Hank Phillippi Ryan, an investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV and author of 11 best-selling thrillers, began a tour in September with her latest, “The Murder List.” Her legal thrillers include “Trust Me,” the Jane Ryland series including “Truth be Told,” “The Other Woman,” “The Wrong Girl” and others, and an earlier series, including “Drive Time,” “Prime Time,” “Air Time” and “Face Time.” She’s a prominent member of Sisters in Crime, New England, part of an international mystery writers collaborative. SBWC’s Ann Connery Frantz interviewed Hank about her dual career.
(Ann Frantz) You’ve appeared on television for 43 years. What prepared you to become a crime writer?
(Hank Phillippi Ryan) I have been doing research for 40 years! I have wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals, and gone undercover and in disguise. Being an investigative reporter requires intensive research and a core knowledge of how the system works, whether it be law enforcement or the legal system, the process of criminal investigations or court room procedures. I have covered the Claus Von Bulow murder to the Boston mobs, to the case that became ‘A Civil Action’ (a water contamination lawsuit about attorney Jan Schlichtmann, portrayed on film by John Travolta) and dozens of murder cases.
(AF) How much do your books rely on factual material?
(HPR) My goal is to make my books be realistic and authentic, so if I need to “check facts,” of course I do—that’s part of the fun. But my stories, being fiction, rely on my experience in the real world, and are shaped by that. My thrillers are not my TV reporting turned into fiction, but all that deep experience translates into making genuinely believable stories.
(AF) Some of your novels contain complex twists. Do you use an outline?
(HPR) I don’t—and that’s what gets me to the computer every day! I have to find out what happens next. So, when people say, “I never saw that ending coming!” I say, yeah, wasn’t that a surprise? I surprised myself! And that’s part of the magic of writing. And that’s what makes it a joy every day. I have learned to write on airplanes, happily, and even on vacation.
(AF) Between your on-air job and busy tour schedule—you seem to be traveling all the time—how do you find time to write daily?
(HPR) It’s not so much a question of finding time to write. I look at writing as my job, and it’s a top priority. I look at my reporting life as a job and that’s a top priority. I know when my book deadline is, and I know how much I have to do before then, and I organize my life to make sure that happens. I’m extremely organized and goal oriented, and, as a reporter and an author, completely deadline focused. After all these years writing novels, I know that some days my fiction will not be as good as other days. But I know the key is to persevere, and to keep going, and that I can make the book shine in the editing process. My long-time (television) producer and I have worked out a system so I can write and research and confer with her while I am on book tour (thank goodness for the Internet, right?) and it seems to work. Every part of writing and reporting is exciting to me, and to her, and we are a good team.
(AF) About inspiration. Where did you get the idea for “The Murder List,” which positions a defense attorney opposite a prosecutor known for her ruthless tactics.
(HPR) I was listening to my criminal defense attorney husband discuss a murder case one day. One track of my mind was listening to his narrative, and the other track was thinking, ‘Wow, what a good guy he is—the authentic real thing—standing up for the little guy, protecting the rights of the individual against the vast power of the state and the prosecution, making sure the prosecution plays by the rules and that the trial is fair and just.’
And then I thought, ‘What does the prosecutor’s wife think about her husband? Certainly she thinks he’s a good guy, protecting the public, putting miscreants behind bars, standing up for law and order.”… I realized that everyone involved chooses the side they think is the good side. And then they fight it out to see which ‘good’ wins.
And that gives rise to the question of how far each will go to win—so I created a newbie, a young lawyer wannabe who has to choose a side—her brilliant defense attorney’s side or her new employer, the powerful prosecutor. Two sides emerge, battling for the legal soul of this novice attorney. At least, that’s what they think they’re doing.
(AF) Are you surprised at the changes in your life since you began writing fiction?
(HPR) Having these successful novels is a dream come true, ever since I was a little girl reading Sherlock Holmes under the covers. I challenge myself to be better and better every time, to be a better writer, to make my books be more compelling and surprising. I have racked up a lot of airplane miles and had the fun of visiting readers all across the country. It’s exciting and rewarding, and actually inspirational, to meet all the people who come to signings, or write me emails, and want to chat about thrillers and the book world. There are very few vacations now, and I have basically given up cooking. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband.
(AF) You have a huge following. Why do you enjoy book tours?
(HPR) I was in six different states the first week of my book tour. You see so many photographs of me at these events and I am always laughing. It is such a solitary task to write a book, and it is always amazing to see how many people are eager to chat and ask questions about the writing life, and my books. I always feel like applauding when I see a room full of people waiting for me. It’s an absolute triumph.
(AF) What would you change now, if you could?
(HPR) If we could possibly make the days have more hours, that would be very nice. Other than that, I am the happiest and luckiest person ever.