Wednesday, February 3, 2010
The Scoop on Hank Phillippi Ryan
posted by Nancy
Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate, a job that has earned her several Emmy awards and a wide range of journalistic honors. Today, though, she'll talk to us about her career as a multi-published romance writer. Her first mystery, the best-selling PRIME TIME, won the Agatha for Best First Novel. It was also was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel, and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner. Her fourth book, DRIVE TIME, is out now from Mira Books.
Welcome, Hank! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to create Charlotte “Charlie” McNally and her first adventure, PRIME TIME.
I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, and chased down criminals—and that’s in real life! For the past 30 years I’ve been a television reporter, and am now on the air as investigative reporter at Boston’s NBC affiliate.
But you know? I’ve always wanted to be am mystery author. Ever since I read my first Nancy Drew...well, you can imagine the rest. But even though TV became my life, there was always the mystery-possibility simmering in the back of my brain.
How did I come to write PRIME TIME? It was really a special moment--and I remember it all perfectly.
One day, I got a strange email. It was clearly SPAM, sent to millions of people, but the subject line and the subject matter inside didn’t match. The subject line said “mortgage help for you”—you’ve gotten those, right? But the body of the email was what looked like lines from a Shakespeare play. I thought: Why would someone put lines from a play from Shakespeare in an obvious spam about mortgage refinancing?
It crossed my mind--maybe it's a secret message.
And then I thought: My plot! And from that moment I was obsessed with writing what become the Agatha-winning PRIME TIME. Nope, it wasn’t a series to begin with. But then one day I thought--Face Time. Air Time, Drive Time. And I couldn't resist.
As for Charlie herself—I knew I had a good plot for the novel. But I needed a main character of course. And she just—presented herself in my head. Fully-formed, named, a real person to me! Now, just like a real person, she surprises me from time to time—and I love when that happens.
How are you and Charlie similar and 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: 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, as you’ll see in the exciting high-speed chases in DRIVE TIME, a much better driver.
In PRIME TIME ,Charlie first meets Josh. Could you tell us a little about him? And will they wind up together?
Charlie McNally is smart, savvy, sassy (according to Sue Grafton!) and successful. (She’s also a lot sexier than she realizes. ) But for all her career years (except for that one marriage when she was oh-so-young, but that’s another story) she’s been married to her job in television. Has she made the wrong decision to be so devoted to her career? She’s beginning to wonder—what happens to someone who’s married to her job in TV—when the camera doesn’t love her anymore.
So, like so many of us! Charlie is checking out the possibilities of every man she meets. (Ring? Or no ring?) But no one is ever quite the one—and Charlie’s not one to settle.
But do you ever think—something wonderful might be just around the corner? Charlie’s on the hunt for the story that may save her career—but she opens the door to a certain professor’s office—and she could never have imagined who might be inside. And she could hardly have predicted how much he might change her life…
But will Charlie and Josh stay together? He’s divorced ,with a young daughter. Is Charlie ready to be an instant mother? Is she ready to focus her life on love and not her career? These are the decisions that so many women are facing—and we’ll just have to see what happens.
And I must admit—even I don’t know!
I notice that their relationship has changed from book to book. After taking a sneak peek at Drive Time, I saw that the change continues. Was establishing a continuing, evolving couple whose adventures are shelved in romance but are not paranormal a challenge?
You know what? I never thought of it that way. People have asked me if I could write a romance without a suspense or mystery element. I always laugh, forgive me—and I think—what would the people DO?
But they also ask if I could write a suspense thriller without any romance. And that’s even funnier—not a chance, I say. Not if the story is about real people.
So in writing a series, where the characters are real—to me, and I hope to the readers—it’s been a real pleasure to allow Charlie an Josh to go through the surprising passion of a first-time kiss, the fear and wonder of the first-time hot sex, the travails of learning about each others quirks and idiosyncrasies, and the struggle, sometimes, for two grown-up people to adjust to each others lives.
Charlie also has an evolving relationship with Josh’s daughter. What inspired that?
Don’t you love it? Penny--who is introduced in PRIME TIME as age 8, but who has a pivotal role in FACE TIME—is one of my favorite characters. She’s smart and sassy and…hmm..that sounds a little like someone else we know. But here’s a little girl who’s parents have split, and who’s trying to find her place in the world.
What I’m really exploring with Penny in mother-daughter relationships. My own mother cried when she read FACE TIME, and so did my editor. She said—it’s a mother daughter love story,.
Lots of book groups read FACE TIME—its not only a love story between a man and a woman—but between several different mothers and daughters.
Can we have a peek inside Drive Time?
Sure! Let me say first: 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?
She’s successful at work—so successful she’s offered a wonderful new job. In another city. Finally, at age 47—she’s successful at love. But if that’s to continue—she can’t leave town.
And it seems, everyone has a secret. And they’re all asking Charlie to keep them. Does she tell? And when? And how does she balance her loyalties to her job and to her personal life?
And as her decisions unfold, parts of her life become dangerous and threatening: Someone dies. And then someone else. And someone she loves is accused of murder. What if that person is guilty? What will that do to her hope and fears?
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!)
So here’s an excerpt: (And you can read more on my website.)
“DRUGS? AT BEXTER?” Josh rolls over, propping his head on one hand. “Of course. It’s a school. No place is immune. But some huge scandal?”
Josh shrugs. The blanket slides away, revealing bare chest and the drawstring of his plaid flannel pants. We’re in bed earlier than usual. Penny’s sleeping over at Annie’s and we’re alone. Botox is curled up, a calico puff at the end of the bed. She’s pretending we’re not here.
I turn over, facing Josh. It’s all I can do not to reach out one hand and postpone the conversation. Maybe give a little tug at that tempting drawstring. Resolute, I yank the pale blue blanket up to my chin. He yanks it down. I yank it back up.
“Don’t try to distract me,” I instruct. Although it’s too late. I’m already wavering. “I said I’d keep the phone calls secret. And now I’m feeling guilty, even telling you. But demanding money? That’s new isn’t it?”
Josh rolls his eyes, then reaches to yank down the blanket again. I pull it up. Determined to stay on track. “The police are investigating. Let’s let them investigate.”
“Did the person who called Alethia say anything about money?” I’m ignoring him. Because I just had a thought. “It could be the police don’t even know about the extortion. Hey. Speaking of Alethia. Is there news? Has she been able to tell the police anything about why she fell down those stairs?”
“Nope. She’s sedated. Sleeping safely in the hospital. But honey? Nothing is going to happen between now and tomorrow. So, I say we...”
He creeps his hand towards the blanket. I smack it to a halt.
“Do you think there’s a drug thing going on? Have you heard anything?”
“Honey, as I said. Drugs in school? I wouldn’t be shocked. Still, would I know if kids were smoking dope behind the athletics shed? Probably not. Are kids falling asleep in class? Strung out like crystal meth users? Not that I know of, at least.”
With a sigh, I flop over onto my back, pulling the covers around me. “I wish they’d all just tell the police, you know? I’m tired of keeping secrets. I can barely remember who knows what.”
“I know something secret,” Josh says. He reaches out for the blanket again, and begins to pull it, inch by inch, away from me. “I know how to be two places at once.”
The phone rings. Jangling. Botox leaps from her spot. Josh pulls the entire blanket off the bed and tosses it over the phone. It rings again, muffled.
“Hey!” I yelp, grabbing the blue-striped sheet. I scramble after the blanket, naked, laughing, pawing for the phone. “It might be Penny, you know? Hello?”
Listening to the voice on the other end, I slowly wrap the sheet around me, tucking in a corner to keep the fabric in place.
“I’ll let you tell Josh,” I say. I hand him the phone. “It’s the Headmaster. About Alethia.”
The room stills as Josh puts the receiver to his ear. I know he’s hearing what Byron Forrestal just told me. Alethia’s in a coma. She’s not coming out of it. She’s dying. Her family is bringing in her priest. It’s over.
I watch Josh’s face go solemn. He’s murmuring into the phone.
Sitting on the side of the bed, I tuck the sheet more tightly around me. Maybe the cops are buying the accident theory. But I’m not.
I note that Charlie’s producer, Franklin, is a southerner who is not a caricature. As a southerner sick of the regional caricatures, I appreciate that a great deal. Was he inspired by a particular person?
No! And thank you so much. Where in my head did Franklin come from? That is a true mystery—he’s not based on anyone. In fact, my real producers have been nothing like him! He and Charlie are a real team, and usually sees right through her—but in DRIVE TIME, their relationship becomes very different. In fact, I was crying while I wrote it!
Franklin is organized, pulled-together, confident and has a love life of his own. But he—like Charlie—is a devoted journalist. I adore Franklin. Still, what happens to Franklin in DRIVE TIME may surprise you!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on several big stories for my job as a reporter—and I’m very excited about that. In book world—I’ll be traveling the country introducing people to Charlie McNally and DRIVE TIME, and I hope I get so see you all! (You can’t believe the schedule! I’m going to need a little nap….) And well, here’s a secret. I’m working on a whole new series.
(From Hank): Since DRIVE TIME is all about keeping secrets--how good are you at confidentiality? If you promise to keep a secret--can you do it? Or are you always tempted to tell?
(Not you, Sven. We all know enough not to tell you anything. And anyone know if Demetrius and Marcus even speak English? I just tried to chat them up--and they acted like they didn't understand a word I said. Are they...keeping a secret?)
Five lucky commenters will win a book each and will choose whether they want Prime Time, Face Time, Air Time, or Drive Time. One very lucky commenter will receive a set of the first three books and a cool "Time" totebag.