Reporting career to crime fiction
An interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan by Masada Siegel, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
If Hank Phillippi Ryan could talk to her 8-year-old shy, bookish self — one of the only Jewish kids growing up in rural Indiana — she’d have reassuring words. They might include, “Don’t worry, everything in your life is going to be great.”
Ryan has dedicated her life to solving mysteries, both in reality and in her imagination.
Ryan, an on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate, has won 32 Emmys and 12 Edward R. Murrow awards for her work.
“Every one of my journalism awards represents a secret,” she says. “A secret that someone didn’t want you to know. A secret the bad guys would have preferred to keep hidden. A secret that we had to dig up and research, and evaluate and prove and present, no matter what was in the way. Will we discover the truth? That’s suspense.”
Ryan tracks down clues and follows leads, relying on a mix of knowledge, instinct and curiosity. “And always with a search for justice, a hope to see the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them,” she says, “and in the end, a goal of making a difference, changing the world, and bringing justice.”
Writing crime novels, she says, is much like her career in television journalism.
“In doing an investigative story for TV, I have no idea what the ending will be. I’m following leads and doing the research to find out. It’s the same with writing fiction. I write my books so I can know what happens in the end and discover how the story turns out.”
Set in Boston, her new mystery novel, Truth Be Told, is about a diabolical mortgage fraud scheme, a notorious cold case murder and a reporter who fabricates stories. Ryan infuses her stories with her experience as an investigative reporter.
“I have wired myself with hidden cameras, gone undercover and in disguise, chased down criminals, and confronted corrupt politicians,” she explains. “I’ve covered fires and hostage situations and disasters, and I know how the system works. I’ve had people confess to murder. And convicted killers insist they were innocent. So when I get to take this real world — how it sounds and how it feels and how people behave — and inject it with imagination and adrenaline and excitement, that makes terrific crime fiction.”
Ryan brings the passion for her day job to her evenings filled with sleuthing of a different kind, creating compelling stories. Ryan sets the stage, although she has learned that sometimes her characters have minds of their own.
“Somehow, my brain will not allow me to have a character do something that would be inappropriate for their personality,” she explains. “I once tried to make my main character, reporter Jane Ryland, shoot someone. I had set it up so cleverly, I thought, so it was exciting and made motivational sense. But when the time came, I couldn’t write the same. I saw Jane in my head, clear as day, and she said to me ‘I think for a living. I don’t shoot people. And I’m not going to do that.’ I burst out laughing…That was the first time a character talked back to me!”
She starts her day at the television station early and ends it late after hours of working on her book. Her husband, a criminal defense attorney, or her “in-house counsel” as she jokes, shares her passion for mysteries and storytelling.
Ryan graduated from Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio — now part of Miami University — where she majored in Shakespeare. She began her television news career in 1975.
“I am the poster child for following your dreams at mid-life,” Ryan says. “I didn’t start writing fiction until I was 55. It’s so rewarding and so reassuring to know that my long, successful and happy career as an investigative reporter was only the beginning. People say, ‘Do you do research for your novels?’ And I say, ‘Well, sure, I’ve been doing research for 40 years. I simply didn’t know it at the time.’”
The JCC Cultural Arts & Book Fest and Washington Centerville Public Library present two events with mystery writer Hank Phillippi Ryan:
Tuesday, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville. The cost is $5 in advance, $8 at the door. R.S.V.P. here.
Wednesday, Nov. 19, noon at Washington Centerville Public Library, 111 W. Spring Valley Rd., Centerville. Bring your lunch. R.S.V.P. to 433-8091 or at wclibrary.info.