Interview with author Billy Hayes (Part II)

Billy Hayes, author of Midnight Express, has a new book out Photo: Billy Hayes playing a character from a Beckett tribute, which he won an award for best actor from The LA Weekly

LOS ANGELES, May 3, 2013 — In 1970, Billy Hayes was caught attempting to smuggle hash out of Turkey. He spent five years in prison there before escaping from an island prison via row boat. Billy took some time to discuss his new book, writing Midnight Express, his sequel to Midnight Express, and marijuana.


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

KW: You recently released a new book called, The Midnight Express Letters: From A Turkish Prison. What was that experience like, going back over those old letters?

BH: Reading the words was a very interesting emotional experience for me in my 60s to read what I wrote about life in my 20s and to follow that whole saga of letters that I wrote home. I can almost look at it in the third person in some ways and other ways I was totally caught into who that kid was because I remember writing those words. I remember the emotions of writing those words. I was like, “Wow.” It was a pretty bizarre experience, but I liked it. I’m an actor, I use my emotions. I like it, but that was pretty intense for me to read those letters.

KW: How long had it been since you saw those letters?

BH: This is very interesting because all those letters, you know, when I wrote one to everybody outside and when I came home, they saved the letters and gave them back to me. We used them in writing Midnight Express. I worked with Bill Hoffer, this other writer who organized me and kept me writing and focused me and literally kept saying, “Give me this,” or “We need that,” or “Let’s do this.”

I found, later on thinking about all this, I realize those letters we gathered, at first me a Hoffer sat with a tape recorder and for about a week, I talked non-stop. Then he transcribed everything, got somebody to do it. And then we read me babbling away. What a humbling experience, but it gave us a lot of raw stuff and we organized it into chapters and then he would make me write a chapter. I would have quit by the third day, just emotionally, because I didn’t want to do this.

Billy Hayes’ new book

It was cathartic. It was a really good thing and I needed it and I needed to get the book done. So Bill kept me writing, which was good. Going back now, I realize I didn’t read these letters. We gathered them, I talked into a tape recorder, Hoffer read and put all the letters in line. While I wrote the chapters, he would read what I wrote and say, “If we do this, you gotta set it up.” I said, “No, everybody knows this.” He said, “No, no, no. Like two chapters earlier you need to say if you’re gonna do this later.”

So I would have to rewrite that chapter. I kept working on it, working on it and I’d be writing stuff and he’d say, “Wait a second, I’m looking at your letter from July of 1973 and you’re writing in this chapter about this, but your letter, that’s the real stuff.” I found Bill was able to help me focus on what was really happening by reading the letters. I didn’t read them. When we finished the book, I put all the letters in a box and put them in the attic and they stayed there.

They ended up coming out through a weird series of things. I realized I never really read these. So now I had to really read them and transcribe them. It was a very interesting experience because I am 66, this kid was 23, 24,  whoever he was, writing these letters. Interesting experience, actually.

KW: There is a sequel to Midnight Express due out this fall, what kind of stuff can readers look forward to?

BH: Midnight Return, yeah yeah. I’m coming back into the weird part of all this, being a celebrity and s**t. It’s an ongoing story and my friend who stayed inside another five years and I sort of tell his story as I tell my story on the outside. You can never get enough of Midnight Express. Every 30 years, I come around and make a big splash. I did it in my 30s and now I am in my 60s, wait until I am in my 90s. I will be out there kicking some old wrinkled ass in my 90s.

KW: How did you get into directing?

BH: I was acting. When I came home, I stepped off the plane and there’s a press conference, literally, so I started talking to people. People locally in Long Island had me come out to their high schools. I said, “Really? [laughs] You want me to come out to your high school?” I realized, if nothing else, I was a cautionary tale. Put me in front of your high school audience and say, “If you’re this stupid, look what can happen to you. Look how bad this can be. Don’t do drugs.” Well, that was never my message, but they thought it was a sort of scare tactic. Show them what happened to Billy Hayes and, at least, make them think twice before they do something stupid.

I realized I like talking in front of an audience and I liked that energy back and forth. After the book was finished, I got into acting. I went to HB Studio [in New York] and then came out to California and acting became the therapy everybody was so strongly suggesting I should be doing. It was true and acting became my therapy.

KW: How long after you returned to the U.S. did it take you to smoke marijuana or hash again?

BH: Probably, three or four days. I was on Long Island with my family and I went back into the city with my friends and I’m sure we smoked weed, of course. I like smoking weed. I don’t think there is any problem with smoking weed. It’s a whole other issue as far as legality and/or how much you do.

I think if you smoke whatever you’re smoking and continue to do your life and taking care of your business, you’re fine and if you’re not, if you get up every morning and do three joints and you lose your wife and your life and your kids, you’re doing something wrong. You know? Have a beer in the afternoon with your hot dog, you’re alright. You drink a six pack before you go to school, you got a problem. It’s not the beer, it’s not the weed. You got the problem. You’re using those to whatever; medicate, obliterate, you know.

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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