Julia Spencer-Fleming: My friend Hank Phillippi Ryan is just fifty miles shy of being a Maine crime writer. Hank is the on-the-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH TV7. Hank’s real life is like something out of a good novel – her work for “Help Me, Hank” has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution. She’s won 28 EMMYs (which I’ve seen on her bookshelf, and let me tell you, they make a VERY impressive sight.) She’s been a radio reporter, a political campaign staffer, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson. She glamorous, has a great husband and as a writer? She’s won the Agatha, the Anthony and the Macavity awards. Really, if she wasn’t so kind and funny, we’d all hate her. We sat down to talk about life, writing, and her upcoming book, The Other Woman.
Julia: I know what happens in The Other Woman because I’ve already read (and loved) it, but give the rest of us a thumbnail sketch.
Hank: Well, Julia, you nailed it (as usual) when you called it The Candidate meets Basic Instinct. I’ve called it The Good Wife meets Law & Order. And just yesterday it got a starred review from Booklist (!) calling it “a perfect pre-election thriller.” It’s a fast-paced page-turner about a Boston reporter on the trail of a Senate candidate’s secret mistress. Who is the other woman? And if a candidate is having an affair—should the reporter make that public?
Julia: I’m thinking you didn’t have to look far for inspiration…
Hank: Well, I’m laughing now. Seems like not a day goes by that we don’t hear about a scandal in some politician’s life, right? And I began to wonder—why would someone be “the other woman?” Love, lust, sex, power, greed, revenge? It’s such a terrible decision—and you’re certain to be discovered, ruin your life and the lives of so many others Remember when Mark Sanford—the ex-governor of South Carolina—told his family and staff and constituents he was hiking the Appalachian Trail? And He was actually off with his Argentinean mistress? I thought—who would do that? And why? And then I thought—wow. I bet I could write a big juicy thriller about that.
Here’s the video—we took kind of a risk with it!
Julia: I know everyone always asks this, but is the heroine, Jane Ryland, really you in disguise?
Hank: What a great question. When a reporter pal of mine read one of my first books, she said—whoa. I learned so much about you! And I laughed, and said, hey, it’s fiction. But after thirty-plus years as a TV reporter, of course I’m going to draw on those experiences—and emotions—to create a character who is authentic and believable and exciting and honorable and brave.
She’s younger than I am, though. (I can do that! Because I’m the author.) And it’s fiction, right? But I love Jane. I felt so awful when she got fired!
Julia: You have an amazing career as an investigative journalist. How do you translate that into writing crime novels like The Other Woman?
Hank: People always ask me about research—and again, I laugh. I have been researching these books every day since I started on the air in 1975! I just didn’t realize that. I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals—I know how someone looks when they’re lying, I’ve watched politicians close-up on the campaign trail, I know what bad guys think they can get away with—and how they try to fool the public.
I’ve experienced it, I’ve been part of it, you know? In a front row seat. It all soaked in, and now, it’s the stuff of fiction.
Hank: Oh, by chance! SO funny. I was working in a political campaign, and my candidate lost. So I was out of a job. I applied for the position as a reporter at a radio station, which was incredibly audacious since I’d never been a reporter—and—well, long story short, I got the job. Because I said to the news director —your license is up for renewal with the FCC, and you don’t have any women working here. (Big smile.) And the next day I had my first job in broadcasting.
But the interesting part—I took a chance, applied for a job for which I was infinitely unqualified—and got it. And as a result, I found my calling. I took a chance, you know? And it worked.
Julia: What was the best advice you ever got as a writer?
Hank: When I was writing my first book, I was madly in love with it—I’ve always wanted to be a mystery author. But at one point, about half way through! I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. (I’d thought—write a mystery/thriller? I love those books! I’ve read a million of them! How difficult can it be?)
I learned it was very very difficult! So I worried and fretted to my mother that I wasn’t sure if I could finish. She paused—then she said—Well, honey, you will if you want to.
“You will if you want to!” And I hear those words to this day. You can do anything you want to.
Julia: You’ve done stuff the rest of us wouldn’t dream of in your life. Can you name your proudest moment?
Hank: Gosh, it’s so wonderful to think I have so many things to choose from. I’ve won 28 Emmy awards, and each of them is such a treasure—each represents a secret that someone didn’t want me to tell you. And every time I won, I was bursting with pride.
I have two darling grandchildren—hard to beat that.
But I must say…winning the Agatha Award for Best First novel—really still brings tears to my eyes. I’d read Agatha Christie mysteries from the moment I realized how fabulous they were—I might have been what, 13 years old? And then to win an award named after her—for doing the same thing! It just makes me realize the wonder of the universe.
And I’m about to become president of national Sisters in Crime—following in the footsteps (stiletto-steps?) of your wonderful Kate Flora. SO that’s quite astonishing and flattering and a huge honor.
But then —to get starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal and be an INDIE NEXT Great Read for The Other Woman? Nice. Very very nice.
Julia: That is sweet, indeed. Okay, let’s flip the last question. What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome as an author and a journalist?
Hank: The need for sleep. Being an incredible perfectionist. Being just a bit too competitive.
Julia: I’m glad you said “the need for sleep.” I was figuring you were one of those people who only needs four hours a night! So you’ve won 28 Emmys, you won ten Edward R. Murrow awards, you’ve nabbed the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards; what else is there to achieve?
Hank: When you put it that way, it sounds like I should say—oh, nothing, I’m already so happy! And that would be true. But see above for the “too-competitive” part. There are lots of wonderful things I could imagine—especially in book world! But I don’t want to jinx anything.
I’d like to achieve—just getting better and better.
Julia: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?
Hank: Ah, when would that be? But you know, I’m from the midwest, and I still haven’t gotten over living near the fragrance of the briny ocean. You know when you walk outside, and you can smell the salt air? So I love to walk by the water, and watch the birds and watch the ships and be peaceful.
Julia: What’s next for Jane Ryland? Are there more books planned in the series?
Hank: Oh, absolutely! I just this moment finished book two in the series, THE WRONG GIRL. I’m so excited about it! It takes Jane—and Jake—into unfamiliar territory. (I’ve come up with a pretty diabolical scheme that really could work—maybe I should have been a criminal.) It’s creepy and unsettling…and it will make you hug your family a bit tighter.
After all these years in a journalism career I adore—it is such a joy to be embarking into the world of fiction!
Julia: Thanks, Hank! You can read excerpts of The Other Woman and Hank’s other books at her website. You can also friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @hank_phillippi and catch her blogging with me at Jungle Red Writers.