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A Plot Twist for Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Career

by Mary Yuhas


is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 33 EMMYs, 13 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her groundbreaking journalism. A bestselling author of eight mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: five Agathas, two Anthonys, the Daphne, two Macavitys, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a “master at crafting suspenseful mysteries” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.” Her 2013 novel, THE WRONG GIRL, won both the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and the Daphne Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, and is a seven-week Boston Globe bestseller. TRUTH BE TOLD is the Agatha Award winner for Best Contemporary Novel, an Anthony Award nominee and a Library Journal BEST BOOK OF 2014. Ryan also won a second Agatha Award in 2015 for Best Nonfiction, as editor of WRITES OF PASSAGE, an anthology of essays by mystery authors, which was also honored with a Macavity Award and Anthony Award. Ryan’s newest novel, WHAT YOU SEE, is a RT Book Reviews Top Pick for “Exceptional suspense!” and named a Best of 2015 by Library Journal, which raves, “Mystery readers get ready: you will find yourself racing to the finish.” She’s a founding teacher at Mystery Writers of America University and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at HankPhillippiRyan.com, on Twitter @HankPRyan and Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthor.

LITVOTE:  You were already an award winningl investigative reporter when you started writing? What prompted you to start a second career?

HANK: What prompted me to start a second career? I grew up in very rural Indiana, reading Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, and always wanted to be a mystery author, or a real life detective. My life went a different direction, but come to think about it, I became kind of a detective and storyteller, right? I’ve been an investigative reporter for three decades now, and a journalist for 40 years! But one day–11 years ago when I was 55!– I simply got a great idea for a plot.  I remember the moment perfectly. And I went home and said to my husband: I have a terrific idea for a mystery, finally, and I’m going to write it.  He smiled, and said “Honey do you know how to write a novel? And I laughed, newbie me, and said “How hard can it be?” Now I know.

But I am proof that it is never too late to start a new career. And I am delighted every day about it.

LITVOTE:  How long did it take to find a literary agent/publisher for your first book?

HANK:  It took longer than I would have liked… But not as long as it takes for some. I thought it would be much easier, especially since I already had a well-known name, in New England at least, and hoped that might make a difference. It didn’t. I may have blanked out how much time it took, since every time I got a rejection, it felt like forever. But I think I maybe got 10 rejections before I got my agent. I know now that that is fabulous.

My first book did not sell instantly, but soon enough, and I hope I never have to worry about that again. I am so happy now with my publisher, Forge Books, and humming along delightedly.

Writing a novel can be a series of rejections, and much of success has to do with persistence.

Oh, and some magic, too.

LITVOTE: Do you outline before you start a book?

HANK: Can you hear me laughing? Every time I write a novel, I swear that I will do an outline. And then I think oh, maybe not, maybe I’ll just start. So bottom line, I have never done an outline for a book. As a result, I don’t know what is going to happen until I write the next word, and the next sentence, and the next scene.

You know there are two kinds of writers–plotters and pantsers. In other words, those who outline, and those who write by the seat of their pants. And I am a pantser.

I start each book knowing it will be about Jane Ryland, a smart savvy reporter, and Jake Brogan, a Boston police detective. I also know one cool unique plot point—one unique gem of an idea that will make the book special and original and riveting. I don’t start writing until I know the first sentence, but after that, anything goes.

It’s an intriguing tight rope, isn’t it? To begin a project, knowing that in a certain amount of time you have to have a certain amount of words, and you have faith that you will get there… Even if you don’t know where “there” is.

So far, it has worked. But not without some bumpy roads. But it is a joy, and some days I burst out laughing with how terrific it is. Other days, not so much.

Although I write thrillers, I don’t even know who the bad guys are when I begin!  When I was writing WHAT YOU SEE, I was almost finished, and in despair. I came out to the living room, and told my husband “I can’t finish this book I have no idea how it ends.”  Jonathan said “You at least know the villain, don’t you? And I said no.

People say –wow the end of WHAT YOU SEE surprised me! And I say yeah, wasn’t that a surprise? Talk about surprise endings. I surprise myself. Every time.

LITVOTE:  Do a lot of the twists and turns in your stories come from your experiences as an investigative reporter?

HANK: Oh yes, absolutely! One of the wonderful things about this dual career as investigative reporter and crime fiction author is that every day I am on the job–as I have been for the past 40 years!–I get ideas for my stories. My books, however, though ripped from my own headlines, are not my stories made into fiction. Not at all.

But I have wired myself within cameras, and confronted corrupt politicians, got undercover, and in disguise, and chased down criminals. I’ve had people confess to murder, and convicted criminals insist they were innocent, covered hostage situations, and ice storms, and shootouts and tear gas and riots. So of course, all that brings veracity and an authenticity to my novels.

Plus—I’ve had to write a story every time. So I’ve also learned the ways to tell a compelling story!

LITVOTE: How do you find time to work full time on television and write?

HANK:  Ha. I have said that if I had an autobiography, I would call it The Juggler. Because all I do is juggle! I am very organized, and have lots of lists, and I keep track of my writing progress. Maybe surprisingly, I am not a multitasker. I focus on one thing at a time, and try to get that done. Right now I am on national book tour, so must focus more on writing, and my station has been very generous and flexible about that. As an investigative reporter, there is much I can do remotely, research and interviews and scriptwriting. I have even tracked my pieces in other cities!

In my personal life?  Cooking I must say, was the first to go, and then laundry. And then vacations, and movies, and dinner parties. So I juggle, and my supportive and enthusiastic husband does too.  So far, so good.

LITVOTE:  Are Jane Ryland and  Charlotte McNally ─ the protagonists in your two series ─ your alter ego?

HANK: Well…no. They aren’t. Jane Ryland is a 35-year-old journalist, just getting her sea legs, and learning her way in the business—she’s so ethical, she keeps getting fired when she refuses to cut journalism corners. She is a 35-year-old person in 2015, and I was a 35-year-old person in… Whenever that was. So it’s a treat to get to be 35 again, but she is Jane at 35, not Hank at 35.

Charlotte McNally, well, she’s not my alter ego so much as she is flat out me. I fear is a lot of me is Charlie, and I embrace it. She also is younger than I am, but as a 46-year-old and television reporter, Charlie is worried that what will happen when she is married to television, but the camera doesn’t love her anymore. This is a rite of passage every woman in television… And other businesses! –goes through. So it was fun for me to explore, with Charlie’s trademark humor, that professional and personal journey.

Again, both characters often surprise me! Sue Grafton always says her main character Kinsey Millhone  revealed herself to Sue more and more in every book, and that is exactly what happens to me with Jane and Charlotte.

(You can read my novels in any order—just like you can watch any episode of Law & Order!)

LITVOTE: After successfully writing eight books, what suggestions can you give to aspiring authors?

HANK: It’s amazing to see that number eight, almost nine! And working on number 10.When I despaired, for a while, over book number one!

But my advice is simple: go for it. There is no one who cares about this is much as you do, no one who is going to make you do it, or force you to do it, or give you a prize if you do it. It is all about your passion, and your commitment, and sitting down in the chair and writing the best book that you can. That’s all there is. Devotion, and persistence, and that crazy wild confidence that any new author must have.

The road to successful publication is inevitably paved with rejection, and disappointment. There is also a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel (which is actually a new beginning!), and sometimes gorgeous lights along the way. So just keep at it, and work as hard as you can, do the absolute best you can, and give it 100 percent every moment of every day.

One big secret? There are no short cuts none at all. It is all about work.

LIT VOTE: Do you read your book reviews?

HANK: Yes I do, and, they are the scourge of authors. I often only remember the bad ones. If I could avoid reading them, I would. But I love hearing from readers, and it’s my goal to make certain they have a terrifically enjoyable reading experience, so, of course, I want to know if I have succeeded.

And the joy, the glorious joy, I get from the good ones is so marvelous and intoxicating. WHAT YOU SEE has received the best reviews I’ve ever seen for any book in my life! “Superb”, “highly entertaining,”  “as good as Dennis Lehane,”  “flawlessly done.”

And it was just named a Library Journal BEST of 2015!  Wow.

But when someone criticizes me unfairly, for something bizarre like my “profanity”– of which there is absolutely none in my books!–I shake my head and I vow I will never read another review.

Sometimes I think if people only knew what a dagger to the heart an unkind word is, they might be more careful about what they cavalierly say.  But that’s all part of the biz.

LITVOTE: What are the most common mistakes that first-time writers make?

HANK:  The most common mistakes? Not being careful enough, not realizing that every word you choose has to work, and has to matter, and that you can’t just bang out a book and have it be good. It takes a long time to write a terrific novel, and then it takes even more time to make better by revisions and changes and rethinking.

There is art, and there is craft. You can be the most incredibly talented person in the world, but if you don’t know how to write a book, it’s rare that it can succeed. There’s an interesting balance of skill and talent on one hand, and sheer education on the other. When I was halfway through my first book I had a little epiphany: That I had no idea what I was doing!

I took a class or two, and read some books, and after all my years as a journalist, it didn’t take much to educate me. I still study writing all the time! And hope to improve with every book. But again, there are no shortcuts. So if writer thinks “la dee dah this will be easy”? That’s wrong.

Writing a book is a marathon. It is easy to feel defeated. If you love it, please don’t make the mistake of giving up.

LITVOTE:  What’s next?

HANK:   So many exciting things! In 2016 my first series, the Charlotte McNally books, will be re-issued by Forge with brand-new editions and brand-new covers. I am so fond of these books– they are fun, fast-paced mysteries set in Boston. The first, PRIME TIME won the Agatha for Best First Mystery. Robert B Parker loved the Charlotte McNally books, (and I hope his fans will, too!)  and I am so happy that soon they will be available to readers again.

I have two short stories being published in 2016 as well, and hilariously, they are so different! One is in an anthology of X-Files stories, can you believe it? Edited by Jonathan Mayberry. And the other is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche which will be in an anthology edited by Laurie R. King and Les Klinger.

I was named Toastmaster, a huge honor, of Malice Domestic, the ‘traditional mystery’ convention held every year in Washington DC.

And then, along with James Patterson, I have been named the American guest of honor for Bouchercon, the world mystery convention, held in Dallas in 2019.

Book five in the Jane Ryland/Jake Brogan series, SAY NO MORE, will debut in October 2016. I am so excited about it! It is about witness intimidation, campus sexual abuse, and the power of silence.

And of course, I will be writing my next book, called OUT COLD! Which, oh, I should go start right now.


Mary Yuhas is a journalist and and has contributed to Sun-Sentinel, USA Today, China Daily USA and Washington Times, MapQuest among others, creator of Baby Boomers the first reality blog and the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scribd.


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