“I got the proverbial call from Hollywood in the middle of the night from a guy who had read a script I wrote, telling me it was great and that I should be out here in California writing screenplays,” said screenwriter turned most notable debut author of 2020, Chris Hauty.
“He asked if it was okay to give to an agent, and a half-hour after that call, I got another call, actually from that agent, who hadn’t read it yet but, of course, that didn’t make any difference. Then, a half-hour after that, I got a call from an executive at paramount who said, “I heard you wrote a great script that you should be out here writing screenplays for me.”
“The agent said I should maybe wait until I wrote another screenplay before moving to Hollywood, but I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. So, I actually flew myself out within a week . . . and I’ve been here ever since.”
That was more than thirty years ago, and since then, Chris Hauty has penned over thirty screenplays before finally deciding to try his hand at writing novels.
Reaching him by phone just ahead of Christmas, Hauty and I spoke for more than an hour about everything from the craft of writing itself to how he came up with the plot idea for his buzz-worthy debut, Deep State, a rocket-fast political thriller set in Washington D.C. that explores a timely conspiracy and a direct threat to the president of the United States.
Hauty, who comes across younger than his actual age, laughed when I quoted the old saying within the publishing industry, “You have your whole life to write your first book, but you only have one year to write the second one.”
“I might have that market cornered,” said Hauty with a throaty chuckle. “Maybe I shouldn’t speak to specific ages, but let me just say, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone my age do this—so it’s quite thrilling, yeah. I recognize that fact, and then I ignore it.”
“I’ve always gone about my work in Hollywood that way. Anyone over the age of forty-five, to be a screenwriter or TV writer in Hollywood, it’s an exceedingly rare thing—and I turned sixty-three this year. You know, I could still be writing screenplays and getting jobs if I so desired, but it’s all gotten much harder. I’m grateful for this longevity, for sure.”
It was 1987 when Hauty got that call in the middle of the night. Paramount ended up hiring him to write a screenplay that was never made into a movie. No surprise, he told me, looking back—since only a handful of his more than two-dozen screenplays were actually made into feature films.
“Prior to Hollywood, I had written some poetry, and in New York, I had written some plays, but I came out to LA to write a screenplay for Paramount and I never looked back—and I never wrote anything else,” Hauty told me.
But that doesn’t mean his transition to full-time screenwriter was easy or without ups and downs.
“Of course, the Writers Guild strike happened a year later in 1988, and I had a few hard years without work, and a new baby, but I kept writing—and I wrote my way out of that situation by selling a spec script, and have been supporting myself as a writer ever since.”
So, how’d he get into writing novels? “It all kind of happened fantastically fast,” admitted Hauty.
“I started writing Deep State in May 2018, and I think it was only about three months, maybe half a year, before that when I sat down to lunch with a good buddy of mine, a fellow screenwriter, who has experienced the same suffering that I have—and everybody else in the business has—who said that he was writing a novel. He told me he had taken one of his old screenplays and punched it up, changed it around and refashioned it, and the thought of doing so had never occurred to me prior to that time. I had only been writing screenplays, in the screenplay format, for the last three decades.
“So it was in early 2018 when the seed had been planted by a fellow scribe, and you know, I think that things had just gotten so difficult in Hollywood to get things made—the whole film business has changed radically, and I could give you a whole spiel on that—but I transitioned to writing fiction because I wanted to write about people.”
At the heart of Hauty’s stunning first novel, which #1 New York Times bestselling author C.J. Box called “a propulsive, page-turning, compelling, fragmentation grenade of a debut,” is Hayley Chill. A young go-getter, Chill served in the military before eventually taking a job at the White House, where she became an intern for Peter Hall, the president’s chief of staff, in what she assumed would be a boring position.
Things take off, however, when Hall is later found dead from what appears to be a heart attack—with only Chill suspecting foul play after she comes across some conflicting evidence. After some poking around, she makes another startling discovery—a powerful, well-connected group of Washington elites have banned together to oppose the president, putting his life in danger . . .
And it’s up to Hayley to connect all the dots and expose people for who they really are before it’s too late.
“Deep State is kind of the Frankenstein creation of bits and pieces of other screenplays I did that were set in Washington,” said Hauty when asked where he came up with the story idea. Beyond that, he’s not quite sure how it all came together. “I honestly don’t know. The fact that this book is going to be published literally into the jaws of a senate trial in which the phrase ‘deep state’ is passed back and forth like a toxic tar baby, it just blows my mind with how this has worked out.”
As for those unsold screenplays that Hauty keeps in his drawer, he calls them a “creative salvage yard for me to make use of.” And readers should expect to see more of them retooled into novel form in the coming years—just like Deep State, which is the first book in a planned series.
Aside from a fresh, intriguing new character and a captivating conspiracy, two things make Hauty’s book stand out. First, whereas most writers can’t help but slip their own political leanings into the story, Hauty avoided doing so completely, instead writing a book that’s right down the middle and will appeal to both conservatives and liberals.
The second thing is the mind-bending twist he ends with.
“Yeah, that was really important to me,” said Hauty about staying apolitical. “Honestly, it doesn’t make any difference what my political beliefs are. Look, I want to sell books to everybody, but I also sort of want to, like, engage everybody at the same time—so I’m not pandering to anybody. I’m just trying to write something that gets everybody to think,” pausing to laugh, Hauty then added, “and maybe f—k with their heads just a bit.”
A lot a bit, actually, as his final twist will no doubt leave readers trying to retract their jaws from the floor before someone steps on them.
In talking about his twist, which obviously we couldn’t mention here for spoiler purposes (but trust me, it’ll go down as one of the best shockers of 2020), Hauty said the idea for it came about while brainstorming the story, before then teasing another massive surprise in his next book, presumably due out sometime in 2021.
“That one . . . it’s funny you should ask that. I outlined the shit out of that book. I put that one together and the Eureka! moment came to me at some point during the outlining, so it wasn’t like I began with that twist. I began with the character Hayley Chill, and the twist came later,” the author said about the ending to Deep State.
“The follow-up book, though, just to tease it a bit—I was working on the edits for that one, and, while taking my morning walk to get out of the house about, a huge twist did come to me. Just a massive, mind-f—k of a twist, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me. Usually, I have these things mapped out and outlined, and it’s all very clear to me. A very thorough outline makes the drafting process really enjoyable,” he explained, “and that’s the part I really love—that first draft. So, that kind of a late shocker coming to me, like with the next book, hasn’t ever happened before.”
One of Hauty’s most notable credits, according to his IMDB page, is the 2008 MMA flick, Never Back Down, which stars Sean Faris (Pearl Harbor) Amber Heard (Aquaman), Cam Gigandet (Twilight), and Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy).
“It was probably my happiest experience, honestly,” recalls Hauty, talking about how that movie came to be. “It was the closest I came to getting something made that was, you know, my own creation. Everything else was, essentially, a job right? Never Back Down wasn’t quite that.
“That one actually came from a potential job. Ice Cube’s company, at the time—which no longer exists in the form that it did back then—they contacted my agent. They had signed some young, male karate guy to some kind of holding contract and they were looking to create a new Karate Kid and wanted a story. You know, at the time, I didn’t think karate—this is what, ten years ago—was what was happening. What was happening was MMA, and I wanted to do something in that world. It just seemed refreshing, and more visceral, because there was more new stuff to do there than anything that had been done in karate. I pitched them what was, essentially, the Never Back Down story, and they were like thanks but no thanks—so I just decided to write it myself.”
“Back in the day when they were writing projects like this, we go in and pitch in and say no, and usually because it was based on some piece of property that they owned, you couldn’t really do anything with it. But this was something that I had basically created on my own, of course having been inspired by the Karate Kid movies, so I went and sold it. In very short order, especially for out here, it went from sold to into production.”
In telling that story, Hauty did drop one crazy fun fact. Incredibly, he was actually fired from that job twice, and hired three times—to write the same script. That, for those of us on the outside of Hollywood looking in, probably goes a long way towards explaining why someone living in that sort of environment might eventually look towards trying something else.
“I’m loving it. I’m very happy with this transition if you couldn’t tell already,” Hauty told me when I asked how he’s feeling about switching from screenplays to manuscripts, and he made sure to highlight his editor, Emily Bestler (Senior Vice President, Editor-in-Chief of Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Atria Book at Simon & Shuster) in the process, and noted just how different—in a good way—it is getting the edits back on a manuscript versus getting the edits back on a screenplay.
“It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. I come from a place, as a screenwriter, where the producer or studio executive or director that I was writing for, it was very much for them. I was writing for them, right? I had one producer I worked with who actually said to me, ‘I want to be the pencil in your hand.’ And I was like, excuse me? You’re the pencil in my hand? Just thinking about that makes me shudder.”
“Working with Emily, you know, I feel like I have someone who is an advocate, a helper, and a backstop. Getting the first edit back on Deep State was actually a shock because of how light it was. When I’d write a screenplay for a major studio, they’d say how much they loved it, but then send 12-15 pages of detailed notes explaining how they were going to massively change it.”
“Emily has been great, and she’s a great partner in the process—and it’s fantastic to have only her between me and the readers. I really cherish that.”
That’s not to say that Hauty is totally finished writing screenplays, though, because while he can’t say much about it, Deep State was optioned by a major studio, and if it gets made into a movie, he wants to be the one to write it—no question.
“Yes. The short answer is that it was actually optioned about a year ago right after we sold the manuscript to Simon & Schuster, and I would definitely want to write the screenplay.”
As for whom he’d like to one day see cast as Hayley Chill, the author admitted he’s not entirely sure, mostly because he’s never been in a position to consider such a question before.
“I’m not good at that,” Hauty said with a long sigh, indicating he’d given this question some thought already. “When I write I don’t think of any actors. I’ll tell you where the character came from after I answer your question, but the current studio, they seem to like Zoey Deutch (Zombieland: Double Tap, etc.) for the part. Now, again I don’t think casting. I’ve never had my opinion asked about casting ever as a screenwriter. But the character Haley Chill springs from my enjoyment of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Winter’s Bone.”
“I just loved Lawrence’s character. I love the way she was so tough, and gritty, and resourceful. Twice in that movie, her character mentions joining the army—for different reasons of course—but I always wondered while watching, what would happen next? I always want to know what happens next when I see a self-contained story like that. So, that’s where the character came from, and that’s who I’ve always had in mind when I’m writing these Haley Chill adventures . . .
“That was a long roundabout way of saying I don’t usually think about casting because I’ve never asked these questions when I’ve written something,” Hauty said, again laughing, “but Zoey is someone we talked about when we developed the pitch for this latest series.”
Our conversation winding down, I asked Hauty about what readers should expect next and where the story might go moving forward. While he was understandably guarded this far out from the second book’s release, not to mention the added complication of talking around major spoilers because of that wicked twist, he did offer a small tidbit to readers who finish Deep State and are dying for info on the next one.
“I knew when I was writing this one that I wanted to continue the idea of exploring threats from within—where America was being threatened to come off the track a little bit. And while I can’t say much, the Big Bad that I explore in this book continues into the second book for sure.”
What Big Bad might that be? Well, you’ll just have to pick up Deep State (in stores everywhere on Tuesday, January 7th) and find out for yourself.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.