Interview: How Derek Haas Keeps Us Watching & Turning Pages

Derek Haas (left) and co-writer Michael Brandt

Derek Haas (left) and co-writer Michael Brandt

To say Derek Haas is on a writing hot streak is a gross understatement. The 43-year-old adventure thriller novelist’s career is vaulting into the stratosphere with bestsellers like The Right Hand and The Assassin Trilogy (Silver Bear, Columbus, Dark Men), featuring contract killer Columbus, one of the more intriguing protagonists in recent years.

However, this only nicks the surface of Haas’ life. He has also become one of the hottest all-around writers in the world, currently touting a bestselling novel (The Right Hand), and with longtime co-writer Michael Brandt, one of the most acclaimed TV series (Chicago Fireand a dossier of screenwriting credits that includes The Double (2011), Wanted (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003).

41O0S7VJgIL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Some great TV writers, like Stephen J. Cannell and Sidney Sheldon, graduated to bestseller novelist status after leaving television. Others moved on to write memorable movies. Some novelists have become prolific screenwriters. A great example is the indomitable Elmore Leonard, the master of printed dialogue, whose novels and short stories have been adapted into more than 20 movies, some written by himself. One of his adapted short stories is 3:10 to Yuma. 

However, very few writers have worked in all three media simultaneously.

Such dexterity is a tribute not only to Haas’ abilities, but to his work ethic. He is a throwback to the classics, such as Paddy Chayefsky (who won Academy Awards for the writing of Network, The Hospital, and Marty), who got up every day and wrote great movie scripts and teleplays during TV’s golden age – no matter what. Haas attributes this discipline, along with years of rejections and “almosts”, in forging his dogged determination to succeed.

Haas on the movie set

Haas on the movie set

All of Haas’ work is action-packed, with well-layered character development and plenty ofsurprise twists and turns. Whether it’s a chapter in his books or an episode from Chicago Fire, subtext and various narrative threads are working just beneath the main arc, providing the full experience his readers and viewers have come to expect. After reading three of his novels and watching the entire first season of Chicago Fire over a month’s time on Hulu Plus, I mentioned to Derek how one can tell an accomplished novelist wrote that series. “Well, a TV series is episodic, like the chapter of a book,” he replied.

I first met Haas at the 2011 Southern California Writers Conference, where he delivered the featured keynote speech. Now, after 2 ½ years, one movie, two books and a hit TV series later, Haas shares his experience in this special interview.

WORDJOURNEYS: First of all, Derek, you’ve been on a writing rampage the past seven years – three movies, four adventure thriller novels, and a hit TV series. How do you switch back and forth from novel writing to TV writing to screenwriting? And keep the creative energy flowing?

Derek Haas: I don’t have any secrets other than I put the time in and try not to procrastinate.  I make sure I write every day; I make sure I read every day.  I love to write, so it’s never been a drag for me.  I have a partner in screenwriting so it is easy to avoid writer’s block.  If I get stuck, I just click “send” on an email.  Here you go, Michael (Brandt).  Your turn.

Derek Haas with a composite of his TV and motion picture protagonists

Derek Haas with a composite of his TV and motion picture protagonists

WJ: Your world must be rocking this summer between The Right Hand and writing season 2 of Chicago Fire.  Which leads to process: Since every writer wants to know about every other writer’s daily process, what’s yours?

DH: For television, it’s a pretty standard process.  Brandt and I (with the help of Matt Olmstead and our writing staff) come up with a story, which we then write into about a twelve-page outline.  The outline tells exactly what is going to happen in each act.  Very detailed.  We then go through a series of approvals, after which, we write the script incorporating ideas generated from the feedback.  Michael and I then pass the script back and forth until we get it to a place we like, then we go through the same approval process.

With novels, I just write long hand in one of those good ol’ Moleskin booklets.  I don’t usually outline… I just kind of know my beginning, middle, and end.  It lets me run a bit wild.

WJ: You made a distinction to the Chicago Tribune between TV series and movies that showed your novel-writing experience. You said that in movies, you need a beginning-middle-end, but you can end TV episodes with danglers. Could you elaborate?

DH: Well, you want viewers to tune in the following week… so the episodes end up being like chapters rather than books.  We’ll close this storyline this week, but we’ll open the door on three other storylines so you’ll want to come back and see how they finish.  It’s the “cliffhanger” writing that has been around for a long time.  A lot of times, we think of things as three-episode arcs … over the course of three episodes, we’re going to tell this story.  (Three is arbitrary; it could be four or seven.)  One three-episode arc might start in episode five, another might end there.  Does that clarify it?

The Right Hand, Derek Haas' latest novel

The Right Hand, Derek Haas’ latest novel

WJ: You’ve come off the heels of The Assassin Trilogy with a highly acclaimed action thriller, The Right Hand. I’m reading it now; it’s hard to put down. Austin Clay is incredibly intriguing, how he balances his life while engaged in very deep black ops. What is it about action, adventure, and the lone wolf archetype that captivate you so much?

DH: I don’t know… I’ve always liked stories about a lone wolf, where everyone in the world is against the protagonist.  I’m attracted to characters who are gray – an intriguing blend of good and bad.  It’s fun for me to write a despicable character in such a way that the reader cares for him or her.

WJ: You really like Europe as a setting for your novels. What do you enjoy about the European cultures, history, buildings, landscapes and people, and what are the combination of elements that make it so intriguing for you to write about, and readers to sink into?

DH: Great question!   Europe works for a lot of reasons… for one, it’s easier for an American spy or hit man to blend in – the basis for a lot of espionage.  I love the nooks and crannies and Old World layouts of cities, before there were cars and grids.  I also like to take readers out of their comfort zones and give them something new to imagine.  I like to play on perceptions of cities… for instance, Paris is usually this romantic place, but I like to take you down the darker, seedier streets.  I like to write about places I’ve been to… and I haven’t made it to Asia yet, so that’s probably a factor.  I really love Europe. When you respond to a place, when it gets in your blood, it comes out on the page.

WJ: Your readership arc for The Assassin Trilogy is almost like the viewer arc for Chicago Fire, in that some people got it right away, and then word-of-mouth caught fire and greatly increased audience as you were deepening the stories and bringing in new characters. What adjustments did you make from one book to another in The Assassin Trilogy to keep it fresh and new?

DH: I made a concerted effort to make Columbus more likable as the series went on… here’s a guy I wanted readers to want to spend more time with… so I couldn’t keep him as cold-blooded as he was in the first book.  I decided to give him a relationship that would cause him to question his role in life.  After I had Risina, I knew I could build empathy between Columbus and the reader.  I think that was the biggest progression.  I love writing him… he’s so heartless in one moment and so damned big-hearted the next.   Anyway, I hope that answers the question.

WJ: That it does. Another Columbus question: I’ve seen Columbus described as “the anti-Jason Bourne.” As his creator and storymaker, what intrigued you most about him as you wrote him out?  What background work did you do to get the hit man character right?

DH: I had spent some time with the FBI at Quantico and they talked to Michael and me about organized crime.  The world fascinated me.  I thought a hit man would make a great anti-hero, and I loved the idea of writing him in the first person, so the reader would be forced inside the head of a guy who killed people for a living.  I loved thinking about the psychological ramifications of hunting someone down, killing him, and walking away to do it again.  I wanted to make the toll of that on a man’s psyche seem real.  Then I hired a hit man to kill someone so I could shadow him and write about him.  (Just kidding about that last part.  Seriously, don’t send the FBI after me.)

WJ: You’ve worked for years with Michael Brandt on movies like 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted and The Double, and now on Chicago Fire. What are the advantages of a writing partnership – and how have you brought out the best in each other? What is your writing process together like?

DH: Michael and I have been working together now for 15 years… it’s been such a great partnership.  He’s a fantastic writer, and it certainly helps to have someone share the trials and tribulations of Hollywood with you.  There are so many ups and downs in this business… to go through it alone?  I don’t know how solo writers do it.  I’ve said for a long time… I’m really just writing to impress Michael.  We pass scripts back and forth via email (written on Final Draft) and change the colors so we know who wrote what.  We do that three or four times before we turn something in.  That’s our process, I guess.

The Cast of 'Chicago Fire'

The Cast of ‘Chicago Fire’

Chicago Fire question: This show builds on each episode – big time. It’s taut, riveting, great characters, really good mixtures of procedure, drama and action. How does your background as a novelist help you write these shows, especially showing the patience to bring out the characters over several episodes, developing subplots and individual stories, and creating dangler endings?

DH: Like I said, it’s basically the way you write chapters in novels.  You have a season – which is like a book – and then the individual episodes are the chapters in that book.  At the beginning of the year, the writing staff sits in a big room with a blank board and we arc out all the characters over the course of the season.  It’s like a giant grid… here’s what will happen to Casey, here’s what will happen to Severide, here’s where those two things will intersect.   Then, as we write each episode, we try to tie that episode into a central theme… for instance, if this episode is about the consequences of telling lies, then that theme will show up in individual character arcs and also in the accident calls.  But you have to know ahead of time where all these stories are going over the course of a season, or the audience will soon realize that you never had a plan.  A lot of the heavy lifting is in those first few weeks in the writer’s room.

WJ: Well, I guess I’ll unwittingly add to the theme of telling lies, because I do have a follow-up: Which Chicago Fire character(s) outgrew your original concept and expectation when Season 1 started? Who literally took off within your mind as the season progressed? Why?

DH: When we first started, we had Herrmann as this kind of death-of-a-salesman lovable loser who was always trying to get rich quick.  We kind of had him in our minds as a tragic fool.  (Executive producer) Dick Wolf told us that it was a disservice to the character, and the guy was actually the heart of the show… a family man who is just trying to put food on the table for his wife and kids.  He became a very relatable character and a bunch of storylines jumped off of that change in his character.  I love the way he turned out, and David Eigenberg does an incredible job of bringing him to life.

WJ: Final question: What do you enjoy most about creating and crafting stories? What brings out the pure fun and play element of writing for you?

DH: For me, writing is all about surprise.  Surprising the reader, surprising the viewer, surprising the characters, surprising yourself.  Zigging when they think you’re going to zag.  Misdirecting them this way and then slamming them that way.  Any time you can have a reader go, “I never saw that coming,” or better, “I should have seen that coming,” then it is very satisfying.  I get excited when I craft an intelligently set-up surprise… be it in dialogue, plot, setting or character.

The greatest part is having a viewer or reader email you and tell you his or her thoughts.  I still pinch myself when I get a nice email from someone who took the time to write it.  I can’t believe these characters who were in my head connected with people.  It’s very satisfying.

WJ: Derek, it’s been a pleasure. We’ll continue to follow what surprises come up in Season 2 of Chicago Fire … and in your books.

DH: Thanks!

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