As much as I love interacting with authors who are different from me on any level, I also enjoy finding those authors who remind me just a little of myself. 2021 Debuts author Tabitha Forney is one such author for two reasons: 1. she “writes books to appease the voices in her head,” and 2. she draws from real life when putting a story on the page. Her debut novel, Paper Airplanes, which released earlier this month, came about partially because her husband, who was on the 85th floor of the North Tower, survived that tragic day. The book has been named on several lists already, including The Most Anticipated Books of Fall at Women.com, 16 Books Coming Out This Fall We Can’t Wait to Read at She Knows, and the Hasty Book List, and reviewers are enjoying it as well. All good fodder to keep a busy author like Tabitha smiling. I’m much obliged to her for taking time out out of her day to answer a few of my questions.
Christina: Paper Airplanes features a woman whose husband dies in the events of 9/11. Your own husband survived 9/11. What made you decide to write a work of fiction rather than a memoir?
Tabitha: Honestly, our story isn’t that remarkable or unusual among stories of that day, and I didn’t feel the need to write a memoir about it. His survival story is necessary and interesting to people, but that’s his story, not mine. He survived, we moved on. It wasn’t until many years later, laden with the weight of time, that our story became interesting to me. But the what-if stories called to me from the beginning, beckoned me, pressed against my thoughts with their urgency. What if he had died? What would I have done? How would I have gone on? How long would I have lingered? What regrets would have made me wake in the middle of night, gasping for breath? I also had a hard time processing the breadth of the tragedy, and so I decided to focus on one person, one story as a lens through which to view the whole of the tragedy. At the 9/11 Museum in September of 2015, I zeroed in on the story of one victim, a sweet looking man in his late twenties with a crooked grin and a fiancée he never got to see walk down the aisle. Writing it for myself was first priority and sharing it with the world was second. I was also cognizant of the fact that it would be painfully difficult for a victim’s family member to delve so deeply into a work of fiction of their own. Finally, I wanted to honor the memory of those whose best and only option on that bright September morning was to fall over one hundred stories to their deaths.
Christina: David Eagleman wrote of the book that “Forney takes us into the searing rupture of that day—and the unstable life that followed—with fortitude and insight, grace and eloquence, reckoning and ultimately peace.” How difficult was it to capture those emotions on the page? Did anything surprise you as you wrote the story? Along those same lines, how did you balance the imagined versus the real?
Tabitha: It is amazing to me that he wrote these words, and I’m honored and humbled that he loved the book. I like to think that I captured those emotions, but really it was just me feeling my way through. Putting myself in those situations. Method acting. Doing a lot of research. Finding fortitude. Being brave and going into the dark places. Talking about the people who fell is brave and scary. That’s why a lot of people don’t do it. It’s emotional sandpaper to think about the conditions that led them there, much less to recreate them. It was not an easy chapter to write. The insight he refers to I must have gained through being married to a survivor and copious amounts of research. Grace? I’m not sure. I think I felt the story as if it happened to me, at times banging away on my keyboard through tears. Again, method acting. Reckoning—I knew Erin had to hit rock bottom a few times, had to wrestle with the dragon and come out on top. We all do. That’s called life.
Christina: The description of Paper Airplanes ends this way: “It’s not until [Erin] 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?” How important to you was it to end the book in a hopeful manner? Why?
Tabitha: Peace is what I wanted for Erin the whole time. I think this is what we all want, for everyone we love. And I do know and love Erin. It’s difficult for me to put my characters through challenging times. This is one of the most common mistakes of novice writers: they don’t throw enough shit at their characters. Characters need shit thrown at them, and they need to work their way through it because readers relate to this on a basic, human level. Stories are there to teach us how to think, and how to survive.
As for the end of the story, and for all of our stories: We all like to think we will realize peace in the end, and not just through nonexistence. So, I always want to end my stories with some peace and hope, even if distant and ephemeral.
Christina: Twenty years have passed since 9/11. Does a day go by that you don’t think of it? What discussions about 9/11 do you have with your children? What lessons have you learned from your children?
Tabitha: This is a question I get a lot and one I did not anticipate. Thinking about it makes me feel a little neglectful as a parent that I haven’t put more time into discussing this with them. They have learned about it through osmosis, and through many interactions over the years. My husband speaks about his experience and has spoken to my children’s elementary school and middle school classes. Through that experience, their friends find out and ask them questions, which triggers them to ask us questions. We generally just answer their questions factually, without too much drama. My oldest daughter, who is 18, is reading the book now. When she’s finished, I will ask for her thoughts. My youngest, who is in fifth grade, just went through a lesson on 9/11 and told her teachers about her daddy’s story. Her teachers all wanted to read his account. It does make them feel a little special, but also a little confused as to the scope of the tragedy and their potential non-existence, which pivoted on a very fine and capricious line.
Christina: Your bio states that you’re a “yoga devotee.” What does yoga do for you? How long have you practiced it? Do you find it to reduce/manage the symptoms of trauma? What other suggestions do you have when it comes to healing from a traumatic event like 9/11?
Tabitha: I could go on for pages about what yoga has done for me. First and foremost, it has helped me learn to stay in my lungs and breathe. My motto over the last year and a half has been “One Breath at a Time.” I did not know how to breathe until I began to do yoga, and I’m still working on it. Of course, we all breathe. But I’m talking about breath as a superpower. Breath as a drug. Breath as life. Breath as the only thing we have in the current moment.
Before I started doing yoga, I had body dysmorphia issues. I was never comfortable in my body. My nagging inner voice was constantly criticizing myself. Yoga helped me align my mind with my body. From the first class I did in January of 2002, I knew I had finally found the solution for the disconnect and discomfort I felt in my own skin. I know that sounds crazy, but I just do not understand how people can get through their day without the healing energy of yoga.
Yoga makes you find strength and flexibility where you didn’t know you had it. It aligns every part of your body. It helps you breathe through the difficulty and let go of the struggle. One of my favorite mantras is “lose the struggle, not the effort.” And I believe that some sort of daily meditative practice, whatever it may be, is essential to overcoming trauma and living the life you want to live.
Christina: In addition to being a writer, you’re also an attorney. What sort of law do you practice? How does the law profession inform your writing?
Tabitha: I have a history as a tax attorney, mostly tax controversy (that involves disputes with the IRS at all levels, from examination to appeals to litigation). I currently have a hybrid practice but mostly focus on tax-exempt organizations. I never studied creative writing as a discipline, so the only training I have as a writer is through legal writing. Writing definitely augments my legal practice, as a good writer is effective at whatever she chooses to do, whether it be law or circus performances. As for the legal practice influencing my writing, it has helped me to be disciplined about the craft, and persevere through adversity.
Christina: Do you have a writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
Tabitha: I’m currently so busy launching my debut into the world, working, and raising three kids that unfortunately the creative writing has fallen to the wayside. But when I am in my writing groove, I try to create the space and time to write every day. If I don’t write every day, I don’t beat myself up. But writing every day, even if it’s just for a moment in time, helps maintain the connection to the story and propels it into life, little by little, one day at a time. For me, there’s no substitute for daily progress.
I write whenever I can, wherever I can. Sitting in my closet hiding from the kids and dog and UPS delivery person ringing the bell, in the carpool line dictating into my phone, waking in the middle of the night and scribbling thoughts onto a pad of paper. I write when I’m doing dishes and in the shower. I develop characters and solve plot issues on walks with writer friends. When I’m in a story, it consumes my every thought and comes into life so fully that I hear the voices of characters in my head.
Also, I know it sounds crazy but I absolutely love the process of editing. It’s taking something already there and making it better, making it shine and zap and sizzle, which is so much easier than facing the blank page.
Christina: What’s next for you?
Tabitha: I have one other book finished, with the working title of 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 becoming 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.
Thanks to Tabitha for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.