The secret literary techniques of the greatest writer ever told

JUNE CALLWOOD October 1 1971


The secret literary techniques of the greatest writer ever told

JUNE CALLWOOD October 1 1971



The secret literary techniques of the greatest writer ever told

There is something about reports of Arthur Hailey’s writing technique: the compulsive work habits, the files, the freshly sharpened pencils, the charts on the wall; and something about Arthur Hailey himself, a courteous, enthusiastic, boyish, guarded, self-effacing, confident, generous, springy-stepped, unaffected, sentimental, punctilious, prudent, quaint, honest man; and something about the books that Hailey writes, among them Hotel, Airport and, now, Wheels, all of them full of order, optimism and unpretentious people — something about all that wholesomeness that lulls a good many to the belief that Hailey’s success is easy to explain. It is not.

Hailey is becoming sensitive about the legends that are building about his technology, which suggest to him an element of contempt for the human factor that goes into writing a book: namely him. The creative part, he knows, cannot be desiccated, photographed or comprehended; still he feels uneasy at all the interest that falls by default on his filing system. He is therefore not enthusiastic these days about a public display of the wonderfully articulated skeleton of a book he has just written: the flesh is gone, and the flesh mattered.

Allowing for the impossibility of uncapping Hailey’s skull to watch his neural transistors knitting up the plot, an account of how Arthur Hailey wrote Wheels is nevertheless instructive, for Hailey has made neatness an art form and Wheels is the book that made publishing history because it earned its author more than a million dollars before he had even finished it.

Wheels began four years ago, while Hailey was still writing Airport. He was already considering possible subjects for his next book and had about a half dozen in mind, among them department stores — and Eaton’s of Canada had offered cooperation — but he kept returning to an old favorite, automotive sales.

The next step was to try the idea on his editor at Doubleday, Lee Barker, a man whose judgment Hailey respects so much that he insisted on retaining him after Barker had passed Doubleday’s official retirement age. Doubleday does not argue with Hailey on such matters. Barker had a suggestion: Why restrict the book to car dealers? Why not go all the way and write about the entire automotive industry?

He tested it with his New York agent, a deceptively grandmotherly-looking woman of consummate shrewdness and nerve named Maeve Southgate. Mrs. Southgate describes herself as a “Hailey-kept woman’’ with good reason.

When Hailey makes a million dollars, which is not an unusual occurrence, Mrs. Southgate’s cut is 10% or $100,000. Hailey says flatly that she is worth every cent of it. They have no contract beyond a handshake years ago when he started to write and she arranged his first U.S. sale. Mrs. Southgate approved of the automobile industry theme.

On November 10, 1967, only two months after the Airport manuscript had been delivered to Doubleday, Hailey signed the contract for his next book for a half-million dollars advance on royalties payable in two installments, half on signing and half on completion of what was described as an “untitled novel,” subject unspecified.

Nelson Doubleday, head of the world’s largest publishing house, has a friend, Skid Livingstone, who is an automotive-parts manufacturer and a member of an established Grosse Pointe family with impeccable connections among Detroit's car tycoons. Doubleday contacted him and Livingstone agreeably invited Hailey and his wife Sheila to be his house guests. Livingstone’s home appears in Wheels: it’s the one with the swimming pool in the living room.

Lollowing that encounter, Livingstone, on January 11, 1968, arranged a cocktail party to introduce Hailey to Detroit. Among the guests was Walter B. Lord II, a brother-in-law of Henry Lord.

Hailey is a disarming man and radiates integrity. It is not surprising that Lord, and then General Motors and later Chrysler, trusted him totally and allowed him access to everything he wanted to see, even the heavily guarded cloisters where cars of the future are being designed. Hailey is aware that his good name is a business asset and goes to fanatical lengths to preserve a confidence.

The research started with appointments with the decision makers at Lord and General Motors, the two companies where he concentrated most of his research, though he was welcomed at Chrysler as well, and the automotive company that forms the unnamed background of Wheels is a skillful amalgam of all three. Hailey’s customary interviewing speed is leisurely, about two people a day, but zealous PR men whipped up the pace, scheduling one-hour sessions a half hour apart from morning to dusk. He often dropped asleep in the midst of putting his recollections on a dictating machine at the end of the day.

Prom the executives, Hailey moved to middle-management people and then to the plant itself, where he talked with foremen, men on the assembly line, ghetto blacks being trained in the industry’s recently developed hard-


It's called Wheels and it’s Arthur Hailey’s new novel on the car industry. It has been produced by the storming of his mind with thanks also to a team of researchers, Lee Barker, his editor at Doubleday, Maeve Southgate, his New York agent, and Sheila, the wife who suffered with him the pains of creation. Understand first that Arthur Hailey is an artist obsessed by factual accuracy. Effete literary fantasies are for snobs like Marcel Proust. Herewith, the Hailey Papers, a guide to how it's done. Pay attention and maybe you too can make a million bucks.

core poverty hiring program, heads of the United Automobile Workers at Solidarity House, parts manufacturers, car dealers, racing drivers.

Hailey has approximately the same approach for all: he explains that he’s a novelist writing about the automotive industry and he doesn’t know yet what shape the book will take, but he’d like to know as much about the subject as possible. He adds that he didn’t begin the project with any prejudice or convictions, but that he can’t guarantee that what emerges will be favorable.

“I keep my hands in sight and empty,” Hailey explains. “Nothing stops the flow of information faster than a notebook, particularly if the discussion is on some sensitive area.” Afterward in his car, or a corridor, or the men’s room, he jots down terse reminders of the highlights of the interview, a practice that is feasible only because he has trained himself to have good recall of extensive periods of conversation.

Later that night, stretched out on his hotel bed, he uses a hand-held, battery-powered dictating machine to put down every detail he can remember — descriptions of the location, decor in the office or home, the noise level, everything. He then slips the Magnabelt into an airmail envelope and sends it to Ruth Hunter in California for transcription.

It needs to be explained that Hailey is a man of prodigal loyalty. Though he has moved in the past seven years from Toronto to California to the Bahamas, he doesn’t uproot. His Toronto secretary, Isobel Vincent, still handles his mail and business matters; his former California secretary, Ruth Hunter, continues to type his notes and book manuscripts.

Hailey is fishing, and months pass before he has even a hazy idea of what he wants to catch. He is seeking what he calls osmosis, something beyond merely knowing all he can learn about the industry, a place where he belongs to it. In the process, dividing his time between sessions of two to three weeks in Detroit and brief breaks at home, he became increasingly tense and irritable. One morning his exasperated wife flared at him, “You’re beginning to sound just like an automobile executive!” and Hailey, pleased, replied, “Great!” He felt his identification with the coronary-prone men at the top of the industry was complete when, toward the end of the writing of Wheels, he was advised that his blood pressure was up and he should take it easy.

He spent a year listening. Some people are what Hailey calls mother lodes. Mel Glasser of the UAW was one. It was Glasser who told Hailey about the isolation and mind-grinding monotony of the assembly lines which breed the alcoholism and mental breakdowns endemic to the auto industry. “Don’t walk alongside the assembly line as most people do,” he advised Hailey. “Pick a man on the line, any man, and stand behind him for half an hour. You’ll see what I mean.”

Hailey did, several times. “In 10 minutes I had seen enough, I was thoroughly bored, I wanted to move on. But I stayed, checking my watch over and over, for the full half hour. I realized that if I felt that way in 10 minutes, how must this guy feel who has to stand there, going through the same movements for eight hours today, eight hours tomorrow, and all the rest of the years he works?”

Sometimes Hailey plain got lucky. He was flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco one day beside a man who turned out to be a former quality controller for one of the Big Three. From him he learned much of what became the most-recounted part of Wheels, that cars made on Wednesdays are superior — alcohol-induced absenteeism on Fridays and Mondays means a sloppier product.

Hailey checks everything, two or three times. He drove around Detroit picking out actual / continued on page 66

HAILEY from page 33

homes where his characters would live, marking the addresses on a Detroit street map. He has a gadget that he rolls on the map to measure distances. When someone in a Hailey book drives IVi miles southeast to a shopping plaza from a given intersection, that’s real; Hailey probably has clocked the driving time as well.

There’s an accident on the assembly line in Wheels. Hailey wrote about it with the aid of photographs and color slides of the location and an engineer's detailed account of the machinery involved. He wanted a summer lodge setting for another scene, and he sent a researcher, David Green who works on the Detroit News, to check it out. Green mailed Hailey seven pages of description of the countryside, roads, weather, vegetation, including a sketch of a suitable lodge. Hailey later showed the passage to the wife of an executive, who changed the name of a wildflower; Hailey was grateful.

He counts as a major break a visit to the home of William L. Mitchell, GM’s vice-president in charge of styling, a man so gifted he was chief of Cadillac design when he was 21. Mitchell showed Hailey a basement room filled with fine paintings he had done as a young man. From that incident, Hailey constructed a leading character in Wheels, a brilliant young automotive designer who is also a talented artist.

At this point, after almost a year of

research, Hailey has blocked out certain areas that interest him: product planning, design, car dealers, the assembly line, the hard-core hiring program, car racing, parts manufacturing, automobile advertising.

This means that he will need a major character in each of the selected areas and he begins brooding about what kinds of people they will be and how they can meet one another. Hailey does his brooding, frequently, in the shower. He has been startled a

The title Hailey liked for Airport was The Surly Bonds Of Earth. But his Doubleday editors hated it

few times when the hot water has run out in the process.

Research is Hailey's favorite part of writing a book and he unglues himself from it with reluctance. “But there comes a point when I have to say cut. A year has gone by and it's time to go horne and find out what I’ve got.”

He begins with the mountainous task of reading all his typed notes and separating them into broad subjects in file folders: SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH; FINANCE; DESIGN STYLING; RACE RELATIONS (the fattest one); AUTO RACING, and so on. At this point he isn't sure

what sequence the book will take or how the parts fit together, and he is a distracted man. His wife explains when his eyes glaze over, “He’s slipping away.”

The primary decision is a thread for the story. When he fixed as a central theme the final testing and introduction of a radically designed new car, a plot began to take vague form. Hailey then puts plot ideas on scraps of paper, which he later throws away in embarrassment — “they’re very crude at that stage.”

Gradually the ideas get better and an outline emerges from the loose notes he has scattered across his desk top. The automotive designer he wants in the book can be the major designer of the new model, the product-planning section can be represented by a vice-president who makes the decisions about the car. The romance could be between the designer and a girl who works for the ad agency that handles the account for the car; if the vice-president is married, it’s not improbable that his wife is neglected.

As the characters solidify, Hailey gives them names. He picks first names from a list his wife brought home from the hospital when their youngest child, Diane, was born, from The Oxford Dictionary Of English Christian Names and from a list he keeps himself of unusual names and nicknames he comes across. The surnames come from the Manhattan telephone directory; Hailey keeps a copy in his study.

As he goes along he enters the name of every character he invents on an alphabetic chart, even the spear carriers who make but one appearance in the book. He can see at a glance if he is getting a buildup in the Ts or if there is a vacancy available in the Ws.

On stiff paper the size of a desk blotter, he makes random pencil notes about the people he has assembled, their ages, what they look like, their nervous habits, what they will be doing during the year that they have life in Wheels.

The first outline of a proposed plot was sent to New York in June, 1969. It was about 30 pages long and bore the title Motor City, another ill-fated Hailey attempt to get away from the one-word titles that are becoming his trademark. (The title he liked for Airport was The Surly Bonds of Earth; Doubleday hated it.) Later a Doubleday sales executive, Tom Burns, thought of Wheels and Hailey knew when he heard it that it was right.

Lee Barker received the outline with a mixture of affectionate encouragement and icy candor. He wrote, “I

realized that what this outline lacks is a sense of excitement, a driving force or, in other words, a main plot line ...”

Hailey wasn't crushed, he expected it and sat down to write another. His previous books had required four draft outlines, but he got it on the second try with Wheels. Mrs. Southgate wrote him on August 11, 1969, “Arthur, this draft is incomparably better . . What a story! . . . I’m so excited. Bravo!”

The next morning Hailey tried some sentences out in pen on a big pad of paper, fiddled with them on the typewriter for a while, and finally wrote: “The president of General Motors was in a foul humor.” Wheels was launched.

Hailey is often asked if he writes only when he feels like it and he replies, truthfully, that he never feels like it. Writing makes him writhe. He loves his work, but the process is agony to him, he labors over every word; he writes every sentence six or seven times, sometimes 30 times, sometimes more.

Because he finds writing such an arduous task, Hailey long ago decided that he needed the goad of a work quota and he assigned himself 600 words a day — finished words, almost-right doesn’t count.

He starts his working day, five days a week, at 8:15 in the morning, equipped with a conscience that Calvin would have envied. Sick or well, he writes 600 words before he can quit. If he must travel during the writing of a book, he either gets ahead on his quota or else makes it up when he returns.

Early in the writing of Wheels, Hailey sprained his back. Lying in traction in a hospital bed, in great pain, he still adhered to his 600-word schedule. He was pleased with himself, observing that “there are very few occupations where you can work while in traction.”

He begins every working day by writing 600 at the top of a memo pad. From time to time, when he needs cheering up, he counts every word he has written, every word, and subtracts it from the six hundred. If he decides later to delete a word or two, he scrupulously alters the score.

Hailey’s first task with Wheels is to get the entire cast introduced and going about their affairs, and by the time the last one, the parts manufacturer, appears Hailey has written 12 of the 30 chapters in the book.

He describes his pacing as a juggler’s trick, keeping all the balls in the air, all twirling, all right in front of the audience, dropping none. He’s decontinued on page 68

HAILEY continued

veloped a sense for when it is time for the reader to look in on the unhappy wife for a while, and when the car dealer has been in the background long enough.

Hailey keeps his gang of principals moving briskly across the sets he noted in the research — the executive office where he did an interview, the box at the auto races where he was a guest, the assembly line. And they talk a lot, telling one another how dealers cheat the customers or where the worst roads in America are or how to photograph a car for an advertisement so that it will look better than real.

In addition to relieving themselves of the Hailey research, the characters also have to keep their eyes on the plot. They have a great deal of fighting, loving, thieving, thinking and dying to do, and Hailey does not condone loitering to look at the scenery.

He is beginning to lighten ship. Some characters go, and whole chunks of research. Hailey spent a full day at a plastics and instruments plant, and used none of the notes. He didn’t include a word of days spent learning about engine manufacturing, sheet-metal fabrication and the glass plant where windshields are made.

Two or three times during the writing, Hailey calls a time-out from his quota to figure where he is going next. He spends a day typing on memo-sized paper all the fragments of plot that remain: Barbara’s Film Project; Barbara Visits Rollie; Matt Under Pressure at Orion Changeover; Smokey at Talladega Racing; Brett in California.

It makes about 40 pieces of paper and he spreads them out on the top of his desk; a mess. Concentrating hard, he picks among them, figuring out the

order of events and which pieces fit together. He consolidates, stapling together Barbara’s Film Project and Barbara Visits Rollie, adding to it Brett is With Her and So Is Leonard Wingate. That’s how Chapter 18 begins.

And he makes some changes, the most ruthless of which was his resolution, after a year of writing, that the VP’s wife should be a very young woman, a second marriage, in order to avoid any possible resemblance to Airport’s airport manager and his wife. It means moving a lot of furniture around, but Hailey backtracks and stoically does the rewriting.

He is still researching, being addicted to it. He writes to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in

Literary Guild pays $160,000. The movie asking price is $1.25 million ...

Akron, Ohio, to inquire about its car-counting sign in Detroit; to United Air Lines to find out when a certain flight to Los Angeles passed over the Californian border, and at what altitude, and when it begins its descent (“If you make a mistake with that kind of stuff, some airline pilot will spot it and it spoils the reality of the whole book,” Hailey says firmly).

Hailey keeps his daily output of 600 words in a fireproof locked safe in his office. He mails a copy to Ruth Hunter in California, who suggests minor changes in grammar if needed and then types a master copy, making five copies of that and returning the master to Hailey, who puts it in the safe. Copies of the master, in batches of six chapters at a time, go to New York, where Mrs. Southgate uses them to tease offers from book clubs and the like.

Almost at once, the money begins to gush. Literary Guild wins a duel for Wheels and pays $160,000. Hailey gets half. His half share of the Reader’s Digest Book Club fee is $100,000. The advance from England is $100,000. He gets $350,000 for paperback rights. Germany advances $60,000, and other foreign sales confirmed are French, Portuguese and Spanish. The London Daily Express buys British serialization rights.

Hailey has decided against any magazine sale. When Good Housekeeping hears this the fiction editor wires: WOULD APPRECIATE CHANCE


YOU, a telegram Hailey received at the table while lunching at Government House in Nassau. He relents, and Wheels is sold to Good Housekeeping for $80,000. The movie asking price is $1.25 million.

But Wheels is not yet finished. Hailey returns to Detroit “to see, smell and hear.” He wants to check out a certain shopping plaza and he asks for, and gets, a trenchant, insider briefing on the future of the internal combustion engine.

Pieces of Wheels are all over the continent. Hailey’s son Mark at Berkeley is reading the references to marijuana; Dr. John Morrow in Toronto is checking on the description of a stroke; an adviser in Detroit is reading everything about the assembly line; an expert has been paid $500 to read the manuscript and he alters some of the auto-racing sections. Hailey had no errors at all in Airport and wants Wheels to be equally accurate. His daughter Diane tells him to change dressing gown in the first paragraph to robe, and he does so.

"It gets very exciting toward the end of a book,” Hailey confides. He is beginning to work at night, he writes almost steadily, and his doctor is worried. The silence from New York is ominous. Finally, a lowkeyed, anxious letter arrives from Lee Barker, just back from vacation. He is rested, he hints, “and all set to read the last pages of the book.”

One night Hailey leaves the office about midnight, takes an unaccustomed sleeping pill, and sleeps for four hours. He awakens feeling great and goes back to the typewriter. At 5:35 a.m. on March 9, 1971, he taps


At 2:45 that afternoon, he was on the New York flight out of Nassau with the completed manuscript. Doubleday loaned him the office of its absent Religion Editor and he did the revisions surrounded by holy pictures. Ruth Hunter had spotted that Hailey used the word grin, in all its manifestations, more than 100 times. She sent him the page numbers, and he weeded them out. Then it was over.

Before he finished Wheels, Hailey signed another contract with Doubleday for a million dollars advance on what he says will be his last two books. He decided one of them will be on universities, with the working title Campus, but Maeve Southgate persuaded him that the market is glutted with books on that subject right now. So he has gone ahead with the other choice, a book on banking, finance, credit cards.

The working title is Money. It’s a great title for an Arthur Hailey book. ■