Writing a Gutsy Heroine From the Heart
By Wendy Tyson
Hank Phillippi Ryan is well known on several fronts. She’s an award-winning on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate and an award-winning bestselling crime author. Fans love her Charlotte McNally series and her Jane Ryland thrillers—as well as her anthologies and short stories. How does she do it all? This month in The Big Thrill, Hank shares a few of her secrets. She also gives us a glimpse into AIR TIME and DRIVE TIME, her two summertime releases from the popular Charlotte McNally series. Thanks to some innovative moves, Charlotte is back.
Congratulations on the recent release of AIR TIME and the upcoming release of DRIVE TIME. What an exciting summer—two releases in the Charlotte McNally Series in as many months. Many readers know and love your Jane Ryland thrillers, but you actually wrote the Charlotte McNally series first, and now that series is back in print. Can you tell us something about AIR TIME that’s not on the back cover? DRIVE TIME?
Uh-oh. You’re going to make me reveal one of the pitfalls of being an investigative reporter as well as a crime fiction author. The Charlotte McNally stories are so realistic, and so true to life for a reporter, that sometimes I get reality and fiction confused. (Happily the confusion is all on the fiction side. You can’t make stuff up for TV, right?)
First let me say how thrilled I am that the Charlie books are back in print. The initial releases had so many fans, and were so well received, and I actually jumped up and down when I learned Forge wanted to reissue them in those gorgeous new hardcovers. So I am endlessly grateful.
Anyway as a television reporter for 40 years, I am used to telling stories. And sometimes, in the midst of an investigation, a gem of an idea emerges that I know can grow into a compelling novel.
You know the first line of AIR TIME? “It’s never a good thing when the flight attendant is crying.” I actually said that, on a flight from Atlanta to Boston. The deadly runway incursion that had just taken place really happened. And I actually got off the plane and covered the story. What happens in the book is very different from what happened in real life. But that moment was my take-off point for AIR TIME. And trust me, you’ll never look at baggage claim the same way again.
DRIVE TIME too, has a scene or two that really took place. We did a big investigation about car recalls, and a high-tech method for stealing cars. When you get to the part where Charlie is undercover at the car dealer? That’s me. The diabolical scheme the bad guys use—I made that up. But it would work. Just saying.
Author Sara Paretsky called Charlotte “Charlie” McNally “a rich, well-developed protagonist we cheer for.” Others have called her savvy, hilarious, and gutsy. She’s an investigative reporter determined to stay relevant on screen and find her next best story. What events from Charlie’s past maker her the woman she is today? How has her character evolved over time?
I have spent the last 11 years trying to convince people that Charlie McNally is not me. But it would be silly, after 40 years as an investigative reporter, not to imbue her with some of the realities—good and bad, terrific and terrible—that I have faced in all those years on the street. Charlie is smart and successful and award-winning. But what stays constant is her looming understanding that you are only as good as your last story, and there is someone younger (and cheaper) poised to take your place at any moment.
She lives a life of high-stakes and high stress life. And especially, as a woman, bears the constant question: about what happens when a reporter is married to her job and television but the camera doesn’t love her anymore?
No matter what profession we are in, women have to deal with that—that sometimes youth and beauty are more valued than skill and experience.
Even though the books are fun and suspenseful and fast-paced, there is this undercurrent of the reality—balancing the professional and the personal—don’t we all share that?
AIR TIME is the third book in the Charlotte McNally Series, and DRIVE TIME is the fourth. Face Time, which was re-released in print in February, won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery and was the springboard for your illustrious career as an author. Since then, you have gone on to win five Agathas, two Macavitys, three Anthonys, the Daphne and the Mary Higgins Clark Award—and that’s on top of the 33 Emmys and dozens more journalism honors you have received for your on-air investigative reporting. What inspired you to go from journalism to writing crime fiction? What did your journey to publication look like?
Oh, it was all serendipity. I have wanted to write mysteries, or at least be a detective, since I was a little girl. But it wasn’t until I was 55 that it happened! I was at my desk at Channel 7, and opened a spam email by mistake. Long story, but bottom line it gave me what I knew was a great idea for a mystery. I went home and said to my husband: I’m going to write a novel! And Jonathan said: “That’s great, honey. Ah, do you know how to write a novel?” And I said, and I remember this clearly: “How hard can it be? I’ve read a million of them.”
That shows you how naïve I was. It took about a year to write the book that turned out to be PRIME TIME, and maybe six months to get an agent, maybe less? And a few months to get it sold. Just long enough to freak out.
Then that book won the Agatha for best first mystery, and I began my continuing juggle of being a crime fiction author as well as as a TV reporter. Just like that little girl wanted, right? Author and, sort of, detective.
What I really want to ask is how do you do it all—and so incredibly well?
First, thank you. It is all about wanting to, I guess. When I was in the middle of writing PRIME TIME, I realized I was working every minute of every day, and moreover, I say now with a smile, I had no idea what I was doing. So I called my mom, as we all do if we are lucky, and said: “I love my book, but this is a big juggle, and I’m not sure I can finish it.” My mother paused and then she said: “Well dear, you will if you want to.”
That’s what I understood it was all about my passion, and my obsession, and my desire to succeed. Thank you for saying that I do it so incredibly well. That is very reassuring! But it remains to be seen…
Mystery Scene Magazine says of the Charlotte McNally Series, “Superb series…Ryan’s ability to portray these universal dilemmas is her true genius, and one that makes this series an enduring joy to read.” Your day job involves some pretty thrilling and dangerous stuff, including nabbing criminals, going undercover, and confronting crooked politicians. Similarly, your novels are multi-layered, complex and very fast-paced. Given your role as a journalist, do you base these “universal dilemmas” on the issues you confront every day? Are there certain themes you find yourself drawn to again and again?
Thank you. It’s really fun to read those reviews again! A good review—there is nothing as reassuring, and fueling, as reading someone’s kind words. We are alone so much writing, aren’t we? So when some notices, and approves, it’s wonderful.
Themes? Dilemmas? One of my favorite quotes is from David McCullough, who was asked: is there a theme for every one of your books? And he replied yes, and I write it to find out what it is.
My books are about desire, and secrets, and consequences. I am fascinated by motivation, and why people do what they do. As I have a character in my new novel say, “Why is the key.” If you know “why” you have the story. Why is more important than what or where, and even more important than who. If you know why, you’ve nailed it.
How does someone decide to do something illegal or wrong? When I began writing mysteries and I had a talk with myself about what it would take to get someone to kill another person? What is a believable motivation? And that’s a fascinating conversation.
So in my books I keep them moving, and keep them suspenseful, and keep them surprising… but I also keep them intriguing—about human nature, and why people make the decisions they do. And, of course, what happens as a result.
You have a well-deserved reputation for helping new writers with their careers. (In fact, several years ago, you agreed to blurb my debut novel—a kindness I will never forget.) What inspires you to be so generous with your energy and time?
Oh my goodness, my pleasure. Giving back and sharing and paying it forward and all those phrases… That’s what we do, right? I would never ever be on this path without Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child and David Morell, and Linda Fairstein and Tess Gerritsen and John Lescroart and I could go on and on. If another author puts me on their list, that is the joy of my life.
Any advice for those new and aspiring authors?
You know what? Writing a book is very difficult. It is unbelievably, astonishingly difficult even to write a book, and off the charts difficult to write a good book. It takes a lot longer than you think. You will hit more walls than you would imagine. But if it’s easy, you are not doing a good enough job. So when you hit a wall? Pat yourself on the back, because you are a writer! And then the wall will disappear.
Between reporting and promoting your novels, you’re on the road a great deal. Do you have a favorite spot (or locale) from which to write?
So funny. When I started writing, I had to be at my desk, in my study, with all my stuff, and it had to be completely silent. As my life changed, I became very fond of writing on airplanes, I love that! You’re in a little bubble, without Internet, and people won’t talk to you if you don’t want them to. (Usually.) I get so much done on planes, and that makes me so proud of myself! I’m also fond of writing in hotel rooms. Luckily. So I’ve gone from being very finicky about where I write to being absolutely able to write anywhere. And that has served me well.
In a starred review, Library Journal said of DRIVE TIME, “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.” Can readers do more than hope—can they look forward to a new installment in the Charlotte McNally Series?
Well, maybe! I know there are two books in the works before that (Jane Rylands), so it all depends. Certainly I have ideas for more Charlie books. And if readers here have ideas for TV oriented titles with time in them, let me know.
Meanwhile I have a lovely new contract for something completely different, and I am about a third of the way through. I wish I could tell you more, but I think that’s bad luck.
What else is next for you?
Oh, I am so excited about my next book! It’s called Say No More, and it’s a Jane Ryland/Jake Brogan novel. Talk about ripped from the headlines—let me tell you a tiny bit.
I was on the way to do an interview about a story were working on about campus sexual assault, when I witnessed a hit-and-run accident. I was right next to the hit and one driver, and I guess my reporter instincts kicked in, because before he drove away, I looked at him, very, very carefully, and cataloged his appearance. I even repeated it, out loud, and wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget. When the police arrived I said: I saw the driver, and I can describe him. Eventually I had to go to court to do so! And it was all very dramatic.
But it made me wonder, what if my identification of this person actually put me in mortal danger?
I wondered… Should I say no more? There you have it.
Jeffery Deaver calls it “a superb thriller!” And I am so eager for you to read it. In fact, readers who email me via my website contact link will be entered to win an advance copy. Just put “I want Say No More” in the subject line.
And thank you, so much, for your fabulous questions! It is a… Big Thrill.