Why Screenwriter and Novelist Derek Haas Loves Making Readers Cheer for a Hit Man

Derek Haas (on left)  (  Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris, p  hotos courtesy of Derek Haas)

Derek Haas (on left)  (Photo credit: Elizabeth Morris, photos courtesy of Derek Haas)

By Sean Tuohy

For the better part of a decade screenwriter/novelist Derek Haas has entertained and thrilled audiences across the globe with his adrenaline-pumping writing skills. Haas helped pen “3:10 To Yuma,” arguably one of the best westerns of the last 10 years, and is the co-creator of NBC’s “Chicago Fire.”

When Haas isn’t lighting up the silver and small screen, he is busy exciting readers with his Assassin Trilogy, which follows international hit man Columbus. His latest novel The Right Hand chronicles C.I.A. Austin Clay’s investigation into a deadly mystery and is one of best spy thrillers of recent memory.

Haas graciously answered some of my questions regarding his life as a writer.

Sean Tuohy:  Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start as a professional writer?

Derek Haas: I always wanted to be a writer. I went to school at Baylor University and stayed for graduate school in English Literature.

My now partner Michael Brandt was doing the same thing, only getting his MA in Film. We teamed up soon after college and started writing together.

A screenplay we wrote fell into Brad Pitt’s hands and he wanted to make the movie. He never did end up making it.

However, that got us our start.

ST: Was there a time as a writer that you felt hopeless about the craft?

DH: There have been times when I felt like the machine that is Hollywood would chew us up and not let us get any of our scripts produced, but to be honest, I haven’t had self-doubt about our writing.

Don’t get me wrong, we may not have always turned in the greatest draft, but I have confidence we’re strong writers.

ST: Who were some of your early influences?

DH: My earliest influence was Stephen King. I just think he’s a master storyteller. He knows how to manipulate pace and make his readers keep turning pages. He’s the greatest campfire storyteller of all time. On the movie side of things, I’m a big admirer of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola.

ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?

DH: I think the first time I wrote something that got the reaction I wanted—laughter, emotion, or a lump in the throat. I started writing stories when I was still in elementary school, and it seemed that I could always surprise people with my words. I still try to do that.

ST: Your Assassin Trilogy follows world-traveling hit man Columbus. Where did this character come from?

DH: I’m always attracted to characters that are gray; just when you want to like him, he does something to turn you away from him, and just when you want to condemn him, he brings you back. How could I make readers cheer for a contract killer? It was a great challenge. I do love writing him.

ST: You write about the unseen underworld—assassins, gangsters, and spies. Where does this interest stem from?

DH: Brandt and I spent a little time with FBI agents in Quantico and I remember one of them talking about a hit man—a contract killer—and it piqued my interest. I started to wonder about what twists and turns a life might have taken to put him in that position to where he kills people for a living. I just love crime stories. Elmore Leonard was also a big influence.

ST: All writers have a great work that is unproduced and sadly may never see the light of day. For example, Doug Richardson’s “Hell Bent,” Quentin Tarantino's “40 Lashes Less One,” and Lem Dobbs “Edward Ford.” Do you have a screenplay or novel that has yet to be produced or published?

DH: Michael and I wrote a movie called “MIAMILAND” that we’ve been trying to get produced for a dozen years. We love it. It’s a crime story where two overeducated con men have to go to Miami and separate a mobster from his money. Some day!

ST: What made you realize that you were a storyteller?

DH: While other kids were drawing pictures, I was writing stories. I asked for a typewriter for my 10th birthday. It was innate. I just had to do it. I pinch myself every day that I’ve made a living from doing it.

Derek Haas writing stories in his youth (  Photo credit: Molly McCoy).

Derek Haas writing stories in his youth (Photo credit: Molly McCoy).

ST: What is your writing process? Do you outline your work before hand or just jump in to it?

DH: With screenplays, Brandt and I outline pretty extensively.

It’s the nature of the business. The producers or studio or network want to see what they’re going to get ahead of time. With novels, I just have a vague idea of what I’m going to do. I generally know my beginning, middle, and end in broad strokes. Other than that, I just plow ahead and let the story take me wherever it wants to go. That sounds like hippy-dippy writer-speak, but it’s true. I don’t want to get bogged down with an outline to which I have to adhere. No thanks.

ST: You are both a novelist and a screenwriter, which do you prefer to write?

DH: I love them both. I get to flex different muscles. Prose makes me happy, but when an actor or a director makes a scene even better than you imagined there’s no feeling like it.

ST: What is your best moment as a writer?

DH: Brandt and I were on a rooftop in Miami and it was hot as hell out and 300 people were standing around a set and then the director yelled action and two actors said the words that were in our heads. And it was three-dimensional and real and not just words on a page sitting on someone’s shelf. I almost started crying. (The scene never made the movie.)

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

DH: I piloted the bullet train between Paris and Marseille once. True story.

Follow Derek Haas on Twitter @derekhaas, or visit his official website.

For more interviews, check out our full archive