BOOKS

Guerrilla tactics

Arthur Hailey explores news and terrorism

GREG W. TAYLOR April 23 1990
BOOKS

Guerrilla tactics

Arthur Hailey explores news and terrorism

GREG W. TAYLOR April 23 1990

Guerrilla tactics

BOOKS

Arthur Hailey explores news and terrorism

Even the tangled underbrush of a remote Peruvian jungle, with native guides speaking a rare Indian dialect, was still too close to civilization for Arthur Hailey. Then 67, the author was conducting research for his latest novel, The Evening News (Doubleday, $27.95), and he wanted to experience the jungle firsthand. But he had also hoped to talk to members of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla movement. When Hailey asked for permission to travel to rebel-controlled Ayacucho, an area southeast of Lima, Peruvian officials refused. They pointed out that guerrillas had recently killed at least three journalists who ventured close to their bases. After confirming that information with other sources, Hailey reluctantly accepted that there were limits to how detailed his research could be. Said Hailey last week in a Toronto hotel: “You don't interview Sendero Luminoso and come back alive.”

Dogged, firsthand research—what he calls his need “to get the sight, the sound and the taste” of his subjects—has helped to make Hailey one of the world’s most popular novelists. In 30 years of writing novels, 150 million copies of his books have appeared in 35 languages. His latest, his first novel in six years, bears his trademark detail and complexly plotted story line. And while his writing is often clumsy and his characters one-dimensional, he has convincingly reproduced far more than the lush greenery and mud-caked villages hidden in the Peruvian jungle. He has also captured the controlled frenzy of an American network news operation, the manipulations of terrorists operating on four continents and the boardroom dealings of some powerful corporations— where anything seems expendable for the sake of profit. But his new book is likely to be his last major novel.

Still, Hailey, who turned 70 on April 5, has announced his retirement before. In 1979,

shortly after the publication of his eighth-straight bestseller, Overload, he said, “All I want to do is catch a lot of fish, read a lot of books and spend more time with my family.” (Hailey has six children, three with his first wife, Joan, whom he divorced in 1950, and three with his second wife, Sheila.) Then, in August, 1980, a doctor told the slim, grey-haired author that he had six blocked coronary arteries, which, Hailey said, “made me a walking time bomb.” After emergency quadruple-bypass surgery in Texas, the author quickly returned to his craft, producing a screenplay based on Overload. Then, in 1984, after three years of research, planning and writing, he published Strong Medicine, an unflattering look at the pharmaceutical industry.

But his heart troubles persisted. Late in the summer of 1988, while he was working on The Evening News, his wife, Sheila, found him unconscious on the floor of his study in their Lyford Cay, Bahamas, home. He recovered, and doctors eventually placed a pacemaker in his chest. Despite that setback, he completed the novel only six months late. Now, he says that he will never undertake such a major research and writing project again. But Hailey adds that he is a “compulsive storyteller” who could never stop writing entirely. Travelling across North America on a promotional tour, he told Maclean’s last week that he has already begun work on one of three novellas, based on research material that he has never used. “I’m going to do something at my own pace,” he said. “No contract. No advance. No time limit.” Hailey said that his mixing of fact and fiction came naturally to him. “To me, all life is a story.” Bom in Luton, England, in 1920, the only child of working-class parents, Hailey left school at 14. He worked for several years as an office clerk before joining the Royal Air Force in 1939. Stationed at bases in Europe, Canada, the Middle East and the Far East, he developed a love of flying—he calls it “the poetry of flight”—which has been evident in several of his books.

Hailey says that he became disillusioned with what he saw as a growing tide of socialism in Britain after the war. A self-described “capitalist,” he emigrated to Canada in 1947, where he worked as a real estate agent. He later joined the business publication Bus and Truck Transport—then owned by Maclean Hunter Ltd., publisher of Maclean’s—and eventually became its editor. There he also met Sheila, whom he married in 1951. His breakthrough in fiction took place in 1956 with a dramatic story for television, called Flight into Danger. The

drama, about a passenger flight that nearly crashes after its crew gets food poisoning, was a hit in both Canada and the United States. With that success, Hailey became a full-time fiction writer, moving to California’s Napa Valley in 1965 and to the Bahamas in 1969.

The new book, The Evening News, centres on the kidnapping of the family of a prominent American television anchorman by Sendero terrorists. While the police are looking for clues, a TV news team sets up its own investigation in an effort to save the hostages and—not incidentally—to get the story before the rival networks do.

Hailey said that the main themes for The

Evening News—TV news, terrorism, corporate ownership of TV networks and Peru—came from several directions. A confessed “newsaholic,” the writer reads at least four newspapers daily and watches TV news programs throughout the day. And although Hailey had already spent time around TV studios—particularly during the late 1950s when he was writing screenplays—he decided that his latest project demanded a close look at a modem TV news operation. For him, that included learning how much network owners have changed TV news with their tougher, more profit-oriented attitudes, which often conflict with the ambitions and ethics of the journalists they employ. “Up until a few years ago, the people running the U.S. commercial networks demonstrated a sense of public obligation where news was concerned,” Hailey said. “Now, the news has become another profit centre.”

Hailey said that the accuracy of his research has often depended on his being able to convince his sources that they will never be identi-

fied. His Peruvian sources, he said, likely risked their lives to give him firsthand information about the Sendero guerrillas. And while the stakes were not as high for the American TV journalists and producers who took him inside their network’s operations, Hailey says they did risk incurring the ire of their corporate owners. CBC news announcer Knowlton Nash, a former anchorman of The National and a friend of Hailey’s, told Maclean’s that the author’s methods have clearly paid off. “He has got us down pat: the conflicts and the relationships between the journalists, the producers, the editors, all of them.”

Hailey said that while he knew he wanted to write about terrorism, he wanted to avoid the Middle East. Although not widely known in

1986, when he began his research, the Sendero Luminoso was gaining notoriety, particularly for murdering journalists and politicians. An American TV producer took Hailey to Lima— on the first of two trips he made to Peru—and helped him to make his first contacts there. The producer also offered warnings about the dangers of asking too many questions in the terror-racked country. While Hailey said that he never deliberately put himself in danger, he interviewed dozens of Peruvians, especially journalists, peasants and politicians, and travelled extensively before he was satisfied that he “had it right.”

Although he tried to be objective, Hailey said he was shocked at much of what he found. In wealthy areas of Lima, he said, “the houses are like fortresses. Every window, door, exit is barred, and you see guards outside with machine pistols.” What bothered him the most, he said, was the poverty, the overpopulation and the despair that he saw in people’s faces.

Hailey said that he had formed strong opin-

ions about terrorists as a result of his research, both in South America and during a weeklong counterterrorism training session that he attended in London. He added that he became convinced “terrorists simply want to destroy, to blow up things. You can make all of the accommodations you want and it wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “They don’t want settlements.” Still, he said that he would never try to “moralize” with his writing, adding, “I agree with the film-maker who said, The place for messages is Western Union.’ ”

Although Hailey’s success as a popular writer is well-established, he has received a cooler reception from the critics. In a scolding but not atypical review of an earlier Hailey novel, one critic said, “It is full of the usual Hailey clichés—melodramatic plot twists, plywood characters and clumsy love scenes. ” Reviews of The Evening News have been less harsh: although they remain lukewarm about his literary skills, critics have concentrated instead on the gripping action. Hailey, obviously accustomed to criticism, said: “I know I am not a great stylist. My writing is plain. Down-toearth.” Still, he added directly, “I sometimes read people who write with a better style and I think, ‘Hey, I could have helped you a bit with plot, with story.’ ” Hailey’s millions of fans would no doubt agree. For them, the appeal is in his realism and his unquestionable ability to spin a powerful yarn.

GREG W. TAYLOR