Please welcome multi-award-winning author and multi-EMMY award winning investigative reporter HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN, who is the only author to have won the Agatha in four different categories: Best First, Best Novel, Best Short Story, and Best Non-Fiction.
Hank’s novels have garnered over 32 award nominations, over 23 “Best of” lists, and won multiple times. She agreed to be interviewed for Miss Demeanors on the cusp of her new release, THE HOUSE GUEST.
Marni Graff: Hank, we’re so pleased you’ve taken time out of a very busy schedule to be with us, especially with The House Guest publishing Feb. 7th. It’s already getting incredible reviews and I know you’re excited. Can you share with us how the germ of the idea for this story came to you?
Hank Phillippi Ryan: It’s funny how writers think, isn’t it? It’s like a Rubik’s cube. You take a little bit from here and a little bit from there and a little bit from somewhere else, and click click click and twist and change –and a whole new picture comes to life.
It was like that with The House Guest. The idea came during the pandemic, when my criminal defense/civil rights lawyer husband began working at home in the breakfast room, and I worked in my home office. Just two rooms away.
And I realized he was working all day—but I had no idea what he was doing! And I was sitting in my study writing all day, and although he assumed I was writing my book, I could’ve been doing anything! (“All work and no play…” like in The Shining.)
It made me wonder–how well do we know what someone very close to us is actually doing? How easy would it be to keep a secret from the person who sleeps next to you?
Then add to that: An acquaintance I had long ago was a happily married woman, incredibly smart. Her husband went off to work every day and she would come home and ask how was your day? And he’d say fine.
All went well until the police arrived.
Turned out he had never had a job at all, that he had been pretending to go to work, when, in reality, he had been home, doing nefarious illegal things on the computer. And she had no idea!
That led me to heartbreak. When something absolutely horrible happens, when the rug gets pulled out from under you, when your life is utterly changed, how do you get your power back?
So The House Guest is greed, betrayal, gaslighting, female friendship, and… revenge. People have called it Gaslight meets Thelma & Louise meets Strangers on a Train. And I see that comparison! But it’s not exactly any of those.
MG: Wow, that a premise! Sounds wonderful, and that spooky cover adds to the feel right off.
I’d like to go back to your beginning, when your first novel, Prime Time featuring Charlotte McNally, won an Agatha right out of the gate.
Your work at Boston’s WHDH-TV over the years has changed laws, seen justice served in multiple areas, and given restitution to victims and to consumers, winning you 37 EMMYs, 14 Edward R. Murrow awards, with other honors along the way. You already had a busy life–so why turn to writing?
HPR: Oh my golly, I remember that moment so well! I’ve been a mystery reader, since I was a little girl–haven’t we all? And one day, 16 or so years ago, I just had a good idea for a novel. I don’t know how else to put it–it just stopped me in my tracks. And I went home and said to my husband: “I’ve got a great idea for a mystery! I’m going to write a novel. “ My husband, who is incredibly supportive, tried to hide his skepticism, and said, “Sweetheart? That’s great, but do you know how to write a book?”
And I laughed, dismissed him, and said “How hard can it be? I’ve read a million books!”
I soon learned how hard it could be. But that turned out to be Prime Time, my very first book. And yes, it won the Agatha for Best First Novel, and that was the beginning of my career in crime fiction. I just love that story. You just never know, right?
MG: Charlotte’s an investigative reporter so she shares your work and your drive. How is she like you and how is she different? Can you address what it felt like to win such a prestigious prize for your first novel?
HPR: I have spent the last 15 years telling people, insisting, actually, that Charlotte McNally is not me. Fine fine fine, I will admit it. She is kind of like me. Interestingly, what’s the most different between us is that she is far more confident than I am. She has a real streak of self-awareness and presence that I really don’t have. (Plus, she loves to drive. And I hate to drive.) We eat the same foods, and have some of the same loves: cats, old movies, almonds, great clothes, good friends, and um, success. She’s also similar in that we’re devoted to our careers and that we both love tracking down a good story, and yes, frankly, in our careers we may be the tiniest bit too competitive, but I see that as being in love with our work.
Winning the Agatha, you ask? It still brings tears to my eyes to think of it. It was not a thing I ever imagined could happen. And after that evening, I went up to my hotel room alone, and cried and cried. It was astonishing, and I cannot begin to describe my unending gratitude. Think how life changing that was!
MG: When you moved on to the Jane Ryland series, starting with The Other Woman, you mixed it up a bit, having Jane as a disgraced news reporter who works with Detective Jake Brogan to solve crimes. What made you start this second series, and do have any plans to bring Jane back at some point?
HPR: I love the Jane Ryland series. What made me start it? it happened when I was in the dentist’s office! I was waiting, cranky, reading an outdated People magazine, and specifically a story about Governor Mark Sanford, remember? Who told his wife and family he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail, when really, he was off with his mistress.
I was so fascinated by that. Who would ever be the other woman? I thought. What a truly destructive thing that is. And at the end of that article, someone was quoted as saying “You can choose your sin, but you cannot choose your consequences.” I just… again, stopped in my tracks. And thought my book, my book, my book!
But it was too big to be a Charlotte McNally book. Those books have a lighter sensibility, and I knew this would be different. I knew it would have multiple points of view, and need to be written in the third person, and be entirely different from the Charlie books. So I thought: Here I go! I’m going to try this. And that turned out to be The Other Woman, which won the Mary Higgins Clark award.
And yes, happily, I still have a contract to write at least one more Jane book.
MG: How you find time to eat, much less always look professional and composed is beyond me, between your busy job in the news, and the writing, which has branched into stand-alone thrillers which have all been nominated and won many awards.
Your storylines are grabbed from the news and very relatable. Can you explain to authors and readers how writing a series differs from a stand-alone?
HPR: That is such a fascinating question! And they’re so different, everything about them. In a series, which is shorthand for “a series of adventures, featuring the same main character, and some secondary characters, “ it’s fun because you know your core characters, and you know the world and the setting and the goals. And in each book, you’re essentially tracking the main character’s life as well as answering one mysterious question. But in a series, the challenge for the author is that the main character cannot die! And readers know that.
The stakes in a series cannot be the mortality of the main character, right? Because they have to come back for book three and four. And on. So the author must create a story that is a page-turner and Infinitely Suspenseful– even while at least one of the outcomes is not in question.
In a standalone, though, the author has a tremendous amount of power. Because anyone can be good, and anyone can be bad, and anyone can change from good to bad. Not to mention that anyone can be lying, and anyone can be unreliable, and anyone can be guilty, and anyone can die. Anyone can die!
So, in writing a standalone, the reader can have absolutely no expectations. Because the author can do absolutely anything! And that is so much fun. Because my readers are smart, they’re trying to stay two steps ahead of me. Well, I’m trying to stay two steps ahead of them! And that is one of the joys of my life– to say guess what’s going to happen. Nope, you’re wrong.
MG: In addition to your writing and reporting work, you write for the Jungle Red blog, host podcasts, and founded MWA University. I know your husband, Jonathan Shapiro, is a busy Boston lawyer from the Northeast, while you have Midwestern roots. Does that difference ever come into play as you work? Does Jonathan help you stay focused or answer questions? I’m assuming you must be a super organized person who never sleeps . . .
HPR: I love to sleep. Love. To. Sleep. And I am a really good sleeper. Knock on wood.
So. It is one of the luckiest things on the planet that my darling husband and I have exactly the same work metabolism. Which is, we work all the time.
But I cannot tell you how fabulous it is to have in-house counsel. At about 3 o’clock every day, when I am writing, I will head into his kitchen office, and say “Sweetheart, I have the legal question of the day.” And he proceeds to tell me how to make those parts of my book authentic and realistic and correct. Plus, he is the best proofreader, and the wisest reader you could ever imagine. He’s incredible.
Am I organized? I’m kind of organized, I will admit that. I have many to-do lists, and I try to be reliable and dependable. I know I’m a cog, and if my part doesn’t get accomplished properly on time, and in the best way I can, everyone else’s jobs are affected. So…yes. Organized. Though I write alone, I am a team player.
MG: Under the category of “things readers might not know about Hank,” tell us about your experience with the Lyric Stage of Boston theater company and the “First Curtain” program you founded.
HPR: Oh, thank you! Some years ago I was on the board of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, a professional theater company which does marvelous productions using Equity and non-equity actors. The theater is in downtown Boston, and it is incredibly popular, and the productions are very well received. But I began to look at who was in the audience, and frankly, we all looked the same. We all looked like me. And I started wondering about that. I mean people who lived nearby did not seem to attend. So I thought… Let’s allow local high school kid, easy and free and special access to our productions. As a result we created what I called the First Curtain program, to give local highschoolers free tickets to our productions, as well as backstage access, and discussion time with not only the actors, but producers, directors, playwrights, and set design, lighting, and sound people. I figured once we get them in the door as kids, they’ll stick around as adults, and maybe fall in love with the theater and writing. I’m really proud of that.
MG: Now for a fun one: I know you’ve interviewed famous people in your work, including Presidents, Mohammed Ali, and even Prince Charles. For our royal watchers out there, what was it like to interview the future and now current King of England? Do you have a favorite interview?
HPR: Oh golly, Prince Charles was incredibly charming. (This must’ve been in the early 80s, so you have to imagine what had not even begun to happen yet.) He had a way of focusing on each individual person, and had that skill that some do of making you feel as if you were the only person in the room. He told me the story of the signet ring he was wearing, which has the emblem of the blind Duke of somewhere or other, I can’t believe I have forgotten. I was mesmerized. He is shorter than I am, by the way.
My favorite interview, that’s impossible. Dustin Hoffman was completely lovely, Cybill Shepherd was a funny combination of ditsy and brilliant, and the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen. Oh, Warren Beatty! Everything you’ve heard is true, I’m just saying. President Jimmy Carter, such a lovely dear man. And in book world? My favorite interviews are certainly Sue Grafton, and James Patterson, and Lisa Jewell. Anthony Horowitz. Ruth Ware. Oh, I am leaving so many people out.
MG: Whose books are on your night-table waiting to be read?
HPR: Oh, because of doing interviews for Crime Time on A Mighty Blaze, as well as doing lots of blurbs, I am looking forward to Symphony of Secrets by Brendan Slocumb, and It Ends at Midnight by Harriet Tyce. My pile includes—and I cannot wait to read –the new Liv Constantine, and the new Jacqueline Winspear, and the new Megan Miranda and Deborah Crombie. Oh! And I am in the midst of the wonderful The Mystery of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett. She is a genius. So highly recommended.
MG: Hank, thank you sincerely for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us today. We’ll be looking for The House Guest, ready to dive in! And I’ll see you at Malice Domestic the end of April to give you a thank you hug in person and we can toast the success of THE HOUSE GUEST.
HPR: My complete pleasure! Please join me on CRIME TIME on A Mighty Blaze, and First Chapter Fun, and The Back Room! It is so much fun to see you all, even if it’s in those little Zoom boxes. And wow, I will see you at Malice! So thrilled to be a guest of honor, and I cannot wait to carefully hug each and every one of you.
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