Hank Phillippi Ryan: Four Plots, One Great Story

Hank Phillippi Ryan

by Clay Stafford,
Founder Killer Nashville,
Publisher Killer Nashville Magazine

For the first issue of the Killer Nashville Magazine, we could think of none better for our cover story than Hank Phillippi Ryan.  I was thrilled with the opportunity to interview Hank, being a fan of hers for over 6 years now. Hank started out of the gate in 2007 with her first published novel, Prime Time, winning the Agatha award. Add her on-air investigative reporter’s list of successes: she’s won 32 Emmys, 12 Edward R. Murrow awards, and dozens of other honors for her groundbreaking journalism for Boston’s NBC affiliate. In the literary world, she has been nominated and/or won every major mystery literary award including being a finalist this last year for Killer Nashville’s very own Silver Falchion Award

So, Hank, you’ve won both Emmys for investigative reporting and national book awards for fiction, which interest came first? Reporting or fiction writing?

Oh, impossible. It’s fun to think about, because who knows how our brains work, and who can ever really understand why we’re doing what we’re doing—or how it will turn out?

When I was a little girl, if I asked my mother another of what I’m sure she considered my endless questions, she’d say to me: “I’m not going to tell you. Go and find out.”

So—a little kid asking questions means they’re curious about the world, right? Is that from an interest in reporting, or storytelling? Or is that essentially the same mental process?

I’ve always loved mysteries—as a little girl, my sister and I would read up in the hayloft of our barn, and I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew and Hercule Poirot. We all did, right? But was it the tracking down clues and following leads and solving puzzles that I loved? Or the words and the creativity and the story telling? It’s the same, right?

And as I grew up, each career was a natural outcome. It just took me until I was 23 to become a reporter. And 65 to become a crime fiction author!

The reason I just fell over in my chair: there is no way you are 65 or anywhere near it. What makes your books stand out is the depth within the character’s setting. You use your fiction to highlight social issues. How do you keep the issues from becoming too heavy-handed within the storytelling?

What You See, Hank Phillippi RyanWell, thank you! But I don’t think of it that way. Just as with television reporting, it’s all about telling a good story. It has to matter, people have to care, viewers have to learn something new, and come away from it with a different way of looking at the world. And it has to be entertaining, right? 

Same with my books. 

Books are about the real world, and what’s going on in the real world. And why we care about it. Ripped from the headlines? Adultery, political corruption, adoption scams, mortgage fraud, the housing crisis—and in the new WHAT YOU SEE (Forge, October 2015), surveillance and privacy.

Every day as I write, I ask myself—sometimes out loud!—“Why do I care?”

So because Jane and Jake are real people handling situations that could really happen, it’s all about how they deal with that reality. And we can ask ourselves—what would we do?  And since we love Jake and Jane, and we understand the mysteries they are trying to solve, we care. The “social issue” is just one of the puzzle pieces—it’s the people that matter.

You’ve written several series with distinct characters. How does one decide to write a series and how far ahead do you need to plan as the writer?

Plan? Ahead? Cue the crazed laughter. 

The Other Woman, Hank Phillippi RyanMy first series grew out of my love for television and the voice of protagonist Charlotte McNally. She still talks to me. But when I had the idea for THE OTHER WOMAN, I knew that story was too big, too textured, to be carried by the first-person voice of Charlotte. It needed multiple points of view. So out of that came Jane Ryland and Jake Brogan. And they’re a series—Charlotte is, too—because we care about their lives, and we’re eager to find out what happens next. 

If there is any planning, it comes from the juggling of keeping the books fast-paced and suspenseful and giving them a big fat satisfying ending, but still with some things left unresolved in the characters’ lives. If the book ends with the happily married couple flying off into the sunset, that’s an end-end, right? If there’s a sinister figure watching them as they speed away, or if the bride is having second thoughts, or if the husband will be unemployed when they get home, that’s a series.  So the juggle is to get to the end without finishing everything. And the bigger juggle is that I have no idea.

How do you juggle your life: writing, reporting, book tours? You must be exhausted.

Oh, well, sometimes, yeah. But there is so much fuel in the wonderful responses, and the terrific audiences, and the friendship of readers and writers, and the joy of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am very lucky, and that goes a long way to erasing exhaustion. That and under-eye concealer.

And your family life?

My husband (a criminal defense attorney who is also juggling big cases and life-and-death situations—but in real life!) is very patient. And we eat a lot of carry-out salmon from Whole Foods.

What is the craziest interaction you’ve ever had with a fan?

No idea…let me think about this.

Attendees could not praise you enough when you were at Killer Nashville this past year for the Sisters in Crime special event. 

Aw, thank you. It was a real joy, and some of the manuscripts I read were fabulous. 

Who have been your mentors and/or the teachers who have influenced you the most?

My high school English teacher, Tom Thornburg (hi, Mr. Thornburg! He lives in Montana now) taught me be to be analytical, and critical, and careful. And to revere Shakespeare, which I still do. Hunter Thompson, who I worked with when I was at Rolling Stone magazine, taught me (among other things, like how to inhale lighter fluid and breathe fire) to go for it, and not be afraid to take writing risks. A news director named Jim Thistle—who taught me how to ask questions, and then one more, and then one more. Oh, gosh, so many. Sue Grafton, certainly.

You live such a varied life. Where do your ideas come from?

There’s a question that some authors loathe…but I love. And that is: where do your stories come from? Some authors answer with caustic throwaways—Schenectady, says one very famous guy. The grocery, says another.

But I think “where do your stories come from” is fascinating. Truth Be Told, Hank Phillippi Ryan

And as for Truth Be Told, I can tell you exactly where it came from.

It’s a puzzle of four parts.

The first? My husband is a criminal defense attorney. When we first met, I asked: Have you ever had a murder case where the defendant was convicted, but you still thought they were innocent?” His eyes softened a bit, and then he said: “Yes.”   The man was charged with murder in the death of a young woman—the prosecution said he had lured her to a forest, and tied her to a tree.  

The first time Jonathan represented the man, the case ended in an overturned conviction. The state brought the charges again, and again Jonathan represented him, and again, overturned conviction.

The state brought the charges again, and again Jonathan represented him, and again, a hung jury.

The state brought the charges again, and the defendant—well, let’s just say he decided he wanted to handle the case his own way this time. Jonathan disagreed.  The man got a different lawyer. He was convicted, and is still in prison.

Jonathan told me he still, to this day, thinks the man is innocent.

Hmmm.  Idea.

Another puzzle piece? Another of Jonathan’s cases. A man in prison, incarcerated with a life sentence for shaking a baby to death, recently confessed to a cold-case murder. It’s very unlikely that he actually did it—so why would he confess? 

Hmmm. Idea.

Another puzzle piece.  I have done several stories about mortgage fraud, and foreclosure fraud. And here in Massachusetts, three new laws were passed as a result of our Emmy winning series on manipulation and deception  in the banking and mortgage world. We got peoples homes out of  foreclosure! And millions of dollars in refunds and restitution. So, that’s great.

Hank Phillippi Ryan
Hank Phillippi Ryan in the Newsroom

But one day, my photographer and I were shooting video of an eviction. I can confess to you –there’s a lot of that going on here today! –we didn’t know who the owner of the home was that day. We were simply getting pictures of an eviction to illustrate the dire consequences of when someone is unlucky, or misled, or has a catastrophe of ad disaster, or makes a mistake. It is devastating.

At one point, a deputy came to the front door of the almost-empty house. I remember he was silhouetted in the door, his entire body the shape of unhappiness and confusion. Head hanging, his outstretched arms one each side of the open door, as if having to hold himself up.

What as making him so upset, I wondered?

I said to my photographer—who is used to my musings—“What if they found a dead body in there?”

And then I realized what that would mean. The deputies had been in that home clearing it out,  cleaning it up, yanking out the possessions and throwing them away.

What if, I thought, the law enforcement officers themselves had ruined a crime scene? Obliterated the evidence, trampled on everything, wiped the place clean? And then…

Oh. The cops ruined their own crime scene!

Hmmmm.  Idea.

I also thought about the people who had been evicted from those homes. People who’d gotten mortgages from banks with lots of money, but who through some failure of their lives, some catastrophe or disaster, some wrong decision or bad luck had not been able to keep up the payments.  Wouldn’t there be something that could have ben done to prevent that? If a banker-type really cared about their customers, wouldn’t there be something that could be done to keep people out of foreclosure?

Hmmmm.  Idea.

Hank Phillippi Ryan
“What if some writer decided not to tell the truth?”

And finally, I was sitting at the computer in my TV station office, writing a story, and thinking about why I do what I do as a reporter.  It’s making history, I decided. It’s creating the record of what happened in our lives, the comings and goings, that issues and the solutions, the documentation of how we live.  And people believe it, right? What’s on TV and in the newspapers becomes a resource by which all is remembered and relied on.

And then I thought—what if some reporter decided not to tell the truth? Not big discoverable lie, but simply—little things. A sound bite, a reaction, a quote.  Who would know? What difference might that make?  And what would happen when the truth was finally told?

Hmmm.  Idea.

And in the way we all do as authors, by spinning and polishing and twisting and turning, and shooting it full of a lot of adrenaline and a little romance, I got the key elements of Truth Be Told:

 A mortgage banker turned Robin Hood decides to manipulate bank records to keep people out of foreclosure, a murder victim is found in a foreclosed home, a man confesses to the unsolved Lilac Sunday murder, and a reporter makes stuff up.   

And when it all comes together in the end: Truth Be Told.

If I wanted to read one book on how to be a writer, what book would I read?

Wow, impossible.

A how-to book wouldn’t do it, you know?

There are a lot out there.

There are terrific ones—On Writing by Stephen King. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. But “how-to” can’t teach you “how” to write if you’re not a reader.  Shakespeare for storytelling, Edith Wharton. Hunter Thompson. Stephen King. Tom Wolfe. Even reading bad stuff can make you better, right, if you think about why it’s bad.

I try to write the kind of book I’d like to read. And that’s how I know when my revision is compete—there’s a moment, in every book, where I forget I wrote it. I’m simply reading the story. And then I think—wow, it’s a book. I’m done.

A great list of people to study from, but Hank, I think you left one out: Hank Phillippi Ryan, right up there with the best writers on the planet.  Check out Hank’s body of work…and learn from the best.

Thanks, Hank, for being with us! For more on Hank, visit her at www.hankphillippiryan.com.

Until next month, read like someone is burning the books.


Clay Stafford,
Founder / Killer Nashville

CClay Staffordlay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com) and founder of Killer Nashville (www.killernashville.com). In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.oneofthemiracles.com) and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver (www.jefferdeaverxomusic.com). He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment (www.americanblackguard.com).

  Truth Be Told, Hank Phillippi RyanTruth Be Told

Families unfairly evicted from their suburban homes, dead bodies found in vacant houses, and a shocking confession in a notorious cold case! Top-notch reporter Jane Ryland digs up the truth on these heartbreaking stories—and discovers a big-bucks scheme and the surprising players who will stop at nothing, including murder, to keep their goals a secret. Financial scheming, the power of money, our primal need for home and family and love. What happens when what you believe is true turns out to be a lie?


 HankPhillippiRyan.com, on Twitter @HankPRyan and Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthorPage.