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?
Sharon Sala, a prolific and successful writer with over 1 million books sold, ventures into the world of Southern women’s fiction in The Curl Up & Dye. Blessings, Georgia, springs to glorious life, along with its unique and quirky residents, especially LilyAnn Bronte, a former Peachy-Keen Queen. After losing her almost fiancé in the war in Iraq, her zest for life was zapped and she let herself go for 11 years. Finally, LilyAnn gives in to the ladies of the local beauty parlor, The Curl Up & Dye, and starts to get herself back in the game. This happily coincides with the arrival of a new hottie in town who provides LilyAnn with further motivation. But was love already in Blessings the whole time? A little bit Steel Magnolias and a little bit When Harry Met Sally equals a whole lot of fun.
Get to know Sala as she sheds light on her creative process, offers a sneak peak at what’s next in Blessings and shares plenty more, including the Hollywood superstars she would cast to bring The Curl Up & Dye’s romantic duo to life on the big screen.
The Curl Up & Dye is such a fun slice of Southern life but represents a departure from the romantic suspense genre in which you’ve achieved such great success. What prompted the change and what challenges were created?
I love that you enjoyed The Curl Up & Dye. It was so much fun creating and then living in that world. As for what prompted it, I’ve been writing in different genres for several years now. Young adult, women’s fiction, Western historical (humor) romantic suspense and straight fiction. Going the Southern route was a breeze and so much fun. As for challenges, there were none. As a writer, it’s freeing creatively to do something different. Keeps me fresh, creatively speaking.
In all of your books, your characters are engaging, the stories gripping and the romance palpable. What sparks your ideas after so many successful stories?
My ideas are my dreams. I just write what the universe gives me. As for keeping the stories fresh, I think it would be fair to say that it’s the characters themselves who lead me through the maze that becomes their lives. Once you try to force a scene to work, you’ve already lost your way. I just let the characters tell me what comes naturally to them and then find a way to let the reader see it as I do.
I know you’ve said it was a hated job that led you to writing, but was writing professionally always a dream? And what was that hated job?
The hated job was checking groceries, and I never imagined, even once, of becoming a professional writer. I was just a dreamer with thousands of stories in my head, and one day the hated job triggered an urge to put down on paper what I was seeing in my head.
Share some of your process. Do you write every day? Where? Whom do you use as a sounding-board?
Yes, I write every day, but my writing process no longer exists because I also care for my 94-year-old mother who lives with me and who has dementia and no short-term memory. It is daily chaos but also a sweet sad journey for the both of us. I write when I can and am thankful that my process for writing is naturally fast. I have no sounding board but myself. I am also my worst critic.
You just got the call that The Curl Up & Dye is being made into a movie and you have free reign with the casting. What’s your dream cast? Do you use celebrities as models for your characters when you’re writing?
The dream cast is Jennifer Lawrence as LilyAnn and Channing Tatum as Mike. They both have an ability to do sweet/funny/dramatic, and the story calls for all three. No, I never use a picture of anyone to create the characters in my books. They’re already in my head as themselves.
Will you be returning to Blessings in a future novel? Can you give us a sneak peak?
Yes, I am happy to say that I’m going back to Blessings this year writing a book called Family Specials. Of course The Curl Up & Dye plays a pivotal role in how the plot plays out, but the story is entirely different from the others.
It’s about two teenagers: a boy and his two little brothers and a girl and her baby boy, who have been thrust into adult roles far too soon and who find a way to team up to save their families and, in doing so, finally fall in love long after the wedding has taken place.
It is a story that makes my heart happy. I look forward to sharing it with you.
In April 1940, John Henry Montagu Manners, the ninth Duke of Rutland, spent his final days working in the small rooms in the servants’ quarters of Belvoir Castle, where his family’s archives were housed. Although he spent most of his life carefully preserving his family’s history, the duke spent the end of his life expunging the family records of three specific time periods from his life. After his death, the duke’s son and heir, Charles, ordered the archive rooms sealed. The rooms and their contents remained untouched until they were reopened in 1999. Historian Catherine Bailey brings this story to light in her captivating new book The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess and a Family Secret.
While Bailey was researching a book on World War I, she came across some curious gaps in the family’s archives and began to question what was missing. Why would someone have removed those specific sections from the family’s otherwise meticulous records? She worked steadfastly, researching and piecing together the scandalous family secrets that John Manners worked so hard to hide. In this case, the truth sounds like the plot of an epic BBC miniseries, and the answers she finds are more dramatic than most fiction. The Secret Rooms is part Downton Abbey, part Gothic mystery and entirely irresistible. This story is narrative nonfiction at its best.
In Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, Richard Serrano tells the story of the last two survivors of the Civil War. It’s the 1950s and both men are in their 100s, still holding on to life and their past glory. One is a former drummer boy for the Union now living in Duluth, Minnesota and the other lives in Texas, having served with General Hood’s Brigade fighting for the South. They’ve both been alive for various Civil War reunions and each hopes to make it to the upcoming Centennial Celebration set to begin in 1961. However, one of them never served for the United States in any conflict and was a mere boy of 5 years old when the Civil War began. Which one really deserves the accolades, including a federal pension, and which is an imposter?
Serrano’s book is full of details about these men and others who claimed to be former Civil War veterans. What is compelling about this narrative is that many records from the Civil War, particularly those of the South, were lost or destroyed over the years. Some men even served and were discharged without official papers. With painstaking research into the records and archives that do remain, including the 1860 U.S. Census, Serrano is able to write an accurate story of the various frauds who tried to claim the glory that was never due to them.
As Serrano posits, the reasons for their deceptions included poverty (many new pension claims from Civil War vets occurred during the Great Depression), a need for fame and an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Some of these men had been telling their stories for so long that they began to believe they were true. Serrano points out that even the most well-intentioned fraud detracts from the countless number of men who served during the Civil War and never got their due.
Baltimore author Laura Lippman is a favorite of many BCPL readers. Her new stand-alone novel, After I’m Gone, brings together past and present in a suspenseful, character-driven story about the family of a fugitive living their lives in the wake of scandal. On July 4, 1976, Felix Brewer flees from Baltimore rather than face a jail sentence. He leaves behind his wife, Bambi, his three young daughters and his mistress, Julie. In 2012, Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department, reopens the cold case file of the murder of Felix’s mistress, Julie. Lippman skillfully weaves the threads of what happens to each of the women in Felix’s life with Sandy’s investigation to bring the reader to the unexpected conclusion.
Lippman recently answered some questions for our Between the Covers readers. She tells us more about the inspiration for this story and a new movie adaptation of one of her novels.
Your husband, David Simon, originally suggested that you write about Julius Salsbury, head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore who disappeared in the 1970s rather than face jail time, but you weren’t initially interested in that story. What changed?
I am pretty resistant to other people’s ideas. It’s a personal thing, writing a novel. It’s a year out of my life. And perhaps I wasn’t listening as closely as I should have because David probably did emphasize that he thought the novel would be about the women affected. But it was when I started thinking about the daughters, saw a story beyond a love triangle, that I saw how I could do it.
Felix’s disappearance frames the story, but it’s quickly apparent that the novel isn’t really about him. It’s about those left behind. What is it about these five women that captured your imagination?
We define ourselves by our relationships. We are wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters. What if one of those relationships is taken away? Who are we then? How do we adjust? The same would be true of men, by the way. Sandy, the retired cop in the novel, very much identifies himself as a widower, as someone who was married and is now alone, unhappily so.
What kind of research did you do for After I’m Gone?
I mainly tried to make sure the pop culture lined up. I remember being very disappointed to find out that Michelle’s bat mitzvah was just ahead of the introduction of the bubble skirt. I wanted all the Brewer women to be in fashion-forward bubble skirts.
Sandy meets Tess Monaghan near the end of the story, and the two of them talk business. Will readers see Sandy again in the future?
The movie adaptation of Every Secret Thing, starring Diane Lane, Elizabeth Banks and Dakota Fanning, is in post-production. What was it like to see that story come to life on film? When will the movie be released?
The film has been accepted by a major film festival, but that’s not official yet. The hope is it will find national distribution there. The whole experience was wonderfully surreal. It was as if the games I played with my Barbie dolls, all those years ago, had come to life.
Are there any authors on your personal must-read list? What have you read recently that you loved?
My must-read list includes Megan Abbott, Alex Marwood, Alison Gaylin, Rebecca Chance, Ann Hood, Stewart O’Nan, Tom Perrotta, Dennis Lehane, Georgoe Pelecanos, Mark Billingham, Andre Dubus III, Alafair Burke – shall I go on?
I also just had the privilege of guest-editing Best American Mystery Stories , so I’ve been reading amazing short stories – but I can’t say by whom.
Jill Shalvis returns to her bestselling Lucky Harbor series with her new novel Once in a Lifetime. Lucky Harbor fans know that Aubrey Wellington is trouble, but she has decided to give herself a life makeover. She makes a list of wrongs she has committed and sets out to make amends. Ben McDaniel has had no interest in love since he was widowed, but he finds he can’t ignore the electricity between him and Aubrey. As they grow closer, Aubrey worries that one secret item on her list may push him away forever.
Shalvis’s sexy, laugh-out-loud funny romances have made her a star in the contemporary romance genre. The author recently answered some questions about love, life and her new novel.
Between the Covers: What scene did you have the most fun writing?
Jill Shalvis: Oh I have quite a few from this book! When Aubrey throws her drink in Ben’s face, when she runs and hides out in an AA meeting and makes friends with the pastor, when Ben figures out she’s writing a list of people she’s wronged and he wonders that it’s not a lot longer than it is, when Aubrey gets a little tipsy and throws rocks at Ben’s window like a scene right out of the Say Anything movie …
BTC: Describe Aubrey a sentence
JS: Aubrey: her heart’s in the right spot but she doesn’t like to lead with it, if that makes any sense.
BTC: Aubrey inherits a cat named Gus, who has quite the personality—was he inspired by a real life cat?
JS: He was inspired by my own Satan—er, Sadie, who believes she is the queen of all humans.
BTC: Aubrey has some scandalous photos from her college days surface in her ex’s tell-all. Is there are anything from your past you wouldn’t want to see the light of day (but that you’re willing to share with us)?
JS: Alpha Man [Jill’s husband] has a photo on his phone that he snapped just as I was flipping him off. I’m not super proud of that moment, which of course is why he has it as my photo id when I call him…
BTC: What can your fans look forward to next in the Lucky Harbor series?
JS: Next up is a Lucky Harbor trilogy for this coming summer and fall, It’s in His Kiss, He’s So Fine, and Once in a Million, the stories of the three sexy hot guys who run Lucky Harbor Charters.
A tight-knit community is turned upside down when tragedy strikes. Carla Buckley’s new novel, The Deepest Secret, shows how a once safe and unsuspecting community can transform when one minor bad decision goes unchecked and snowballs.
Everyone makes mistakes, and Buckley highlights the flaws of all of her characters, but it’s the mistake of one person in particular that propels the plot and changes the dynamic of a whole family. Eve is the mother of a son with a rare condition leaving him unable to come in contact with ultraviolet light. Her family has revolved around the rising and setting of the sun until an error in judgment becomes the center of her universe.
Buckley has a way of conveying guilt and a sense of ambiguity that leads the reader to hope that there is the potential for innocence. Buckley also brings other characters’ mistakes to light, leading the reader to rethink who may be at fault for the crime that shakes this community’s sense of security.
The shame that can be felt while reading this book could be compared to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, while the family dynamics and legal components are reminiscent of William Landay’s Defending Jacob. One minute, incidents seem certain, yet in the next they shift, keeping the reader guessing and eager until the very end.
Alice LaPlante’s latest novel, A Circle of Wives, tells a story of lies, secrets and determination from the perspective of several different women. When Dr. Paul Taylor is discovered dead in his hotel room from an apparent heart attack, everything changes as it becomes clear his death was anything but natural. Married to his wife Deborah for 35 years, Dr. Taylor was a kind-hearted and renowned plastic surgeon who specialized in facial reconstruction for children with birth and medical defects. But his death opens a veritable Pandora’s Box of polygamy and deception when it's revealed that Dr. Taylor had not one, but three wives throughout the state of California.
Detective Samantha Adams is 28 and assigned to her first murder case. She becomes embroiled in the lives of Dr. Taylor’s wives and, while the motive to kill is clear, the question remains as to which wife it could be. They are very different women: the society wife, the hippy accountant and the successful doctor. Two were unaware of their deceased husband’s lies and his “real” wife emerges as the puppet master behind the whole arrangement. Could this make her the most likely suspect?
While LaPlante’s novel initially seems to be a clear cut murder mystery, it quickly evolves into an entirely different story full of psychological suspense, obsession and passion.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone is a fascinating companion book to the recent documentary series of the same name. Like the series, the book begins with the story of Juan Garrido, the first known African-born person to arrive in what is now the United States in 1513. The narrative carries through to the present, covering 500 years of African-American history. The book, which is organized in nine chapters that mark distinct periods in the African-American story, brings greater depth to the stories presented in the documentary. In both, Gates highlights the diversity and the resilience of African-Americans by sharing the stories of individuals whose experiences shed light on their time and place in this complex history.
This documentary series is a lifelong dream that Gates was finally able to bring to fruition. He explains,“Since my senior year in high school, when I watched Bill Cosby narrate a documentary about black history, I’ve longed to share those stories in great detail to the broadest audience possible, young and old, black and white, scholars and the general public. I believe that my colleagues and I have achieved this goal through The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The critics agree that it is a success. Both the series and book have been nominated for NAACP Image Awards.
The six-part miniseries, which aired on PBS last fall, was recently released on DVD. This touching and inspiring video clip gives viewers a taste of the storytelling found in this riveting look into 500 years of history.
Bestselling novelist Gary Shteyngart is a really funny guy. He is a master of social satire and self-deprecating humor, reminiscent of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Shteyngart turns to his own life and skewers himself, his family and two countries with a razor sharp wit.
Shteyngart (What kind of name is that? Keep reading, he’ll tell you, and good luck not laughing out loud when he does.) was born in the former Soviet Union. The only child of Jewish parents who affectionately called their asthmatic son Soplyak, meaning “snotty,” or Failurchka, which needs no translation, the family immigrated to the United States when Shteyngart was 6. Life for poor Russian Jews was not easy under the Communists, but America is fraught with opportunities for humiliation too.
Reading Little Failure is, at times, like listening to a clever borscht belt comedian: badda bing, badda boom, with a zinger in every paragraph. Whether comparing his after-school time at Grandma Polya’s house in America to “being fed like some pre-foie-gras goose,” describing Black Sea vacations Soviet-style or recounting his time as an Oberlin College student, Shteyngart has an eye for the absurd. With his deft blend of humor and pathos, he can relate family history under Stalin and the complex relationship with his father or his family’s glee upon receiving a pseudo-check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse with equal panache. On the The New York Times best sellers list, Little Failure will appeal to readers with an intelligent funny bone.