HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: My husband and I don’t 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 life-changing thing is around the next corner.
And it’s the same with writing, isn’t it? One day everything is bleak and terrible, or at least depressing or disappointing. And then the next day—blam. The dream agent calls, or the idea appears, or the perfect words come, or—who knows what.
The same thing happened to Donna Andrews. You know her, right? I met her at—must have been Malice. No—Bouchercon! When we were assigned to emcee the charity auction together. She had the audience rolling the aisles (hyperbole) with her hilarious (not hyperbole) wit and off-the-wall humor.
She’s now on her seventeenth (!) mystery for St. Martin’s, and every one has a bird pun in the title. How did that happen? I, of course wanted to know. Well, it seems it was by chance. You never know, right? And that’s all explained in one of Donna Andrews’ truly Donna-ish (thoughtful, clever and honest) answers to my Not Quite Twenty Questions.
Title of your autobiography:
And You Thought I Made All That Stuff Up?
Best title I’ve thought of so far. I’m open to suggestions.
Movie you would see again and again?
The Twelve Chairs.
It’s a wonderful combination of physical and verbal comedy with just a smidgen of heartwarming snuck in when you’re not looking. And then there’s the young Frank Langella…
Appletinis. That’s about as exotic as it gets. Usually I stick to margaritas.
Okay, basic food groups, then. Pizza or chocolate?
Pizza. Preferably pepperoni and sausage. If you’re on some kind of health kick, you can throw on a few mushrooms and green peppers—with, not instead of, the meat.
Spouse? Children? Special people in your life?
No spouse or children, but I’m lucky enough to live a few miles from my 92-year-old mother in one direction and my brother and his wife with the twin nephews in the other. Little League season just ended. I dream about baseball at the moment. And can anyone explain this Minecraft thing?
No pets of my own, because I can’t do the guilt when I travel. And cats are easier than dogs, but alas! I’m allergic to cats. But I do have several loaner dogs who can stay with me when their people are traveling: Ginger, a Shih-Tsu; Wesley, an elkhound/shepherd mix, and Jingle, a beagle/basset mix. Or possibly beagle/dachshund.
Reading, of course. And playing computer games. And gardening. And attending Little League games.
Yes, diligently and badly. The deer and the rabbits eat everything, so if you want to catch my attention in a garden store or catalogue, just write in big letters “Deer hate this! Rabbits loathe it!” and I’m sold. My father was a skilled and avid gardener who could keep the family in vegetables and fruit all summer and—thanks to my mom’s freezing—part of the winter. I inherited the avid. My garden philosophy is that if I see something that survives in spite of my efforts (and those of the deer), I go out and plant a lot more of it. Hellebores and daffodils are my mainstays—hellebores are a contact irritant, and daffodils are poisonous. In fact, I have been known to study books on poisonous plants as much for garden tips as for plot inspiration.
Do you watch TV? What?
Way too much TV. I like a lot of the crime shows, even though I know how inaccurate they are, and if there are vampires, wizard, spaceships, or aliens on a show, I’m either watching it or planning to do so on Netflix or DVD when I’m not on deadline. Ditto anything Joss Whedon touches.
Can you sing?
Yes, but there doesn’t seem to be much demand for me to do so. A friend who’s gotten very involved in choir activities recently decided to assess my vocal range and, once I’d finished singing along to his plunking on the keyboard he announced that I was a tenor. Or a contralto; I gather it’s much the same range. Clearly this explains why so many people call me “sir” over the phone. And also why I have such a hard time with sing-alongs; I can’t possibly hit most of the notes the women are singing, and the men look at me oddly if I try to rumble along with them.
Best concert you’ve ever seen.
Once in the late 70s, when my brother was a starving musician in New York, he took me to see a show by a Cissy Houston, then best known as Dionne Warwick’s aunt, Aretha Franklin’s backup singer, and Leontyne Price’s cousin. In the middle of her show, Cissy brought up her teenaged daughter to sing a song or two. My brother and I looked at each other and both said variations on “Wow! She’s going somewhere.” And that’s how I came to hear Whitney Houston sing at least five years before her first record came out.
Book you wish you had written.
The War for the Oaks by Emma Bull and Thirteenth Night by Alan Gordon.
They speak to me. I told Alan once that when I heard what he’d done—taken my favorite Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night, and written a mystery featuring the same characters fifteen years down the road—I was prepared to hate him for thinking of it first, but he did it so fabulously that I couldn’t hate him. All is forgiven. The War for the Oaks is considered one of the pioneering works of urban fantasy and is still my gold standard. How can you not love a book in which a young woman electric guitar player not only forms her own band but gets to fight evil with chords?
Must go and reread both of them soon.
I did hate Alan for that brilliant idea! And told him so. At least admitted to my idea-envy. Oh well. Fear or phobia?
I’m slightly claustrophobic and slightly acrophobic, which is why I’m very proud that I’ve managed to complete a few caving expeditions.
What someone might not know about you.
Um . . . dunno; in a dozen years of being on panels, is there anything I haven’t confessed? No, wait; I’ve got it. I used to be very shy as a kid. No one will believe it, of course, but it’s true.
Do you have a recurring dream?
Yes. In it, I notice a bug on the wall or floor, and I suck it up with the vacuum cleaner. And then I notice another bug, and another, and pretty soon the vacuum cleaner bag is filled, and the walls are now crawling with bugs, and sooner or later the bag will burst, and they will all swarm out—
I have figured out that when I dream this, I am feeling at least a little overwhelmed by everything I have on my plate, and need to take a long, hard look at what I have the bandwidth for and what I need to delegate, delay, or just say no to.
How about a secret talent?
I am currently the family champion at Takamaru’s Ninja Castle, one of the segments of the Wii Nintendoland game. But the nephews are probably going to surpass me in that any day now.
If you could meet and chat with one person, it would be…
Only one? Aw, come on, can I have half a dozen? Have you ever read Van Loon’s Lives? In it, the Dutch-American writer Henrik Van Loon has the ability to summon any historical figure to come to dinner. He decides on his guests, does a brief biographical sketch for the readers and then tries to imagine what would happen if he put this mixture of people together. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Moliere. Robespierre and Torquemada. Hans Christian Andersen and Mozart. Plato and Confucious. One of my particular favorites is the evening when he invited the Bach and Breughel families, and the Bachs serenaded the Breughels while the Breughels painted the Bachs.
I refuse to pick just one person! I want to do what Van Loon did! (It’s a fabulous book. Published in 1942, and out of print, but very findable in used book stores and sites. Well worth reading.)
Can you believe how wonderfully your career turned out?
Every so often, when I’m complaining about deadlines or my editor’s demands, I take a step back and remind myself that I’m doing full time what I always wanted to do.
Things you say to yourself when writing:
Just finish today’s quota. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good. Just finish the book. You can edit a rotten draft. You can’t edit a blank page.
What are you working on now? Or—what’s your latest book? Or both?
The life of the working writer: I have one book coming out this month—The Good, the Bad, and the Emus. I’ve finished the draft of another and am waiting for thegalleys to arrive—that one’s called The Nightingale Before Christmas. And I’m starting to plan still another—probably set at Halloween, and tentatively titled The Lord of the Wings. But that’s still in the planning stages, so I’m as close as I ever come to being between books. But not for long.
Malice lineup of Best Novel nominees: Hank Phillippi Ryan, Louise Penny, Rhys Bowen, Lorraine Bartlett, Donna Andrews, and moderator Shawn Simmons
Tell us something else about that!
The Good, the Bad, and the Emus is about feral emus and solving the possible murder of Meg’s long-lost grandmother. Meg’s father was found as an infant in the fiction section of a Charlottesville library. Earlier in the series, he is reunited with the father he never knew when Dr. Montgomery Blake sees a picture of Meg and realizes she’s a dead ringer for Cordelia, his college girlfriend. A few years later, curiosity overcomes Dr. Blake and he hires a local private eye to see if he can locate Cordelia. And the private investigator not only finds her—he determines that she may have been murdered. So Meg and Grandfather set out to solve the murder—and while they’re at it, round up the flock of feral emus Cordelia had been feeding.
Meg’s father and grandfather get a lot of screen time in Emus, but Meg’s mother doesn’t appear for most of the book—mainly because once the emu roundup begins, they are all camping out, and Mother does not camp. She considers it camping if she has to stay in a hotel without a four-star restaurant. So I decided The Nightingale Before Christmas would be Mother’s book. She and eleven other designers are participating in a Christmas-themed decorator show house. Meg, of course, has been drafted to serve as the organizer for the event, which means she ends up stuck with a lot of the headaches when one of the designers ends up murdered in the room he was decorating.
Can you just—tell us about the bird thing?
When I was getting ready to submit my first book to the St. Martins contest, I realized it needed a title. I called a friend who was good at that sort of thing and said “Help me think of a title for my book.” The friend knew that I had several projects going, and asked “Which book–the murder mystery with the peacocks?” Bingo! And I knew publishers liked themes, so when I began working on the second book, set in Maine, I made sure to put puffins in it. I figured birds would be a good theme. If John D. MacDonald had lived much longer he’d have run low on color names, and Sue Grafton will probably have to retire after Z, but birds? There are an estimated 10,000 of them in the world, and a reasonable number have names that lend themselves to lighthearted titles.
Are you enjoying the writing?
I don’t always enjoy writing, but now that I’ve turned it in and finished the revisions, I’m really enjoying having written.
Do you have a motto? What is it?
Um . . . not really.
HANK: Great motto! I can see it embroidered on an eagle rampant, emblazoned on the escutcheon… Oh, wait I see. No motto.
But you know, Donna? I think your motto should be: Bird By Bird.
Any good bird title puns for Donna, sisters? We hope she’ll be needing a lot more! And a copy of The Good, The Bad, and The Emus to one lucky commenter.
WINNER of Toni Kelner’s new “Skeleton” Book is JULIA DAVID! Contact me via my website http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com and I will get you your prize!
DONNA ANDREWS bio (from her website)
Like Meg Langslow, the ornamental blacksmith heroine of her series from St. Martin’s Press, Donna Andrews was born and raised in Yorktown, Virginia. These days she spends almost as much time in cyberspace as Turing Hopper, the artificial intelligence who appears in her technocozy series from Berkley Prime Crime.
Although she read widely as a child, especially in fantasy and science fiction, her love of mystery developed during her college years (and particularly at exam time.) Andrews attended the University of Virginia, majoring in English and Drama with a concentration on writing. After graduation, she moved to the Washington, D.C. area and joined the communications staff of a large financial organization, where for two decades she honed her writing skills on nonfiction and developed a profound understanding of the criminal mind through her observation of interdepartmental politics.
In the fall of 1997 she started on the road to publication by submitting her first completed mystery manuscript to the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery contest. Upon learning that Murder with Peacocks had won, she acquired a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds and settled down to have fun in her fictional world for as long as she could get away with it. Murder with Peacocks won the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, and Romantic Times awards for best first novel and the Lefty award for the funniest mystery of 1999. Subsequent books have also received Agatha and Lefty nominations, and Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon won the Toby Bromberg Award for Excellence (presented by Romantic Times) for the Most Humorous Mystery of 2003. Owl’s Well That Ends Well (April 2005), the sixth book in the series, features a murder at a giant yard sale. No Nest for the Wicket (August 2006), the seventh book, explores eXtreme Croquet, and in The Penguin Who Knew Too Much (August 2007), Meg discovers penguins–and a body–in her basement. In Cockatiels at Seven, Meg must solve a crime while encumbered with toddler. She must organize her county’s holiday parade and solve a related murder in Six Geese A-Slaying. And the latest, Swan for the Money, features competitive rose growing and belted Tennessee fainting goats.
November 2005 saw the release of Delete All Suspects, the fourth book in the Turing Hopper series–which was partly inspired by her experience serving as a translator between the marketing and systems departments at her day job. Andrews notes that in these books she seeks to use computers and other technology accurately without making the action incomprehensible for readers who prefer whodoneits to computer manuals–and Delete All Suspects, she achieves a long-time ambition of killing off a spammer, even if only on paper. The first book in the series, You’ve Got Murder, won the Agatha award for best mystery of 2002, and was followed by Click Here for Murder and Access Denied.
A member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and the Private Investigators and Security Association, Andrews spends her free time gardening and conquering the world (but only in Civiliation IV).
For more information: http://donnaandrews.com.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 EMMYs, 12 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her ground-breaking journalism. A bestselling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: the Agatha, Anthony, 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 newest thriller, THE WRONG GIRL, has the extraordinary honor of winning the 2013 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel! A four-week Boston Globe bestseller, it was dubbed “Another winner” in a Booklist starred review and “Stellar” by Library Journal. She’s on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Watch for her next novel, TRUTH BE TOLD, on October 7, 2014.
Visit her online at HankPhillippiRyan.com, on Twitter @hank_phillippi and Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthorPage.