Monday, March 29, 2010

A Conversation with Hank Phillippi Ryan

Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution.

Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a radio reporter, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson. She's also a national board of Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the New England Sisters in Crime.

Her first mystery, the best-selling Prime Time, won the Agatha for Best First Novel. It was also was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel, and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner. Face Time and Air Time are IMBA bestsellers. Sue Grafton said of Air Time: "This is first-class entertainment."

Hank, you’ve had an incredible career in broadcasting. What have you enjoyed most about your professional life?

Well, thanks! Over the past 30 years, I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, chased down criminals and confronted corrupt politicians—and had many a door slammed in my face! But the idea that I can change lives and even change laws is so gratifying. It’s a big responsibility, which I take very seriously. But when a tough story comes through and changes are made as a result—the rewards are immense.

How did your TV show “Hank Investigates” come about?

It’s a segment on the news here in Boston, and airs on the NBC affiliate. I’ve been a reporter for a long time—starting out as the political reporter in Indianapolis in 1975—then assigned to other beats from the medical reporter (!) to movie critic (!!) to on-the-road feature reporter in Atlanta, Georgia, where every Monday morning I’d close my eyes and point to a map—and then go to wherever that finger point took me to see what I could come up with.

I came to Boston as a reporter in 1982, where for awhile I was the “funny one.” Whenever the newscast needed a clever feature—what we call a “kicker”—I was the one assigned to do it. They called me “Something out of nothing productions” since I could always find a story anywhere!

But in 1988, I was assigned to do the long-form “think pieces” for the presidential conventions. After that, my news director told me he’d realized I was wasting time being the funny one. He said—you’re the serious one. And he made me the investigative reporter. And that’s what I’ve done—with much delight—ever since.

Which of all your many awards do you cherish most, and why?

Oh, impossible. My Agatha for Prime Time as Best First Novel? Brings tears to my eyes every time I see it. What a joy! But I love each of the 26 Emmys and12 Murrows as if it were the only one. Each one of them represents a secret that we discovered and brought to light. I’m very proud of those, and what they represent.

Tell us briefly about your background.

I was born in Chicago, where my dad was the music critic for the old Chicago Daily News. We moved to Indianapolis (where some of my family still lives) when I was about 6. I went to public schools, where I was a geeky Beatle-loving misfit voted “most original” in high school…much to my chagrin at the time. Majored in English at Western College for Women in Oxford Ohio, when in to work in politics and then…radio.

I got my first job in broadcasting because—as I told the news director at the radio station—“Your license is up for renewal at the FCC, and you don’t have any women working here.” Well, it was 1970! I’m proud to be part of the group of women who began to break down the gender barriers back then.

I worked for almost 2 years in the US Senate, and then a couple of years at Rolling Stone Magazine in Washington, DC. And then, TV.

When did you decide to write novels? And how did you come up with your “Time” mystery series?

Well, I decided to write mystery novels when I was about 7—Nancy Drew was my first best friend. But for whatever reason, it took me about 48 more years to come up with a plot I thought was worthy!

That happened when I got a weird email one day at the station. It was clearly a spam, with the subject line “mortgage refinancing.” But inside, was what looked like lines from a play by Shakespeare. I thought—why would someone send lines form a play by Shakespeare in a spam about mortgage refinancing? And it crossed my mind—maybe it’s a secret message.

And ding ding ding! (I still get goosebumps telling this story.) I thought—my plot! And that’s how it all started. Form the moment on, I was obsessed with writing the book. And that was the Agatha-winning Prime Time.

What’s Charlotte McNally up to in your latest novel, Drive Time?

Drive Time is about secrets. TV reporter Charlie McNally’s working on a story about a dangerous scheme that could absolutely happen…and let me just say, if you own a car, or rent a car, you’ll never look at your vehicle the same way after reading DRIVE TIME. In fact, after writing the book, I now get a bit creeped out when I go into a parking garage. That’s all I‘ll say.

Charlie’s also drawn into another frightening situation—this one at the prep school where her fiancĂ© is an English professor. When Charlie learns a secret that might put her step-daughter-to-be in danger, and might also be an blockbuster investigative story—how does she balance her loyalty to her husband-to-be—with her need to protect the public?

So this is a tough one for Charlie. And she must make many life-changing decisions. Just when she begins to think she might be able to have it all—a terrific career and a new husband and a new life--revenge, extortion and murder may bring it all to a crashing halt.

Drive Time just got a fabulous starred review from Library Journal. Just a snippet of the rave: “Placing Ryan in the same league as Lisa Scottoline…her latest book catapults the reader into the fast lane and doesn't relent until the story careens to a stop. New readers will speed to get her earlier books, and diehard fans will hope for another installment.”

And dear Robert B. Parker’s quote is on the cover—he says “I loved Drive Time!”

What’s your writing schedule like and how long does a novel take to write, from idea to finished manuscript? Do you outline?

Prime Time took maybe..two years. The others have taken maybe 6 months each.

Outline? Yes. No. When I started with Prime Time, I had no outline. Just one of the many things I didn’t understand about mystery writing. My first manuscript was 723 pages long! AH. I had to cut 400 pages!

When we sold Prime Time, the publisher initially wanted two books. And they wanted an outline for the second. So I did outline Face Time, and although I complained the entire time writing it—it was no fun at all—it turned out to be a terrific tool. Even though the final story was nothing like the outline!

So now, I outline. And then I write the real story--however it comes out.

Which do you prefer, investigative reporting or novel writing, and why?

No way I could decide that! I love them both.

Which novelist most influenced your own work? And which writer, past or present, would you like to spend some time with?

I love Edith Wharton’s cynical take on the world, and the way she illustrates the social structure even while being dramatic and entertaining. Her stories have such with such depth and texture, and her characters are wonderful. Julia Spencer Fleming. Margaret Maron’s wonderfully authentic dialogue and settings. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for clever plots. Lisa Scottoline for her contemporary and hip take on the world. John Lescroart for story story story. PD James. Who I’d love to spend time with? Shakespeare. I have many, many questions for him. Whoever he was. Oh! And Stephen King. What a genius, on so many levels.

Advice to fledgling writers and journalists?

For journalists: Don’t be afraid. Be very afraid. Be scrupulously careful. Think. And think again. Never give up.

For writers? On my bulletin board there are two quotes. One is a Zen saying: “Leap and the net will appear.” To me, that means: Just do it. The other says “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” And I think that’s so wonderful—just have the confidence to carry on. Writing is tough, arduous, not always rewarding in the moment—but no successful author has ever had an easy path.

Thanks, Hank, for taking part in the series.

Hanks's website:
Her blog sites:

Hank is giving away a copy of her new novel, Drive Time, to someone who leaves a comment here. The winnner will be announced Monday at the top of the blog site.


  1. Wonderful inspiring post, Hank! You are an amazing woman. And I love the Zen saying!

  2. Oh, thank you Vicki!
    And Jean, I am honored to be here. Thank you so much!

  3. And oh, Jean--let's have a giveaway! I'll give a signed copy the readers choice of the Charlotte McNally mysteries to three commenters!

    And if this is really Jean's last interview--let's make it in honor of Jean, and her wonderful contributions to the world of mystery.

  4. This is one terrific interview, Jean ~ I enjoyed it tremendously! Thanks for the chance to get to know Hank a little bit more. Two spectacular careers! Congratulations to Hank for so many wonderful accolades ~ you deserve them all!

  5. You have an interesting life behind you, Hank, and I'm sure an even more interesting one ahead.
    I'm impressed by all you do and have done.

    And here I thought you were just another pretty mystery writer.

  6. Hank - thanks for writing such great books! I love Charlie and can't wait to read her latest adventure.

  7. Fascinating interview. I love to learn more about my favorite authors!

  8. My pleasure, Hank. A notice has been sent out about the book giveaway. I hope everyone who comments will leave a complete name so that we can track down the winner. :)


  9. AW, Earl, thank you! And nice to see all of you.

    And yes, well, we'll post the winner--when, Jean?--and people can come back to check.

    And I'm thinking the world works in mysterious ways--Drive Time is all about automobile recalls! And with the massive Toyota recall all over the news now--DRIVE TIME is truly ripped from the headlines.

    Have any of you had your cars recalled?

  10. What a fun interview - I've enjoyed Prime Time and Face Time and can't wait to read Drive Time. I enjoyed hearing about your career - having gotten out of college in '69, I know the work world was a "different place" for women in those days!!

  11. Fascinating career, Hank. Investigative reporter sounds like a great background for a mystery writer.

    boots9k at wowway dot com

  12. Great interview. You're a great character yourself, Hank, a suitable heroine. And now you've got me going already for Drive Time!

  13. If Drive Time is as good as Air Time, we're in for a treat.

  14. I still get scared going into the shower late at night when I'm alone, Hank, thanks to Psycho. After I read your book and am afraid to drive again I will be saying, "Thanks! Hank! I'm back on the bike!"

  15. Your life has certainly been interesting, Hank. Those story ideas do come to us in unusual ways. Congratulations on your awards. Mysteries are some of my favorite stories. Adding yours to my TBR list.

    Thanks for a great interview, Jean.


  16. Fascinating interview, Hank! I will always read a mystery with a reporter as protagonist. In 1993, as a reporter for the Selma (California) Enterprise I was a finalist for Fresno's George F. Gruner Prize for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism. It was small stuff compared to your experiences, but small or large, it gets into your blood and gives you a different view of the world.

    And I love your Zen saying! It goes along with my usual MO -- "Jump off the cliff and pray for wings." (-:

    Best of luck to you, and to you,Jean. Thank you for the good work you've done here.

    Pat Browning

  17. Hank, I love your quotes for writers! And can't wait to read Drive Time. I've given the previous "Time"s to a number of people as gifts.


  18. I love it that you see cars as a "vehicle" for creepiness. Haven't read Drive Time yet but looking forward to it. And even better like your comments on getting to the bottom of things and righting wrongs driving your journalism (and doubtless your fiction). You're a great example that it can be done.

  19. Just saw your question regarding Toyota recalls. I have a Toyota Matrix that stalls, waiting for a fix/recall once they get thru with the acceleration mess, and had a crazy conversation recently in a sauna with a Camry owner that's experienced acceleration. Gotta love car plots -- I'm working on one with creepy car insurance companies and creepier insurance regulators.

  20. Hello Hank, and thanks for a great start to my morning. Loved the quotes, and your personal story would probably make a great memoir. My favorite quote is from Betty Bender: "Anthing I've ever done that ultimately was worthwhile...initially scared me to death." I look forward to reading "Drive Time" and all the other Times!
    JoAnn Haberer

  21. Hank, great interview. I met you in Indy at Bouchercon and was so impressed with how gracious and funny you were. I have since read both your books and can't wait for Drive Time. Best of luck, Wendy

    W.S. Gager

  22. Hank,reading more about you confirms what I thought after reading your first two books: You seem to have so much energy! How do you get everything done? You have so many accomplishments and such a positive attitude. You're a great role model--even if I am older than you! LOL

  23. Hi all--what a wonderful group here! And thank you for all the kind words.

    Today is official DRIVE TIME relase day, so if you go to Mystery Lovers Bookshop and order--you'll get a free gift! And free shipping! Just tell them Hank sent you.

  24. Pennyt--yes, you are so right! When I talk to students who ask--how did you get started? I agree to tell them the story--but I warn them, it won't work anymore. We paved the way,right?

    And yes, Shirley, an investigative reporter-sleuth nicely solves the "why are you poking into that case" problem!

  25. CK and James--thanks so much... do let me know how you like DRIVE TIME. I'm especially excited about it!

    I still open each review with trepidation (does everyone?)--but knock on wood--so far, they've all been fantastic.

    People say--they think this is the best in the series. And that's how it should work, correct?

  26. Very nice interview. That was truly a pleasure to read.

    (@APMonkey on Twitter)

  27. I followed the link to order the book. However, free shipping offer did not carry through unless one wanted to order more than just Drive Time. Also no free gift was offered. Not to be petty, we still want to read the book, but heads up that your site isn't working as I believe you intended.

  28. All of the praise for the books is well deserved. There are a lot of cute 'cozy' mysteries but not a lot of good hearty traditionals. HPR makes me remember why I started reading mysteries.

    Great interview with only one question missing...

    When do you sleep?

  29. Oh, MaryAnn--it works! You just have to say I sent you! (It's not for everyone--just today, and just to people who say I sent them! You can put that in the comments part of the order form..)

    Let me know, okay???

  30. Doesn't appear to work. I ordered Drive Time but their system charged me for mailing, even though I put Hank sent me in the comments. Maybe they'll back it out but my receipt shows they charged for shipping. You can't tell what it's doing until it's too late to stop the order. Again, not to grinch but to let you know it is being flaky.

  31. AH...MaryAnn.. I checked with them when I got your first inquiry--and they assure me that it's all working fine! You are such a good sport to be so persistent..and I'm sending them another email right now!

  32. Oh, That Brunette (I always love your name)---thank you! And you're so right. Sleep becomes very very desirable...xoxo

  33. Indeed it does work -- that is, the store communicated with me by email. They said they were a bit slow because they had a book club meeting there. Charming! Thanks for tracking this down. Can hardly wait to read it.

  34. Hurray! Terrific. MaryAnn. Got to love it when things finally work! Let me know how you like DRIVE TIME, okay?

    Jean says hello to everyone, by the way--she's got some family we're keeping the blog humming while she's gone. Hi Jean!

  35. Great interview. I really liked the quotes.

  36. Oh, thanks, Spav! Check back Monday night for winners!