In addition to her busy career as a reporter for NBC’s Boston affiliate, Hank Phillippi Ryan has made a name for herself as a bestselling author of suspense fiction. In Ryan’s most recent novel, The Wrong Girl, reporter Jane Ryland is contacted by a former co-worker who asks for Jane’s help because she believes that she was reunited with the wrong birth mother. At the same time, Detective Jake Brogan is investigating the brutal murder of a woman who was found in her house with two young children and an empty crib. He believes that it’s more than the simple domestic violence case that it seems to be. Soon, it becomes obvious that the cases are linked. Ryan’s writing is pitch-perfect as she builds suspense and continues to develop Jane and Jake’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship.
Ryan generously agreed to answer a few questions for Between the Covers readers. She tells us about her lifelong love of mysteries, her inspiration and why she writes page-turners but not “stomach-turners.”
When you wrote your first novel, you already had a very successful career as a television reporter. What made you take that leap? Did you always want to write fiction?
I grew up in very rural Indiana ... so rural you could not see another house from our house. My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library – we’d get books and put them in the saddle bags and then read them up in the hayloft of our barn. (Yes, I know I look like a city girl now! But that’s how it all started.)
I fell in love with Nancy Drew, then, soon after, Sherlock Holmes. Then soon after that, all the wonderful Golden Age mystery authors – Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers ... and of course Agatha Christie. And I think that’s where my love of mystery storytelling was born.
But I went on to be a journalist – starting in radio in 1971! Then in TV in 1975. (So far, I’ve won 30 Emmys for investigative reporting, and I am still on the air at Boston’s NBC affiliate.) And when you think of it, journalism is also storytelling, right? It’s just stories that are true. I never gave up my love of mystery and thriller reading, but – okay, I’ll admit it. I just never had a good idea for my own fiction.
Then in – 2005, maybe, I had a great idea. I knew it instantly, and from that moment on I was obsessed with writing what turned out to be the Agatha Award-winning first novel, Prime Time. (It’s a great story – maybe invite me to visit the library, and I’ll tell you the whole thing.)
After that, I was completely hooked. Now I have the joy of juggling two fabulous careers – stressful, and high-stakes and unpredictable, yes – but I am very lucky.
How does your work as a reporter influence your writing?
Well, it’s all about telling a story, right? Whether you’re making it up or not. I am well aware as a TV reporter that if a viewer isn’t interested, entertained, informed and riveted, they can simply zap me away with the click of a remote. So I have learned over all these years to tell a good story.
Happily, I get to use the same skills in crime fiction. I know if you don’t love the characters and the plot, if you’re not riveted to turning the pages, you’re going to close the cover and find another book. I do my best not to let that happen! And that’s all about the story.
I’ve also wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, gone undercover and in disguise, been tear-gassed and at hostage situations, at fires and crime scenes, had people confess to murder, seen how people behave when they’re lying or terrified. So there’s an authenticity from my day job that I bring to my crime fiction. The things that happen to Jane could happen to me! And some of them certainly have!
So having this career which brings me into places the public can’t always go and into situations that can be exciting and high-stakes gives me a never-ending (I hope) source of inspiration. I don’t take my TV stories and fictionalize them, but I do use the real-life experience to make it genuine.
While crime plays a major part in your novels, the violence takes place “off the page.” Was that a conscious decision or just something that evolved as part of your writing style?
Oh, interesting. When I read a particularly ghoulish and violent book – confession here – I sometimes skip the graphic parts. (Yes, I know, it’s funny, since my real life shows me a very dark part of the world.) Did I decide – oh, I’m not going to go graphic? No. But they always say to write the kind of book you love to read – and for me that’s Lisa Scottoline, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Meg Gardiner, John Lescroart, Harlan Coben, Steve Hamilton. Very, very suspenseful, yes, very high stakes, yes. But gory/bloody/violent? No. So I write my books to be page-turners – as Library Journal called The Wrong Girl “stellar” and a “superb thriller” – but they are not, um, stomach-turners!
Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write The Wrong Girl?
It’s a great story. I got a call at my TV station – and this is the perfect example of what you were asking – from a woman who said, “Hank! You’ve got to do a story about my cousin. She was given up at birth to an adoption agency 25 years ago and got a call from them asking if she wanted to be reunited with her birth mother. She said yes – but you know, when they met? Turned out they weren’t related! The agency had sent that woman the wrong girl!”
I’m laughing now, even as I type this. I remember thinking, “Thank you, universe! The Wrong Girl! There’s my book!” A book about mothers and daughters, the struggle of adoption from all sides, the need for a family. What if someone made up a family history for you – would you believe it? What if you didn’t know the truth about your own family? How would you recognize your own daughter? Fascinating and relevant questions. And I was off and writing!
What’s turned out to be just as timely and fascinating – there’s a huge problem, making headlines right now, about the chaos in the Massachusetts foster-care system. A completely fictional version of that is key to The Wrong Girl. Amazing, huh? That book as written way before those headlines.
And did you see it’s now nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Novel?
What are you working on next? Will we get to see more of Jake and Jane?
Yes, absolutely! (And thank you.) Truth Be Told will be out on September 30. It’s about a mortgage banker who decides to keep her economically challenged customers out of foreclosure by manipulating their records so it looks like they’ve paid – good hearted, of course, but illegal. It’s about a man who confesses to a cold case murder the police have stopped investigating – why would he do that? And about a reporter who makes stuff up.
Will Jake and Jane find a way to be together? We shall see.
What have you read lately that you loved? Are there any authors who are on your personal must-read list?
Personal must read - Lisa Scottoline. John Lescroart. Ian Rankin. Julia Spencer-Fleming. Sue Grafton, the master! I love Nelson DeMille’s John Corey books and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. Dennis Lehane, of course. Gone Girl, I’m a fan.
New books? Look for M. P. Cooley’s Ice Shear, Rachel Howzell Hall’s Land of Shadows. Jenny Milchman’s Ruin Falls and Chris Pavone’s (he wrote the Edgar Award-winning The Expats) new The Accident. (Unique! But great.)
As for me, I’m in the midst of writing What You See – In solving a murder, Jake wonders why cameras don’t lie – but photographs do. And Jane’s own family puts her in deadly danger. That’s what you get when you plan a wedding, right?