Hank Phillippi Ryan: The WHAT YOU SEE Interview
What You See brings back the characters of investigative reporter Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan. With multiple storylines, including murder, child abduction, and treachery, readers come to understand the workings of a crime scene. In this ripped-from-her-own-headlines thriller, real-life reporter Ryan explores the terrifying realities of today’s constant surveillance and the dire consequences to those unwittingly in the spotlight. Also explored are the characters loyalties, having to decide between family and their career.
Elise Cooper: Your quote, “If the good guys quit, who’d be left?” It sounded a lot like what Sharyl Attkisson went through.” Can you explain?
Hank Phillippi Ryan: I’ve been a TV investigative reporter for over forty years, and definitely think of myself as a good guy. I define that as someone seeking justice each and every day, who tries to change the world, standing up for the little guy, and trying to make the system work. I think my thirty-three Emmys prove what good a hard-working journalist can do! And I always think my next big story is still to come. It’s difficult! And there’s a lot of pressure. But the “good guys” have to persevere.
EC: Do you think journalism has changed today?
HPR: Well, sure. Like everything else, right? Increasingly these days with the 24-hour news and the perception that people’s attention spans are shorter, there’s a lot of pressure to do stories that shorter, and as a result, cannot be as in-depth. Reporters who are “old school” sometimes feel defeated by that change. Some may be frustrated that they’re not getting the airtime for their stories. I look at it a bit differently—when the world changes, as it inevitably will, we figure out a way to do the very best we can with what we have. So I’m still fascinated and intrigued with making my stories as meaningful and important as they can be—even if they are a bit shorter. We also—because the world has changed—can put additional information on the web. So it all works out.
EC: Do you see a bias with journalists today?
HPR: I think the public needs to understand the difference between opinion and facts. And I think most people do! A reporter, one that you’ve referred to as a “true journalist,” must be careful not to let any bias show, and there is a skill to writing an objective story. When a reporter says “unfortunately or sadly”—sometimes I wonder even about that! The pressure of instant news—going on the air instantly—can make it difficult.
EC: Is Jane Ryland your alter ego?
HPR: No, but writing her is an absolute dream come true. In my TV reporting I can only report the fact of the story, and cannot say how I feel. But writing about Jane allows me to put you inside her internal dialogue, and allows the reader to understand how a reporter thinks and processes a situation. So it’s a treat for me to see the world through Jane’s eyes—using my own experience to make it authentic—and the power of imagination to create a suspenseful realistic story.
EC: How would you describe Jane?
HPR: Jane’s smart, savvy, and successful—and just beginning her career in journalism as a reporter in Boston. She is so honorable and such a justice seeker! But sometimes her ethics get in the way. She has quit jobs and left employment because she would not compromise her principles. She’s even chosen honor over a paycheck. She is funny, compassionate, caring, benevolent, brave, tough, and determined. I adore her—and cannot wait to find out what happens to her.
EC: Can you compare Jane with your other series character, Charlotte McNally?
HPR: Charlotte is twenty years older and paved the way for Jane. They are both TV reporters in Boston, and I’ll admit, okay, she is my alter ego. There is a lot of me in her: an older, experienced devoted journalist, who’s also a bit worried about what happens when the TV camera doesn’t love her anymore. That’s the reality of television, and for women in every realm of our working world. Writing the Charlotte McNally books allows me to explore that.
In my latest book, What You See (a Library Journal Best of 2015!) there is a secret moment with Jane and Charlotte. (I did that as a little Easter egg for readers—see if you can find it!) Jane looks up to Charlotte, even though they are competitors. You asked if I consider myself Jane’s mentor—well, no. She’s a contemporary woman in TV—so she’s going to have her own experiences that influence her decisions. As her author, I can use my experience to make Jane’s story have more context. That’s the fun of writing a character who has a job like mine—but who isn’t me!
EC: Is Detective Jake Brogan similar in personality to Jane?
HPR: Yes. They both are honorable, determined, search for the truth, and believe in justice.
EC: Is there a conflict of interest between Jane, a reporter, and her boyfriend, Jake, a detective?
HPR: In real life there must be a hard line between a law enforcement officer and a reporter—each has a job to do, and each have to protect their interests, their information, and their investigations. But Jake and Jane sometimes cross that line. So what I love about my books is that Jane and Jake in their professional lives are incredibly honorable, but in their personal lives their passion has sometimes overruled their professionalism. Throughout all the books they are trying to figure out how to deal with that ongoing struggle. What will happen to their relationship or how they will deal with it going forward? I have no idea. It’ll be fun to find out.
EC: You have quotes about the mother/daughter relationship. Please explain.
HPR: In What You See, the quote, “Geographically, her daughter was inches away. Emotionally? Right now, Catherine didn’t have time to fix it. Across an endless universe of misunderstanding and sorrow,” has daughter Tenley and her mother Catherine on opposite sides of Tenley’s bedroom door. And they are arguing. The mother is trying to understand her daughter and protect her—and is having difficulty finding the words to do that. The daughter, grief-stricken over her sister’s death and feeling responsible for that– is trying to understand her world. The door represents a chasm of bitterness, fear, and love.
For all mothers and daughters, sometimes the pressure of work, the job, and the need for attention gets in the way of communication. And we all have to work our way through that, with patience and love and time and effort. I remember as a teenager I was so dismissive of my mother’s decision-making process, until I realized years later she was doing the best she could. There is no job training to be a mom, right? As a parent, no matter our children’s age, we have that built-in desire to protect them. And that’s a struggle—sometimes a battle—when our kids feel they know what’s right, and it’s the opposite of what we think!
EC: You have humorous scenes in the book. Why?
HPR: Oh, gosh, if there’s no humor in the world, how would we manage? As a reporter there is a n
eed for a sense of humor—or else the world becomes relentlessly dark and bleak and sad. SO in my books, I try to leave a little room for humor, and pleasure, and love, and redemption—because that’s what we need in real life. They’re not slap stick funny, but I love to find a way for some of the characters to be able to look at the world with some wit, and with a sense of irony.
EC: Jane said she would title a future autobiography The Juggler. Would that be the name of yours?
HPK: Yes. Absolutely. We are all juggling our professional life, our personal life, and our goals, our hopes, our fears, our dreams. And our schedules! Am I multi-tasker? Nope. I have many tasks on my to-do list—it’s ridiculous!–and it’s constantly growing. But I try to focus on one item at a time, because I want to give one hundred percent of myself to whatever I am doing. Crossing something off is one of the delights of my life.
EC: What do you want the readers to get out of your books?
HPK: I want them to know I followed my dreams—I always wanted to write novels ever since I was a little girl growing up in Indiana. It want until I was fifty-five—and in the midst of a pretty great career in journalism—that I got the idea for my first mystery. So I am the poster child that it can work—and proof it is never too late to follow your dreams.
I also hope readers understand that the engine that drives all of my novels is how people relate and care for one another. Yes, they’re suspenseful, and yes, they’re thrillers. But I’m all about telling a fabulous story, with characters you care about, an important and timely problem that needs to be solved, and the good guys winning while the bad guys get what’s coming to them. And in the end, I want to change the world a little.
So yes, I’m the Juggler. But I’m also the storyteller. And I am so grateful to readers who join me on this journey!