Novelist Hank Searls is shmoozing on the phone when his Call Waiting signal beeps. Searls asks his pal to hang on, then a moment later comes back on the line. “That was Vice-President Bush,” he says. “He asked me to meet him for lunch in two hours.”
“Bull,” says the friend with a laugh. But Searls, 65, isn’t just dropping conspicuous names. An hour and a half later, he and his wife, Bunny, 56, are sharing calamari and Cobb salad at a nearby Newport Beach, Calif., restaurant with George and Barbara Bush. It seems the Vice-President, campaigning in California, admired Searls’s 17th and latest book, Kataki, so much that he tracked down the author’s unlisted number.
Small wonder, since Bush and his World War II exploits provide a large part of the novel’s plot. Back in 1944, Navy pilot Bush was shot down off Chichi Jima, a Pacific island whose Japanese commander was later hanged for cannibalizing American captives. Fortunately for Bush, a reluctant sushi substitute at best, the future Vice-President was rescued by a U.S. sub. Forty-one years later, researching Kataki, Searls spent five days on the island interviewing its inhabitants, then dug through old naval logs and war-crimes trial records. Bush not only praised him for his work but bought three cartons of the book to send to friends.
It is, in fact, Searls’s meticulous research—and his willingness to live the roles he fictionalizes—that has made him a regular on the best-seller lists. To gather background for one of his best-known novels, Overboard, the story of a troubled couple at sea, he and Bunny spent three years sailing the South Pacific in a 40-foot ketch. Searls prepared for two crime novels, New Breed and Never Kill a Cop, by serving a year with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Reserves. For Pentagon he rented a Russian general’s uniform to test security there, then grew a beard and buckled on a backpack to infiltrate a group of peace activists. Before he wrote Firewind, about a psychotic firebug, he and Bunny motorcycled into California’s Los Padres National Forest during a raging summer blaze. For his only work of nonfiction, Young Joe, The Forgotten Kennedy, Searls drew on his experience flying the same kind of bomber the Kennedy brother died in during World War II.
Searls grew up in California, the only child of an associate professor of surgery at Berkeley. He began reading adult books as a child and remembers that he used to like Kipling. (“If you ask young people today how they like Kipling,” he cracks, “they say they don’t know, they never kippled.”)
A wartime graduate of Annapolis, he served as a gunnery officer on the USS Washington in the Pacific. By 1949 he was three years into his first marriage, with his second child on the way, when he was assigned to photo squadrons mapping Labrador and Newfoundland. With time on his hands, he says, “it occurred to me that I might make a buck writing for pulp aviation and detective magazines.” Working at 20,000 feet, in longhand, with an oxygen mask on, Searls churned out short stories from the co-pilot’s seat while his B-24 churned up and down the Labrador coast.
Five years later, Searls joined a stunt-flying team until boredom with the Navy sent him into civilian life, first with Hughes Aircraft and then with Douglas. That work provided material in 1959 for his first novel, The Big X, the story of a test pilot who tangles with an aircraft no one can handle. It also established his preference for hands-on research. While preparing for The Crowded Sky (1960), about a midair collision, he first earned a license to pilot commercial aircraft. He even considered going to the airlines for a job, he says, but chose instead a less demanding expedient. “I slept with all the stewardesses I could,” he explains.
That sort of undercover work ended in 1959 when Searls, by then divorced for six years, met Hollywood ingenue Bunny Cooper, a divorced mother of one and girlfriend of actor Sterling Hayden. Searls married her five months later and seems to have got matrimony right on the second draft. “Bunny has researched everything with me,” he says. “She should be listed as co-author on everything I’ve written since we were married.”
The couple now share a cozy, two-bedroom condo overlooking a golf course in Newport Beach. One bedroom serves as Searls’s office, and there he begins work each day shortly after 6:30 a.m. A nearby garage holds cartons of research materials, and a rented storage room several miles away contains 700 cubic feet of carefully labeled files—enough for “five different novelists,” he says. Although Searls is “easy to live with,” says Bunny, “he’s always researching, even if we go away on vacation.”
For his next book, on the perils of a second-rate air traffic control system, Searls plans to get a glider pilot’s license. Fortunately for him, gliders don’t carry flight attendants. “I don’t think I’m going to be allowed to go out with stewardesses any more,” he says with mock wistfulness. “Nope,” confirms Bunny. “At some research, I draw the line.”
—By Ned Geeslin, with Jack Kelley in Los Angeles