Stranger Danger Just an Invitation Away
By K.L. Romo
In her twisty-turny signature style, bestselling author Hank Phillippi Ryan’s newest thriller, THE HOUSE GUEST, takes readers inside the life of a woman whose entire existence is turned inside out.
Alyssa Macallen has devoted the last eight years to giving her husband, Bill, everything he wanted, including changing her name from Alice—he’d said she was “more like an Alyssa.”
Now he’s gone, telling her when he left a month ago that he “needed a break.” “Bill had subtracted her from his life. That was easy math.” He’d also taken every single friend. And now, Alyssa doesn’t know who she if she isn’t “Bill’s wife.” She knows she has to change that, though—her life is a sham.
Avoiding her lonely house—which Bill designed according to his tastes—she goes out for a martini to take the edge off her sadness. At the bar, Alyssa meets a woman more down on her luck than she is. It feels good to focus on someone else’s troubles. Bree Lorrance needs help, and Alyssa intends to give it to her—she offers Bree her guest house.
Soon, Alyssa is embroiled in a sinister and twisted game of cat and mouse that spirals into a vortex of secrets and lies.
Here, Ryan gets real with The Big Thrill about her inspiration, the manipulation of vulnerable people, and an exclusive—the first ever—public synopsis of her upcoming novel.
What sparked the idea for the character and plot in THE HOUSE GUEST?
It’s so much fun to go back and try to deconstruct how the character and plot of THE HOUSE GUEST evolved. It’s like a Rubik’s cube, where you take a million little squares of different things, and twist and turn and click-click-click and then, somehow, it’s a finished puzzle. You just don’t know what the puzzle pieces will be right away.
For THE HOUSE GUEST, a few random things became puzzle pieces. First, since the beginning of the pandemic, my criminal defense attorney husband and I have worked from home—me in my study and him in the breakfast room-turned-law office. For many hours a day, we don’t see each other. But we can kind of hear each other.
I hear things like “plea bargain” and “mandatory minimum sentence” and “absolutely not guilty” and “how was he supposed to know there was money in the dropped ceiling?” (Once, even—”I know it seems unlikely that he would commit a crime wearing a GPS bracelet, but there you have it.”)
I realized he was lawyering for eight hours a day, and I had no idea what he was doing. I mean, we’ve been married for 27 years, and I know what a lawyer does. We talk about his cases in general and about the law (it’s very rewarding to have in-house counsel).
But I started thinking—what was going on in the breakfast room? I realized I didn’t know. Then I considered how many couples are shocked when one of them is accused of some crime—the other one says those very words: Oh, I had no idea! We all raise our eyebrows and sneer, and say, come on, that person lives with you! There’s no way you don’t know what they’re doing. I was among the scornful disbelievers.
Not anymore. I realized how my husband could do who knows what in the other room, and if the feds swooped down on him, I would be utterly shocked. Now you know my darling husband, he’s a paragon and adorable and brilliant and perfect, but I’m just saying. I think of all the people—Bernie Madoff‘s wife, Ted Bundy’s wife, Anna Delvey’s pals—who insist they had no idea, and we think well, then you’re not paying attention.
But I realized it’s possible they’re telling the truth. What if they really didn’t know? Or successfully pretended they didn’t? That was one idea.
Also, I had a long-ago acquaintance who thought she was happily married. She went to work every day and sent her husband off to whatever he did—accounting, or insurance, or something financial. For him, ‘the next big sale’ and ‘the next big deal’ was always around the corner, and she was incredibly supportive. Then one day the police came.
She found he’d been trading in child pornography at home on the computer all day, and had never, never, never even been to that supposed job! She was a really smart woman, and she had no idea.
Then I put those things together, interested in what it would feel like to be the woman whose husband is accused of a terrible thing, not long after dumping her. She’s baffled, and angry, and terrified of being alone for the first time in her life. What does she do? Does she believe his denials? Or law enforcement’s accusations? Then what does she do?
So it’s a story about Alyssa Macallen getting her power back. You can see glimmers of Gaslight, and Thelma & Louise, and even Strangers on a Train, but it’s not any of those. It certainly was a joy to write. I have no idea how my books will end, so I admit there were days I sat at my computer and read my screen, then applauded. Thinking Wow, who would’ve thought that would happen? It’s a cat and mouse psychological thriller, but which character is the cat, and which character is the mouse?
As a reporter, have you ever investigated a woman trying to reclaim her power after a difficult divorce?
I don’t think so… not specifically. We’ve done stories about domestic violence and the laws protecting abused women, but this book is not about physical violence as much as it is emotional violence. Gaslighting, manipulation, deception—how sometimes what we do to each other with words can be almost as destructive and devastating as a knife or a gun.
But I’ve seen what happens to so many women in that position: They’ve chosen, with agency and intent, to be the mom and the homemaker, and to make that very complicated enterprise work properly. Then someone pulls the rug out from under them, and they don’t know what to do. At that point, they can sink into pity or, like Alyssa Macallen, marshal her wit and intelligence and confidence, and change her life.
How does a person’s vulnerability subject them to manipulation, from both those they know and those they think they know?
Everyone is in search of something, and everyone wants something—whether it’s love or comfort or peace or security, for instance. But when someone is, or has convinced themselves that they are, content, and that they’ve made the right decisions, that their lives are working, and there will be a reasonably happy ever after, their whole world is in disequilibrium when they find out their lives are a sham; they are especially vulnerable.
It’s human nature to want to believe there is a solution to your problems. So when what you think of as solid ground disappears, you might accept help when it might not be the best idea. Or it might be exactly what you need.
In THE HOUSE GUEST, Alyssa reels from surprise when her husband walks out on her—he has taken her friends, her lifestyle, and threatens to take everything else, including the house, her possessions, her money, and her safety. And he also seems to do things to make her upset and unsettled. What will she do?
Then she meets Bree Lorrance, a woman who’s in even worse shape than she is, and decides her own problems are small compared to Bree’s. Alyssa turns her own sorrow into good by helping someone else. Which sounds lovely, and it is—Alyssa is a lovely person. But Bree may or may not be, because, as we will learn, Bree has her own vulnerabilities.
I think one of the things that’s so important in a novel is whether people will do something that is antithetical to their value system. How far will they go to get what they think they want? And if their confidence is rickety, they might have trouble making those decisions.
What’s going on with Jungle Red Writers, First Chapter Fun, and The Back Room?
Can you believe Jungle Red? I think we’ve been blogging every day for the past, gosh, 10 years? More? It’s an astonishing community of friendship, camaraderie, and support. It’s amazing that the seven authors on the JRW team talk every day via email, and we have no plans to stop.
First Chapter Fun, what a joy. Hannah Mary McKinnon started it at the beginning of the pandemic, and after 53 episodes of her reading first chapters, we teamed up, and now we’re about to hit episode 320! Not only is it a treat and joy (and a responsibility) to read the authors’ chapters out loud, it is an absolute master class in what makes a good first chapter. I’ve learned so much from it! And can you believe, we are booked until the end of the year!
The Back Room, too, came out of the pandemic. Karen Dionne and I were commiserating with each other about how many events we were doing on Zoom where we didn’t see the audience. I always say “I put on makeup and talk to machines.” But we wanted to see the readers, not talk at them. So we concocted the systems for The Back Room—we have a brilliant tech person—and we’re going strong.
I have so much fun with these events—it’s such a perfect way to keep our writing and reading communities together. I feel like I know everyone in these audiences and am thrilled every time I see someone new. It’s almost like real life.
Your previous advice to writers was “just keep writing.” Do you have any follow-up advice?
“Just keep writing” is the only advice. There’s not a day that goes by, and my husband will confirm this, that I don’t say something like this will never work, or I don’t know why I agreed to write this book, or I will never have another good idea, or I’m a terrible writer and I stink. This is the dumbest book that’s ever been written. This is the stupidest sentence that anybody has ever attempted to concoct. And then, honestly, I just laugh and say, “Yep, just keep writing.” It never fails—knock on wood.
Well, okay. More advice. Just keep reading. Gotta do both. All the time.
What happens when a writer suffers from imposter syndrome?
Oh, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a writer who doesn’t suffer from some version of imposter syndrome. Can that be true? I think we all have bad days—emotionally bad days and bad writing days. But it’s funny, when I look back at what I wrote during the bad writing day, it’s not any different from the good writing day.
I realize how much of that assessment of my own work, or my own place in the writing world, comes from tiny little things that happen along the way—believing a bad review, for instance, or not believing a glorious one. We’re all a little wacky, and that’s part of it, isn’t it? I don’t believe in “deserving” things, so I will admit that I do not say to myself, “Oh, you don’t deserve this.” I don’t think that’s the equation. Being successful is the result of incredibly hard work, love for the craft, and an astonishing amount of luck and lucky timing. And sure, karma.
I try to look at the world that way and to avoid comparing myself or my work to anyone else. It’s a waste of time, a waste of energy, and accomplishes nothing except more spiraling thoughts. I just think… Back to work.
With your all-encompassing job as an investigative journalist, how in the *#@! do you have time to write novels?
For most of my time as a writer, I was a full-time investigative journalist. (I’ve been a TV reporter for 40 years! Or… more.) And it was a juggle, certainly. I had time to write because I made the time, working every night, every weekend, and every vacation day. I stopped having dinner parties or going to movies. And my poor darling husband ate a lot of carry-out salmon. I was… obsessed, and when you’re obsessed, you just do it.
After 40 years and 37 Emmys, I’ve declared victory in television. I still work at the station, but not as much. At this age, if not now, when? So I’m a full-time writer… pretty much.
Since you didn’t publish your first novel until you were 55, what advice do you have for older writers wanting to get into the novel-writing game?
My advice for “older” writers? What are you waiting for? The idea of it even crossing your mind that you’re too old to write a novel, whatever that means, is so silly. Every moment you wait to write that book is a waste.
When I got the idea for my first book, I knew it was a good idea. That shivery goosebumps feeling where you think, Wow! This is a good idea. I came home and told my husband: “I have a fabulous idea! I’m going to write a novel!” He was skeptical and said, “Great, honey. Do you know how to write a novel?” And I remember so clearly, I said, “How hard can it be? I’ve read a million of them!”
I soon learned how hard it was. (My first draft of Prime Time was 723 pages.) But what if I had not done it? Prime Time (15 books ago) won the Agatha Award for Best First. What if I had said, “Oh, I’m too old”? I can’t even imagine that.
Can you give us a hint about your next novel?
Yesterday, I sent in the first draft! On time, and on deadline—I might pat myself on the back. With an ending and everything, which, I will admit, in the past I have not always done. I figure my editor has to read it, and by the time she gets to the end, I will have written it. But this time—all done! (Though I never type THE END.)
The next book is called One Wrong Word, for now, at least. And I wrote this synopsis just for you—you’re the very first real person to ask!
One Wrong Word: A PR consultant who manipulates the public with her clever words has the tables turned on her—Arden Ward’s reputation and career are ruined when a high-powered socialite accuses Arden of seducing her husband. It’s not true! But what can she do? And she’s given two weeks’ notice from her job, with a promise from her boss that he’ll never tell why.
Meanwhile, Arden has one last client: a woman whose husband was acquitted in a deadly drunk driving accident, but whose family is still brutally ostracized by the public for the guilty verdict. Can Arden save this family’s reputation, and her own, as well? But wait, was that fatal accident really an accident? Everyone thinks so—until there’s another one.
Is there anything about yourself that your fans still don’t know?
That’s the best question ever! I can’t even imagine what, after 15 years of writing, my readers still don’t know. They know I can’t sing at all, although I know all the words. They know I wanted to be the lawyer for the Mine Workers Union, or a rock star or a geneticist. I worked at Rolling Stone magazine with Hunter S. Thompson and Richard Avedon. As a journalist, I filed a lawsuit against the CIA after their response to my Freedom of Information request was “We can neither confirm nor deny…” and that was the very first time that phrase was used. They know I was a majorette in high school and was so terrible that they put me in the back row and told me to “pretend to twirl.” (That’s how I feel my life is now, sometimes. I’m just pretending to twirl!)
I love old movies, I love to cook, and I am ridiculously shy. If someone asked, would you rather go to a party or stay home? Absolutely, stay home. But I hope my fans know I’m the luckiest person in the world—I love my writing, I love this life I get to live, and I am grateful every day.