Haley was raised in Henning, Tennessee, where his maternal grandparents lived. His grandmother frequently told him stories of his family’s history. He graduated from high school at 15 and enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939. He started writing to pass the time during long months at sea. He left the Coast Guard in 1959 and began writing for magazines. He interviewed Malcolm X for Playboy magazine and turned his series of interviews into the basis for his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book, published shortly after Malcolm’s assassination, sold 6 million copies in hardcover.
Haley’s next novel, Roots (1976), was a fictionalized account of his own family’s history, traced through seven generations. The novel was translated into 37 languages and won a special Pulitzer Prize. The novel was turned into a 1977 miniseries that became the most-watched broadcast in TV history to that time, drawing an unprecedented 100 million viewers over eight days.
Haley did not write another novel for more than 10 years. In 1988, he published A Different Kind of Christmas, about the Underground Railroad.
Haley died on February 10, 1992.