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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region July 13, 1997

The unstoppable Arthur Hailey

Marian Christy, Globe Staff, 04/25/90

The big difference between being stopped for the moment and being stopped ultimately is an overwhelming desire to continue despite the odds.

Multimillionaire Arthur Hailey, the author of such spectacular best sellers as "Airport," "Hotel," "Wheels" and "The Moneychangers," knows all about being stopped.

He never went to high school. That reality delayed his climb, but it didn't stop it.

Eventually Hailey had to choose between a well-paying job writing advertising copy and quitting to write a book on speculation. He wasn't stopped by the nagging fear of no paychecks -- although he had a wife and five children to support.

Later in his life, after 150 million copies of his books had been

published in 35 languages, he experienced severe post-operative depression after quadruple bypass heart surgery. Hailey, who knows that writing is something you do alone and only you alone can do, had a crisis in confidence and energy.

That almost stopped him.

But he persevered and, after the implantation of a pacemaker, he wrote his first novel in six years, "The Evening News," about network television and international terrorism.

You only know you're unstoppable in retrospect. When you're being stopped, the impediments are very real. You're scared. In an interview in his Ritz- Carlton suite, I asked Hailey, who is 70 and a sophisticated Englishman, to recapitulate the emotional details involved in his Stop Signs.

"When I went to school in Luton, England, in the '20s, the school system ended when you were 14. After that, schooling required fees. My father worked in a factory. There was no tuition money. So I applied for a scholarship. I wanted desperately to go on learning.

"I was one of the two finalists. The other person got the scholarship. One of the saddest days of my life was my last day at school.

"Anything to avoid working in a factory! My mother scraped some money together, and I studied shorthand and typing in a night school course. I went to work as a junior clerk in a real estate broker's office. Five shillings a week.

"Then disaster struck! I dropped a zero from a real estate broker's quote of a fee. The letter with the typing error went to London. Of course the other party immediately accepted the incorrect figure. It was low! The head of my firm spent a morning on the telephone getting out of that mess.

"Then he fired me.

"What a great blow. I was absolutely shattered. I went home and said: 'Mother, I've failed.' Failure is the abysmal feeling that you're at the end of the line. I even avoided the neighbors. I didn't want anybody to know that I'd lost the first job I'd ever had!

"I should have gone to the Labor Exchange. Maybe I'd have been eligible for unemployment insurance. But I never went because I thought they'd send me out for a factory job.

"My dream was to be a writer. I went to the local newspaper office to apply for a job. The personnel clerk said: 'But we don't take boys who have never been to high school.'

"You know something? I was never interested in algebra. I never cared to solve the puzzle of the mathematical x-factor. I always thought that the x- factor involved solving a story line and deciphering the mystery and complexity of the characters caught in the plot.

"I held onto that dream for a long, long, long time."

When he was 19, Hailey enlisted in the Royal Air Force. It was a move that changed his self-image and opened up the idea that, after all, the impossible is sometimes possible.

"I always seemed to be struggling against not being formally educated. I wanted to be a pilot. But my absence of education was frequently pointed out. I did office work. Then Britain became desperate for pilots. Standards were lowered. Finally I was trained as a pilot.

"Then I became a flight lieutenant.

"The day I crossed the doorway into the officer's mess something wonderful happened. I was treated as an equal. No one questioned my educational background! Everyone assumed that I had a formal education. It was like crossing the threshold of myself.

"I didn't get carried away with conceit. But it was psychologically freeing. I felt inspired. Not only did I begin to write stories, I wrote poetry. I didn't know I could write poetry. When I read about prisoners of war being returned to Great Britain, lines like this just came to me:

'No lend lease in her cargo, no arms for a nation's store

Only some human driftwood, washed up by the tide of war.'

"I didn't make any money when I wrote poetry. It didn't matter. I was writing.

"After the war, I settled in Canada. I wrote advertising and promotional copy. I'm a capitalist at heart. I wanted to make more money. One day my wife said to me: 'Why don't you do what you've always wanted to do? Why don't you write books?'

"I got apprehensive. Could I really earn enough to live on? I knew I could get published occasionally. But that's different from writing a book.

"I gave up a sure thing to do an unsure thing. It was not just something I felt I wanted to do. It was a deep, compelling feeling. This was something that I had to do."

Often Hailey's characters are an amalgamation of real people in the industry in which his books are set. He does his research first-hand.

"When I interview people for my books, everything is totally off the record. I get people to trust me. I never violate a confidence. I never tell people where I've been, who I've seen or what other people have said.

"You take notes. You're forming an actual interview.

"I interview people for fictional purposes. Nothing is actual. I never take notes. I tell the people I interview: 'Anything you tell me will be shaped and changed. No one will ever guess who you are or the people or the situations you tell me about.'

"When I talk to people, I keep my hands in the open. Everything is one-on- one. They can see that I don't write anything down.

"When the interview is over -- usually within an hour -- I rush off to some private place, like the men's room, to write down everything I remember. I've done a lot of scribbling in places like that."

Hailey, who lives with his wife, Sheila, on Lyford Cay, the Bahamas, considered stopping writing -- but discovered anew that writing is his lifeline. What fascinates him is the constant pull between positive and negative forces.

"I find evil particularly interesting. Evil is destructive. Evil, in the form of a person or a body of persons, can produce murder.

"Adversarial evil is more interesting than good and bland. Everyone's life is involved in a conflict between good and evil. Even Jesus.

"The very center of the Christian religion is the crucifixion of Christ. What could be more adversarial than that?"

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