I have Hank Phillippi Ryan visiting to tout her latest novel, Drive Time, and before I got this posted for the blog, I learned that she’s got some great news to share. Her novel AIR TIME was just nominated for an AGATHA for best novel of 2009, and her short story was also nominated for an Agatha, for best short story. What a great way to launch her latest novel!
Here’s a little bit about Hank, who leads a fascinating life:
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.
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 the new AIR TIME are IMBA bestsellers. DRIVE TIME, February 2010 from MIRA Books, just earned a starred review from Library Journal. Hank is on the national board of Mystery Writers of America.
And here’s the low-down on her latest novel:
Investigative reporter Charlotte McNally is an expert at keeping things confidential, but suddenly everyone has a secret, and it turns out it may be possible to know too much. Charlie’s latest TV scoop–an expose of a dangerous recalled car scam complete with stakeouts, high-speed chases and hidden-camera footage–is ratings gold. But soon that leads her to a brand new and diabolical scheme (incredibly timely!) that could put every driver in danger.
Charlie’s personal and professional lives are on a collision course, too. Her fiancé is privy to information about threats at an elite private school that have suddenly turned deadly.
Charlie has never counted on happy endings. But now, just as she’s finally starting to believe in second chances, she realizes revenge, extortion and murder might leave her alone again. Or even dead. Emmy and Agatha award winning reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan proves that when everyone has a secret, the real mystery is knowing when to tell.
And now, for some Q&A with Hank:
Tell us about 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.”
Growing up, did you ever think you’d be an investigative reporter?
Definitely—not. You know, I have a funny juxtaposition of desire to be in the spotlight—and sheer terror of being in the spotlight. I love my job in TV—and have to go live and unrehearsed al the time. Confession: I’m still terrified every time. I want to be perfect, and when you’re on live, you can’t possibly be. That’s one reason why I love investigative reporting—there’s more time to work, and dig, and polish, and produce, It’s like making a little movie, and I can make it as perfect as possible.
Anyway, my sisters and I used to create musical shows when we were all young, and perform for our parents in our back yard. I did acting in high school and college. I wanted to be a DJ on the radio for a long time! But I thought I would be an English teacher, or a lawyer for the Mine Workers union, or for awhile, a political activist.
(My mother, though, says she always knew I would be a television reporter—but I think that was just her way of rationalizing that all I did as a pre-teen and teenager was read books and watch TV.)
I knew from my first Nancy Drew that I loved mysteries. Nancy was my first best friend—I was a geeky unpopular kid, and it was such a relief to go home and hang out with Nancy. She was smart, and made it be okay to be smart. She was confident and inquisitive and resourceful. I loved that. But being a TV reporter was not in my sights. Little did I know!
How did you get started in that type of journalism?
I got into TV by chance. I had worked as a radio reporter (hired because, as I informed the radio station, they didn’t have any women working at the station! Hey. It was the seventies.) But after a few years working in Washington DC (on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide and then for Rolling Stone Magazine,) Rolling Stone closed its Washington office and I needed a new job.
I went back home to Indianapolis, and applied for a job as a TV reporter. It was 1975. I had covered politics in Washington, and the news director of the station figured he could teach me to be a TV reporter. (This was incredibly risky—I had never taken journalism and didn’t know one thing about TV. But I wasn’t afraid and I knew I could do it.)
Problem was, I should have been afraid! I quickly learned I had no idea what I was doing. I went home every night for the first two weeks, sobbing. Because I thought I would never understand it. Soon after—it hit me–oh, I get it! And I have adored it ever since. I took a chance, and found my calling.
I started as the political reporter (and was also the movie reviewer, of all things! At age 26). At various times I’ve been the medical reporter, a weekend anchor, and an on the road feature reporter. When I came to Boston, I was the funny feature reporter–cat shows, sports features, poems, and anything quirky or funny. They used to call me “something out of nothing productions,” because I could find a story in anything.
But starting in 1988, I covered the presidential election, doing long elaborate think pieces. It was terrific. And then I told my news director I didn’t want to be the funny one anymore. I wanted to be the serious one. And from that day on, I’ve been the investigative reporter.
And I love it every day.
Reading about all the things you’ve done as a reporter… like being chased by criminals, confronting corrupt politicians, etc, it’s almost like immersing myself in a nail biting novel. Have any of these experiences found their way into your books?
There’s a huge been-there-done-that element to the books—I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals…been in disguise, been stalked, and threatened and had many a door slammed in my face. I’ve had people confess to murder, and others, from prison, insist they were innocent. So when that happens to Charlie, it’s fair to imagine me. Although the plots are completely from my imagination, those are real-life experiences!
How did the character of Charlotte ‘Charlie’ McNally come about?
What a great question. I have NO idea. She was born when I got a weird spam in my email. It was what looked like lines from a play by Shakespeare. I thought–why would someone send a spam like that? And it crossed my mind–maybe it’s a secret message.
I still get goose bumps telling you about it. And I knew, after all those years of wanting to write a mystery, that was my plot. And that turned out to be the Agatha-winning PRIME TIME. But Charlie? Well, I knew I had a good story, but who would tell it? A television reporter, of course. And she just instantly popped into my head. Named, fully formed. I knew her perfectly.
The other characters were more difficult to get to know. But now, Charlie surprises me a lot! And I love when that happens.
Is she anything like you? Has she ever done anything you wouldn’t do to get your story?
When my husband talks about Charlie, he calls her “you.” As in—when “you” are held at gunpoint, when you track down the bad guys, when you solve the mystery… and I have to remind him, “Sweetheart, it’s fiction. It didn’t really happen.”
But a couple of things: I’ve been a TV reporter for more than 30 years. (Yes, really.) And so it would be silly, in writing a mystery about TV, not to use my own experiences. Think about it—as a TV reporter, you can never be wrong! Never be one minute late. Never choose the wrong word or miscalculate. You can never have a bad hair day, because it’ll be seen by millions of people! It’s high-stakes and high-stress—literally, people’s lives at stake–and I really wanted to convey that in the books.
And everything that TV people do and say in the books is authentic and genuine. (Of course, Charlie can say things I can’t say, and reveal things I can’t reveal.) We’re both devoted journalists, and over-focused on our jobs.
But Charlotte McNally is different, too. She’s single—I’m happily married. She’s ten years younger than I am, and so is facing different choices and dilemmas. She’s braver than I am, certainly. Funnier. And a much better driver.
You’ve got four books under your belt, you’ve won an Agatha, and been compared to Lisa Scottoline. Will there come a time when you say goodbye to journalism to focus full time on your fiction?
Ain’t that the question! I still smile in delight every time I see my Agatha teapot. And when the starred review in Library Journal for DRIVE TIME compared me to Lisa Scottoline, well, I burst into tears. But I still love my job in TV. So–you could ask me that question every day, and every day I’d have a different answer. And I guess the bottom line is: who knows?
Any plans to write a non Charlotte McNally novel?
Yup. Absolutely. It’s in the works. You heard it here first.
Any other genre you want to tackle?
Yup. :-) It’s in the works. You heard it here first.
Your husband’s a criminal defense attorney. Does he read your work or give you any tips or even ideas for plots?
He’s the most patient man on the planet. Yes, he’s really the only person who reads my pages while they’re in process. When I first started writing PRIME TIME, I’d give him my five pages or so a day, and I’d hear him laughing and I was so delighted! And he would tell me every day how terrific it was. Then, about fifty pages in, I went in for my daily pat on the back. And he had a funny look on his face. “Honey?” he asked. “Is something going to happen soon?” So I knew I had some work to do.
Ideas for plots? Ah, no, not really. I’m always running ideas by him, to see if he thinks they’re plausible and believable. And sometimes he’ll come up with just the perfect little thing I need to pull something together. But we think very differently. He’s much more–wedded to reality.
You’ve won accolades from some of the top writers in the business including some of my favorite authors like Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. Any tips you can offer for writing top notch mysteries and creating a great character like Charlie?
Well, thank you! Yes, it’s great, and Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton are my idols. (They’re also wonderfully generous, and truly authentic. I have three little talismans on my desk that Sue Grafton gave me, and I look at them every day.)
Tips? Well, I read an interview with the poet Anne Sexton some time ago–and she was asked, “What, truly, can a creative writing teacher give her students?” And her answer was:” Courage.” I think that’s so wonderful. And I think my advice would be similar–just don’t be afraid. Fear is a waste of time. Write your book. One page at a time. You can do it.
Any mistakes you’ve made along the way, have you learned anything from them?
Hah. That’s another long blog for another day. Mistakes? Ah, on a huge level, people always yell at me for working all the time. ALL the time. Is that a mistake? None of this would have happened without that. Would I change it? I have to say no. So is that a mistake? I’m not sure. On a tiny level, I should have put together a mailing list of bookstores. Still haven’t done that. Wish I had.
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.
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. When you hit an obstacle, pat yourself on the back. You’re a writer!
“Sassy, fast-paced and appealing. First-class entertainment.”
“I love this series!”
Hank Phillippi Ryan knows the television business entirely, she understands plotting and she writes beautifully. No wonder I loved Drive Time. Anyone would.”
**Robert B. Parker author of Spenser for Hire