Hank Phillippi Ryan interview: In search of the story

By day, she’s an Emmy-winning investigative on-air reporter. By night, she’s an ultra-acclaimed mystery novelist. In both her fiction and nonfiction, Hank Phillippi Ryan takes storytelling to the highest level.

Hank Phillippi Ryan interview

Hank Phillippi Ryan started her career as a television reporter in 1975, and her work as a journalist has earned her 33 Emmys, 14 Edward R. Murrow awards, and many other coveted honors for her uncanny ability to get to the heart of the story. The same skills that keep viewers glued to their televisions translate to the written page with her award-winning mysteries.

Ryan has won a whopping five Agatha Awards, two Anthony Awards, two Macavity Awards, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Library Journal selected her titles three times in a row (2014, 2015, and 2016) as one of the best genre books of the year.

When she is not writing her acclaimed novels – four starring investigative reporter Charlotte McNally and five with investigative reporter Jane Ryland and her love interest, detective Jake Brogan – she is the on-air investigative reporter for the NBC Boston affiliate WHDH-TV.

We spoke with Ryan about her illustrious career both in journalism and as a novelist.

 

Hank Phillippi Ryan interview

 

How did you get started in television news?

By chance! As the stories of our lives so often unfold.

Quick backstory: Early in my “real-life life,” I worked in Washington, D.C., for the Senate Judiciary Committee and then at Rolling Stone magazine. It was an amazing education – I helped cover Washington politics and edited a column called “Capitol Chatter.” I also helped Hunter S. Thompson with his coverage of the 1976 presidential election. (Among other things, he inspired me to give 100 percent devotion to everything I wrote and not to be timid with words and structure).

But when Rolling Stone closed its Washington bureau, I was at a career crossroads – 26 years old, and no idea what to do next. But my work on Capitol Hill taught me about government and politics and how our political system works. Working at Rolling Stone hooked me on journalism. As it turned out, I got two job offers, one to be the gossip columnist for the Washington Post. As I was thinking about this, and what that would mean to my nonexistent career, I went back home to Indiana to ponder my future.

And that’s when I got the second job offer. On a whim, truly, I went to the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis, and said, “I’m here to apply for the TV reporter job.” Remember, I had no experience as a television reporter. And had only worked in print. The news director called in a guy with the camera, he handed me a microphone and said: Talk.

I was such a novice I had no idea this was a screen test, essentially, and so I thought: Talk? Sure, I can talk. So I talked about my work in Washington, and who knows what else. The next day I had my first job in television. I remember my salary was $8000 a year, hurray! But I went home every night for the first two weeks sobbing. Because I had no idea what I was doing.

After a couple of weeks, though, I realized: I get this! I love this! So I’d taken a chance by applying for that job – and I found my calling. I’ve now been a television news reporter for 40 years.

 

How has investigative journalism evolved?

To be an investigative reporter, a person must be incredibly curious, incredibly cynical (because the whole mindset is that something in the system is not working), and incredibly confident, because you have to believe you can find the answers.

It’s also an immense responsibility – I can never be wrong, never choose the wrong word, never miscalculate, and never be even a fraction of a second late. And peoples’ lives and reputations are at stake.

So the stress is unceasing.

In these days of 900 channels and 24-hour news, there is an increasing pressure to turn out more stories. Which requires me to be, if it’s possible, even more careful, even more vigilant, and even more relentless.

Investigative reporting is under siege right now – and that makes my job even more important.

When did you decide to write mysteries?

“Decide” is a complicated word. I have always wanted to write mysteries, ever since I was a little girl growing up in rural Indiana. We used to ride our ponies to the library and fill up the saddlebags with books, and then read up in the hayloft of the barn behind our house. I fell in love with Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Nancy Drew. And that’s when I decided I wanted to either be a detective or a mystery author.

In a funny way, I became sort of a detective, but the fiction element of my dreams eluded me.

But one day, many, many years later, working at my desk at Channel 7, I had a great idea for a mystery. I knew it was a good idea; I got goosebumps and became obsessed. I announced to my husband, “I’m going to write a mystery.” He was sweetly skeptical, but supportive, and I was naïvely compelled to write it. I had no idea what I was doing, but I thought – I’ve read a million mysteries! I’ll learn. I was 55 years old, and that book turned out to be Prime Time, which won the Agatha [Award] for Best First Novel.

So I decided to write mysteries when I was 7 or 8 years old. But I did not do it until almost 50 years later! That one idea, random and unbidden and unexpected, changed my life.

 

How is writing different for a newscast?

Writing crime fiction and doing investigative journalism can be quite similar…because in essence, both are about telling a great story. A fabulous, riveting, compelling story, with characters you care about and problems that need to be solved. You’re tracking down clues, following leads, and convincing people to talk. (Whether they are imaginary or real.)

You want the good guys to win, and the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. And in the end, you want to change the world. And – incredibly important – you want to be enlightening as well as entertaining.

So in learning how to tell a story, and learning how to develop my craft and skill as a storyteller, nothing could have been better practice than investigative journalism.

That said, though it may take weeks or months to research an investigative story for television, I can write the script in one day. If pressed, I could write the script in an hour.

But there is no way I could write a novel in any less time than, say, nine months. No matter how much pressure there is. And even that is pushing it. It is much more layered, textured, complicated. And it is all from my imagination.

But from the standpoint of keeping the reader/viewer interested, and being riveting, suspenseful, educational, and entertaining, it’s the same thing. Choosing exactly the right word, choosing exactly the right sound bite or dialogue, making sure the setting is vibrant and that the conclusion is life-changing. That’s exactly the same.

 

What is it like being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

I know I got my first job in radio, in 1970, because the station had no women working there, and, as I bravely (or brazenly) reminded them, their license was up for renewal at the FCC. Suddenly I had my first job in broadcasting!

On my first day of work there, a little typed note was rolled into my typewriter. It said “(Expletive deleted) you Hank, we don’t want you here.” That was from my male colleagues. And that was my welcome to the broadcasting world.

My Charlotte McNally series focuses on the difficulty of being a woman growing older in an industry that often values youth and beauty over skill and experience. And the main character, a television reporter, wonders what will happen to a reporter who is married to her job in television when the camera doesn’t love her anymore. This is not an unbelievable concept, right? And women in any position in the business world will recognize the pressure and fear and unfairness.

I am thrilled and empowered to be part of Sisters in Crime, as well as [the organization’s] 2013 national president, because certainly parity for women in publishing has been hard fought, and the need to keep up the pressure has not lessened.

 

Which is harder: creating fiction or telling the truth?

For the past 40 years, I have only been reporting the truth: I can only quote what someone actually says, I can only describe a setting that actually exists, I can only report the specific facts that I uncover in research and documents. That is both a constraint and an asset. I know I have to make the most important and entertaining story I can, given only the puzzle pieces that actually exist. I have to take a vast amount of complicated information and decide what to use to produce an understandable, valuable, and compelling story.

That is always a challenge. And incredibly gratifying when it works.

When I have to use my imagination to create a story, that is a different thought process. It has to be consistent in itself. Logical for how that world works, whether it’s contemporary Boston or prehistoric Mars. Peoples’ motivations must be understandable, and their actions must make sense (at least in their view of the world): psychologically, emotionally, physically, chronologically, geographically.

I make maps and timelines and calendars. When readers tell me “Oh, I can just picture it!” or “I knew just how Jane felt!” that’s a cause for much delight, because it means I have painted a realistic picture of my world. So just because people are fictional doesn’t mean they can behave in an unbelievable way – even if they are imaginary creatures, they have to be consistent and follow the rules of their fictional world.

The goal of fiction is to make a new truth, a created truth, one that feels just as real to the reader as reality and is just as believable.

Making stuff up was quite a daunting thought for me. I wondered: After all those years of only reporting what really happened, could I make up a new truth? But using my imagination in a new way has turned out to be a joy, and when I sit at my desk and work on my novels, my brain works with the same goal as it has in journalism: telling a terrific story.

In journalism, anything could happen, but only one thing really does in each specific instance. In writing fiction, anything could happen, and I get to decide what that one thing is.

Both reporting the truth and creating a new “truth” are dreams come true.

 

How has your background in journalism influenced your novels?

If I am writing what I know, and writing what I fear, and writing the emotional undercurrents and subtext that I cannot reveal in my television stories, my trove of background and experience and emotions is a complete author’s treasure.

I have wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals, gone undercover and in disguise. I have also been stalked and threatened and followed, faced lawsuits and retribution and the wrath of those whose misdeeds I have uncovered and made public.

But my novels are not my television stories made into fiction. I use my experience, and my emotions, and the reality I have lived in for the past 40 years, and twist and polish and tweak and alter and add adrenaline and imagination to come up with a totally new story. Yes, I admit, my novels are ripped from my own headlines a bit, but that only makes them more authentic.

The second thing: the business. As a reporter I have learned to write incredibly quickly (whether I feel like it or not), make something complicated into something understandable, tell a great story, write compelling and intriguing headlines and promotions, value the teamwork of a dedicated editor, and never miss a deadline. What could be better lessons for the publishing world?

 

How do you deal with stories that are painful for you?

Dealing with painful stories is a constant dilemma for me. And for all reporters. I think we have to balance our personal and heartfelt emotions with the need to fulfill our assignment of presenting those stories in our newscast.

No one likes to knock on the door of a grieving family, or interview someone who is in trouble or harmed or a victim. It is a constant sorrow and pressure. It is also part of the job.

I try to remember that we are trying to do good, that my job is at its core to enlighten and enrich and change the world. I try to treat every person the same way I would want them to treat me – to be fair and responsible and respectful. That simple rule has worked successfully for all these years.

 

Where did Jane Ryland and Jake Brogan come from?

Jane Ryland and Jake Brogan grew from the story idea for The Other Woman. Just as for Prime Time, the germ of the story for that novel came in one unexpected second: I was reading an article about Mark Sanford, the ex-governor of South Carolina, who told his colleagues he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was really off with his mistress.

It crossed my mind – who would do that? Who would be the other woman? And why would anyone do that? And all the psychological and philosophical questions that accompany that.

At the end of the article, someone was quoted as saying, “You can choose your sin, but you cannot choose your consequences.”

At that very moment, I got chills, and I thought: my book, my book!

But the depth and texture of that kind of a novel was bigger than a Charlotte McNally book could be. So I needed, I knew, at least two points of view. I did not want to write a character that was simply Charlotte McNally with a different name, so I created a more damaged, more vulnerable – but still tough and smart – reporter called Jane. That’s all I knew. And because I wanted it to be a big novel of suspense, and include a series of deaths that may or may not be related, I needed a cop. And there was Jake.

They reveal themselves to me bit by bit in each book. So I am intrigued to get to know them as their lives and relationships develop. What will happen to them? I have no idea. And I love it that way.

 

How do you turn news stories into compelling mysteries?

News stories are compelling mysteries. Life is a compelling mystery. The key of a compelling mystery is – as it is in journalism – to constantly advance the story.

No tangents, no digressions, no fancy tricked-up writing. Just a straight-ahead and irresistible tale. One question my news director always asks when I pitch a story is “why do I care?”

And I ask myself that every moment of every day I am writing fiction. Why do I care? And I make sure the reader will care in every line of the story.

 

What advice do you have for someone wanting to break into journalism and/or writing?

Do absolutely the best you can do at every moment of every single day.

Be brave. Take a chance. Ask. Give it a try. Don’t be afraid. Do your homework, do your research, be thorough and precise and accurate.

Be prepared. I know that sounds clichéd, but you never know what wonderful opportunity is around the next corner. You have to be open to it and ready for it and embrace it. It may not be what you are expecting! It may be even better.

Be willing to listen. Be willing to take advice. Have confidence in yourself.

Sometimes things happen very quickly. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes disappointing results are the best thing that ever happened to you…because what happens next, something you never even dreamed of, will be even better.

Be patient, but be present. And always, always work hard. Both journalism and crime fiction writing are intensely, unceasingly difficult. It is a hard task you are undertaking. If it’s not difficult, you’re not working hard enough. Everyone has doubts. If you run into an obstacle, ask yourself: What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail? And then do that.

Be generous to people, and supportive. Be happy for your friends. We are all part of each other’s successes.

And don’t forget to enjoy it.

 

 

—Jeff Ayers co-hosts “Beyond the Cover” with John Raab for Suspense magazine, and is a freelance reviewer for the Associated Press, Library Journal, and Booklist. He is the author of several books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion and the thriller Long Overdue.

 

 

 

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