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 fiancĂ© 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:
Her blog sites:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Conversation with John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap began his phenomenal publishing career with Nathan's Run, which was followed by five more bestselling thriller novels, four of them Literary Guild selections. No Mercy, his latest release, is the first of a new series. John will be giving away two copies of No Mercy in a drawing from visitors who leave a comment here.

John, how does a former firefighter, EMT, and explosives safety expert, with a master’s degree in safety engineering, become a bestselling author?

It all starts with an obsession to tell stories. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember—as early as elementary school. In junior high and high school, I would write stories just for my own pleasure. I’ve never been any good at sports, but I’ve always been good with words, so I guess it only made sense that during those formative years when every kid is trying to cut a niche for himself, I chose the creative one.

Still, one has to make a living. That’s what the safety engineering was about; but I continued to write for my own pleasure. Since fiction writing is equal parts talent and craft, I think you get better with each new effort. In 1995, I finally landed on a story that people thought was worth buying. That book became Nathan’s Run, and when it sold, it sold big.

With six thrillers on the bestseller's list and four of them Literary Guild selections, do you feel secure in your writing career?

I think that anyone who feels “secure” in any sector of the entertainment business is not paying attention. Authors exist to serve a certain appetite for entertainment, and previous success is no guarantee for tomorrow. It’s particularly unnerving when you think that books are among the oldest and potentially most stale forms of entertainment. We have to compete with TV and movies and video games and whatever really cool thing is coming around the corner tomorrow. I think there’ll always be a market for books—more are published now than ever before—but I think there’s no room to become complacent

I am keenly aware that when people plunk down their hard-earned money for one of my books, I owe them at least as good a ride as I gave them last time. That’s my commitment as a professional. If I come through on my end of the bargain, I hope that they’ll come through on theirs.

It's hard to believe that with all your writing successes that you went back to work during the day and write at night. Was it because you don't like the loneliness of full time writing?

I’m the classical Type A personality. I’m an extrovert. I love meeting people and helping them to solve problems. So, for the seven years or so that I wrote more or less full-time, I found myself longing for social outlets. Spending all day alone in a room with your imaginary friends can get a little stifling. Many of my writer colleagues love the solitude. I didn’t love it so much.

Also, at the risk of sounding immodest, I am very good at solving complex problems and leading diverse groups to a common goal. The same creative bent that allows me to write books serves me well in illustrating to people why they need to change their behaviors. My current job is to serve as the director of safety for a trade association for an industry that has killed many, many people over the years. When I first started, the fatality rate was 43.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. In the five years I’ve been in the job, the rate has dropped to 22.3 deaths per 100,000 workers. I can’t claim credit for all of that change, but a slice of it is mine, and it’s a great source of pride. In its own way, it’s way more gratifying than writing books.

How much of your novels are taken from your own background?

One hundred percent. And zero percent. As a practical matter, I think that every author writes from his or her own experience, because that’s the only frame of reference we have. While I’ve never killed anyone, through my fire service experience I’ve seen more than a few people die, and I’ve witnessed the aftermath. I hope I’m able to bring that kind of human drama to life on the page.

At one level or another, all my books deal with families in turmoil. As a devoted family man, I can extrapolate the love I feel in my own life to imagine what it would be to have a family member endangered. So, emotionally, the vast majority of my work is drawn from my own background. In terms of plot, though, none of it is.

I know that you earned your safety engineering degree from USC and a bachelor's degree in history from William and Mary. Why the diverse courses? And if you wanted to become a journalist, why didn't you major in journalism?

When I was 10 or 12 years old, some famous old-school journalists told me that a degree in journalism was not necessary to pursue a news career. They advised me to concentrate on other liberal arts disciplines, which in theory would give me a better perspective on the news I was reporting. Since William and Mary was the only school I ever wanted to go to, and they did not offer a journalism degree, this was exactly what I wanted to hear. In the end, it turned out that the old school journalists were wrong.

The safety engineering thing was a direct outgrowth of my fire service experience.

How did you get into screenwriting?

After two years in development at Warner Brothers, in which two different screenwriters created two thoroughly awful screenplays, I got word that Nathan’s Run was being put into turnaround, which is Hollywood-speak for being mothballed. When my Hollywood agent told me the news, I was angry. I told him that I could write a better script than the ones the “professionals” did, and I’d never even seen a screenplay. He asked me if I could do it by the next week. I did, and for a while, the project was pulled back into active development. In the end, though, the film still has not been made.

That script I wrote for Nathan’s Run served as a sample that got me three additional screenwriting gigs. Most recently, when I sold the film rights to my book Six Minutes to Freedom, I made my assignment as screenwriter a non-negotiable element of the deal. SixMin will be my first trifecta: I’ll have been paid to write the book, for the movie rights, and for the screenplay. Plus, at least the first version of the script will be one that I like.

Is Nathan's Run your favorite book?

I know this sounds trite, but my favorite book is always the one I’m working on right now. I think I need that level of commitment to keep writing, to keep it exciting. Since it was the book that gave me my big break, Nathan’s Run will always hold a special place in my heart, but I can’t say it’s my favorite.

Tell us about your soon-to-be released thriller, No Mercy. And how does it differ from the five before it.

No Mercy is the first book in a new series. To date, I’ve only written stand-alone novels. At the end of each previous story, the characters have all served nobly, but they were fairly well spent. Then, as I was researching Six Minutes to Freedom, I met a number of Special Forces operators, and I landed on the idea of Jonathan Grave, a freelance hostage rescue specialist. If your loved one is taken, and you just want them back—you don’t care about warrants and Miranda warnings, and you don’t care what happens to the bad guys—then Jonathan is the guy to call.

In the first book, No Mercy, the rescue operation in the opening chapters triggers events that spiral out of control and directly impact the people that Jonathan loves most. It’s a mistake to hurt the people Jonathan Loves most.

What advice would you give novice writers and screenwriters?

First, write, write, and write. Continually hone your craft. Second, quit listening to all the naysayers who love to tell you that the industry is dying and that it’s impossible anymore to get published through traditional means. It simply is not true. Third, remember that while writing is an art form, selling one’s writing is a business and needs to be treated as such. If your passion is to write a Western, then you need to accept the fact that there’s currently a very limited market for your book. Maybe you can write the one that re-launches the genre, but know that the odds are stacked against you.

Most importantly, if your dream is to become a respected writer of commercially viable fiction or nonfiction, self-publishing is almost always a huge mistake. In this business, the money—all of it—flows only one way, to the writer. Your agent (and yes, you need to have one) should only get paid when you do. Anyone who asks you to pay for anything up front is likely trying to rip you off.

Which part of writing do you enjoy most?

I hope this doesn’t sound too shallow, but one of the aspects of writing that I enjoy most is simply being a member of the club that I’ve admired for as long as I can remember. I love the company of other writers. I love the intellectual bantering and the sheer expanse of their talent. To be treated as an equal by people you’ve admired your whole life—well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

What have you found to be the best way to promote your books? And would you rather promote in person or online?

I’m just now trying to figure that out. Clearly, the day of the traditional book tour is dead. Truthfully, it never did make much sense to me to spend thousands of dollars flying an author all over the country or around the world. It was fun, but I don’t see how the publisher ever made money off of it. So, here we are in the world of 21st century publishing, and I think everyone’s trying to figure out what works best. As publishers slash costs, it’s becoming more and more important for authors to promote their own books.

I participate in a blog,, and I have a website and I’ve hired a publicist and an advertising consultant. No Mercy came out in July. I figured that by September I should know if my efforts were effective.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Just one thing, and it’s an opportunity for budding filmmakers. In what’s left of my spare time, I serve as the executive director of the Northern Virginia Film festival, which is currently accepting submissions for this year’s film competition. The idea is to give young filmmakers a chance for recognition. For details, please visit

And finally, thanks, Jean, for this opportunity.

Thank you, John.

John's web and blog sites: