YOU KNOW THIS HORRID QUESTION, dreaded by most writers: “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” I’ll bet Derek Haas doesn’t dread that question. If I were in his boat, I’d probably go to parties on the off chance that someone would ask it. Because whether or not you know his name, you’ve probably heard of something he’s written. He and his writing partner Michael Brandt are the team behind 2 Fast 2 Furious, Wanted, and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma; more recently, they created the mega-popular NBC shows Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D.
Haas has also dipped his toes into the glamorous, lucrative world of fiction writing — and by dipped his toes, I mean he’s written five novels since 2008. His latest, A Different Lie, is his fourth featuring the hit man Columbus, and it might be his best one yet. Now a new father, Columbus is forced to face the dangerous realities of his profession when he gets into a cat-and-mouse game with a sadistic, younger hit man.
I asked Haas some questions via email.
STEPH CHA: Columbus’s philosophy involves finding a connection with his mark, and then severing that connection through the act of killing. There’s something very authorly about this, and it makes me wonder about your relationship with your characters. You’re a writer and, as far as I know, a man of peace. What’s your connection to Columbus? Is he in fact your dark double?
DEREK HAAS: My wife asks me that all the time. There are aspects to Columbus that I share: his fondness of literature and storytelling, his love for his family, his attraction to rogues and underdogs, his joy for his work. I hope I’m more honest than he is. He lies to himself quite a bit, and even more to others. His upbringing was very different from mine. His morals don’t line up with mine. Maybe I should sever the connection!
So where did Columbus come from? What attracted you to the idea of writing a hit man?
I liked the idea of a contract killer who was assigned to kill his own father. I liked the symbolism of him traveling from east to west, from spring to winter, from the birthplace of the nation to the west coast over the course of the first novel. I wanted a name that evoked America, a country born out of violence. Plus, I just like tough crime stories.
The stakes have always been high in these books, but between the first three and A Different Lie, Columbus becomes a father. This is such a great setup that I wonder if you’ve been working up to it all along. How do you think Columbus has evolved throughout your series?
There’s always been a push-pull in Columbus’s mind between knowing that being a professional contract killer means he can’t have relationships, and seeking or needing human contact. His evolution is also a flaw: he got close to Risina [ed. note: Columbus’s love interest], he brought her into the game, and he has to deal with the consequences. He compartmentalizes his love for his family and his love of the job and doesn’t feel he has to give up either … with disastrous consequences.
Has fatherhood changed the way you think about your career? And do your kids read your books?
I don’t think fatherhood has changed the way I think about writing. I’ve always gone to the well of father/son relationships in my books. I don’t know why it’s so appealing; maybe because so much of literature and religion and philosophy focuses on that dynamic. I think I write children better since I’ve had kids. You forget about the cadences and rhythms of the way they talk and think.
I haven’t read them my books yet. They are ten and eight. Columbus might be too intense of a character, although my youngest son went as Norman Bates for Halloween this year so maybe I should?
What kind of research went into writing the Columbus series? I imagine you haven’t had the chance to interview many hit men, but have you ever, say, been to a Korean barbecue restaurant in Pasaia, Spain?
Ha! I went to a Korean barbecue in Barcelona and sort of transplanted that joint in my story to Pasaia! But that said, I’ve been to pretty much every location that appears in my books. Whenever I travel, I think about the possibilities of the location as a setting in one of my books or screenplays. I like to walk around new cities and take in the off-the-beaten-path places. I usually carry a notebook with me and scratch out the notes. Sometimes I name the restaurants or streets Columbus visits and it makes me happy to think that maybe someone will visit these places.
As far as research, I’ve never met a contract killer (that I know of), but I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with law enforcement, including getting to visit Quantico before September 11, where I got to hang out with members of the Hostage Rescue Team and watch them train. If I have any technical questions, I’ll interview police officers I know. If I have to get on Google, so be it. That said, I do like to use my imagination to fill in the blanks.
You’re one of the few people I know who’s gone from screenwriting to novel writing (as opposed to the other way around). Did you always want to write fiction? What came first for you? How did you come to fiction?
I wanted to be a novelist since I was a kid and asked for a typewriter for my 10th Christmas. I studied English in college and then got an MA in English Literature. It was my first love. I tried to write a novel right out of graduate school, but it was truly terrible. I hadn’t lived enough life yet and was too preoccupied with trying to mimic some of my literary heroes: Hemingway, Steinbeck. I learned quickly that I needed my own voice, and to concentrate on storytelling over creating high art. After I had some success as a screenwriter, I decided I’d try my hand again at a novel. It took a while to write the first book, The Silver Bear, because there was no deadline and no one was paying me to write this thing. I loved the process though … I can’t stop.
You’re not the only author with an unpublished novel in a drawer … what was yours about?
My novel was about a kid who was told the exact location of the Second Coming and was then hunted down by terrorists who wanted to stop it from happening. Don’t know why that one never made it!
How does your approach to fiction differ from your approach to screenwriting, if at all? Do your methods inform each other?
Well, the screenwriting taught me a lot about pace. The way you write a movie to have the audience on the edge of their seats is the same way you write a book to have the reader flying through the pages. I know many authors give you every little detail about the settings, the clothes, the facial features of their characters … I don’t know. I try to give the reader just enough to picture the scene in his or her mind and then zip on to the action. The other thing that is important in both mediums is surprise. I’m always trying to zig when the reader thinks I’m going to zag. Readers and audiences love to be surprised, as long as the surprise isn’t arbitrary. When it comes, the best success you can have as a writer is when the reader says, “Oh, I should’ve seen that coming, but I didn’t!”
You have a partner for most of your screenwriting ventures, and your current job involves throwing ideas around in a writers’ room. Do you write your novels alone in a cave? If so, do you enjoy the solitude? Would you ever co-write a novel?
I write the novels alone mainly because Michael Brandt, my screenwriting partner, doesn’t like to write prose. I do enjoy writing alone, although it can be harrowing, too. If it turns out to be terrible, I can’t point my finger at someone else! I have no plans to co-write a novel … why, what do you have in mind, Steph?
What do you like to read? Any favorite books or authors?
I’m a fan of fiction in all genres. My favorite author is Stephen King, the titan of campfire storytellers as far as I’m concerned. I love modern crime writers like Westlake and Winslow and Palahniuk. I’m reading Ellroy’s American Tabloid right now. I liked Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van and Don Winslow’s The Cartel this year. I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I’ll read anything! Nothing better than going to the bookstore and checking out the new releases shelf. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I love your books, Steph. Juniper Song is a great unique character.
Well, shucks, Derek. What’s next for you? Any more books or movies or shows in the works?
The only thing new coming out is Chicago Med, the third show in our Chicago stable. It debuts almost the same day as the book. I hope the audiences who like Fire and P.D. will like the Med version … we have fun crossing all the characters over from one show to the next.