Interview: Billy Hayes, author of Midnight Express (Part I)

Billy Hayes escaped from a Turkish Prison in 1975 and wrote a book about it, which was then turned into a movie. Photo: Author Billy Hayes

LOS ANGELES, May 2, 2013 — Billy Hayes tried to smuggle four pounds of hash out of Turkey in 1970. He was caught and eventually sentenced to 30 years in jail. After spending five years in prison, he escaped by stealing a row boat under the cover of darkness. Hayes wrote Midnight Express to tell his story in 1977. The book was then turned into an Academy Award winning movie the following year. Hayes took some time to discuss his life in this interview.


SEE RELATED: Interview with author Billy Hayes (Part II)

Kevin Wells: What is the worst thing that happened to you in prison?

Billy Hayes: I guess when my friend, Norman, died coming to help me escape. That was around the worst time just because I f**ked up my life, I f**ked up my parents’ life and now my friend dies helping me escape. That was pretty much the worst time, but it also changed things. I changed attitudes and all that kind of stuff and it got me off the escape switch. So, you know, it helped. Everything moves you forward, I guess. Wow, I actually miss him immensely.

KW: What is the worst thing you witnessed that happened to someone else in prison?

BH: In the basement of the madhouse, a guy that I thought was fairly sane one night went crazy and they tied him to a mattress bed spring in the basement and just kind of left him there all night. That was not good. That was not good.


Midnight Express

KW: Which was harder on you while in prison, the physical strain or the mental strain?

BH: That’s easy. The mental part, by a long shot. I was young. I was 23 to 28, so sort of in my prime and I was always healthy and I did yoga and I used to do martial arts s**t, which kind of helps a little bit. If you’re not an easy target, people leave you alone.

It’s the mental stuff. The hard part of prison is the boredom. Vietnam friends of mine described Vietnam very similar to how I describe prison, which is long stretches of f**king boredom broken up by moments of sheer terror and panic and then you’re back to the boredom again.

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Prison kind of seeps into your mind. You have to work to keep from letting your mind deteriorate. Prison says, “you’re a f**king loser,” all day long, “you’re a f**king loser, you’re a loser.” It’s hard not to let that crush you in a lot of ways. So that’s probably the hardest part. It’s the stuff I had to learn.

Life was so easy before I got busted. I had to learn about discipline and will and all that kind of stuff. I’m coming out of the 60s, baby, sex, drugs and rock n roll, free love. Life was so easy and suddenly everything changed, but I guess I needed that. I guess I did. I guess I did.

KW: How different were things in the U.S. when you returned than they were when you left?

BH: All the civil rights issues, all the women’s rights issues, a lot of the stuff that had been happening and protesting and fermenting had actually come about in such a good way and moving down the line like that and of course, Nixon and the war, which was all happening when I left is over and done. F**k Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon started the war on drugs. Of all things, I despise Richard Nixon for that alone. The idiocy of the war on drugs, just the years, the billions of dollars, and countless lives ruined and a vast subculture of violence from the war on drugs. Don’t get me started on the war on drugs.

KW: Are you still a wanted man in Turkey?

BH: No, strangely enough I got an Interpol warrant for my arrest not when I escaped, not when Midnight Express, the first book came out, but when the movie came out. The Turks saw the scene in the film written by Oliver [Stone], I love Oliver, but that scene when I get resentenced and I call them a “nation of pigs” and “I f**k you all and I f**k your sons” or “I f**k your daughters,” Turks were very understandably upset about that scene.

They issued an Interpol warrant for me that stood for 20 more years. Thanks, Oliver. It’s done now, but for a lot of years, my mom and my wife were both very concerned that I couldn’t go out of the country. I had to check. Each country has a different relationship with Interpol. It’s a sort of loose knit thing. Different countries react differently to Interpol. So, I’d have to check if I wanted to go somewhere. I couldn’t go to Germany because they have a very tight extradition treaty with Turkey. It cramped my style for a while. It’s alright, as long as they don’t have me, they can put a warrant out, that’s fine. Eventually it got dropped actually.

That happened because of that scene in the movie. I actually said, “I’ve been here for four years now. If you’re gonna give me more prison, I can’t agree with you. All I can do is forgive you,” which is all I could do. They still gave me life. Actually, they sentenced me to life, but the judge could lower it to 30 years. He had that prerogative, which, you know, thank you.

KW: What did you think of the movie adaptation of your book?

BH: They made some changes I wasn’t thrilled with, although a brilliant movie. Alan Parker is incredible and Brad [Davis] gave his heart and soul to the movie. Personally, I had some problems with it and some changes and things. What I missed in the movie was my escape off the island in a row boat. That gave me back my life, my sense of self.

When I first got out and this all started to happen and there was a book and next thing I know, they’re flying me to California to meet up to talk about a movie. A movie? You got to be s**tting me. Six months ago, I’m in prison and eating beans and now I’m in California talking about a movie. I mean, I liked it, but it was so weird.

I knew no matter what they did, they would put in the escape. And people would say, “Good movie, except for that made up row boat and rowing into a storm.” And then they didn’t do it! I was so surprised when I saw the film and saw the ending being what it was. It was very different, very different. As a filmmaker now, I understand why they did it, but I missed the row boat.

Midnight Express was rereleased in March 2013 along with a new book from Billy Hayes titled, The Midnight Express Letters: From a Turkish Prison.

Kevin J. Wells writes about Major League Baseball and punk rock music.  Follow him on Twitter @WellsOnBaseball


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Kevin J Wells

Kevin J. Wells was born and raised in the Los Angeles area in a town called Montrose.  He currently plays guitar for and is a founding member of the Los Angeles punk rock band Emmer Effer.  He has worked in a number of different career fields including Behavioral Therapy, Commodities, Insurance, and most recently a food cart in Portland, OR. Kevin has been both a sports and entertainment columnist and editor for The Washington Times Communities since January 2013.

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