably would have been more glamorous, not just because the industry has changed so much, but because I have. Being a flight attendant really does mean living in this incredible world where anything seems possible, and every day brings something new. But as anyone who travels a lot knows, it’s not always like being on vacation. The thing is, though, the most extraordinary, most life-changing moments usually happen when we’re pushed past our comfort zones.
In the opening pages of your book, you say flight attendants are running away from something. How true is that?
Most of the time, when you get hired as a flight attendant you have to be wiling to relocate to any base the company chooses. It definitely takes a unique kind of person to be able up and leave everything you know. From what I saw, within a few months of starting work, people usually ended up quitting the job or walking away from whatever ties they had. Some people straddled two worlds, but shortly after my class graduated, we had divorces (including mine, lovely story) and girls who quit the moment their boyfriends proposed.
Do you have any other stories from your flight attendant life that didn’t make it in the book?
So many stories just didn’t fit. I would have loved to have included one of my more touching flights. It was Thanksgiving 2000, and a series of long delays and repeated cancellations had put my Albuquerque-bound passengers through the ringer. They had spent hours on the tarmac only to be sent back to the gate, more than once. They’d missed the holiday, and they were pissed, enraged even. It was the kind of fiasco that can turn into death threats and fist fights, truly. But at some point, these people just let go of the anger, decided to make the best of it and bonded with each other and with the crew. To this day it warms my heart that as I was saying “buy-bye,” I was invited to several belated family dinners. Unfortunately, I had to fly on.
Do you have any advice for budding travel writers?
This is not revolutionary, but it’s so often overlooked – study the publications you want to write for as if you were studying for the bar exam. When I was a magazine editor, I can’t tell you how many pitches I got that were wildly off-base. Also, don’t limit yourself to travel magazines or “travel” topics. You can just as easily get a travel story in a food magazine or a food story in a travel magazine. (Hint: Get creative and replace food with fitness or spa or fashion or science.) Almost any topic can be turned into a trip. So go hit the road and tell us about it!
More about Tiffany Hawk: Tiffany Hawk is a former flight attendant and the author of Love Me Anyway, a darkly funny novel about life at 35,000 feet. She has an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside and her work can be seen in such places as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Lisa’s review of Love Me Anyway on Huffington Post.