Hank Phillippi Ryan
Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is currently on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate, where she's broken big stories for the past 22 years. Her stories have resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers.
Along with her 26 Emmys, Hank’s also won dozens of other journalism honors, including 10 Edward R. Murrow Awards, and highest honors from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and The National Association of Science Writers. Hank’s been a radio reporter, a legislative aide in the United States Senate, and in a two-year stint in Rolling Stone Magazine's Washington Bureau, worked on the political column "Capitol Chatter" and organized presidential campaign coverage for Hunter S. Thompson. She began her TV career in 1975, anchoring and reporting the news for TV stations in Indianapolis and then Atlanta.
Your character, Charlotte (Charlie) McNally, is an investigative TV reporter, and so are you! What qualities do you share with Charlie, and how are you different?
When my husband talks about Charlie, he calls her "you." As in—when "you" are held at gunpoint, when you track down the bad guys, when you solve the mystery . . . and I have to remind him, "Sweetheart, it's fiction. It didn't really happen."
But a couple of things: I've been a TV reporter for more than 30 years. (Yes, really.) And so it would be silly, in writing a mystery about TV, not to use my own experiences. Think about it—as a TV reporter, you can never be wrong! Never be one minute late. Never choose the wrong word or miscalculate. You can never have a bad hair day, because it'll be seen by millions of people! It's high-stakes and high-stress—literally, people's lives at stake—and I really wanted to convey that in the books.
And everything that TV people do and say in the books is authentic and genuine. (Of course, Charlie can say things I can't say, and reveal things I can't reveal.) We're both devoted journalists, and over-focused on our jobs.
But Charlotte McNally is different, too. She's single—I'm happily married. She's ten years younger than I am, and so is facing different choices and dilemmas. She's braver than I am, certainly. Funnier. And a much better driver.
Charlie has some exciting adventures in your mystery series—going undercover, confronting some really bad guys. Tell us about some of your adventures as an investigative reporter.
There's a huge been-there-done-that element to the books—I've wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals . . . been in disguise, been stalked, and threatened and had many a door slammed in my face. I've had people confess to murder, and others, from prison, insist they were innocent. So when that happens to Charlie, it's fair to imagine me. Although the plots are completely from my imagination, those are real-life experiences.
Charlie is afraid of flying, and the airlines are constantly losing her luggage. When you write in Charlie's voice about these dilemmas, you sound like you're writing from experience. Is this true?
Sigh. Yes. I am a luggage-loss magnet. If they can lose my bags, they will. It's almost funny. Almost. As for fear of flying, yes, I am afraid. (Although not as much as I used to be. I've worked very hard and tried a lot of things to get over it.) I was once covering a very bad plane crash, in a major airport, and was in a room with a lot of the bleeding and upset survivors of the crash. I often wonder if that bad energy somehow affected me.
Even though Charlie has a love interest, basically she's married to her job. You are married to a very successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. Is it difficult to maintain a balance between the demands of your careers and your relationship, or do your exciting careers help "keep the fire going."
Fire? Well, hey. We both really respect each other, and we each think the other is really attractive and funny. We each understand when the other is immersed in work—in a story, or a writing a book, or handling a big case. We think each other's work is fascinating. Jonathan is incredibly patient. And endlessly interesting. It's wonderful for me to have in-house counsel to make sure my books are authentic when it comes to legal issues—and it's fun for him to have a writer-wife who had advised him on his dramatic closing arguments.
You have won 26 Emmys and 10 Edward R. Murrow Awards. Tell us about the stories that won a couple of these distinguished awards for you.
Here's a list! We proved the state's 911 system was sending emergency responders to the wrong addresses. We found there was not one person of color on the federal jury pools in parts of Massachusetts. We discovered why thousand of people were never called for jury duty. We found there were thousands of warrants for peoples' arrests that were never served. We found people convicted of drunk driving who were still on the road. We found unsafe big rig trucks on the highways and found they were illegally ignoring the weight limits on the state's bridges, thereby causing expensive and dangerous damage. We found school buses with massive mechanical problems. We found the unit pricing in stores was completely incorrect. We found unscrupulous mortgage companies luring people into foreclosure. At least four—maybe five?—laws have changed as a result of our stories and people have gotten literally millions in refunds and restitution.
Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, or do you wing it when writing? Do you work on one book at a time or more?
Such a great question. In PRIME TIME, I totally winged it. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, so I just blithely typed away. I typed The End, and then took it to be printed. It was 723 pages long! I had to cut half of it. Yikes.
It was a real editing education but also taught me I needed to be a bit more organized. And a lot tougher as a self-editor. (Now, I outline. Like crazy. My outlines are 60 pages long. I loathe writing them, but I adore it when I'm finished.)
I must say, though, that in writing PRIME TIME with no plan, I surprised even myself. I got about half-way through the book, and realized I'd chosen the wrong bad guy! I literally (as I remember it) sat up in bed, and thought—wait! The person who I thought did it—didn't!—and it just dawned on me who the real culprit was. It was all I could do not to run downstairs to the computer and see if I was right. The next morning, as I read over my 40,000 words—I barely had to make a change.
The real killer had been lurking in my very own pages—I just hadn't realized it! Talk about a surprise ending.
And yes, I only work on one book at a time. Well, no, not really. The next book is always forming in my head and just pushing to come out. Sometimes I have to hold it back!.
Were you always a public person, comfortable in front of the camera and with a microphone in your hand? Or is this a skill you had to develop? How early did you know you wanted to be a TV journalist? When did you have your first inkling you wanted to be an author?
You know, I have a funny juxtaposition of desire to be in the spotlight—and sheer terror of being in the spotlight. I love my job in TV—and have to go live and unrehearsed all the time. Confession: I'm still terrified every time. I want to be perfect, and when you're on live, you can't possibly be. That's one reason why I love investigative reporting—there's more time to work, and dig, and polish, and produce. It's like making a little movie, and I can make it as perfect as possible.
My sisters and I used to create shows when we were all young and perform for our parents in our back yard. I did acting in high school and college. I wanted to be a DJ on the radio for a long time!
I got into TV by chance. I had worked as a radio reporter (hired because, as I informed the radio station, they didn't have any women working there! Hey. It was the seventies.) But after a few years working in Washington, D.C. (on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide and then for Rolling Stone Magazine), Rolling Stone closed its Washington office, and I needed a new job.
I went back home to Indianapolis and applied for a job as a TV reporter. It was 1975. I had covered politics in Washington, and the news director of the station figured he could teach me to be a TV reporter. (This was incredibly risky—I had never taken journalism and didn't know one thing about TV. But I wasn't afraid—and knew I could do it.)
What do you wish readers knew about you?
I'm a pretty good cook! I love arranging flowers. I'm . . . nice. I have such a tough persona on TV—I'm always confronting someone, asking tough questions, being just a tad pushy—so people are always surprised to see me smile. I think I'm pretty funny, too . . . but that may be just me.
Tell us about Charlie's fourth outing, Drive Time, which will be published in February.
Drive Time brings Charlie's impossible decision. What happens when you get everything you always dreamed of—but it all happens at the same time. And you cannot possibly do it all?
There's blackmail. Extortion. Murder. And a deadly scheme so diabolically clever—you'll wonder why someone hasn't tried it! (Yes, perhaps I should have chosen a life of crime—well, I guess I did. It's just fiction!)
How can readers contact you?
Just go to my website HankPhillippiRyan.com and click on "contact" in the upper left. Your email will come directly to me!