Columns

Talking to Arthur Hailey

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 14 2000
Columns

Talking to Arthur Hailey

Anthony Wilson-Smith August 14 2000

Talking to Arthur Hailey

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

By now, the story of how Bus and Truck magazines most famous alumnus made his name worldwide has become almost as well-known in literary circles as some of the best-selling books that Arthur Hailey has written. But for those who haven’t heard, here goes: in 1955, Hailey was flying back to Toronto from Vancouver on a business trip when, bored, he started daydreaming. As flight attendants offered chicken or fish, Hailey wondered what would happen if the meal gave the pilots food poisoning—-and whether he, a rusty ex-fighter pilot, could fly the plane. By the time he landed, he had a plot in his head, and wrote the screenplay over the next two weekends and five nights—when not working at his editor’s job. Then, he stuck the script in an envelope and sent it to the CBC. A month later, they offered him $600 and put the play into production. Flight into Danger ran live on April 3, 1956, became an immediate sensation and changed Hailey’s life forever. That summer, NBC bought it, BBC aired the Canadian version, and, Hailey now says with a smile, “other work that had been sitting around suddenly had buyers.”

One of many nice things about Hailey, 44 years and more than 150 million book sales later, is the clear joy he still gets recalling memorable moments from his enviable life. These days, Hailey, just turned 80, lives with his wife, Sheila, in one of the world’s most exclusive hideaways—Lyford Cay in the Bahamas—while their six children (three by his first marriage and three with Sheila) are scattered across North America. But the British-born Hailey, who came to Canada in 1947 and left it in 1965 (and North America in 1969 for tax reasons), travels on his Canadian passport, frequently refers to Canada as home, and stays in touch with old pals—a visit to Toronto last month was on account of a birthday bash for Pierre Berton, also turned 80. And Hailey claims a special place in his heart for Maclean Hunter Ltd., the company that (including Macleans) was bought by Ted Rogers in 1994. It was, he says, the place that launched him as a writer and editor (including the now-defunct Bus and Truck and freelance work for Macleans). It’s also where he met Sheila.

Typically, for a man whose work is marked by his attention to detail, Hailey shows up for a meeting immaculately turned out in a crisp white shirt, sports jacket and tie. His study in the Bahamas “is neat as a pin,” says Sheila, who at 72 looks 15 years younger. In the decade since Hailey produced his last novel, The Evening News (which former CBC anchor Knowlton Nash described as a “cracking tale of an ambitious, unflappable TV network anchorman who suddenly finds himself and his family in the middle of a terrorist kidnapping drama”), Hailey’s previous status as a superstar of high-end potboilers has been put on hold. But for 30 years before that,

his books, including Hotel (1965) and Airport (1968), routinely topped best-seller charts and were published in as many as 38 languages. He turned them out on the same cycle: one year of research, followed by two years of writing, at 600 words a day (although once computers arrived, he moved up to 1,000 words). Each time, he jokes, he started out “knowing the beginning and end. It was the middle that gave me problems.” His books were dubbed “faction” because, whether it was the depth of his research, or his old reporter’s instincts, he often anticipated events in advance. In 1984, Strong Medicine outlined corruption at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: in 1989, similar events occurred. In 1975, The Moneychangers examined the fallout from a bad loan to an insolvent bank customer: in 1989, The New York Times reported on near-identical events.

Always keen to try the latest innovations—Hailey must be the only author ever to say “my real dream was to become an electrical engineer”—he first used a computer in the prehistoric days of 1983. Now, he keeps up with the world outside Lyford Cay through incoming and outgoing e-mails, and surfing the Web. And despite their graceful manner, both Haileys like stirring things up a bit. In 1963, Arthur provoked a storm of protest when he wrote an essay for this magazine that concluded that marriage laws were antiquated and “some people shouldXwe in sin.” Because of the difficulty of getting divorces, he wrote that individuals in broken-down marriages should be told “bluntly and publicly, to subvert the law where they can, and, where they cannot, to ignore the law entirely.” And Sheila, author of the 1978 memoir I Married a Best Seller, raised eyebrows with a funny and sometimes startlingly frank account of their lives, including liberal views on sexual matters.

These days, Hailey is getting back to work, though not at his previous pace. There are forthcoming international reissues of his best-selling books, including Airport and Hotel, with introductions for a new generation of readers. In Hotel, he explains that the word “negro,” “considered offensive nowadays, is left unchanged because of its wide usage” when it was written. He’s dusted off short stories he wrote in the early 1940s and revised them for potential publication. Despite a slight hearing impairment and open-heart surgery more than a decade ago, Hailey remains full of plans—and the energy to carry them out. Not long ago, Hailey recalls, he received a books-on-tape reading of one of his works and was startled to hear the narrator close by saying “Arthur Hailey died in 1997.” “I looked at Sheila and she looked at me,” he says, “and we agreed we’re far from done yet.” For those who wonder what happens when nice people get rich, think of the Haileys—and feel better.