Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Guest Blogger: 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 won also won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a radio reporter, a proofreader, a legislative aide in the United States Senate (working on the Freedom of Information Act) and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine (working with Hunter S. Thompson).

Her first mysteries, Prime Time (which just won the prestigious Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2007, and is a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel of 2007, a DAPHNE nominee, and a 2007 Reviewers' Choice Award Winner) and Face Time (Book Sense Notable Book), were best sellers. They'll both be re-issued in 2009 as MIRA Books. The next in the series, Air Time and Drive Time, are also coming soon from MIRA Books

She and her husband, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, live near Boston.

We've spiffed up the Playground today, installed lights, microphones, video monitors and a teleprompter, and we'll be live in five, four, three, two... Take it away, Hank!

I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians and chased down criminals. As a television reporter for the past thirty (yikes) years, I’ve battled ice storms, hurricanes, and power outages. In my fledgling days, I covered basketball games, cat shows and science fairs...then moved on to murders, fires, building collapses and explosions. Since 1989, as an investigative reporter, I’ve blown the lid off mortgage scams, gotten people’s homes out of foreclosures, had people confess to murder, proved the jury selection process was flawed and that if you call 911, emergency responders might get sent to the wrong place.

I’ve won 26 Emmys and countless other journalism awards. And yet, when I sat at my computer, knowing that the next keystrokes would begin my very first novel—that was much scarier and much more intimidating.

Ever since I read my first Nancy Drew—The Clue in the Old Clock, remember? And then Clue in the Diary. (Which I thought, most of the way through, was clue in the “dairy,” and I couldn’t figure out why there weren’t cows.) Anyway, ever since then, age about 7, I knew I wanted to write mysteries. I just never had a good enough idea for a plot.

Then, at age—yes, I’ll say it, 53, I got an email. It was obviously spam, and the subject line said something about mortgage refinancing. For some reason, instead of deleting it, I opened it. But the email was nothing about mortgages. It was lines from what looked like an Elizabethan-era play. (And Mom said my majoring in Shakespeare would come to naught.) Anyway, I remember thinking: Why would there be lines from a play in a spam about mortgages?

And then it just—whisked though my mind—“maybe it’s a secret message.”

And I can tell you now, I remember that moment. Clearly. Because that’s when I though—ding ding. That’s the plot I’ve been looking for all these years.

I thought and thought and thought about it. I was obsessed. And then one night at dinner—over seared tuna and martinis—whatever my dear husband was telling me went all blurry. I dug into my purse for a pencil and found a scrap of envelope. And I wrote: “Between the headache, the hot flashes, and all the spam on my computer, I’ll never get everything done. I came in early this morning to get ahead, and already I’m behind.”

That became the first line of PRIME TIME, my first novel. (Romantic Times later gave it a Top Pick calling it “a perfect combination of mystery and romance.”) And through revisions, changes, manuscript disasters and major-league revamping, those lines never changed.

And my obsession never wavered. I wrote through all my vacations, all my days off. One entire summer, I never sat in the sun. Never went to a movie. My husband, out of sheer necessity, did the laundry. And we ate a lot of pizza. But I had to, had to, had to, write my book—a mystery about a 46-year old TV reporter who’s married to her job but wonders what happens when the camera doesn’t love her anymore. (And I was working, full time, as investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. Still am.)

I had doubts. At one point, about half way through, I realized I’d chosen the wrong bad guy. Yes. I was writing the book, so you’d think I’d know who did it. But no. One night I sat bolt upright in bed, and had the shocking revelation that I’d outwitted even myself. The next morning, I checked my manuscript-in-progress, and hardly had to change a word to create what turned out to be the final story. Talk about a surprise ending—it surprised even the author.

Another time—maybe 40,000 words in—I hit the wall. I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I was bummed, fearful, and almost defeated. I called my mother, as I sometimes do, and said: “Mom, I love my book so much, but I’m not sure I can finish it.”

She paused, as she sometimes does, and then she said “Well, sweetheart, you will if you want to.”
And that was that. I remembered I was in control of my destiny. I wanted to write it. And I did. And it just won the Agatha for Best First Novel.

Hank with author Louise Penny, Agatha winner for Best Novel

Next time on the Playground, I’ll tell you all about the agent search (sigh) and then the publisher search (sigh.) Each one tough and tear-inducing, each one with a happy ending.

But I can’t resist telling you about the day the phone rang. I was in my office, at channel 7. “Seven news!” I said, picking up the receiver.

“Hank Phillippi Ryan?” someone asked. I didn’t recognize the voice.

Was it a going to be a big story? Or some wacko telling me the Martians had landed in their back yard? You never know.

Yes,” I said, hesitantly.

“I’m calling about the RITA’s,” the voice continued. “Congratulations.”

Please come visit my website at

And just for you on the Playground? I’m giving way two autographed copies of PRIME TIME and two of the Book Sense Notable Book FACE TIME. Just go to my website, and tell me which famous romantic suspense author is “holding a yellow bag.” Everyone who enters will also get a coupon for 50 per cent off the all new AIR TIME. (Click on “contact” to enter.)

Can’t find Prime Time? Yeah, I know. It’s pretty much sold out. Face Time too. But here’s the scoop: Prime Time will be re-issued by MIRA Books in July 2009. Then the MIRA edition of Face Time in August, and the all-new Air Time from MIRA in September. Drive Time, the 4th Charlotte McNally Mystery, will be out in 2010.

P.S. For some reason I keep humming the tune to "On the Cover of the Rolling Stone" so nudge me if I start to get annoying. I've read PRIME TIME and the secret-messages-in-the-emails is a quite clever plot. And I could so identify with the heroine because I too wonder if age is catching up with me.


MaryF said...

It is a pleasure to meet you! What an outstanding story; and here I complain about working full time and trying to write!

Do you find that you sometimes write down an idea or two while at work? or do you manage to put that aside until you are home?

Have a great day!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi Maryf!

Thanks, you too! Oh, I'm always writing stuff down. I have a little notebook in my purse-I bought a beautiful red Italian one, expensive-ish, with a little elastic band, but then I couldn't bear to write in it, it was too pretty.

So I got a drug store spiral bound notebook, and I'm fine to write in that.

I write--people's names, if they're interesting and strike me.

Vocabulary words--words I haven't used recently, or wounldn't have thought of , you know?

I find clues in things, and just jot them down. Ah--a pay phone. I once wrote. Later, I thought--wonder what I meant by that?

It's so much fun, and feels so writer-y.

But confession--I hardly ever go back to look at what I've written. It's fun when I do, but I usually see what's there only when I write something else.

But it's like making a grocery list--once you write something down, you don't need to look at it again to remember it.

Do you all keep lists?

Problem Child said...

Hi Hank! Welcome to the Playground and what a cool story! How you make the time to, I'm hanging my head in shame.

And lists!! I'm a list fanatic! I have lists of everything, and I've been known to make a list of my lists! Okay, maybe I shouldn't be so proud of that...

Angel said...

Welcome, Hank! Thanks for visiting our little sand-filled part of the internet today.

What a cool story! And such accomplishments! What did your husband say the first time you told him you wanted to write a book? Was it a surprise? How much time passed between the seed of the idea to actual publication?

Lists.... oh my. You are in list central here on the Playground. I also keep a notebook with me when I go places. Snatches of dialogue and scenes go into it. I also take a handheld tape recorder with me on any longer trips, so I can spend the time plotting out scenes while I drive. With two kids and a busy life, I have to get it down before I forget it. ;)


Smarty Pants said...

Good morning and welcome. We're glad to have you join us today. I can't imagine winning an Emmy, much less 26 of them. How exciting! I hope the RITA ceremony can hold up to the standards you're used to.

What is your favorite part of writing?

Lynn Raye Harris said...

Hank, wow, I am astounded at all you've accomplished. And, dare I say, THRILLED you began this writing journey at 53 and have been so successful at it! I began writing long ago, gave up for a long time, then came back to it about 4 years ago in my mid-thirties. And even then, I was thinking, "Have I missed the boat? Should I have been at this the whole time?"

What a story! And congrats on the RITA nomination.

I used to carry a notebook everywhere and write stuff down, and I still have a small one in my purse, but I find I rarely write in it. I've discovered over the years that if something is important enough, it sticks with me. I used to worry about losing those ideas if I didn't write them down, but like you, I rarely went back to look at them. So now I just trust it to stick. :)

Hallie Ephron said...

Though I know Hank and we're blogmates, I hadn't read this whole story all in one place. Wow. This is one incredibly talented and generous and warm woman...but (Mary, you don't say this, but the question does occur to one) does she sleep?

Smarty Pants said...

I also have to tell you that I just emailed the photo of you and Fabio to my DB. He thinks Fabio is great because he owns, like 2000 motorcycles. He could care less about the romance covers or the not butter endorsements, just the bikes. I'm sure he'll be impressed!

Playground Monitor said...

Just last night I was cleaning old files off my hard drive and came across my packing list for Reno. ACK! Well, it has a new file name and it's my packing list for San Francisco. :-)

Gee, I started writing at about age 53 and uhm... we won't go there.

Welcome to your blogmate Hallie too!

LOL at not writing in the Italian leather notebook. But some words of advice if I may: WRITE IN IT! Life's too short to use drugstore spirals instead of red Italian leather.


Playground Monitor said...

Okay, I have to ask. How'd you get the name "Hank?" And do you get a lot of Murphy Brown and Mary Tyler Moore jokes? I know your heroine got called Brenda Starr. You don't have a painter named Eldin do you? ::grin::


Kathy said...

Welcome, Hank! Do you prefer the swings or the merry-go-round?

Goodness, I'm so impressed with all you've accomplished. You have an amazing resume and an exciting, thrilling long list of experiences to fall back on when you write.

Of all the news events you've covered, what was the most memorable? And has that experience played a key part in one of your stories?

What is the one piece of advice you would give unpublished writers trying to juggle family life and work?

I'm in my mid-forties and am so jazzed by your story. Thanks for being such an inspiration to writers everywhere.

Roberta Isleib said...

Confession: I'm another one of Hank's mystery-writing blogmates on Jungle Red Writers. She's just as amazing as she sounds! And hooray for women turning to writing in midlife--I did the same thing. It's a very competitive business and can be discouraging, but on the other hand, by this time in our lives we have so much to say. And plenty of people who love to read!

As for lists, it amazes me sometimes to look at the notes I've made and not remember writing them at all--and sometimes it's good stuff too...

Roberta Isleib

Anonymous said...

Good morning and welcome Hank. And yes, what a fasinating name. I could never write a book but boy, I sure do enjoy reading them. And I will have to check your's out. I hope you have a great time here at the Playground.

Instigator said...

Welcome to the Playground, Hank! We're so glad to have you here today.

Lists? Who needs lists :-) Can you tell I'm the rebel in the group? They're trying to slowly convert me though.

Your journey is amazing and inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with us. Everyone else has asked some great questions so I think I'll just sit back and wait for the answers.


rebekah said...

I'm so gald to hear that they are re-issueing Prime time and Face time. I really want to read them and unfortantely can't find them anywhere. But that must be a great feeling for you to have your books pretty much sell out. I'm not sure if I put this here but they author holding the yellow bag is Susan Wiggs.

Rosemary Harris said...

Another of Hank's blog sisters chiming in... yes, it's true somehow a Hank day has more than 24hours, but that's not even the coolest thing about her. She still has the enthusiasm of a teenager and says "OK..we can do that!" more than anyone I know. And I believe that that - in addition to the fact that she's a terrific writer - has contributed greatly to her success.
Way to go, Hank! (If anyone is in Fairfield CT on June 25, 7pm come to the Borders on Post Road and say hello to both of us..)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hey all--Had to go into the edit booth for a bit --and now I'm back!

Angel: AH. Great question. When I told Jonathan I was going to write a book, he said, "That's fine, honey" or some such." He knows I'm a determined person, and I think the reality of it sunk in once I started disappearing into the study for hours and days at a time.

Between the seed of the idea and actual publication? Maybe..two and a half years. It seemed like a really long time. But I think it's because I'm so used to the pace of time in tv. Which means everything happens instantly.

And as a matter of fact--gotta go. Back in a flash...

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Okay-I'm back.

Smarty Pants--which is what my mother used to call my sister and me when she was not happy--

My favorite part of writing is revising. I love it, and in fact, I always have to keep saying
to myself: keep going forward, keep going forward,advance the story! Instead of stopping to have the fun of fixing what I've already written.

Lynn Raye--you know, sometimes I think, gee, I wish I would have started this part of my life soner. But then I realize--things happen when they are supposed to happen. So--do it!

OOps--back in a minute. I have to find out what a "non-recourse state" means.

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Hank, I loved reading your post and am pleased to have found you and your exciting work. I wonder how many writers began with Nancy Drew. :D

Hugs, JJ

Playground Monitor said...

I've been Googling instead of writing and discovered the archive of Hank's investigative reports. You can see her in action here.

Let's just say I wouldn't want her coming after me.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I guess I'm a see-saw girl.
Or do you call them teeter-totters? Which makes sense, since I'm a Libra, right? And my work is all about keeping a balance?

And I guess that's my advice, make lists. It's like budgeting time--when you know what you have to do, you'll realize it's doable. Or, at least, what you just can't do and it won't matter anyway.

You can divide your life into: must do, should do, hope to do, okay not to do. And that makes things much more controllable.

And then you'll be ready for what you can't control!

And I guess, it's not worth it to freak out, no matter what. And certainly don't hold grudges, or fill your brain with space-taking anger. YOu're going to laugh about whatever it is someday,so my motto is "Laugh sooner."

BAck soon...

pearl said...

I enjoyed reading the story and how you have the energy to do all that you accomplish is amazing. The yellow bag is held by Lisa Gardner and the other is Susan Wiggs. Your books are so popular that you must feel good about the re-issue.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Pearl and Rebekah--send me your mailing addresses! You win copies of Prime Time or Face Time--let me know which one you want!

Email me at

ANd yes, JJ, the Nancy Drew connection is lovely.Whenever I refer to her in speeches and seminars, I always get very nice and knowing nods from the audience. But interestingly, if you read the books now, they don't really hold up.

And the "new" ones? Where some well-meaning person has updated them--Nancy now has a cell phone, for heaven's sake. Those are truly bad. (Hope the author isn't reading this..and if she is, we know you were just doing what someone asked you to.)

But what we learned from Nancy?Spirit, independence, analytical thinking, that girls could be smart and that it was okay? Priceless.

Let's see--now you've got me cornered in the playgroud so I have to tell--my rel name is Harriet Ann. But that doesn't leave the play area, right?

Let's see..special for the playground: Want to know the first line of the brand new Air Time? AT will be out in September of 2009--

and everyone who comments today will get a coupon that will make your copy of AT very very very inexpensive! (Just email me at the above address)

I have some nice new bookmarks too, that I'll be happy to send to any playground pal who asks.Just tell me where to mail them!

Thanks to Roberta Isleib my blog sister for commenting today! She has a brand new book coming out this fall called Asking for Murder, so maybe you'll ask her over to play.

Rosemary Harris--another blog sister--wrote the wonderful Pushing UP Daisies--and The Big Dirt Nap coming soon. She's another pal who will be fun to share your swingset.

And you all know Hallie Ephron...her debut thriller Never Tell a Lie comes out next Feb.

So we're busy over at Jungle Red writers--hope you'll come visit us from time to time!

Back soon

Playground Monitor said...

You mentioned see-saws and teeter-totters. Uhm... the official drink of the Writing Playground is the "Teeter-Totter." It's a blend of champagne and green apple sparkling cider. When we celebrated the first anniversary of the website, we had champage to celebrate. But I can't drink because of medications, so Smarty Pants brought along the sparkling cider. Someone suggested mixing the two, it tasted good and voila! The Teeter-Totter was born. Too much of it and you'll definitely be teetering and tottering along.

And Harriet Ann will never go beyond the playground fence. Cross my heart.


Playground Monitor said...

Oh yeah... tell us the first line of Air Time. First lines are always interesting, said she who was experiencing hot flashes when she recently read Prime Time. :grin:


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

YOu heard it here first!
The first line of Air Time:

It's never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.

Pearl and Rebekah--make sure you send your addreses!

SO nice to be here today! And I hope to see you all soon. "Monitor"--thanks to you, I'm now writing in my beautiful red notebook. Whoa. I love it.

Keep in touch, okay? And watch for my books next summer.

much love

Mare said...

Oh, Hank, On the Cover of the Rolling Stone? Now it's going to be stuck in my head all night. LOL. I can't wait for Air Time.

Anonymous said...

Susan Wiggs is holding the yellow bag