Interview: Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Phillippi Ryan

As a child, Hank Phillippi Ryan was obsessed with the detective novels of Agatha Christie, and the stories featuring Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes, and decided she wanted to be either a writer or a detective. As luck—and hard work—would have it, her dreams came true.

An investigative journalist for WHDH-TV Boston with over 40 years of experience, Ryan uses detective skills to uncover corrupt politicians, hold corporations accountable, and fight for the rights of consumers. Along the way, she’s won thirty-four Emmys and fourteen Edward R. Murrow awards. Somehow, she has also found time for a highly successful career as a writer. Her thrillers—based on some of her own experiences—have hit the bestsellers lists and earned her a reputation as one of the most skilled authors of reporter-journalist thrillers. Her books have garnered comparisons to the novels of Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, and Edna Buchanan.

Though Ryan’s books are thrill rides into the unknown, she manages to tackle many of the issues we witness today—such as jury bias in Trust Me (2018), the consequences of living in a world that is under constant surveillance in What You See (2015), the tragic results of home foreclosures in Truth Be Told (2014), serious flaws in the foster care system in The Wrong Girl (2013), and the trauma of victims of college campus assaults in Say No More (2016).

Versatility has been one of the hallmarks of Ryan’s writing career. She started out in the competitive romantic suspense genre with her novel Prime Time (2007), quickly blazing a trail as a talented newcomer and ultimately winning the Daphne award for The Wrong Girl. She’s also written over a half dozen thrillers featuring intrepid investigative reporter Jane Ryland. Her short-story repertoire includes everything from flash fiction to Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Ryan is also a founder and contributor of the award-winning blog Jungle Red Writers.

Ryan has been the recipient of several writing awards, including five Agatha Awards, the Mary Higgins Clark Award from the Mystery Writers of America, four Anthonys and two Macavity Awards. She’s the only author to have won the Agatha Award in four different categories. This year, she’ll be the guest of honor at Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.

Andrew F. Gulli: Tell us about your forthcoming thriller The Murder List.

: So excited about this! It’s a psychological standalone and it’s about Rachel North, a thirty-something former political operative who is now in law school. She’s happily married to an experienced defense attorney, who’s made a career successfully defending some of the most hopeless of cases. She gets a summer job as an intern in the powerful and aggressive district attorney’s office, and through that gets involved in a murder case where her husband might believe one truth, and her prosecutor boss another. How does a budding lawyer decide which side to be on—when both sides think they are the good guys and when she trusts and admires both?

AFG: The cover was very striking—hats off to your publisher for the packaging.

HPR: I am in awe of the covers Forge creates for my books. The hardcover of Trust Me was one of the best I’ve ever seen. It says one thing when the book is vertical, but another when the book is horizontal. And what I adore about The Murder List cover is how sinister it is. The woman is beautiful, and yet . . . just a little bit off.

AFG: Has your work as an investigative reporter helped you come up with plots?

HPR: Of course! I’ve been a television reporter for forty-three years. Can you believe it? I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, gone undercover and in disguise, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals, and gotten millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers. Much of what is in my books is from that experience—but they’re not my investigative stories glossed into fiction. There’s a little bit from here, and a little bit from there, and then a whole lot of made-up stuff.

The techniques of investigative reporting are incredibly similar to writing crime fiction. You have an important story with a character you care about. You’re following leads, tracking down clues, doing research and interviews. You want the good guys to win, and the bad guys to get what’s coming to them, and in the end, you want to change the world a bit. At every turn, the people are important, the victims matter, the stakes are high, and change is possible.

The story must be entertaining but educational, a complex puzzle told in a clear and compelling way, and with a satisfying ending. I don’t want you to change the channel when you’re watching my stories, and I don’t want you to put my books down. They’re both the same I-gotta-know suspense.

AFG: When people use the term “investigative reporter,” it conjures up images of Woodward and Bernstein . . . In your experience what has the reality been?

HPR: When that book [All the President’s Men] came out, I was working in Washington, D.C., for Rolling Stone magazine, editing a column called Capital Chatter. I covered the CIA hearings, traveled with Richard Avedon, and worked with Hunter S. Thompson. I clearly remember the Washington Post landing on our doorstep every morning, with Woodward and Bernstein’s latest scoop, and thinking . . . Can this be true? We were in awe of their skill. But their skill was a relentless determination to get to the truth. That’s what I hope I learn from them. As for super big conspiracy theories? I have to say that is not top of mind for me. (We shall see.)

AFG: You are based in Boston and you’ve set novels there. What is it about Boston that seems to, in a relatively small area, provide the inspiration for so many authors—Dennis Lehane, Joseph Finder, George V. Higgins (I’m sure I’m missing many)—to create such excellent novels where the city feels like a character?

HPR: Everything about Boston is perfect for crime fiction. The briny smell of the ocean, the seagulls, the crazy-different neighborhoods, the history around every corner—the Boston massacre and hangings on the Boston Common, with the glittering minds of Harvard and MIT, the still-prevalent social strata, from Brahmins to newcomers. It’s diverse, it’s nonstop, it’s astonishingly crowded. The traffic is insane. When I went back to Indianapolis, home on a vacation, I was driving and another driver actually slowed down for a yellow light. I started yelling! Go, GO! Of course, they were following the rules, and I was being a Boston driver.

Boston is rich in character and characters. We have rock stars and mobsters and politicians and supermodels and geniuses and serial killers.Got to love it.

AFG: When you write, do you outline or are you the kind of writer who has an idea and sees where the keyboard will take them?

HPR: Now you’ll know: No idea of the end, no idea whatsoever. It’s tragic, and it’s ridiculous, and every time I get to the middle of every book I write, I vow that the next time I am going to make an outline like a sensible and reasonable person. And then I never do.

The only way I know what happens next is when I write the next word and the next sentence and the next paragraph and the next scene. It’s a constant surprise, and when it’s wonderful, it’s beyond description. When it is terrible, it is head-bangingly terrible, and I understand why they call that little blinking thing on the computer a cursor.

And every time I think: Wow, this is the time it’s not going to work.

But, as I tell myself, all I need is one good idea a day, and I just persevere. It’s like arithmetic, you know? Addition. If I just keep writing, the story will appear.

AFG: The publishing world has changed a lot over the years. Today’s trend can be tomorrow’s book that ends up going out of print relatively quickly. What advice do you have for beginning authors?

HPR: Oh, trends. I don’t think about that. When I have a good idea for a story, I tell that story. It’s fruitless to follow a trend. By the time you finish your on-trend manuscript, that trend is way over. So the key is to write a good book. How many times can we hear this? Tell the best story you can. Forget about everything else.

AFG: I’ve known you for almost eight years and you’ve struck me as one of the most amiable writers I’ve ever met . . . How difficult is it to balance being a writer who is very approachable for fans and colleagues with the more plodding work . . . ?

HPR: Well, thank you. What a nice thing to say, and the same to you. Well, I am the most introverted person you will ever meet. If someone said: Would you rather go to a party or stay home and write? I would stay home every time. They say those writing seminars are when you take 400 people who’d rather be by themselves and force them to talk to each other.

But I’m authentically interested in hearing what other people are doing, and what they’re writing, and where they are in their lives. Maybe it’s a reporter thing? I completely enjoy that. So many people helped me along the way, seems like—well, it’s my turn now. That actually brings tears to my eyes.

AFG: What would you say is the most difficult novel you’ve written?

HPR: Easy question. The one I am writing right now. No matter when you ask. Truly, in writing The Murder List there was a moment where I thought, “you know, if I can do this, I can do anything.” And then I laughed, because I had thought that about Trust Me, too. Trust Me, my first standalone, was a bear. But that’s when I realized that in a standalone, anything goes. Anyone could live, anyone could die, anything could happen. What power!

The thrilling reception for Trust Me—just now out in mass market—was incredibly reassuring. Because every day as I wrote it, I both adored it and was in despair. Trust Me was a life-changing book for me. I embrace how difficult it was to write—and I am grateful for that.

The Murder List had its own unique difficulties and triumphs. More (cue sinister music) I cannot say.

AFG: Who are some of the authors you enjoy reading today?

HPR: Are you kidding me? That list is way too long. For the authors who still inspire me: Edith Wharton, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Mark Helprin. Authors I love now? Oh, no way. Too much pressure. There’s no way to make a list like this without leaving someone out, then gasping in horror when I see my error in an actual magazine. I’m now reading The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths. It is fabulous. I am in love with the book Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin. Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery is a wonderful book on writing I have just discovered. David Ellis is my hero.

I hope I have successfully avoided answering this question.

AFG: For years, there has been a sense of doom and gloom about bookstores. What is your view about the future of publishing?

HPR: Gloom and doom . . . hmm. My view about the future of publishing—it makes me laugh to be asked such a question, because how do I know?—is: as long as there are books, and book-like things, there’ll have to be a place to buy them. The world changes, and we have to be happy with that.

As a television reporter, I would never have believed there would be no videotape. But there is not a scrap of it in my TV office. Things ebb and flow, but there will always be stories, and there has to be someplace to put them, and some way to distribute them, and someplace for people to possess them. So, that’s a bookstore. Of some kind.

AFG: We definitely have a ways to go, but are you encouraged by how publishing has a mainstream movement of female authors that seems to gain more and more strength every year?

HPR: Ah, yes, I am encouraged, usually. Every day there seems to be some jaw-dropping disaster, but again, it’s the ebb and flow. And, just like writing a book, as long as there is forward movement, relentless forward movement, with main characters who drive the action—am I pushing this too far?—I think it can only get better.

AFG: What are you working on now?

HPR: I am approximately 64,972 words into my new book. (This is a real number.) I have no idea what the 64,973rd word will be. It’s a psychological thriller, very risky, tentatively titled The First To Lie. Again, if I can make this work, I can make anything work. Cross your fingers for me.

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