Hank Phillippi Ryan Interviews … NANCY PICKARD

NQTQ – Not Quite TwentyHANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: There’d be no Sisters in Crime without Nancy Pickard, right? She’s a founding member, and former president. She says on her website she’s “not usually an organization kind of gal,”  but “Sisters In Crime was an organization whose time needed to come and I felt that I couldn’t not take an active role in it.”

Yes, yes, she’s won every award, multiple times, and when her Virgin of Small Plains burst gloriously into the mystery world, it rocked the place. It’s terrific—brilliant, thoughtful, insightful and compelling.  We’ve all listened to Nancy at Sisters in Crime seminars—I’m constantly looking at my notes from her class on editing.

Here’s one of her secrets—take away the qualifiers. No “kind of” no “sort of” not “pretty much” or “I guess.” When you tell a story, it is what it is. A Big storm, not kind of a big storm, not fairly rainy, or possibly wet.

I had the most revealing (not kind of revealing) experience, when editing a few weeks ago. I was trying to make character more powerful. More confident. And (using track changes) I made the edits I thought would help. When I was finished, I looked down the side of the page where the deleted words were listed. And there were:  fairly, maybe, could be, I think, possibly, guess, estimate…and on and on. Bang. It worked. Because of Nancy’s insight, my wishy-washy hero became a decision-making hero.

I sent her a funny and appropriate postcard, on which had as the “original”:  “I took the road somewhat less traveled by, and it’s possible that might have made some difference.”

As a teacher, mentor, leader, writer and role model, Nancy has changed all of our lives. Whatever she’s working on now—and more on that below—sign me up to read it. She’s a stalwart supporter of bookstores and libraries in her dear Kansas, and a generous and loving mentor to writers, whether brand new or journey-experienced.

She’s probably done sixty-million-billion interviews, but still graciously agreed to our “Not-Quite-Twenty Questions” feature.

And just when you think you know Nancy— in NQTQ, she reveals something new.

When you sit down to write, are you happy about that?

photo by Walt Whitaker

photo by Walt Whitaker

It’s fun!


No. Oh, God, it’s hard to explain. When it’s going well, it’s better than almost anything, so yes, it’s fun. Really, great fun, and I feel uplifted. When it’s not going well–which means, when it’s not going at all–it’s awful. One of the challenges of doing this for a long, long time is learning to be patient with the process, and reasonably cheerful about it. I frequently have to look back and remind myself that I did write all those other books, so it’s at least possible I can do it again.

I have a confession here: I don’t actually write unless I feel happy about sitting down to do it, because no good writing. . .none. . .none. . .has ever. . .ever. . .come out of my fingers when I felt unhappy about it. Apparently, that’s not true for every writer, but it is for me. Feeling happy is a signal that my unconscious has done its work and now I’m primed to go. I am aware that this probably sounds crazy to writers who don’t experience things this way. Can’t help that. May be crazy. It is what it stubbornly is.

Plotter or pantser?

Pantser, leading eventually to plotter. If I start with plotting, it all goes wrong, plants die, cities flood, and soon, vampires rule the earth. Which is fine for science fiction writers, I guess.Pickard_fullcvr-r

Book you wish you had written?

(Most recently) The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty


Lately, I’ve been searching for popular novels in which there is a murder, but no sleuth. I’ve been edging closer to that with both The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning. In those, my heroines asked a few questions, but they are not amateur sleuths. The Husband’s Secret, and the other books by Moriarty that I’ve read so far, blend mystery and women’s fiction in a way I like. I have found only a couple of other novels that do it in a way I like enough to study them. I want a smoother blend of murder and real life, if that makes any sense. Less genre, more general fiction, but still keeping murder and msytery. Having cake and eating it, too, in other words.

Movie you would see again and again?

“Harold and Maude,” and “The Road to Perdition.”


“Harold and Maude” has long been my favorite movie. I adore its quirky humor and its big heart. It makes me laugh and cry. The ending always leaves me feeling as if I can fly.

“The Road to Perdition” is harder to explain. After I saw it the first time, I went back to see it again the next two days in a row. I had never done that before and haven’t since. It mesmerizes me with its mix of cold darkness and warm light–both literally and figuratively. It’s the mix of good man/bad man in one character. It’s the setting on those long drives. It’s the cast, including Tom Hanks. who is perfect, and Paul Newman, both of them playing to some extent against type. I love haunting movies, and that was one, for me. (Let me note here that the movie is based on the graphic novel by one of our own mystery writers, Max Allan Collins.)220px-Road_to_Perdition_Film_Poster

The favorite movie of this year so far is “Her,” because it is mind-bending (of my mind, at least) and fun and touching.

Exotic drinks–yes? No?

Tap water.

When in history would you choose to visit?

Philadelphia in the summer of 1776.


Well, I’ll admit the heat would be awful, and I would so hate wearing all those clothes, and being a woman at that time would suck. And then there would be the problem of horse **** in the streets. But there would be George Washington! Seriously, that’s my favorite period of American history. I love our founders, and feel such awe for their courage and persistence in the face of the most awful odds against them. I would love to be there to watch them in action, even if watching the sausage being made turns out to be tedious, which by all accounts it was. And dangerous, which it certainly was. I only want to be a ghost there, by the way, not an actual, over-dressed, sweating person.

What are you working on now?

A  book.

You’re not gonna tell us at all? At all?

No, not much, because it has taken a long time to write, and it keeps changing, so I don’t want to be stuck with a description that turns out to be wrong. For the last year or so, I’ve at least been telling people the title, but as of last week, that’s no longer operative, either.

So, are you superstitious?

Yes, of talking about my books too soon. Or maybe that’s just a fear of watching faces fall if they’re disappointed in my description.

Pizza or chocolate?

On a desert island? Chocolate. Which would make it a dessert island.

Kids? Pets? Spouse? Hobbies? Garden?

One, ex, ex, ex, ex.

Fear or phobia?


Thing you always say to yourself when writing?

“Is it too late to be a carpenter?”

But, really. What do you say? I mean, you’re not really second-guessing yourchoice to be a writer…so what is it that makes you go on? Short answer, really, is fine.

No, I frequently second-guess my choice to be a writer. I DO often wish I had another talent, or at least more of the alleged talent I have. I actually sit down now and then and think, kind of desperately, “What else can I do to support myself?” The answer is always a humbling, “Nothing. ” I frequently feel a twinge of dread when I sit down to write, because I don’t know if any words will come, but then who ever knows that? Other times, I feel a little surge of joy, because I already know how I’m going to begin. Today, for instance, I feel both. I know how I’m going to begin, but I don’t know if it will continue.The+Virgin+of+Small+Plains

There are two things that keep me going. One is my desire to keep living indoors. But the more compelling one is my desire to keep trying to be a better writer telling a better story. In that sense, you could say that ambition and dissatisfaction drive me, along with a feeling that I really do have things to say if I can only find the right ways to say them.

Do you watch TV? What?

Yes! The Americans, The Good Wife, Survivor, The Walking Dead, Top Chef, Project Runway, Justified, Homeland, Orphan Black, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Downton Abbey, and more. I guess I do have a hobby.

Can you sing?

Define “sing.”

Best concert you’ve ever seen?

Jackson Browne, Starlight Theater, KCMo., a couple of years ago.

Secret talent?

Keeping secrets

What do you wish you had known?

Writer’s block is real, and useful, and dangerous, and hard to manage, and rich with meaning and potential. It has made me, again and again, a better writer than I was when I didn’t believe in it.

Do you have a motto? (What is it?)

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

— William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Nancy’s Official Bio (from her website http://www.nancypickard.com/biography.html — which has lots of fun stuff on it!) includes:

Nancy has won the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Barry, and Shamus awards for her short stories. She won the first-ever Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original Mystery for her second Jenny Cain novel, Say No to Murder. She has won multiple Agatha and Macavity awards for her novels. The Los Angeles Times says, “Pickard pushes at the presumed limits of (crime fiction).” The San Diego Union says, “Nancy Pickard is acclaimed as one of today’s best mystery writers. Mounting evidence suggests that this description is too limited. . .Pickard (is) one of today’s best writers, period.” She is a 4-time Edgar Allan Poe award nominee, having been a finalist three times for Best Novel and once for Best Short Story. Her three Edgar-finalist novels are: I.O.U., The Whole Truth, and The Virgin of Small Plains. She is also a Mary Higgins Clark award finalist, and a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement award for suspense fiction, from Romantic Times. In her hometown area that includes both the Missouri and Kansas sides of the state line, she has received The Thorpe Menn Award from the Kansas City, Mo. branch of the American Association of University Women and the Don Coldsmith Award. Two of her novels, The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning, have been named Kansas Notable Books. The Virgin of Small Plains was the Kansas Reads Book of 2009.

* * *

Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 30 Emmys and dozens of others honors for her ground-breaking journalism. The best-selling author of six mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: two Agathas, the Anthony and the Macavity, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the Mary Higgins Clark award. Her newest thriller THE WRONG GIRL (now an Agatha and Left Coast Crime nominee) was dubbed “Another winner!” in a Booklist starred review. Her upcoming novel is TRUTH BE TOLD (Forge, 2014.) She is 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime.   http://www.HankPhillippiRyan.com

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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66 Responses to Hank Phillippi Ryan Interviews … NANCY PICKARD

  1. hankpryan says:

    Isn’t Nancy amazing! I laugh every time I read this interview…and I’m sure she’ll be stopping by.

    SO–two things: One. You’ll see I tucked in some questions from our suggestions last week–hurray! (This is still in the experimental stage!) Anything else you’re curious about? And–who would you like to hear from? (We have some wonderful authors already lined up..watch this space.)

    And two: FREE BOOKS! Because you are reading the comments, you can enter to win a signed copy of a wonderful new mystery novel. ( Which one? That will be a surprise! But trust us, we’re all sisters here!) Just comment below–and I hope you’ll join me in tweaking NQTQ–and suggesting future authors!

    We’ll announce the winner Sunday night.

    • Here’s my advice: always be interviewed by Hank Ryan. Yes, I know she’s busy. (Understatement.) But she’s just going to have to understand that she makes all of us look good, so we need her to interview us. All of us. Every time. Sorry Hank, but you’re WONDERFUL at interviewing. Gee, I wonder why. And thank you, dear Hank.

      • Reine says:

        Nancy and Hank, I love you both and can’t think of a better way to have spent my day reading this interview. xo

      • Hey, Reine! I miss you, which is my own fault. After Lipstick closed, I wandered off to write and haven’t yet made my way back to facebook, blogs, etc. I never dreamed–or maybe I did?–it would take ao long to return. Best to you, always.

  2. Kim Fay says:

    What a fabulous interview! I can’t explain why, but this makes me feel so much safer in my life as a writer. Once again, Hank, thank you!

    • hankpryan says:

      Safer..yeah. If the incredible Nancy battles with the fear, and then recognizes the joy–we can do that, too.

    • Kim, I don’t know why, either, but I’m glad. Maybe it is partly that there’s nothing like the voice of experience who turns out to have the same fears you do. Writing can feel so risky sometimes. Wait: writing can BE risky sometimes. So, hearing that others are still at it in spite of their own fears can be comforting, I know that, from my own experience.

  3. Mary Sutton says:

    I so wanted to see Nancy in the pre-conference workshop at Bouchercon 12 – but couldn’t make it happen. Now I’m really disappointed. Love “What are you working on? A book.” And yes, reading that all you successful authors STILL struggle with the fear of “maybe it won’t work this time” gives me hope – it really does.

    • hankpryan says:

      Yup, Mary, I have never heard of a successful author who does not have those moments…remember Stephen King grew away the manuscript of Carrie, or so the story goes! His wife rescued it, and the rest is… And I read recently that Harper Lee threw away the ms. of To Kill A Mockingbird–threw it out the window! Her agent retrieved it.

    • Thank you, Mary. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet there.

  4. Nancy IS amazing. I learn something new every time I hear her speak.

    Hank, this is a great series. I love the interviews!

  5. ritterames says:

    Probably my favorite question asked above was when Hank asked “Book you wish you had written?” and the answer “(Most recently) The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty” because it reminded me of a question the first time I heard Nancy at a writers conference. This was easily 20 years ago, and the moderator asked “If you could be any other author, who would you want to be?” and Nancy responded, “Anne Tyler.” I thought that was so funny, because everyone at my table, including me, wanted to be Nancy Pickard! I also remember what Nancy said when she was signing my books later in the day. I asked “What is your favorite of all the books you’ve written.” She gave me her perfect sunshiny smile and said, “Why, the latest hardback, of course.”

  6. thelma straw says:

    Hank, I am constantly amazed at where you find the time to do all these interviews and everything else you do! My friend in Manhattan – Barbara Bent -who will see you at Sleuthfest – have the biggest Hank Ryan Fan Club on the planet!!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

    • hankpryan says:

      Aw, Thelma, you are such a good pal. I love doing interviews–well, no, actually, I love hearing the answers, especially when they are as revealing as these. And you remind me–I’d better pack. Tell Barbara I will see her soon! ANd thank you so much..xo

  7. Great interview with one of my favorite authors. It was good to hear such refreshingly candid replies. And, it’s good to know the Starlight is still there. I think Peter, Paul, and Mary was the last act I saw there. 🙂

    • hankpryan says:

      Oh, Peter Paul and Mary! (Can’t you just hear them in your head?) And thank you, Andrew! Yeah, I laugh every time I read:
      Hank: Really?
      Nancy: No.

    • Starlight! For those who don’t know, it’s an outdoor theater, and I’ve been going to it for one show or another since I was a kid. I never did see PP&M, darn it.

  8. Two of my favorite authors together! Hank, thanks for being Nancy’s straight woman; Nancy, thanks for such interesting and entertaining answers!

    And thank you for the idea of a “mystery without a sleuth”. You’ve given shape to the kind of writing I most like to read, which is not “women’s writing”, even though it’s often called so.

    Looking forward to seeing you both at Malice.

  9. Cari says:

    Awesome article. Love you both!

  10. donnagalanti says:

    Hank – a fun, fabulous interview with things about Nancy that intrigued me and made me laugh out loud! Hmm, and Nancy has a talent for keeping secrets? I think she did a most marvelous job of that in The Virgin of Small Plains – a book I couldn’t put down!

    • hankpryan says:

      Oh, yes, I agree, that book is a classic. Fair to the reader–but with a secret around every corner. (And as for you–congratulations on your two-book deal for JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD! Whoo hoo! * I have to tell you, spellcheck wanted to make the “whoo hook!” and I almost left it…)

      • donnagalanti says:

        Aww, Hank, thanks for the shout out here! You’re too sweet as always. “Whoo hook” – that’s like a right-hook whoo hoo. Celebrating film interest in it this week. whoo-hook! And now I’ll stop hijacking Nancy’s lovely interview. Sorry Nancy and I’m so looking forward to reading The Scent Of Rain And Lightning!

    • Donna, add my congrats to Hank’s! And my whoo hoo, too!
      And thank you.

  11. Another terrific interview, Hank! I couldn’t think of anything to tweak or who to interview next, but this was great and just what I would have wanted if I could have thought of it. Seems very different from the last interview, but the questions seem perfect for Nancy – one of my favorite writers. I loved her answers. She shared a lot, but only what she wanted to. Another fascinating glimpse into the writers’ world. Thanks, can’t wait for the next one!

    • hankpryan says:

      Thank you, Sally! Yes, it’s interesting how the same-ish short questions and follow-ups elicit such different answers. That’s what I was crossing my fingers would happen…although it helps to be interviewing fascinating people. 🙂

    • I’ll tell you something funny, Sally. After our first go-round, Hank sent some follow-up questions, and I saw that in my first answer I had claimed that sitting down to write is fun. With an exclamation point, no less. I stared at that answer, and thought I must have lost my mind, lol. I even asked Hank, “Did I really say that?” I must have been high on a good day of writing. Thank goodness she gave me a chance to elaborate a bit. (Rolls eyes at self.)

  12. Mary M-S says:

    Love the interview; love Nancy’s style, her edginess. Got to hear her at a pre Bouchercon SinC conference about 5 years ago – was delighted! But most of all I appreciate the feeling of hope I get reading such a great author’s comments on her writing process. And thank you for sharing, Hank, otherwise I’d still pretty much be, I think, somewhat wishy-washy, at times anyway.Thanks for all your great work, Hank.

    • hankpryan says:

      Definitely, kind of, you know? I guess? xoxoo And it’s my complete pleasure. xoo

    • Yay! Mary called me edgy! You have no idea how long I’ve waited for somebody to notice my edge! I’m laughing, but I’m also sincere. Okay, maybe it’s a midwest edge, but now and then I’m pretty sure it’s present in my writing, and now and then, in me, too.

  13. Cindy Sample says:

    In 2007, I had the opportunity at a Book Passage mystery conference of submitting my first 20 pages to Nancy. She was complimentary, insightful and gave me the encouragement and push I needed to feel comfortable submitting to an agent. And a new author’s career was born! I also loved how wiling she was to share that no matter how many awards you’ve received, a writer continues to question their work because they always want the next book to be the best one ever. Great interview, Hank, as always.

  14. Laura (in PA) says:

    I really enjoyed this interview. The Scent Of Rain And Lightning was a book that I not only enjoyed reading, bit the I thought about for months after I finished. I don’t know that I can say that about any other book.

  15. Hi, all. I’m here, but just to wave. I’ll come back in a bit, when I can say thank you properly.

  16. Dru says:

    This was great. Thanks Nancy and Hank.

    • You’re very welcome. It is always a pleasure to get to chat with Hank, no matter what the circumstances. I don’t know if you all know that she was in Kansas City this winter, and she was such a big hit wherever she went. She spoke at our wonderful local mystery bookstore, “Mysteryscape,” and at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and at the main library in downtown, KC., and that’s not even all she did. She was so nice to everyone. She was incredibly entertaining, and informative. Everybody loved her. We were proud to have her, and she “did us proud,” for sure. Thank you, Hank.

    • hankpryan says:

      HI, dearest Dru!

  17. Lora W says:

    I think your books are brilliant, Nancy. I loved Jenny Cain back-in-the-day and Virgin of the Small Plains is one of those I recommend whenever someone asks me for something new. Looking forward to whatever genre-sub genre you do!

  18. hankpryan says:

    Well now. I am picturing this, and it brings tears to me eyes. I completely rest my case. Here is NANCY PICKARD, talking to each of us. I must say I had an outrageously wonderful time in KC K and KC Mo. We shared a wonderful Mexican dinner (with Sally Goldenbaum–whose wonderful new book is about to come out–her eighth knotting mystery, gorgeous–and LInda Rodriguez and the gang– it was such a treat to share stories!
    And Nancy. Thank you.

  19. You two are too much fun!! Off to bed now, smiling and chuckling a little . . . with an exotic beverage in hand . . .

  20. Mary! Had to catch you before you toddled off to bed.

  21. Waving back, Nancy! I have been longing for your next book for, well, a long time, but I am patient. Similar to Laura, Scent of Rain and Lightning stayed with me for a very long time (well, it’s still with me). Your writing evokes feeling and images unlike anyone else’s. Thank you for sharing your blocks, what you learn from them, and your stories.

  22. Great interview! Kudos to both Hank and Nancy. Love the off-the-wall questions and answers.

  23. hankpryan says:

    I mean…”definitely!”

  24. hankpryan says:

    And the winner of the “surprise book is: RITTER AMES! Email me at h ryan at whdh dot com and a book will be on the way! See you all Thursday for another interview…and another chance to win!

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