Exclusive interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan
New York Times best-selling author Hank Phillippi Ryan remembers the exact moment when she told her husband she wanted to write novels.
“When I was 55, I was sitting at my desk and finally had a good idea for a mystery. I went home and told my husband, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got this plot that I’ve been looking for for 50 years and I’m gonna write a mystery novel!’ My husband, who’s always been so supportive, said, ‘That’s fine, honey, but do you know how to write a book?’ I laughed. I was so naïve—“How hard could it be? I’ve read a million books,” recalled Ryan—born Harriet Ann Sablosky—of Boston, laughing.
Soon thereafter, she discovered how hard it could be.
Nonetheless, Ryan—an Emmy-winning journalist for WHDH-TV (Boston’s NBC affiliate) who’s married to attorney Jonathan Shapiro—gutted it out.
That idea turned out to be her debut novel, Prime Time, which won the Agatha for Best First Novel. It marked the first appearance of Charlotte McNally.
“So that one good idea launched my career as a mystery author. I’m really the poster child for following your dreams in midlife,” said Ryan.
Her latest novel, Say No More (Forge $25.99), is the fourth in the Jane Ryland/Jake Brogan series. Jane is doing an exposé of sexual assaults on Boston’s college campuses. At the same time, a young woman weighs the pros and cons about going public about being raped. Meanwhile, Brogan, Jane’s fiancé, is investigating the murder of Avery Morgan, a Hollywood screenwriter/visiting college lecturer.
“I am so excited about Say No More. It’s incredibly exciting and very timely and very important,” said Ryan. “The germ of Say No More actually happened to me. My producer and I were on our way to interview a campus sexual assault victim. Next to us was a hit-and-run accident, which I saw. I said to her, ‘Did you see that?’ She didn’t because she was driving. The car next to us bashed the car in front of it. (The driver) sat there for a second. I stared at him and cataloged what he looked like.”
She continued: “Then he drove away and I got his license plate because I’m a reporter and that’s what I do. I totally knew what he looked like. When the police arrived, I (gave them a description). I told my husband this and he said, ‘What if telling what you saw is dangerous?’ I thought, Oh my goodness, yeah. What if someone sees an accident and reporting it puts them in mortal danger? That was the beginning—and the impetus —of Say No More. When is it better to keep quiet? What is the power of silence?”
So far, Say No More has received critical acclaim from Ryan’s fellow novelists, including Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, and Michigan native Allison Leotta, alias “the female John Grisham.”
“Given Hank’s long-term experience as a TV journalist, I expected style, substance, and success, but I think she exceeds that—her books are terrific. Maybe she should’ve been a novelist all along,” said Child.
Added Leotta: “Hank is an amazing woman. She somehow balances being an investigative journalist, a bestselling writer, and a leader in the writing community. She is one of the most organized, talented, and generous women I’ve ever met.”
Like Ryan, Leotta’s latest novel, The Last Good Girl, which is set in Michigan, also explored sexual assaults on college campuses and how they’re covered up. Rapes are most common in the first few weeks of college, and university officials worried about bad publicity have a vested interest in keeping it quiet, according to Leotta.
“Too many young women are sexually assaulted during what should be a wonderful and empowering time of their lives—their college years,” explained Leotta. “These survivors often feel assaulted a second time by flawed college disciplinary systems that ignore, dismiss, or cover up rape reports.”
Jane debuted in 2012’s The Other Woman, which won the highly coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award and was inspired by South Carolina’s ex-governor, Mark Sanford. In 2009, Sanford disappeared for several days, his whereabouts unknown. He stated he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was, in fact, with his mistress. This scandal led to his divorce and resignation as chairman of the Republic Governors Association.
“I read an article about that case, thinking, Who would do that? Who would be the other woman?” said Ryan. “At the end, someone (said), ‘You can choose your sin but you cannot choose your consequences.’ I read that again and again… I had one of those epiphanies and thought, This is my new book.”
Ryan knew Charlotte couldn’t be the protagonist because this story was edgier and darker, so she created Jane. Her persona came from being damaged and vulnerable as well as determined. Jane is so honorable that she ruined her career by doing the right thing: She refused to reveal a source and got fired.
“How does anyone come back from that? I knew I’d have this damaged reporter and I’d knew I’d have a political thriller. It turned out to be ‘The Good Wife’ meets ‘Law & Order,’” she said. “I knew that my main character would be a woman but she couldn’t just be another reporter. I decided to make her a reporter who’d just been fired and was struggling to find her way back into her career. How do you deal with the universe where you’ve played by the rules and been honorable and lost? How do you deal with that? That’s where the book started.”
Ryan compared and contrasted Charlotte and Jane.
“Charlotte McNally is a 46-year-old reporter who’s afraid she’s getting too old for television. She wonders what happens to a smart, savvy, successful television reporter who’s married to her work when the camera doesn’t love her anymore. Her driving force is she thinks she’s aging out of her career. The books are first-person and they’re funny,” she explained. “Jane is 30-something and her career’s on the upward climb… It’s fun for me to be 30-something again through Jane. Her life is not like my life at 30-something was at all.”
Ryan’s more like Charlotte than Jane.
“I’ve won 33 Emmys for investigative reporting. When people meet me at events, they’re surprised I’m funny,” she said. “That’s because for the 33 years I’ve been a reporter in Boston, I’m the tough guy, I’m the aggressive one who asks the hard questions that send people to prison. They don’t realize that the real me is more like Charlotte who’s humorous and funny and sees the world through optimistic eyes.”
Born in Chicago and raised in Indianapolis, Ryan and her sister used to ride their ponies to the local library where they checked out books.
“It’s a crazy memory. We’d read in the hayloft in the barn behind our house. I’d read Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Nancy Drew. I wanted to either be Nancy Drew or write about Sherlock Holmes,” said Ryan. “I wanted to be a mystery author or a detective from the time I was a little girl. I got into journalism just by chance and crime fiction many years later. In the end, I turned out to be a detective and a mystery writer… It just took many years for that to happen.”
An alumna of the now-defunct Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, Ryan has been a TV reporter since 1975. She’s been in Boston since 1983.
“My books are ripped from my own headlines. I’ve been a TV reporter for 41 years. I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras. I’ve confronted corrupt politicians. I’ve gone undercover and in disguise. My stories have changed laws and changed lives. That is exactly what makes my books authentic, genuine, and realistic. People ask me how long I have been writing. I’ve been writing for 40 years, not 10,” she explained. “People ask if I do a lot of research for my novels. I’ve been doing a lot of research for 40 years because every day as a reporter, (my job) takes me to places nobody else can go. So my books can only take place centered in Boston. The key to writing a successful novel is to have the setting be as much a character as your characters are, that the books could not take place anywhere else than this particular setting.”
Robin Agnew, co-owner of the bookstore Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, has invited Ryan as a guest twice to the annual Kerrytown BookFest, including this past fall’s.
“(Hank) writes thrillers with a heart,” said Agnew. “They’re superbly plotted and populated with memorable characters; they are must-reads.”
As of now, Ryan has no intention of quitting her day job to write full-time.
“Life is unpredictable. I love being a reporter. I love being a crime fiction author. It would depend on so many things…” she said. “I don’t know what my career path’ll be. Right now, it’s fabulous.”