Sisters in Crime Success Stories — A New Series of Interviews by Hank Phillippi Ryan

NQTQ – Not Quite TwentyThe names of the first “Sisters” include Sara Paretsky, who convened the gathering; Nancy Pickard, first president of the board; and Margaret Maron, first vice-president. The whole board was stunning and even more so today, looking back at that crucial 1986-1987 get-together and at the way these authors have brought us top-flight mysteries and crime fiction, whether as authors or booksellers: Charlotte MacLeod, Kate Mattes, Betty Francis, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Sara Paretsky, Nancy Pickard, and Susan Dunlap.

Today’s Sisters in Crime are just as awesome — and the organization celebrates amazing successes. It’s time to talk about how terrific the “Sisters” (and some Brothers!) are. To do that, we’ve asked Hank Phillippi Ryan to interview a growing number of these headline makers. Hank is an award-winning crime fiction author (her latest series featuring Boston newspaper reporter Jane Ryland is sweeping awards from coast to coast — look for her name on lists of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and most recently, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award). And as a TV investigative journalist at Boston’s NBC affiliate, Hank’s also won 30 (!) EMMYs and 12 Edward R. Murrow awards. Who better to investigate, interview, and report to us on the adventures and entertainment of the Sisters with Success?

Plus, the minute you meet her, you realize Hank isn’t just smart and savvy; she also knows how to have fun! And the questions she’s asking of these authors, “Not Quite Twenty Questions” (her name for this), are as sassy and fun-filled as they are insightful and investigatory.

But before we give Hank the podium to interview writers like Linda Barnes, Nancy Pickard, Katherine Hall Page, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and more, let’s hear from Hank herself. Hank, here are NQTQ (well, 10 of them!) for you:

1. Congratulations on the many awards for your Jane Ryland series — in 2012 The Other Woman and in 2013 The Wrong Girl. What a great career leap from your earlier TV-oriented Charlotte McNally series in terms of awards and national (and international!) attention. What’s your theory of the Big Factor that created this change in your life as a crime fiction author?  (And congratulators on our Left Coast Crime nomination for THE WRONG GIRL for Best mystery set in the US, and for THE WRONG GIRL’s AGATHA nomination!) 

**Aw, thank you. (Yes, wonderful, thrilling…still floating!)

The Big Factor, huh?  Luck, timing? Devotion? Desire?  I wanted to write a “bigger” book.  It’s embarrassing even to type those words, because I love the Charlotte McNally books (the first one, PRIME TIME, won the Agatha for Best First), and don’t think of them as small.

So let me put it this way: the idea I had for the story of THE OTHER WOMAN was a different kind of story than could be told in the first-person point of view of the Charlotte books.  I knew THE OTHER WOMAN (the title from moment one) needed to have multiple points of view. As a result, this story needed a whole new sense of itself, and an entirely new feel and tone. Which gave me a whole new road to travel in my writing.

The question was: could I do it?  And I have to say, because it’s just us talking, I never really doubted that I could. Oh, I had my days — more than a few of them! — of griping and whining and feeling doomed, but still I had the underlying deep belief that I could accomplish this.

The thing I cannot control is how the books are received. Will people read them? Love them? That’s the intimidating part.

2. You’re an investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC TV affiliate. How do you sort out the “real stories” from the ones you create? Are you ever worried that the two careers flow into each other?

**Nope. Not one bit. In fact, the two careers are incredibly complimentary. I get book plot ideas and character elements every day from working as a reporter. I tuck them away like a busy squirrel when I recognize them, but I also know I don’t always recognize them. That’s the fun—they’re like little “experience” bombs, popping into the books when I least expect it.

And because I’m writing fiction now, too, I look at my reporting differently. It was always interesting and intriguing and stressful and high-stakes–now it’s all useful in my fiction. It’s a perfect match.  (Something goes wrong? Something doesn’t work? A frustration, a dead end? Cool! I’ll put it–and the accompanying emotion–in a book!)

3. Has there been any creation in your crime fiction that turned out to eerily match up with a real discovery that you made AFTER writing the novels?

**Yes, absolutely. I mean—amazingly often.  My current book, THE WRONG GIRL, is partly about the crisis in the foster care system in Massachusetts. THE WRONG GIRL came out in September 2013, and was written, of course, over the last year or so before that. But as you can see from the latest headlines, that foster care situation, with some of exactly the same issues I touch on in the book, is front and center right now. It’s eerie, you know?

4. You must be shaping your next book while racing around the country on tour, right? Do you EVER sleep? And — with plot and characters bouncing in your mind — how do you turn it all off to relax?

**Yes, I think about the books all the time. ALL THE TIME.  And, this is not a bad thing, it’s incredibly exciting. Sleep? I love sleep, I adore it, if you said “go to sleep right now,” I could do that.  And the bouncing characters help me relax, now that I think of it. I don’t count sheep–I just let stories unwind, and fall asleep that way.

And touring, crazy as it is, is also marvelous. I always say my books aren’t fulfilled, that they haven’t fully realized their existence, until someone reads them. And being on tour is the way to connect with those readers. I adore it.

5. Jane Ryland is a newspaper journalist; you’re in TV. Any special research that you did to make the crossover?

**Can I admit, no?  (I think I emailed a newspaper reporter pal to ask what, exactly, a “column inch” was. Things we think we know.) But I’ve been a reporter for forty years now, so I pretty much know how it all works.

6. As an author, what’s your favorite way to ramp up tension? 

**Oh, fun question. I guess…by perception. By having the exact same event perceived by different people—because what we “know” is different depending on who we are. So the dramatic irony gets built when the reader–who knows what all the characters know–is frantically turning the pages saying–no, no, that’s not how it is!  (I love that.)

7. Readers can always “step away from the book” if the darkness of murder and corruption get to us — then pick up the book again when we can’t wait to find out what happens next. You’ve seen so much tragedy and even evil as a reporter and you’re reliving some of it as you write: What’s your advice for staying balanced and not giving up on the world?

**Well, huh. After covering September 11, working for a week straight, barely stopping, when I finally got home, I burst into tears, sobbing, for the first time after the whole thing. (I wasn’t in New York, but we covered the airplane/air travel element of it.)

After the Boston Marathon bombing, I announced, live, and then covered every day; I just work work worked. Then, when it was over, my husband and I were in the Dunkin Donuts, getting coffee, and there were families, and little kids eating doughnuts, and I started crying. My bewildered husband said–what is wrong? And I said: It’s all so–normal again.

So there are times, certainly, when it’s overwhelming. The missing and murdered children in Atlanta, for instance.  But I think—as a reporter, I am trying to do good. To educate, and reveal secrets, and bring some justice and change the world a bit. So instead of focusing on how bad some things are, I try to focus on what we can do to change them.

I don’t even feel on the road to “giving up on the world.” There’s a thing reporters talk about –“compassion fatigue” — and I know I have felt that. Someone will call me when I’m incredibly busy, or about to leave, or involved in a big story, and they say things like “you’re the only person who can help me.” Sometimes I think–gee, really? I wish I could but I just can’t right now. And then I realize — no. They are just as important in their world as I am in mine.

8. I love your bio on your website — can you still twirl a baton?

***Ooh, I hope so.  Lest an unrealistic history get created—let me clarify that yes, I was a majorette in high school, but in the middle of the back row, which will describe to you the level of my prowess. I always liked performing, but with my terrible eyesight, no depth perception and an absolute zero level of coordination, I was doomed to be in the back row forever. I soon moved into the audio-visual club. Seriously.

9. Do you have any special habits for sitting down and writing that you’re willing to share?

I am very Pavlovian. I make a little chart with the number of words a day I have to write. When I do that, I get to fill in the little square with the number.  Reward! There is nothing more satisfying that that!  And I know if I write EVERY day, even the tiniest of bits, there is no way that eventually the book won’t be finished. Right?

So I just — keep advancing the story. Just keep going. Word by word. It cannot fail to be completed, as the days go by, because it’s simply — addition.

10. We know you must be working on a new Jane Ryland investigation. Can you give us a hint on what’s ahead?

Yes, yes, indeed! The new book TRUTH BE TOLD comes out this September — I love it (If I may say so.) It’s about a banker who decides to manipulate mortgage records to keep her customers out of foreclosure. (Well-meaning, of course, but illegal.) It’s about a guy who confesses to a cold case murder — why would he do that? And about a reporter who makes stuff up.

And then … I am several thousand worlds into WHAT YOU SEE. If all goes as planned, and sometimes it does, that’ll be out in September of 2015.  My motto—“one page at a time.”

* * *

Want to know more about Hank? Here’s her official bio: “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 most recently, 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, is an Agatha Award nominee, Boston Globe bestseller and was dubbed “Another winner” in a Booklist starred review. TRUTH BE TOLD will be published this fall.  She’s on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at, on Twitter @hank_phillippi and Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthorPage.”

And watch this page on Thursdays for Hank’s Sisters in Crime Success Stories!

About bethkanellbooks

My life is always a three-strand braid: love for Vermont, love of reading, and the need to write (and write better and better). Come visit and chat at any of my blogs and posts -- there's a big wonderful world of writing and reading, and we're in it together.
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10 Responses to Sisters in Crime Success Stories — A New Series of Interviews by Hank Phillippi Ryan

  1. Great interview, Beth, with the best interviewer around! Thanks for sharing with us, Hank. Somehow I had missed the majorette part of your past – love it.

  2. Thanks, Edith, for sharing the interview — and I can say with absolute confidence, this series of Hank’s is terrific! Stay tuned on Thursdays for her interviews with Sisters (and maybe a Brother too) on their crime-writing successes.

  3. I do love your work . . . the books, of course, but also the newscast videos you’ve shared.
    I love that you tell yourself stories to go to sleep, which is my trick also, except that mine are usually folk tales, favorites or new ones I’m practicing. Thanks for continuing to write such engrossing and informative books.

  4. hankpryan says:

    Thanks so much Edith–yeah, the majorette thing. You can tell my era from that, right? I thought it was the coolest thing..but I had ZERO talent and ZERO skills.

    And MAry, do you get good ideas in that alpha state? Sometimes I definitely do…because , you know, I’m not really looking for them.

  5. hankpryan says:

    And let me say—the questions in this interviews-great ones!–are Beth’s. But the questions with the success story authors will be–different. I wanted to make it fun and revealing and light-hearted. I said to them–don’t think about his too much. And what they wound up saying–tells us such a lot!
    ANd let me ask YOU–who would you like to know more about?

  6. Just when I think I’ve gotten used to how terrific Hank is, I read something else and I’m in awe all over again. It would have been enough for most people to be a life-changing, Emmy Award-winning journalist AND a best-selling author but Hank continues to give back, not only to readers but to the writing community. Jeez, she probably shovels her neighbor’s sidewalk before she goes to work! Can you tell i’m a fan??
    One of my fave New England sisters is Jennifer McMahon. Hank and I are lucky enough to be on a panel with her at the Big Book Club Getaway at Mohegan Sun on Feb. 22. I’m looking forward to learning more about her, and I think other SINCNEs might, too.

  7. terryshames says:

    Hank, I knew you had to be disciplined to get everything done that you do. What I loved is the idea of the chart you fill in when you meet your goal. I have writing goals, but never thought to make them visible–great idea.

  8. Great interview. Such energy and inspiration – and humor. Loved the majorette story. I too have terrible eyesight, no depth perception and an absolute zero level of coordination but since we were pom-pom girls with nothing to throw and drop, I managed to get close to the front row because I’m not too tall. Love your books, looking forward to the interviews.

  9. Tracy Weber says:

    Great interview, and great idea for an interview series! So inspirational!

  10. hankpryan says:

    Well, thank you! And the way the interviews are set up–you’ll see–the questions are simple simple simple. Unexpected. Sometimes–just a one word prompt. And that makes the answers especially intriguing.

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