Interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan

hank in newsroom KAra delahuntHow would I describe Hank Phillippi Ryan?

Hank is a storyteller.

She is also one of the smartest people I’m lucky enough to know, glamorous as all get-out, and tough as heck. Much to the delight of readers everywhere, she writes the Jane Ryland/Jake Brogan novels, and she’s also the real-life TV investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC channel.

You might think that someone who has won 33 Emmy and 13 Edward R. Murrow Awards, five Agathas, two Macavitys, three Anthonys, the Daphne, and the Mary Higgins Clark award might not have time for us readers, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

Hank is one of the most genuine people you’ll ever meet. And you probably will meet her, because she does events all over the country! When you do, you might be surprised at how funny Hank is…I can think of only one other author who so consistently has us all in stitches at events.

Before her Jane Ryland thrillers hit the shelves, Hank wrote the hip and witty Charlotte McNally mysteries. And now they’re back in print.

primetime new-225Hank’s first series starring investigative reporter Charlotte McNally is being re-issued, starting with PRIME TIME in February, then with FACE TIME, AIR TIME, and DRIVE TIME coming every other month in 2016.

So if you’re a fan of Hank’s Jane Ryland/Jake Brogan series, you will also love meeting Charlie, the savvy, determined, and hilarious TV reporter who’s always on the hunt for the story that will save her career.

Hank was good enough to answer some questions for me (and not answer one!)…

So, Charlotte McNally is you. Right?

Ah. Thank you. Well, yes, she is me. And no, she absolutely is not.

The cool part about writing Charlotte is that I get to take all the insider stuff I’ve learned and experienced after all these years on the street and show, in a way I can’t reveal in real life, what it’s really like to be a reporter. It’s a cutthroat, relentless, high-pressure, high-stakes career. Lives, real lives and real reputations, are at stake. Sounds highfalutin’, but what reporters do is document history.

The way I see Charlotte—she’s smart and savvy and funny—but also tough, relentless, and dedicated to the truth. She’s forty-six, (old in TV years), and begins to wonder what happens to a woman in TV who is married to her job—when the camera doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders—“If I’m not Charlie McNally from Channel 3, who will I be?” So she always needs a big story to survive in the relentlessly cutthroat and age-conscious world of TV.
(Have I been there, done that? Yes, indeed. And still doing it.)

Where did the inspiration for PRIME TIME (the first book in the series) come from?

The beginning? When I was about seven years old, reading Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew in the hayloft of the barn behind our house in rural Indiana. That’s when I knew I wanted to be either a mystery writer or a detective. Turned out, as an investigative reporter and crime fiction author, I’m a little of each. It just took a while. The spark for PRIME TIME came 45 years later. Seriously.

I remember it perfectly. I was at my office at Channel 7, deleting junk mails, and in my haste, opened one. It was so intriguing and mysterious, and I thought—well, no. No spoilers. But I knew it could be the key to a terrific mystery. (I get goosebumps remembering that moment—I knew it was a great idea.) I went home, and told my husband—I’ve got it! I’ve got my plot for a mystery novel.

And he said—“Honey, do you know how to write a novel?”

And newbie me, I said “How hard can it be?

It as a million times more difficult than I’d predicted, but I loved the story.

I was 55 years old! The poster child for late bloomers. And that became, PRIME TIME which won the Agatha for Best First Mystery, got terrific reviews, and started this wonderful second career.

hank leans photoJohn Lescroart called you “the most adept master of plot on the planet.” How much do you think about plot? And I have to ask: do you outline?

Love John Lescroart, he’s a true icon for me. And as for me? I’m a big, big story person. All about a good story. But no, no outline. I start with one gem, one tasty nugget of an idea.

For instance. What if someone were using computer spam for more than to get into your hard drive or scam your money What if they were using it to…well, again, no spoilers.

I know I’ll have Charlie’s point of view, and I go after her story in fiction exactly as I go after my TV stories: following leads, tracking down clues, doing research and doing interviews and being surprised. And in the end, I hope for some justice, and to change the world a little bit.

Just as in a TV story, I have no idea where the books plot will go.

But just like TV, it must be fast-paced, cinematic, entertaining, unique and original. I don’t want you to use your remote to zap my TV stories—and I don’t want you to be able to put down my books.

I am constantly surprised by what happens. And I never know the endings. People say wow, the ending of PRIME TIME, that really surprised me! And I say, yeah, didn’t it? I mean, talk about a surprise ending — I surprised myself.

I love that. And it’s amazing, after all these years as a journalist, I finally get to make stuff up.

Right, because in  journalism, you can only tell the truth. But, as we all know, the “truth” may be different depending on who sees it. Could TV journalists use their video to slant a story?

Ah, sure, if they were weasels. If I do an interview with someone, and the interview lasts thirty minutes, and my entire TV story is four minutes, I have to choose what I show. And that’s the intense and constant pressure, to choose the segments that are the most revealing but also the most objectively true. I’m essentially making a little movie, a documentary, of my story. That’s exactly what an investigative reporter does. But the story has to be true.

Think of what you could do if you were not honorable — use the outtake of the candidate yawning, or the mayor with his eyes closed. The unflattering shot of someone, or a sound bite, out of context, with the end cut off. Oh, you could do it. But you wouldn’t.

So Charlie has to deal with that—looking for the truth, and presenting the truth—and having to be sure she’s right. If she makes a mistake—well, a reporter can never make a mistake.

So how do you protect a victim? And what if someone doesn’t want to be interviewed…how does it feel to try to convince them? How do you weave those aspects of reporting through a mystery?

It’s all part of it, you know? It’s not so much woven as essential. Every word I say on TV makes a difference, even just the inflection. Reporters have to interview victims, knock on doors of bereaved families, see disasters and tragedies and sorrow and fear and corruption. How do you shoulder through the emotions and present a clear and straightforward story? Every good reporter thinks about that every day. But if it’s all seamless, and you do your job properly, the public will never be actively aware of that.

That’s a tough assignment.

Always. I remember I was on duty Channel 7 when the Marathon bombing occurred, and I was the one who had to report it, live, as breaking news. I remember we didn’t know much, not at all, except that something possibly terrible had just happened. I mean, I went on the air about fifteen minutes after the explosions, so you can imagine the chaos and lack of information.

I was terrified — and I remember thinking, how am I going to do this? And it was such a responsibility, crystallized right at that second, to be honest and true and careful. And you know what? I drew on my storytelling skills.

You’re a storyteller, Hank, I said to myself, knees shaking. Just tell the story. But you wouldn’t have known any of that from watching me.
In my books, now, I get to show you how reporters think.

You’re married to a renowned criminal defense attorney. And you’re an investigative reporter. Have you used that in your books?

Oh, yes. There are certainly things Jonathan knows that he can’t tell me. And if he does tell me, I accept that I am prohibited from telling my news desk. Would I rather know, and not tell? Or just not know? I have to decide that all the time.

There was one hilarious moment when I was reporting live breaking news about an event that happened in downtown Boston — at the exact moment Jonathan was arriving at the scene. He’d been called in to defend the person.

So yeah, that potential conflict, keeping something important from someone you love, is incredibly tense. Or what if Jonathan had inside information on a big story that might help me — but he couldn’t tell me? What if I knew something that could help his case —but it would blow a fellow journalist’s scoop?

It makes me cringe even to think of it. Which is why it makes good fiction, too.

hank-phillippi-ryan-smiling-pressWhy were you drawn to crime fiction?

A great TV investigation and a great mystery novel begin with exactly the same thing: a gorgeous, unique, intriguing, important nugget of information—a gem of an idea that I can make into a riveting story.

Just as I report the kinds of stories people care about and want to see, I write the kind of books people care about and love to read. Realistic. Compelling. Exciting. Fast-paced and entertaining. A Library Journal starred review said I’m “in the same league as Lisa Scottoline.” So that’s fabulous.

The Charlotte McNally series garnered loads of awards, in addition to rave reviews from readers. Were you surprised at the reception the books received?

Well, thank you! I was surprised by…everything. Yes, the books have done so well–Prime Time won the Agatha, Face Time is a BookSense Notable Book, and Air Time and Drive Time were each nominated for the Anthony and Agatha. I get fan mail from readers saying how much they love Charlotte McNally–her humor, her intensity, her passion and her spirit. I love Charlie too, and I guess that comes true through. I can’t wait to find out what happens to her next. Because of course, it’ll be a surprise.

Charlotte goes by Charlie, so…what is Hank short for?

Oh, look at the time! Love you madly, dear Erin.