Saturday, March 20, 2010
A Conversation with Hank Phillippi Ryan
Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution.
Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a radio reporter, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson. She's also a national board of Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the New England Sisters in Crime.
Her first mystery, the best-selling Prime Time, won the Agatha for Best First Novel. It was also was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel, and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner. Face Time and Air Time are IMBA bestsellers. Sue Grafton said of Air Time: "This is first-class entertainment."
Hank, you’ve had an incredible career in broadcasting. What have you enjoyed most about your professional life?
Well, thanks! Over the past 30 years, I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, chased down criminals and confronted corrupt politicians—and had many a door slammed in my face! But the idea that I can change lives and even change laws is so gratifying. It’s a big responsibility, which I take very seriously. But when a tough story comes through and changes are made as a result—the rewards are immense.
How did your TV show “Hank Investigates” come about?
It’s a segment on the news here in Boston, and airs on the NBC affiliate. I’ve been a reporter for a long time—starting out as the political reporter in Indianapolis in 1975—then assigned to other beats from the medical reporter (!) to movie critic (!!) to on-the-road feature reporter in Atlanta, Georgia, where every Monday morning I’d close my eyes and point to a map—and then go to wherever that finger point took me to see what I could come up with.
I came to Boston as a reporter in 1982, where for awhile I was the “funny one.” Whenever the newscast needed a clever feature—what we call a “kicker”—I was the one assigned to do it. They called me “Something out of nothing productions” since I could always find a story anywhere!
But in 1988, I was assigned to do the long-form “think pieces” for the presidential conventions. After that, my news director told me he’d realized I was wasting time being the funny one. He said—you’re the serious one. And he made me the investigative reporter. And that’s what I’ve done—with much delight—ever since.
Which of all your many awards do you cherish most, and why?
Oh, impossible. My Agatha for Prime Time as Best First Novel? Brings tears to my eyes every time I see it. What a joy! But I love each of the 26 Emmys and12 Murrows as if it were the only one. Each one of them represents a secret that we discovered and brought to light. I’m very proud of those, and what they represent.
Tell us briefly about your background.
I was born in Chicago, where my dad was the music critic for the old Chicago Daily News. We moved to Indianapolis (where some of my family still lives) when I was about 6. I went to public schools, where I was a geeky Beatle-loving misfit voted “most original” in high school…much to my chagrin at the time. Majored in English at Western College for Women in Oxford Ohio, when in to work in politics and then…radio.
I got my first job in broadcasting because—as I told the news director at the radio station—“Your license is up for renewal at the FCC, and you don’t have any women working here.” Well, it was 1970! I’m proud to be part of the group of women who began to break down the gender barriers back then.
I worked for almost 2 years in the US Senate, and then a couple of years at Rolling Stone Magazine in Washington, DC. And then, TV.
When did you decide to write novels? And how did you come up with your “Time” mystery series?
Well, I decided to write mystery novels when I was about 7—Nancy Drew was my first best friend. But for whatever reason, it took me about 48 more years to come up with a plot I thought was worthy!
That happened when I got a weird email one day at the station. It was clearly a spam, with the subject line “mortgage refinancing.” But inside, was what looked like lines from a play by Shakespeare. I thought—why would someone send lines form a play by Shakespeare in a spam about mortgage refinancing? And it crossed my mind—maybe it’s a secret message.
And ding ding ding! (I still get goosebumps telling this story.) I thought—my plot! And that’s how it all started. Form the moment on, I was obsessed with writing the book. And that was the Agatha-winning Prime Time.
What’s Charlotte McNally up to in your latest novel, Drive Time?
Drive Time is about secrets. TV reporter Charlie McNally’s working on a story about a dangerous scheme that could absolutely happen…and let me just say, if you own a car, or rent a car, you’ll never look at your vehicle the same way after reading DRIVE TIME. In fact, after writing the book, I now get a bit creeped out when I go into a parking garage. That’s all I‘ll say.
Charlie’s also drawn into another frightening situation—this one at the prep school where her fiancé is an English professor. When Charlie learns a secret that might put her step-daughter-to-be in danger, and might also be an blockbuster investigative story—how does she balance her loyalty to her husband-to-be—with her need to protect the public?
So this is a tough one for Charlie. And she must make many life-changing decisions. Just when she begins to think she might be able to have it all—a terrific career and a new husband and a new life--revenge, extortion and murder may bring it all to a crashing halt.
Drive Time just got a fabulous starred review from Library Journal. Just a snippet of the rave: “Placing Ryan in the same league as Lisa Scottoline…her latest book catapults the reader into the fast lane and doesn't relent until the story careens to a stop. New readers will speed to get her earlier books, and diehard fans will hope for another installment.”
And dear Robert B. Parker’s quote is on the cover—he says “I loved Drive Time!”
What’s your writing schedule like and how long does a novel take to write, from idea to finished manuscript? Do you outline?
Prime Time took maybe..two years. The others have taken maybe 6 months each.
Outline? Yes. No. When I started with Prime Time, I had no outline. Just one of the many things I didn’t understand about mystery writing. My first manuscript was 723 pages long! AH. I had to cut 400 pages!
When we sold Prime Time, the publisher initially wanted two books. And they wanted an outline for the second. So I did outline Face Time, and although I complained the entire time writing it—it was no fun at all—it turned out to be a terrific tool. Even though the final story was nothing like the outline!
So now, I outline. And then I write the real story--however it comes out.
Which do you prefer, investigative reporting or novel writing, and why?
No way I could decide that! I love them both.
Which novelist most influenced your own work? And which writer, past or present, would you like to spend some time with?
I love Edith Wharton’s cynical take on the world, and the way she illustrates the social structure even while being dramatic and entertaining. Her stories have such with such depth and texture, and her characters are wonderful. Julia Spencer Fleming. Margaret Maron’s wonderfully authentic dialogue and settings. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for clever plots. Lisa Scottoline for her contemporary and hip take on the world. John Lescroart for story story story. PD James. Who I’d love to spend time with? Shakespeare. I have many, many questions for him. Whoever he was. Oh! And Stephen King. What a genius, on so many levels.
Advice to fledgling writers and journalists?
For journalists: Don’t be afraid. Be very afraid. Be scrupulously careful. Think. And think again. Never give up.
For writers? On my bulletin board there are two quotes. One is a Zen saying: “Leap and the net will appear.” To me, that means: Just do it. The other says “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” And I think that’s so wonderful—just have the confidence to carry on. Writing is tough, arduous, not always rewarding in the moment—but no successful author has ever had an easy path.
Thanks, Hank, for taking part in the series.
Hanks's website: http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com
Her blog sites: http://www.JungleRedWriters.com