Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Billy Hayes

By

Billy Hayes is restless. I’m sitting across from him in the Hudson Diner, on a balmy fall afternoon in the West Village. He’s a child of the ‘60s, a seeker, an experimenter. Not many realize the role writing played in his Turkish adventure, described in his 1977 internationally-bestselling book Midnight Express and depicted in the Academy Award–winning movie of the same name. (Oliver Stone won his first Oscar for the script, the movie’s fictionalized, harrowing version of Hayes’s experience seared into the memories of many who’ve seen it.) For years, Hayes wanted to be a writer, and believed he needed to go out and seek stories, to light after inspiration with a club—or, less favorably if you’re caught, with bricks of hashish.

He’s fast-twitch. The escaping kind. I’m reminded of one of the readings I assigned my “Crime and Punishment in Literature” class at NYU this past term: a powerful part of Les Misérables, in which Victor Hugo details Jean Valjean’s epic swings of fate and character, and his relentless, atavistic need to escape prison:

Like a caged wolf, he dashed madly for the door whenever he found it open. Instinct prompted him to run where reason would have bidden him stay: in the face of that overwhelming impulse, reason vanished. It was the animal that acted, and the added penalties inflicted on him when he was recaptured served only to increase its savagery.

This was Hayes in many ways, and he pulled it off at last. I’m partial to his story, it’s true. Reading Midnight Express was extremely humbling for me, to see how parallel my experience in South Korea was, in just how many details I followed in his unadvisable footsteps: the recklessness, juggling, wallowing in the cells, dreaming of amnesty, living for letters. It’s ultimately empowering for the writer to see just how unoriginal his own story is, how much of it mirrors the stories of those who’ve gone before, how it falls within an existing tradition. We’re a grand family, each of us an inextricable part.

People who hear the outline of my foreign prison story often immediately conjure Midnight Express, published thirty years before my own account. Lonely Planet Korea recommends Brother One Cell to travelers, describing it as a Korean version of Hayes’s narrative. And when GQ ran an excerpt, they made the same easy connection in their teaser right after the article title.

I never quite liked the association. It was helpful in some sense, but my story went past Midnight Express, I thought; it wasn’t as bleak, as lurid, as terrifying or horrible. And it ends with light in the cell and in the soul of that young man I was. Most importantly, I always thought of Brother One Cell as a gritty love song to South Korea, imbued with respect and affection for that country and its people, culture, and history. This was and is genuine—whereas Midnight Express, the movie especially, made the Turks and Turkey out to be barbaric.

But I do owe Hayes and Midnight Express a debt. This granddaddy of foreign prison stories came before me, and I might have better heeded its warnings. I recognize so much of myself in him. Most of all, his positivity, I hope, the happy vitality he conveys, that sense of having seen some hard days—self-inflicted and deserved, or not—and as a result realizing that whatever comes after is gravy, a blessing.

Hayes calls the five years he spent in prison in Turkey both the worst and the best thing that’s ever happened to him. And in that lies a mystery for the ages.

***

The Rumpus: What’s that?

Billy Hayes: I went to get a prescription for marijuana—this is Venice Beach, where I live—and this old doctor asks me, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Silence. And he looks up at me. I say, “In this country?” He fixes his glasses. “I was actually arrested in Istanbul way back, years ago, and I was in jail for five years—then I escaped.” And he says, with this gravelly accent, “I know who you are. You need this.” And he signs the paper and gives me my certificate.

Rumpus: That’s wild.

Hayes: So I’m legal now. I go down to the local corner, where the pot dispensary is, and for forty bucks I get an eighth of killer weed, which is all I do. I don’t like to drink.

Rumpus: That’s a great deal.

Hayes: It lasts me forever, because I don’t roll joints. I take a pipe and take one little hit. It’s like smoking in jail.

I have two new books out. One is The Midnight Express Letters, which has all the letters I wrote home to people, 1970 to ‘75. They kept all the letters and gave them back to me. I used them in writing Midnight Express. Then I put them into a big cardboard box and put them up into the attic. Never looked at them again. Then one day my wife was having me clean out the attic. I hate doing that shit, so once I started I just got into it, throwing out everything. I take all these letters—I had them out on the street. I’m throwing the shit out. My wife made me bring them back in. I’m telling this story to my friend. He asks to read some of these old, fucked-up, crumpled, handwritten letters. I said, “No, they’re just boring old letters.” He said, “You got to annotate and organize these.” So I started putting them together. And I think it’s actually a very interesting book, because you get to read this idiot, twenty-three-year-old kid. The early letters have got the same bravado that landed me in the situation. And then they change. The years and the tears and the wait. You know. The whole tone changes.

 

We’re self-publishing, as everyone seems to do these days, which is great. You don’t have the publisher in the way, and they don’t take all the money. Unfortunately you have to promote it yourself. So they got me on Facebook about nine months ago, when Letters came out. You know, I don’t want to be on Facebook. I’m trying to stay in my cave and not get out of it. But it’s sort of fun. I’ve gotten to meet people, connected with all these old friends from high school. And it’s a way to help sell the book. I was doing a lot of radio interviews over the last six months.

Of course I’m always talking about legalization, too. It’s happening. California is virtually legal. Washington, Colorado, everywhere else.

Rumpus: I find it amazing to see that in our lifetimes, this legal, legislative, moral evolution on this.

Hayes: What we went through for that. That’s one reason that I like to think my voice counts a bit more than other people because…there’s all of the valid liberal reasons, humane reasons, for not putting a nineteen-year-old kid in jail for pot, especially because of the hypocrisy. You sell alcohol. It’s on every sports show—come drink!

Rumpus: Tobacco.

Hayes: Big pharma. They don’t want pot legal, but it’s happening now. But while it’s happening there are kids sitting in jail doing real hard time. For pot. It’s fucking pot! Should you smoke it? I’m not advocating smoking it. Do what you like. Do yoga. I do it every day; been doing it for forty years. But don’t be putting people in jail for pot. It’s hypocrisy.

Rumpus: I thought it was interesting that even your conservative dad, in his letter to Senator Buckley in 1973—which you put in the original book—that he presaged this legalization movement.

Hayes: I’ve got a couple of letters in the new book where he and I were talking about being disappointed with the pot codes in California, when is legalization going to happen. We’ve been talking about this for forty years.

Rumpus: You saw Eric Holder’s response, basically saying that the Federal government is going to lay off?

Hayes: What they haven’t said is that they’re going to change it from a Class A felony, which it still is. Obama could sign a piece of paper and make it less than a Class A felony. I wish he would. You know, he’s got too many other things to deal with. But it’s happening, slowly, slowly. It’s such a racket now in the United States. Half of the prison population in this country is in for consensual crimes. Most of those are drug crimes.

Rumpus: Victimless crimes, you mean?

Hayes: Exactly. It’s your choice, whether you’re a victim or not. It’s your choice. Don’t be putting people in jail for it. You think that’s gonna help the kid? Politics is one reason behind it. You bust a black or Chicano guy, they can’t vote. They now have a felony on their record. There are literally millions of disenfranchised voters because of pot. And there’s a whole prison factory now, the private prison industry.

Rumpus: Reefer Madness traced how opposition to weed tied it to the scare of Mexicans coming over the border—“they’re bringing their Mexicali gold” and “it’s the dark immigrant.” It was connected to all that stuff. Disenfranchisement, fear of the outsider.

Hayes: 1937, I think. Anslinger became head of what became the DEA. At the time, Dupont, with his chemicals and big tree farms. William Randolph Hearst with lumber. They knew. Hemp—forget pot—hemp is a great strong plant. 10,000 years. The sails on the Mayflower. The Constitution is written on hemp. You could pay your taxes in the early 1800s with hemp.

Rumpus: Queen Victoria ingesting cannabis during menstruation. Almost like a game naming these things.

Hayes: At the international fair in 1876 in Philadelphia, they had the Turkish exhibit where they were giving out hashish cookies. There were times during WWI and WWII when they required farmers to grow hemp. That douchebag Richard Nixon, with the War on Drugs. Think of the misery he’s caused.

Rumpus: Locally, the Rockefeller drug laws.

Hayes: Brutal. And all over the world, that American influence was felt. Turkey increased their drug laws because of Nixon and the War on Drugs, pressure with the aid they give. Virtually every country in the world was pressured by the United States, and they changed their drug laws and increased it and now it’s ridiculous. In the Philippines and other places, there are death sentences for pot.

Rumpus: Right. I didn’t even know that back then.

Hayes: Seemed like a good idea at the time. I know that feeling.

Rumpus: Do you get much of that? “Stupid jackass, why do I want to hear this story? The guy did it to himself!” I’m thinking: you know what, though? They say that because we got caught. If we don’t get caught nobody says that. If you say you smuggled once, or even a bunch of times, and didn’t get caught, many of those same people, they’re not going to call you a stupid ass. I know this sounds obvious, but the point is they’re not really being moral about it. It’s just a kind of thoughtless piling on.

 

Hayes: I made three successful trips before I got caught. It was my fourth trip when I got busted. I couldn’t admit that when I first got home.

Rumpus: But that was in the National Geographic special.

Hayes: Right. Got home on a Friday. There was a press conference at the airport. “Where you gonna go?” How the fuck do I know. I haven’t even seen my mother yet.

Rumpus: I like the emotional scenes, the family relations, you and your dad.

Hayes: Yeah, I like Nat Geo. It was well done and it was a little bit closer to the reality, because I could tell it. At Marquette, I was a writer. It’s why I went out on the road. So I could write about it. When I got back [to the U.S.], by Monday I’m talking to people about doing a book and I want to write the truth. So I talk to my lawyer, then. He was my lawyer through the whole process. He was one of the first people involved in creating the prisoner exchange treaty.

Rumpus: Is this Mike Griffith?

Hayes: Yeah, exactly.

Rumpus: I know him. I met him—actually had lunch with him in New York a few years ago and wrote a piece about him.

Hayes: Mike’s an old friend.

Rumpus: In your story, the way that you describe him, he seems like that ideal image of the defense lawyer who’s really got heart and is on your side.

Hayes: He is. Michael is a friend. He did everything he could do. He visited me several times, but in reality he couldn’t do anything because the U.S. government didn’t care.

Rumpus: He came and visited you at the İmralı Island prison, didn’t he?

Hayes: Oh, yeah. He came on İmralı—at one point, he had to go to the bathroom.

Rumpus: In the book, that’s when you gave money to your friend to get the boat.

Hayes: Right, and I never saw him again. But Michael on İmralı—he goes to the bathroom, comes back. He says, “Oh, Jesus, the toilet is disgusting.” I told him, “You have no idea. They just cleaned it!” Now he’s got this TV show based on his life, defending Americans in legal trouble all over the world. They’re hiring actors to recreate stuff. In fact, they were talking to me about getting a role in the TV show. I said, “Anything.” I’d love to do something like that.

Rumpus: You said you’re sixty-six?

Hayes: Sixty-six.

Rumpus: All power to you.

Hayes: I’ve been doing yoga for forty years, every day.

Rumpus: I’d like to think it’s also what you said when you first walked in, which is, that there’s a kind of a purging from prison, a burning clean, a reassessment of what life’s all about. I don’t let stuff get me down. I don’t live with much stress.

Hayes: Stress kills. That’s what yoga does for me. Yoga keeps me healthy, helps me chill. Emotionally, it keeps me balanced. It saved me in jail. I work with the Prison Yoga Project now, with James Fox. I’m doing a benefit for them soon, actually, here in New York. Raises money for this group that goes into prisons all over the country. Teaches the prisoners. I was just contacted by people in London that have a yoga project over there. In prison, you have no control over anything except you; you still have yourself, your own body, so yoga gives you back that control that the prison takes away.

Rumpus: Just the breathing exercises, like in hatha yoga, are genius.

Hayes: I had Iyengar’s classic Light on Yoga book in my backpack while I was being arrested, literally. He’s the guy who first brought yoga over to the West, in about ‘66 or ‘65. He’s still alive. He’s about ninety years old. I met him about ten years ago. You wouldn’t believe this guy. He wrote another one called Light on Life. One of my yoga teachers is intimate with Iyengar. He studied under him in India for many years. He was a fuck-up New Jersey guy who got in a car accident, had all kinds of injuries. Dragged himself to Puna, which is where the institute is, and never left. Became a yoga teacher. My wife almost became a teacher. She led me into the classes. I don’t like classes or groups.

Rumpus: I’m the same way. I wonder how much of that is because we spent so much time alone in our heads in prison. One thing that was beautiful about the movie Midnight Express was that it did push that image out there—the scenes with Brad Davis as you doing yoga are iconic.

Hayes: The only thing about it—what was Brad’s biggest complaint—they had them doing the yoga in the steam, and then they had the scenes with the two men coming together. I actually had a relationship with this young French guy.

Rumpus: Arnie?

Hayes: No, he was…again, when we did the book we had so many characters, so many things, that we had to combine a lot. I had a relationship with this young French guy in the beginning. Arnie was somebody who stayed in jail, who I learned stuff from. So we sort of combined them, because this guy left after a couple of months. And I turned to masturbation and abstinence. Strangely enough, that’s part of this energy work I’m learning in meditation. Abstinence in your twenties can lead to some amazing dreams.

Rumpus: I wrote about that, too. That’s what my Colombian friend in Seoul—a fascinating character to me, who was doing five years for cocaine and emeralds—I remember him telling me about that.

Hayes: Emeralds. I love that.

Rumpus: Your dreams would fill the void.

Hayes: Well that’s what happened to me. In Turkey, homosexuality is forbidden, both by Muslim religion and, more importantly, by Turkish law. It’s illegal. So sex in prison is dangerous because it makes you vulnerable to snitches.

Rumpus: And yet it’s prevalent in those societies where the genders are so segregated.

Hayes: The hypocrisy is unbelievable. But there’s this legal component. Going back to Brad and that yoga scene in the movie—they had him rise up in the steam. The other character moves towards him, and they made Brad shake his head. He’s saying no.

 

Brad didn’t want to play the scene that way. First of all Brad, was bisexual. He ended up dying of AIDS. He wanted to leave it up in the air, to have the steam cover any reaction on my character’s part, so you don’t know what happens. The filmmaker absolutely forced him to shoot a scene saying no.

Rumpus: Were those just the sensibilities of the day?

Hayes: It had to do with the producers. They would let their protagonist, me, Brad, kill another human being, bite a tongue out, smuggle drugs—all those scenes are in the movie. But you couldn’t have him touch another guy. Brad said they shot the scene a couple of different ways, but he knew that was the take that they would use.

Rumpus: So it was the stigma of homosexuality.

Hayes: It was Hollywood being afraid to have their protagonist do this. Again, they’d let him be a drug smuggler, let him kill a guy, but they wouldn’t let him touch a guy.

Rumpus: I will say, though, Billy, you’ve been commended publicly for those scenes being in there at all, for being candid about those relationships you had in prison. It’s explicit in your book. There are various reasons why a man might not want to disclose that publicly. I thought your honesty was admirable. It’s so opposite the stories of male rape and coercive sex in prison.

Hayes: I’m a child of the ‘60s. All this stuff about sex. How do you know what you like if you don’t try it? For me, it was never a question. I like women. But you can have sex with someone of the same sex, someone of the opposite sex…with a plastic blow-up. I read about a guy in West Virginia somewhere who was fucking a hole in a bench, in a park. There was a knothole. How about splinters? By god, he was fucking a bench in a park! You gotta be really horny.

So you can really do what you want. For me, it was never a big factor. It became a factor because of Hollywood. And of course every interview I ever did they said, “Why in your movie was it done like this?” And I always told them what I’m telling you now: because the producers were afraid to have their lead guy touch another man.

Rumpus: If they made it today, that wouldn’t be a concern, right?

Hayes: I would hope not. I would hope that our society has moved to a point where it’s not.

Rumpus: How was Brad Davis in real life?

Hayes: I loved Brad. We had a special connection. I miss him.

Rumpus: So this is the granddaddy of foreign prison stories, in modern times, for my generation. Was there a Midnight Express before your story? Did your generation have an iconic cautionary tale of this kind?

Hayes: The term “midnight express,” I learned it in jail. You take the midnight express, the midnight flier, the midnight ghost. It’s a term for escape. I actually wanted to call my book Inside the Eyes of a Vagabond Clown. My agent said, “You know what, why don’t you save that for your second book.”

Rumpus: Inside the Eyes of a Vagabond Clown! That’s hilarious.

Hayes: I used to write a lot of stupid poetry. So instead, my agent asked me, “Lemme get something. What did people say about escape in jail?” I said, “That’s all they talk about. They talk, but they don’t do it.” He said, “What do they call it?” “The midnight express, midnight flier,” I told him. He said, “Wait, stop, stop. Midnight express.” This was my literary agent, Julian Bach. He looked like Mr. Chips, this avuncular old guy.

Rumpus: He minted a real cultural icon. It’s got that cache. Great title.

Hayes: Especially in Europe. They just get it. Because of Locked Up Abroad. Because of that, the response was amazing. I keep thinking people have to be sick to fucking death of hearing me tell this fucking story again and again. But I’ve found just the opposite. People are fascinated with it. There’s a whole new generation out there who knows my story not from the book, not from the movie, but from this TV show.

Rumpus: Keeps the legend going.

Hayes: They’ve been talking to me about doing this one-man stage show for years. And the Locked Up special showed me that people are still interested. I do have a message, at the very least. I used to do college lectures for a while, in the mid-‘80s. I did the “Midnight Express Experience: From Turkey to Hollywood and Beyond,” and I did it in 103 colleges, from like ‘83 to ‘86. I used to walk out, stand in front of the college audience, spread my arms like this, and say, “If you’re this stupid, look what can happen to you.” And all these kids’ heads would nod. “Learn from example—in this case, better somebody else than you. Don’t get busted in a foreign country for drugs.” I’m happier that I was busted in Turkey rather than in the United States. I would not want to be in a U.S. prison.

Rumpus: I said the same thing, which is a sad sign, isn’t it? Great diversity in the responses to my book, the show, but one that comes up a lot is—it’s very brief—but I say that after two-thirds of the sentence there was the possibility of a deal. They didn’t have an extradition treaty at the time, the U.S. and Korea, but they said there could be an arrangement with the help of the embassy to send me back to the States to serve out the rest of my time. I was stunned by how clear my decision was. I didn’t have to deliberate for a moment. I said, “Hell no. I’m staying here. I’m staying in Korea.” I think that response comes as a surprise.

 

Hayes: There was rape and violence in Turkish prison. But it depends on who you are. If you’re a victim on the outside, you’re a victim on the inside. If you’re not, you’re not. I’m lucky because I’m not real big, but I used to do all this martial arts shit. My first night I got in a fight with this guy who was sort of a prison trustee.

Rumpus: Because you took a blanket, right?

Hayes: Next thing I know, he’s down, his face is bleeding. It got me beaten. They tied my feet, beat my feet with a stick. Falaca. I don’t know if they do that in Korea.

Rumpus: The bastinado is another term for it.

Hayes: Yeah, there you go. And it’s a bitch. I thought they were killing me, but I realized mine wasn’t a bad beating. They didn’t break any bones. I could walk. If they don’t break bones, it’s not a bad beating. A very effective lesson about fighting in jail in Turkey—which is, if we’re fighting, and you’re all bloody, the guards make me equally bloody. If I’m bloodier, they make you equal. So there’s no incentive for fighting, because even if you win, you lose, if they catch you. It sort of discourages fighting. If you do fight, you have to get in, be quick, and get away. I learned a lesson. That guy I punched walked around the prison for two weeks with a swollen face and a black eye. Most everyone knew him because he was an operator. Everybody said, “What happened to him?” “Oh, this new guy, Billy.”

Rumpus: Great for your reputation.

Hayes: That’s just what it was, though it wasn’t what I was looking for. Nobody bothered me then.

Rumpus: I didn’t have many skirmishes like that, but I was so outraged over some of the conditions that I was not afraid to… Plus I was losing my mind a little bit. I went berserk a few times. I think that turned out, externally, to be helpful.

Hayes: Berserk is very helpful. If they think you’re crazy, they leave you alone. If you’re looking around for somebody to mess with—“Ah, let’s pick somebody else.” I always say that I’m too smart for the tough guys and too tough for the smart guys. People leave me alone.

Rumpus: Midnight Express is a story of survival, basically, a cautionary tale. I’ve always felt that the cautionary aspect of my prison account or any other story, really, is the least interesting. Look out! Be careful! Don’t do this! Do you ever get tired of that unmistakable part of it?

Hayes: No, since it’s still a major message that should be heard by those foolish enough not to realize that actions have consequences. But let’s not confuse this with suggesting one live a safe life within all the lines, because that’s slow fucking death and boredom.

Rumpus: I’ve known plenty of people who’ve dealt drugs at some level, at one time or another. You, too. You said in the original book your friends smoked; some of them transported it. What happens to the guys who don’t get caught, you know? Do they just grow out of it? Is it just a phase?

Hayes: Hard for me to answer that since I’m not one of them. Most of my contemporaries who smoked weed back then still smoke now. The drinkers haven’t fared as well. Alcohol is brutal stuff.

Rumpus: Do you think your story, the book and movie, have served as a legal deterrent at all? In my view, the deterrent aspect of law and order is really limited in its effect. Rocket and I watched Midnight Express before I went to Korea. Still did what I did. No doubt that a lot of people who’ve seen the movie are still breaking drug laws in some fashion.

Hayes: We all think we’re invincible until the sky falls on our head.

Rumpus: Right on. Going back to my question, for your generation, or for you, what was the most iconic prison story?

Hayes: The Great Escape and Papillon were the examples. That was prison break for me. Stalag 17 when I was really young. Papillon was really good.

Rumpus: There’s something instinctively inspiring, so soul-thrilling about a prison escape. I was thinking about this. Sometimes, regardless of what the person has done, regardless of the crime that got them there, there’s something about a human being escaping confinement that resonates in the deepest part of our soul.

Hayes: It’s almost classical Greek structure. Young man goes out into the world seeking treasure and fortune and falls in a very deep hole, struggles, struggles, struggles, and then triumphs.

Rumpus: Departure, fulfillment, return.

Hayes: It was the zeitgeist of the time, the ‘70s. I got out. All this stuff was in the wind. Everybody knows somebody who’s gone through customs somewhere. Everybody knows somebody who could’ve or should’ve or did get caught. It rang true.

Peter Guber—who was the producer of the movie—he was probably the first guy who did the marketing in the way that it’s done all the time now. One time in New York, before the film came out, I saw a bus go by and there was a poster, you know, Midnight Express, Billy Hayes. Guber said, “By the time the movie opens I want everybody in this city to see or hear ‘Billy Hayes Midnight Express’ at least seventeen times.” Seventeen? How do you come up with that number? But that’s what he did.

Again, I stepped off the plane in Kennedy airport and there were a hundred reporters. When I got busted in 1970, Newsday did an article about it. Then my sentence got changed, and I was the first person to get a life sentence. I mean, I’m going free. Fifty-four days before going free and they change it to life. People were following my story back here in the U.S. from the time I got busted, from Newsday. When the sentence got changed, it took it up to a whole other level. Worldwide press picked up on it. Every country had a story about the American in Turkey who now has a life sentence. Then when I escaped, oh my god. I didn’t know it, because I was locked in this little room in the woods in Greece for twelve days.[1]

Rumpus: You reread Papillon when you were there, after the escape, right? That’s in the book.

Hayes: I read that. I read Catch 22 again. I read Kazantzakis. I’m a reader. I’m a writer. That’s what I did. I was there for twelve days, but I knew the Greeks would never send me back to Turkey, not for hash.

Rumpus: That was a huge advantage.

Hayes: I came back and I have no legal problems in the States. I’m an escaped convict, drug smuggler, internationally known, and yet I’m all right.

Rumpus: The U.S. State Department has a record of it—arrests abroad of American citizens—but it’s sealed under privacy act, apparently. No one can access it, meaning you have no record here, essentially.

Hayes: For you, you wrote a book, so they know about it. But most guys coming out of jail don’t announce it to everybody. I didn’t have that choice. I got out, the whole world knew that I’d escaped. But I can vote. I have no legal repercussions in the States because I escaped.

Rumpus: What’s the craziest stuff someone’s said to you, coming up to you? I mean, aside from people wanting to get high with you.

Hayes: Lots of people do that. I was thinking, God I’ve done a lot of interviews. When I got up to a thousand interviews I just stopped counting, stopped thinking about it, and that was twenty years ago. When I got home, I did all the press. Then I did another six, seven weeks for the movie. I told my people, if you want to do interviews on weekends, I’ll do them. I told these guys to line them up. I’ll do them all. And I did. They would literally line these up. I’d do a 6 a.m. interview, one at ten, another at noon, all day long. Then I’d do one of those San Francisco late-night radio call-in talk shows—I love that—smoking joints with the DJ. “Hey, do you still smoke?” “I will, if you will.” One time, this girl called in and said, “So, Crazy, how are you?” That was my nickname in college. “Who is this?” And she said, “Well, let’s see if you can guess. You liked my legs.” “Tess!” The most beautiful legs. She said, “We should get together.” I said, “Leave your number here.” After the show she came over to the radio station and we spent a couple of days together in San Francisco, which was great, out of the blue.

Rumpus: Midnight Express fatigue is another part of it, right? I mean you’ve been riding this train for forty years. It’s a double-edged sword. I’ve heard you say before how much it’s given you, what it’s done for you.

Hayes: The worst thing and the best thing that’s ever happened to me. You know, I was a writer, an English major. I went to Marquette. I went to journalism school.  I wanted to write a book, get out into the world. I met Wendy, my wife, at the Cannes Film Festival, 1978, when we premiered the movie. We’ve been married for thirty-three years. I wouldn’t have met her.

Rumpus: In the book, to both police and in court in Istanbul, you’re telling them that weed and hash are not really so bad. Were you really saying those things?

Hayes: My speech to the court, when they re-sentenced me, was something along the lines that laws change from one time to another, from one country to another, and if you’re going to sentence me to more prison—I’ve already been in jail for more than three years—I can’t agree with you. All I can do is forgive you—which was all I could do, for them and for me.

Rumpus: That’s one of the big differences…

Hayes: That’s the biggest difference in the film, that speech to the court, which Oliver Stone wrote.

Rumpus: Your big courtroom speech when they re-sentence you, they up your sentence to thirty years, and Davis delivers the searing anti-barbarian, anti-Turk rage, calling the Turks “pigs”…

Hayes: Calling them “pigs,” saying, “I fuck you all. I fuck your sons. I fuck your daughters.” And the Turks said, “Oh, really?” They issued an Interpol warrant for my arrest. Not for my escape, not when Midnight Express the book came out, but when they saw that scene in the movie, they issued the Interpol warrant that stood for the next twenty years. I didn’t have an Interpol warrant when I escaped. It’s a scene in a movie! I didn’t even say it!

Rumpus: How did you feel about that, that they put Stone’s fictional version into the movie?

Hayes: I didn’t like the scene at all. It was the opposite of what I said. It cost me a lot. I was the most hated man in Turkey.

Rumpus: How much did the politics of the day influence the anti-Turk theme throughout the movie? Of course there’s a commercial, narrative incentive to make the Turks bestial and barbaric; it’s more sensational.

Hayes: The Turks reacted to that dickhead Nixon and his War on Drugs, increasing their penalties like most other countries sucking on the American tit. And yes, my biggest problem with the movie is the one-sided view of Turkey and the Turks. I didn’t like the prison or the guards or the legal system, but that’d be true for any place you’re busted. The country and the people I dug and enjoyed on my first three trips to Istanbul.

Rumpus: So because of the Interpol warrant, could you not travel?

Hayes: Not for twenty years.

Rumpus: You didn’t ever leave the States?

Hayes: If I did, I had to contact the country I wanted to go to, because Interpol is this loose-knit international group. Different countries respond differently to Interpol warrants. I couldn’t go to Germany, for example, because they have such a tight treaty with Turkey.

Rumpus: Right, millions of Turks there.

Hayes: Of course, guest workers. So I had to be very careful. There were a lot of countries I couldn’t go to.

Rumpus: What about now? You said you’ve been doing a lot of traveling. You were just in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. Do you ever get noticed in customs? Do they ever see your name and say something?

Hayes: Sometimes they do. Back in the day, when this warrant was out. Five or six years ago I got invited back to Turkey. Long story…

Rumpus: Is that when you publicly apologized?

Hayes: Yes, right. I got to talk at an international convention on peace and global security, in 2005, I think it was. A thousand police officers from sixty-three countries were gathering in Istanbul.

Rumpus: How did you get involved with that?

Hayes: The Turkish National Police had heard me on YouTube and all these places. You know everything you say is documented somewhere. I’m so glad they didn’t have all this shit when I was younger. This was really good for me, that they heard this stuff, me talking about the exaggerations in the movie, how in reality I like Turkey.

I got a call from this Turkish policeman. These are the kind of guys that went to John Jay College of Criminology. They speak better English than you and me. They’re gonna go on to politics. These are smart dudes, not just cop cops. They heard me in a couple of interviews on YouTube talking about that speech in court in the movie, what was wrong with it, saying how much I actually love Istanbul, how much I like the Turks, how well I got along with the Turks. My biggest problem with the movie is, one, the ending, that escape. Alan Parker, the director, showed me the movie, and I think I said this in the Locked Up Abroad, “I love the film. I miss my rowboat.” That gave me back my life. Prison says, “You’re a loser, you’re a loser.” I got myself out. I literally had my life back in my hands in this rowboat. I miss that scene. What happened to my rowboat?

Rumpus: Riveting and awesome scene in the book.

Hayes: Parker said, “Billy, what forty-five minutes of the film do you want to cut to put in your rowboat? They’ve had enough. Get the audience out of the bloody theater!” He may be right. That’s a filmmaker making his movie. I also know as a filmmaker and a writer myself what it would cost. This movie was made for $2.3 million. To shoot an escape at night, in a boat, in the ocean, would cost a lot of money. To run through Turkey for three days would cost a lot of money.[2] Instead, let’s have him skip out the door with the key. If it had been that easy in reality, it wouldn’t have taken me five years to do it.

Rumpus: And in the movie that’s when you kill that sadistic guard.

Hayes: The guard getting killed, which I didn’t do.

Rumpus: That peg in the back of his head. At least it had some interesting details like that.

Hayes: It’s effectively done. If it was a poor movie, nobody would have even remembered it two years later. They’re still playing it.[3]

Rumpus: So in Istanbul, at that convention, they must have been really pleased to have you set the record straight.

Hayes: These four cops invited me back to Turkey. I was on the list, me and Osama bin Laden and all of the terrorists. Literally, I was on that same list. Not allowed back into Turkey. I’m an escaped convict. I’m not to be allowed back in. The Turks got so much grief after the movie came out. Their tourism dropped ninety-five percent. People would say, “Turkey—oh my god—Midnight Express. Don’t go there.” And I always say, “No, go. Just don’t be stupid enough to get busted for hash. You won’t like the prisons, I guarantee you that. But otherwise you’ll love the country.”

Rumpus: Oliver Stone has also publicly, not apologized, but backtracked on the script of Midnight Express, said he regretted some of the embellishment and exaggeration.

Hayes: What he did was, he went back to Turkey because he wanted to promote Alexander, his movie, because it was big in that part of the world. It’s close to Greece.

Rumpus: Right. Sword and sandals.

Hayes: Even Alan Parker has said that he feels he was politically naïve…because he made a movie about hope and fear and struggle and all that stuff, but you don’t see any good Turks in the whole movie, and there’s all sorts of iconic images—you know, beatings taking place amidst Muslim symbolism. He feels he was politically naïve. For these guys it was a little mistake. For me, it cost me twenty years of an Interpol warrant. They had made me the most hated man in Turkey. The whole country hated me. The world thought that I’d killed this guy, that guard at the end. So I had to constantly be dealing with this.

But at the same time, the reality is I loved the film because it’s brilliant filmmaking. I didn’t like the ending because I wanted my rowboat. I hated the courtroom speech, and little things, like the yoga bit with Brad. It caused me so much grief. I constantly had to be defending the film. It’s easy for people to say, “Well, that didn’t happen,” and so they dismiss the whole story. Well, wait a second, no. The prison happened; it was brutal. It’s true. No, I didn’t kill the guard. He was actually shot by a former prisoner, outside the prison.

 

So for me to be able to go back to Turkey a few years ago and speak there was great. These four Turkish cops, they went and they found some drunk minister somewhere probably, who signed a temporary four-day waiver that allowed me back in. I land at midnight. I’m with this lady who’d been following me around for ten years doing a documentary. It’s me, her, and her husband. We land in Istanbul, at midnight, which I love. We get off the plane and there’s four cops at the bottom of the ramp. These cops are just waiting for me. They followed me around for four days. They never left my side. One of them slept in a chair outside my hotel room door. Because they brought me back knowing that if they could get me to say what I’d been saying on YouTube, it would be good for Turkey. You’ve got world press gathered around this conference, reporters from sixty-three countries—big conference with TV.  As they said, the best thing for us right now is images of Billy Hayes walking the streets of Istanbul free. The worst thing is images of you walking the streets free and having somebody blow your fucking head off because you’re the most hated man in this country.

A lot of people suffered because of the movie. So they were worried for my safety, which I appreciated. But once I got there, I got to do a big interview with TV, and all of the Turkish press, talking about many of the same things you and I are talking about now. And it was wonderful. I’ve still got people who tell me, “Oh, yeah, when we talk to the Turks and we mention you, they say, ‘Yeah, he came back here and he said how his movie is not true and how he likes Turkey and likes the Turks.’”

Rumpus: It reversed it to a degree. I understand what you’re talking about. For me, a big thing was when they published my book in Korea. It was important to me because I had a lot of love and respect for the country. It was very important to me to get that into the story. The culture saved us in many ways, in the sense that there were factors that made it relatively civilized, enough so that I could even get to a point where it did become a spiritual journey.

Hayes: That’s exactly what it is. You learn things. That’s what my show is, my one-man stage show.

Rumpus: What are you calling it again?

Hayes: Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes. It’s opening here in January. We had a long script for it. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival forced us to hone it down a lot. They only give you a fifty-five-minute slot.

Rumpus: Did the audience over there know who you are?

Hayes: They know the story already, or they think they know. It depends on what iteration of it they know. Did they just read the book? Did they just see the movie? Did they just hear about it? The ability to tell the story fully and to tell it on stage in my own words… Locked Up Abroad made me realize that this story still has something to offer. People are still interested. I’ve been doing it for forty years. I’m still talking about the same shit.

Rumpus: One of those things. I’m sure you have some resistance to it. And yet it’s almost like you just got to go with it.

Hayes: I had great resistance for a while and I totally got away from it, and then I brought it back. On my first Screen Actor’s Guild card my name was William Hayes, because I needed to separate from Billy Hayes, Midnight Express, and all that bullshit. And then I soon realized—nobody knows William Hayes at all. Billy Hayes wouldn’t get me acting jobs, but it would get me in the door for auditions. They’d want to look at me.

Rumpus: You were a journalism major at Marquette. You mention in the book that you were writing short stories at college, and that you’d tried to publish them. You sent them to magazines.

Hayes: I’d send them out; they’d send them back with yellow rejection slips.

Rumpus: I thought, this guy’s obviously observant. You’re articulate. So why did you even need William Hoffer to help write the book? Could you have written it alone?

Hayes: Now I could. I got home from Turkey on a Friday. By Monday I was meeting with literary agents. I wrote fifteen pages for Julian.

Rumpus: Do you remember what scene?

Hayes: Just some opening stuff. He read it and said, “Now we know we need a professional writer to work with you.” I said, “What are you talking about? I’m a writer.” He said, “Your style is the hysterical subjective. It could be good for Rolling Stone Magazine and your peers, but if we want the book to do well and make some money on it, we need to go beyond that. You need to have this organized.” It felt like a betrayal to bring in another writer, but at the same time I was so relieved, because it was such a jump. I’d been home for two days. I wanted to forget about prison. I didn’t want to think about it. Then to suddenly have to bring some order to it—I realized I just can’t do this alone right now.

Rumpus: Yeah. I did shorter magazine pieces after I returned but it was years before I started earnestly to build the book.

Hayes: I’d still be procrastinating about doing this. I’d still be saying, “Yeah, sooner or later I’m gonna do it.” It forced me to do it economically, and more so, once Hoffer got involved, he kept me writing. After the first couple of days, I would’ve quit. Emotionally, it so fucked me up. He had me talk into a tape recorder for about a week. And I can talk. That’s all I do. We talked endlessly. Then he sent all that off to a girl who transcribed it. It’s a humbling experience to read something like that, how I, you, any of us speak.

Rumpus: Always humbling to hear one’s self objectified.

Hayes: Holy shit. But what it did was give us this mass of material. Then what Hoffer said was, “We need to break this down into chapters.” So he organized me and he kept me going. I would’ve quit.

Rumpus: A prison story sets up fairly nicely chronologically.

Hayes: You’ve got a beginning; you’ve got an end.

Rumpus: So you can walk it along.

Hayes: Hoffer was teaching me as we went. He gave me perspective, that third eye. And we went to work on it right away. Julian told me that I had to stop doing the press interviews. He said, “Every word out of your mouth is a dollar out of your pocket.” That caught my attention. I was having these terrible nightmares. I was back there, because I’m thinking about this shit all day. It didn’t go away. It was cathartic as the words settled on the paper.

Rumpus: The narrative quality of it is higher than I expected. I knew the movie, that’s what was in my head. I was surprised by the book, I got to tell you. It pushes forward like a thriller.

Hayes: Most people think, ex-convict, he probably can’t even talk.

Rumpus: It’s a damn good read.

Hayes: Midnight Return is much better. I’m a better writer. I had no restrictions. There were a lot of restrictions on me back then. There was so much stuff that Julian said, “You know what, you don’t want to be talking about this.” I had this whole thing about this discovery I made. I used to do a lot of acid in jail. You can’t write about that. I talked to my lawyer, Michael. He said, “You can’t talk about that, because there are a lot of people who would love to bust you again.”

 

So I had all this stuff that was getting in the way. They were telling me, “Save all that metaphysical shit.” What the movie lacked is what I found in jail. I was able to put some of it into the book, but Julian was saying, “This is too much. Just tell your story.” I listened to him. What did I know. I said okay. I was desperate for money. I owed everybody money. You know, what kind of job are you going to get? Previous employment for five years—convict. That doesn’t get you a lot of work.

Rumpus: Was writing such a part of your trial? In the book, you say that you smoked to stimulate your writing; you told the authorities this. And then, you told the Turkish court that your thesis at Marquette was on the effects of drugs on literature. Did you really tell them that?

Hayes: Oh yeah, that’s what I told them. I wish I had told them from day one that I was asleep at the airport and somebody taped this shit under my arms.

Rumpus: That’s what a lot of Koreans were telling me: “Never admit it!”

Hayes: I wish I had told them that because they gave me a life sentence anyway.

Rumpus: I thought that was hilarious, “the effects of drugs on literature” as you’re on trial for smuggling hashish.

Hayes: Two kilos of hash. Yeah, so I told them I write a lot. I smoke a lot.

Rumpus: You smoked a lot of hash in prison, right? That skews everything, doesn’t it—legally, morally, the prison experience?

Hayes: Smoked a lot of hash, did acid, even started and then stopped smoking cigarettes in jail. Stopped smoking hash when my life sentence came down and the escape switch slammed back on, and I had to get hard and eliminated anything that made it easier to get through each day. I didn’t want it easier. I wanted out.

Rumpus: I’ve been telling you how humbling for me it is to read your story, how in so many ways I was, in a sense, just repeating your experience in Korea, even down to the juggling. I read that in your book. I didn’t know about it previously, because it’s not in the movie. I was just thinking, You gotta be fucking kidding me. You wrote in the book that you carved your name in the wall of the holding cell the first day you went to court and the date is November 10, 1970. I was born two days later.

Hayes: Wow.

Rumpus: I put the book down and thought, Man, the grand family. We’re all just repeating humanity in all its forms. Such a humility in that, a proper placing. Cuts us down to size… Take us back to your return visit to Turkey a few years ago.

Hayes: After I did my speech in Istanbul to all the reporters, my guides took me out. I got to go out and wander around Istanbul with my four cops. They took me to the Pudding Shoppe, where I scored the hash, which was the big hippy hangout back then. When we walk in, on the walls of the Pudding Shoppe are pictures of Billy Hayes being busted, pictures of Midnight Express. In the back is this fat roly-poly guy. He turns and sees me, does a double take, and comes charging down the floor. All four of my guys go into stances, and the fat guy says, “Oh, no, no, wait! Billy Hayes! Billy Hayes! I know you! My father ran the Pudding Shoppe when you were here, and you write about us in your book and it was in the movie! We became so famous we bought the hotel next door!”

Rumpus: That’s crazy.

Hayes: And the new Four Seasons in Istanbul is the old Sultanahmet lockup where I spent my first night after my arrest. We went there, too. Out in front they’ve got a guy standing there now. He looks like one of those Buckingham Palace guys. He speaks, like, nine languages. He talks to all of the tourists. So we walk by and he says, “Welcome, welcome. Where are you all from? You’re Americans, aren’t you? Have you ever been here before?” I said, “It’s a really long story.” Sally has all this on film. It’s pretty bizarre.

Rumpus: Wild. I love this detail in the book: that most of the inmates were Aries, as in the zodiac. Rash and impetuous. I’ve never heard anything like that. Is that true?

Hayes: Leap before you look. It’s the ram. The first sign of the zodiac. It still fits me.

Rumpus: I was thinking, what if they had held you until the 1990s, or the thirty-year sentence, which would put your release around 2000?

Hayes: That’s crazy for me to think about.

Rumpus: We wouldn’t have Midnight Express, first of all. Imagine that. Who would be Billy Hayes coming out of that?

Hayes: Not who I am now, that’s for sure. Prison, you know, twenty-four hours a day, telling you, “You’re a loser. You’re a loser.” Eventually, that shit, you become it. You get broken.

Rumpus: Part of how ridiculously counterproductive and idiotic it is.

Hayes: To survive you have to close off your emotions. That’s why guys, when they come out of jail, they’re so hard and locked.

Rumpus: Guys who are already having difficulties, who are already antisocial to a degree, problematic, and then you’re making it worse.

Hayes: Or else you get broken in ways you’re never going to fix. You probably had the same experience I did. Because you’re a writer, because you have perspective, prison: it’s one thing at first and then it changes. When I finally turned my escape switch off, that period in prison for me was amazing. I learned a lot of valuable things about myself then because I wasn’t thinking about escaping the whole time. And my yoga, my meditation. And all that stuff I learned was sorely tested because instead of going free, suddenly I get a life sentence. It’s easy to be calm and peaceful and centered when you know you’re getting out.

Rumpus: The most profound moments I’ve had in my life were there.

Hayes: Me, too.

Rumpus: When you feel the most alive.

Hayes: The most alive I ever felt in my whole life was on on the Turkish side of the riverbank, getting ready to swim the Maritsa River over to Greece, thinking, I’m barefoot, I’m wet, I’m muddy, I’m endangered, and I never felt so alive in my life. It made acid pale. So alive.

Rumpus: Man, I wish I’d escaped. It’s gotta be one of the coolest things a person can do in this life. You’re a brave guy. I mean, you’re in a foreign prison, and yet it seems like you’re thinking about escape from jump.

Hayes: From day one. From the first moment.

Rumpus: That’s pretty fearless.

Hayes: Desperate men do desperate things. I was really desperate.

Rumpus: A part of the book I don’t get: during your escape, why were you telling people, local Turks, that you’d learned Turkish in prison? Wasn’t that risky as hell, suicidal even? Three times you said it.

Hayes: Among most Turks, and especially the ones I encountered along the way, it’s almost a badge of acceptance if you’ve done some time, especially as a foreigner. And rapping the language makes it all cool.

Rumpus: What about the harrowing scenes in the mental facility?

Hayes: Bakirkoy.

Rumpus: That’s what people remember and think, My god, this guy was in hell.

Hayes: Strangely enough, that’s among the more accurate parts of the movie.

Rumpus: They really did walk mindlessly in the basement like that?

Hayes: Walking the wheel.

Rumpus: What a metaphor.

Hayes: Walking the wheel. Prison was bad, but I didn’t appreciate anything until I lost it. I took everything for granted. I didn’t appreciate America until I lost it. Prison the same. You’re in single cells. They lock you in at night. I hated that. Then, after about a year, they moved us into a barracks-like set-up. Seventy-two bunk beds with three holes in the floor in the back for a toilet. People around all the fucking time. Drove me crazy. Then I realized what I had in the single cell.

Rumpus: It’s all relative.

Hayes: And everything in life is like that. It’s why I don’t take anything for granted.

Rumpus: It’s maybe why you have that positivity you do. You can take everything else from me. You can’t take that.

***

[1] The escape depicted in the movie was fictional. Billy’s actual escape is described in his book and reenacted in National Geographic’s Locked Up Abroad: The Real Midnight Express.

[2] This was part of Billy’s actual escape.

[3] In 2012, Newsday reported that Hayes still receives about $21,000 a year in movie profits from Columbia Pictures.

***

Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes begins its run at St. Luke’s Theatre in New York City on January 22nd.

***

Want more from Cullen Thomas? Visit the “Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons” archives here.


Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →