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An Interview with Award-Winning Mystery Author Hank Phillippi Ryan by Rochelle Melander

October 27, 2015

Note From Rochelle

Dear Writers,

This coming Wednesday, October 28 at 12:00 PM CT, I’ll be teaching a special Write Now! Mastermind Class on the various ways you can use a book to attract clients. If you’re not yet a member you can sign up here. Of you are a member, watch your email for information on how to attend the call.

This year, I’m offering a Write-A-Thon class for people who want support writing a short nonfiction book. If that’s you, you can learn more at my website.

For today’s tip, I have an inspiring interview with the award-winning and bestselling author Hank Phillipi Ryan. And if you’re interested in winning a copy of her book, The Other Woman, you can enter at the end of the interview below.

Happy Writing!

Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach


An Interview with-2


I met Hank Phillippi Ryan last September at Mystery Writer’s of America University (MWA-U)  in Chicago. She gave an inspiring talk about persistence. In my notes on her talk, I jotted down this reminder: “There is no there to get to—only the journey. Be happy sooner.” Her moving words—along with the helpful tips of the other teachers—have helped me put my butt in the chair and write a novel in the past year. Since the event, I’ve been reading her fantastic books and following her on Facebook—and enjoying both! I’m delighted to welcome Hank to the Write Now! Coach blog!

RochelleYou’re the on air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. What prompted you to write your first mystery novel?  

HANK: What prompted me? Like the beginning of every other wonderful project, I had a good idea. I was at my desk at Channel 7 and got a strange spam email, which I opened by mistake. The subject line said “a new refinancing deal for you.” But inside were lines from what looked like a play by Shakespeare.

I thought–that’s weird. Why would someone do that? And then my brain said: what if it’s a secret message?

I got chills, I remember it completely. And I went home and said to my husband, “I have the idea for my book!” And finally enough, I have been wanting to write a mystery ever since I was a little girl… So it only took me 55 years to come up with one!

13538878-2The first Jane Ryland book, THE OTHER WOMAN, came from an article in an old People magazine! That I read at the dentist office. It was the story of Mark Sanford, and his Appalachian Trail fabrication. And it his wife who was quoted as saying, “You can choose your sin but you cannot choose your consequences.” Again, I got chills. And I remember thinking my book my book my book! And that became THE OTHER WOMAN.

My newest book—WHAT YOU SEE—is just out! And it also came from one moment in my reporter life. It’s in the very first chapter of the book—email me when you discover it!

Rochelle: When I heard you speak, you talked about the challenges of getting that first book published. Can you share a bit of that story with us? 

HANK: Oh, gosh, if I had known how difficult the road to publication would be, I might not have started. So I am delighted at my own naiveté!

A friend of mine has a wonderful analogy: it’s like when you are driving, sometimes you get all the green lights. Why does that happen?

It’s just the same with publishing. First you have to have a good idea, green light. Then you have to write it well, green light. Then an agent has to like it, green light. Then an editor has to buy it, green light. Then the publisher has to present it well, green light. Reviews, bookstores, distribution, readers.

You have to get green lights all the way. And you have to be very lucky, too. So my first novel, PRIME TIME, got about 10 rejections from agents. (Actually, a very wonderful record. But back then, 2005, I was in despair.)

But here’s the green light. One editor who turned us down called us back a couple of days later and said, “I can’t get that story out of my head. Can Hank take her book, (which at that point it was a sort of funny frothy mystery), and make it into a bigger, stronger, more textured novel?”

In other words, write exactly the same story with the different sensibility. I have been a reporter for 40 years, and am constantly rewriting and editing and making things better.

I took it as a wonderful challenge, and rewrote the entire book—keeping exactly the same story, but using a different tone. And that book was PRIME TIME—which won the coveted Agatha Award for best first mystery. BIG green light!

Rochelle: In the Jane Ryland series, you juggle three story lines: Jane Ryland (the journalist), Jake Brogan (the detective), and the story of their relationship. How do you plan before or during the novel writing so that you can keep track of all three story lines and keep them interesting for the reader?

what-you-seeHANK: As soon as I saw the word “plan” in your question, I burst out laughing! It’s not so much as a plan as it is a journey.

I start each book with one cool thing. One gorgeous gem of a unique idea. For instance, in WHAT YOU SEE, I wondered what happened to all that video that’s shot by surveillance cameras.

We know about the pictures of football players in elevators, and actors trashing hotel rooms. But what about the pictures of you and me and everyone else? Those all exist, right? And what might someone do with them?

That’s all I knew about the book. I also wanted to explore Jane’s family life, and wondered how I could do that.

My husband is a criminal defense attorney, and had a case very like the Curley Park stabbing. So I put all those together for WHAT YOU SEE.

But how that would happen—I wasn’t quite sure. I do keep track, but along the way. I have a very low-tech yellow legal pad, on which I keep a scene-by-scene chart of what I have written. So I know who is where and what time it is and what day it is. But this is AFTER I write it. I consult it all the time.

But as a TV reporter, I know it’s all about telling a good story. So that’s at the top of my mind at all times–what is going to keep the reader turning the page?

And since I have no outline, it is always a surprise to me! So when people say: “Wow, the ending of WHAT YOU SEE really surprised me,” I can say: yes it surprised me too! And I love that.

Rochelle: You work as a television journalist, write mystery novels, and speak frequently at conferences and events. How do you juggle it all—and still get books written? What writing habits have helped you write award-winning books so quickly?

hank in newsroom KAra delahuntHANK: How do I juggle it all? I am very, very organized. And I am very much a creature of deadlines. After all, I cannot say to my news director, “Can I be on the news at ten-after-six instead of six? Because I am really not feeling the muse right now…”

Right? So my very strong (some might say crazy-strong) journalism work ethic has translated, thank goodness, to my writing life. When I have an assignment, I do it. My 100 percent best, and on time. It’s work. I adore my work, but it’s work. It’s my job.

And I will confess, I have a words-per-day chart. I know if I write 640 words a day, I can be done with a first draft two months before deadline, which would give me just enough time to revise. That has NEVER happened. But at least I know exactly how far behind I am, so I don’t panic. Too much.

As for “quickly,” it doesn’t feel quickly to me, I must say. But I try to write every day, and “visit my book,” as I say, every night before I go to sleep. I love my stories, and maybe that propels me along.

Rochelle: Many of our readers are aspiring novelists. Do you have any advice for them?

HANK: It is very easy to get discouraged. It just is. I feel discouraged all the time.

Because it is very difficult to write a book. It is incredibly difficult to write a really good book. But people do it, they do, every day. Word by word and page by page. There are days that you will be unhappy, and doubtful, and not trust yourself. Everyone has those days. Everyone. Remember, Harper Lee threw away To Kill a Mockingbird, and Stephen King tossed the manuscript of Carrie in the trash.

So if they can be discouraged, so can we, right? So just keep going, just persevere, just be determined and do not give up.

My husband and I do not celebrate the anniversary of the day we met. We celebrate the anniversary of the day before we met. And we call that You Never Know day. Because you never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner.

So believe that, OK? Something wonderful is about to happen. You just have to be ready when it does.

And email me when it happens, okay? I love to hear these stories!

hank primary headshotHANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 33 EMMYs, 13 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her groundbreaking journalism. A bestselling author of eight mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: five Agathas, the Anthony, Daphne, Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a “master at crafting suspenseful mysteries” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.” Her 2013 novel, THE WRONG GIRL, won both the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and the Daphne Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, and is a seven-week Boston Globe bestseller. TRUTH BE TOLD is the Agatha Award winner for Best Contemporary Novel, an Anthony Award nominee and a Library Journal BEST BOOK OF 2014. Ryan also won a second Agatha Award in 2015 for Best Nonfiction, as editor of WRITES OF PASSAGE, an anthology of essays by mystery authors. Ryan’s newest novel, WHAT YOU SEE, is a RT Book Reviews Top Pick and received a starred review from Library Journal, which raves, “Mystery readers get ready: you will find yourself racing to the finish.” She’s a founding teacher at Mystery Writers of America University and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at, on Twitter @HankPRyan and Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthorPage.

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