by Paula Gail Benson
How do you possibly describe the multi-faceted Hank Phillippi Ryan? Intrepid, award-winning investigative reporter and winner of 37 Emmys? Creator of the Charlotte McNally Mysteries and Jane Ryland Thrillers? Author of short fiction, teacher of writing craft, recipient of 5 Agathas (the only author to win an Agatha in 4 different categories: Best First Novel, Best Novel, Best Short Story, and Best Non-Fiction), 4 Anthonys, the Daphne, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award? Bestselling author of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers? And whose 2019 novel THE MURDER LIST just won the Anthony Award for Best Novel of the year?
Why is it not surprising that all of the above apply, as well as enthusiastic encourager of writers and readers?
Today, it’s a great pleasure to welcome Hank to The Stiletto Gang for a few questions.
Hank, you’ve had great success with series mysteries and thrillers and now are excelling with your stand alone suspense novels. What drew you to writing crime fiction?
Well that should be such an easy question, but it really isn’t. First, thank you. What a lovely thing to say! What drew me to writing crime fiction? Well, I always loved mysteries and thrillers, and read like crazy my whole life. And although it had crossed my mind to write crime fiction, it was never really a goal. But one day in—2005 maybe? I had a good idea for a mystery novel. I just knew it was a good idea, and all I could think of was writing the book. I was obsessed! It was craziness, because I had no idea how to do it, but I just deeply wanted to. And that became Prime Time, my very first novel, which won the Agatha for best first novel. And it’s still really selling!
I was 55 years old and had been a television reporter for about 30 years then. So there was no reason for me to start something new except for sheer desire. I guess I am the poster child for following your dreams in mid-life. Yay.
What led you to progress from series to stand alones?
Progress from series to standalones. Hmm. Well, I look at it less as progress and more as change. The Charlotte McNally books, beginning with Prime Time, a series of four, had a certain sensibility--first person, fast-paced and fun. But then I got the idea for a bigger thriller, a multiple point of view heftier novel, and I knew that could not be a Charlie McNally book. And that was my first investigative thriller, The Other Woman, which won the Mary Higgins Clark award. So I wrote four more in that series, and there’s another one under contract, and I’m very excited about that.
But then I had another idea for a book that could not be a series book. It had to be one of a kind, a standalone, a twisty psychological suspense. And I love that – – the power of the standalone, where anything could happen! And I started writing what I call cat-and-mouse psychological suspense. First was Trust Me, then The Murder List, then The First to Lie. And I am thrilled with that.
Do you ever consider returning to your series?
Yes, absolutely! I adore the Charlotte McNally books, and would love to write more of those. And as I said, I’m under contract for another Jane Ryland. Hurray! But I prefer, if I have a choice, to do whatever book is taking over my brain at the moment. I just sent in my 13th novel, another cat and mouse psychological suspense! Which doesn’t quite have a title yet.
Would you ever want to revisit any characters in your stand alones?
Revisit any characters… I’m thinking about that, and I have to say--no. The key part of a standalone to me is that you’re witnessing the very most important thing that ever happened in these people’s lives. Yes, they had lives before the book, and their lives will continue after the book--some of them at least--but this is all you need to know about them. When you write a standalone, it feels to me that those people’s stories will be finished, and I absolutely would have had to write the books differently if the characters are going to continue.
Many of your books draw upon your journalism background. As a legislative staffer, I enjoyed reading about Rachel North’s experiences with the Massachusetts Legislature in The Murder List and figured you incorporated some of your own knowledge from working in and covering congressional proceedings. How has your own work in journalism and politics influenced the ideas you want to develop in crime fiction?
Oh my goodness, I am so lucky about that! I could never have written these books without my own personal history being involved. I worked in several campaigns for governor and senator in Indiana, and then I worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant in a judiciary committee subcommittee. I learned so much, not only about politics, but procedure and psychology and what goes on behind the scenes. Then as a reporter, I learned how to write quickly, and take complicated things and make them fascinating and interesting and distilled to the essence. I also learned how to tell a story, right? Beginning, middle, and end. And for years I had to write a new story every day! So there could be no better training ground for writing fiction.
In particular, your stand alones have focused on truth and justice, and on how those concepts affect family and personal relationships. What do you find most compelling in exploring and entangling these themes?
You are so right! Truth and justice--in every realm of our lives. I don’t mean to sound high-faultin’, but what is truth? Is it what we wish for, or what we believe, or what someone tells us? Is there a true truth? Or does it depend on who tells the better story. I think that is so fascinating. Justice, too, what does that really mean? There are all kinds of meanings of justice--court room justice, karmic justice, personal justice, the justice of the universe. Does revenge count? Does that even work? Making things right, I often think about that. I have a feeling that we are put on earth to help make sure things are right--and to support that process whenever we can. But how do we know what’s “right”? And is right different depending on the situation? You can see I’m going off on this now… But that’s my constant thought. I love to explore why people do what they do.
Figuring out characters’ motivations becomes a strong focus in your stand alones. How do you develop the cat-and-mouse atmosphere while playing fair with readers?
Yes, exactly! And I don’t completely know the characters’ motivations when I start--I really don’t know anything except one core idea. So I develop my cat-and-mouse atmosphere by exploring what each character wants and how far they’ll go to get it.
And because what they want is diametrically opposed, that creates instant conflict. And in a cat-and-mouse game, only one person can succeed, but I want the readers not to be quite sure who they’re rooting for. That’s exactly what we were talking about before: What is good and what is right all depends on how you look at it.
So I want to set up a situation where you think one person is good, and believe what they say. And then you hear the same situation from someone else’s brain, and you think oh-- now I see the other side of the story. And isn’t that just like journalism and politics? And that’s what I try to do in my books. And I play fair, as you say, by telling the reader absolutely everything. It’s just that…they may be thinking about those things in the wrong way--the way the book suggests they should, not in the way that turns out to be real.
Boston is another true character in your novels. What are its unique qualities that intrigue you as a crime writer?
Oh, Boston! It’s so perfect. It’s old, incredibly old, and incredibly new, with diverse and vibrant neighborhoods and culture and ridiculous geography and impossible streets and crazy drivers and a fast-paced brusque constantly-moving atmosphere. And the weather! Is completely nuts. The harbor, and the history, and the food, and the clash of cultures-- the Brahmins and the newcomers and the aggressively territorial neighborhoods. All wonderful for fiction.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing The First to Lie? What did you find most rewarding about crafting that novel?
The most challenging aspect? In two words: the middle. Okay, to go on a bit: I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t read The First to Lie, and I’m crossing fingers you eventually will. But most rewarding about crafting that novel is how it is absolutely and supremely fair. Readers are given every single piece of information. To be oblique about it, I had to very carefully keep certain people away from other people in the novel. There are certain people who are never in the same scenes, and there are certain people who never meet. And I absolutely applauded myself, briefly :-) when that worked.
What’s next on your writing horizon?
I’m in the midst of the final edits of my new book! I’m so thrilled about it--and that’s fun to say, because about a month ago I was in despair. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it will be published by Forge on September 14. It is another cat-and-mouse standalone, I am happy to say, about celebrity and fame and the vulnerability of people who are always in the spotlight.
One person asked me to describe it in 10 words and I said: Fame. Fortune. Your perfect daughter. Can you keep one secret?
So. Crossing fingers! And thank you so much for inviting me--I wish we could chat in person!
Thank you for spending time with us here at the Stiletto Gang. I really look forward to our next meeting in person! Best wishes for your continuing success!
Hank Phillippi Ryan is the bestselling author of 12 thrillers, winning the most prestigious awards in the genre: five Agathas, four Anthonys, the Daphne, and for , the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV, with 37 EMMYs and dozens more journalism honors. Book critics call her “a master of suspense,” “a superb and gifted storyteller,” and she’s the only author to have won the Agatha in four different categories: Best First, Best Novel, Best Short Story and Best Non-Fiction. Her 2019 standalone, THE MURDER LIST, won the Anthony Award for Best Novel, and is an Agatha, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. International bestseller A.J. Finn says, “exciting, explosive, relentless,” and the starred review calls it “A must-read.” Hank’s newest novel: the chilling psychological standalone . The starred review says “Stellar… Hank Phillippi Ryan could win a sixth Agatha with this one.” and bestseller Sarah Pekkanen says “Book clubs will gobble it up.”