Friday, December 6, 2013

Hank Phillippi Ryan: From first line to Finish, a thriller

She waits for a really great plot idea and the perfect first line before starting, but once in motion with a new novel, Hank Phillippi Ryan launches ahead without any outline. Before she stops, she'll have created another complex, authentically detailed crime story that's witty, absorbing and fast-paced.

Since the Sept. 10 release of her latest, "The Wrong Girl," Hank Phillippi Ryan has experienced — alongside its rise to The Boston Globe's bestseller list — a national book tour and continued prominence as an award-winning crime writer. The real mystery about her, though, is how she manages to juggle full-time writing and touring, a full-time role as an on-air investigative reporter at Boston's NBC affiliate, Channel 7, and her role as a wife and grandmother. Each is part of a life she loves despite its chaotic claim on her time.

"I'm always on the go; some days I don't realize what city I'm in when I wake up in a hotel — but how lucky am I to be doing that?" she said laughing. "It's wonderful. In life, we do what we choose to do. We make priorities, we make selections; I try not to worry because worrying just takes up time."

Lucky, she said in an interview Thursday, because she began writing fiction in 2005, after first spending 30 years in television news, a career now approaching its fourth decade. Always an avid reader, from Nancy Drew on up to Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark, she secretly desired to write mysteries. And one day, she just up and did it.

"One day in my office at Channel 7, I got a call from a woman, telling me the story of how a relative had been reunited with her birth mother and realized the adoption agency had made a mistake. She said, 'Can you believe it? They sent the woman the wrong girl.' I got goosebumps. I knew I had the idea for a novel. I remember sitting at my desk, thinking 'This will be a fabulous mystery.' I became obsessed with writing "Prime Time," which won the Agatha for best first mystery novel. My career has taken off since that time. I wanted it, and the universe provided ... and that has been what the second half of my life is about."

"Prime Time" was the first of four Charlotte McNally mysteries, but it was the Boston world of Jane and Jake that burst into the world of national readership and fame.

Her newest novel follows "The Other Woman" (2012), winner of the Mary Clark Higgins Award and a nominee for every major mystery writing award out there. "The Wrong Girl" is the second in a series featuring a Boston setting and characters. She expects to see the third published in the fall of 2014.

The series features the same protagonists, reporter Jane Ryland and her boyfriend, Boston police Detective Jake Brogan. In the latest mystery, Ryland, a disgraced TV reporter now working in a newsroom, and Brogan, a gruff, dedicated officer with a soft spot for Ryland, uncover deceptive practices within a foster care agency. Like her other books, it is based on a world that Ryan has known intimately as an investigative reporter. She calls her experiences and knowledge into play as fictional reality in her books, bringing a distinct ring of authenticity to her themes.

"New England is almost a character," she said. "Certainly, my books have a special draw for people who live in New England and can recognize all of the places and (types of) characters."

In one scene, for instance, a character patiently explains Boston's peculiar ethics surrounding lawn chair-trash can markers to save shoveled-out parking spots.

"It's completely inexplicable, unless you live here and understand that social contract," she said.

Authentic touches such as that are throughout her work, but so is skilled, smart writing. From an early image of "blood and Cheerios" at a crime scene to a sadly wise reflection on foster care ("It's not their fault, and there's no way the system can save them all. I'm supposed to send them to new homes, but how can I be sure they'll thrive and flourish? They so often don't."), she injects reality alongside the grim wit of those who deal with crime and grisly murders, Ryan writes masterfully.

"It's very hard work," she said.

"Writing a novel is astonishingly difficult. It's 100,000 words, every one of which has to be perfect. It has to be new, fascinating, unique, riveting and compelling."

Working without an outline requires tenacity — and faith. "I truly believe I'll be able to solve the mystery, because that's what I'm doing, laying out the groundwork for a real event in my head. It's just as true as if something had really happened, so the end has to be what really happened. I'm a reporter, so I'm going to find that out. Like the detective in the book, I am solving the mystery."

She could not have done this 20 years ago, she says.

"I wasn't the person I am now. I was 55 when I started writing, and it turned out that it was the perfect moment in my life to start this new part of my career. I didn't plan it, didn't look for it, and wasn't expecting it. But I've learned to be aware when a door is opened for you, and I think at that moment, that's what happened."

It wasn't easy then, and isn't easy now. Ryan's schedule is busy from start to finish, and more than one person has called her a juggler. Heck, she uses the term on herself.

"I take it one item at a time. I plan, I organize, I schedule. There are things I give up. My husband and I haven't had a vacation for five years, maybe six. I write on weekends; I never have a day off." Something, obviously, had to give, she said. "Cooking was first to go, then sleep. My fun level is very low; I don't think my husband and I have been to a movie in years. We don't have any dinner parties now. Is it a sacrifice? Sure, but I feel I'm getting so much more than I'm giving up. To be following your dreams at midcareer is lucky. I always wanted to be a writer, and I count my blessings every year."

This chaotic, happy career is enough, she says.

"My days are fulfilled, but they're full of joy and full of love and full of delight that I have followed my dreams through so much success."

By Ann Connery Frantz
From the Telegram & Gazette, Dec. 6, 2013