Sept. 12, 2021

Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Phillippi Ryan

In Her Perfect Life, Hank Phillippi Ryan explores the vulnerabilities of being an on-air news reporter.


How can television reporter Lily Atwood keep a secret private when she's in the public's eye? Find out in Her Perfect Life.

Hank Phillippi Ryan speaks from personal experience as an investigative reporter about always being on when out in public, exploring standalone books versus series books, and her pandemic-inspired platform for authors, The Back Room.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 13 psychological thrillers, winning the genre's most prestigious awards: five Agathas, four Anthonys, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also an investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, winning 37 EMMYs. Book reviewers call her “a master of suspense” and a “superb and gifted storyteller.” THE FIRST TO LIE garnered a Publishers Weekly starred review and is nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Novel and Mary Higgins Clark Award. Watch for HER PERFECT LIFE on September 14, 2021, which received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, which called it "A superlative thriller."

Visit Hank at her website www.hankphillippiryan.com and at The Back Room for virtual author events.

Get to know Hank - The Tart Words Baker's Dozen:

1.   Plotter or Pantser? Combo? Pantser yearning to be Plotter.
2.  Tea or Coffee? Coffee! Until 5pm. Then tea.
3.  Beer, Wine, or Cocktails? Red wine.
4.  Snacks: Sweet or Savory? Savory, any day. Pizza, chips, pretzels, almonds.
5.  Indie Published, Traditionally Published, or Hybrid? Traditionally
6.  Strict Writing Schedule: Yes or No: Has schedule, yes. Keeps schedule, no.
7.  Strictly Computer or Mix It Up? Computer.
8.  Daily Goal: Yes or No: Yes.
9.  Formal Track Progress: Yes or No: Yes. On a pencil-lined legal pad.
10. Special Writing Spot? This desk. In my study. Where I used to look out at a stand of sugar maples, but now my windows are blacked out for Zoom.
11. Writer’s Block? No such thing. For me, writer's block is a fancy name for fear.
12. File of Ideas: Yes or No: Yes. However--it is empty.
13. Favorite Author(s)? Edith Wharton. Shakespeare. Hunter S. Thompson. Tom Wolfe. Contemporary authors? WAY too hard to list.

But debuts to watch? I've recently loved the first novels of Wanda Morris, Yasmin Angoe, Ashley Winstead, Vera Kurian, Amanda Jayatissa, Scott Shepherd.

Like this episode? Leave a review or rating! 

Transcript

Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos or grammar errors.

Episode 450 - Hank Phillippi Ryan

25:20

Linda 00:00

Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader, and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them, chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors, and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share Tart Bites, Tart Thoughts, and Tart Words.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 13 psychological thrillers, winning the genre's most prestigious awards: five Agathas, four Anthonys, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also an investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, winning 37 EMMYs. Book reviewers call her “a master of suspense” and a “superb and gifted storyteller.” THE FIRST TO LIE garnered a Publishers Weekly starred review and is nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Novel and Mary Higgins Clark Award. Watch for HER PERFECT LIFE on September 14, 2021, which received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, which called it "A superlative thriller." Find Hank at hankphillippiryan.com and also at The-Back-Room.org. And links for both of those will be in the show notes. 

Welcome to the podcast, Hank. I'm looking forward to talking with you today.

Hank 01:28

Thank you. It's so nice to be here. I love being able to stay in touch. 

Linda

Yes, me too. Tell me about your latest book. 

Hank

Oh my gosh, I'm so excited about it. Her Perfect Life is psychological suspense. And if I had to describe it in 10 words, I would say, fame, fortune, a beloved daughter. All she has to do is keep one secret. And it's about a reporter named Lily Atwood and Lily Atwood is so beloved that her fans have made a hashtag for her, #PerfectLily. So her life is sort of keeping up with that perfection. But the problem is, she has a dark secret. And if someone finds out that secret, her whole aura will be gone. And so everybody knows her, Lily Atwood, and that may be her biggest problem. And that is what this story is about. It's about the spotlight. It's about the vulnerability of the spotlight. It's about the vulnerability of fame, and about how Lily chose the spotlight and can deal with it. But her daughter, her seven-year-old daughter, did not choose to be in the public eye. And yet she is, so how does Lily protect Rowan and also protect her secret?

Linda 02:45

That's really interesting because you don't think about being in the public eye as being a burden if you're not in the public eye. But the reality is, it is. People know who you are so there's very little that you can do in secret.

Hank 03:02

Well, that's such an interesting observation because it's very difficult. As I learned in writing Her Perfect Life, it's very difficult to write about fame. Because when a famous person like Lily complains about the burdens of being famous, it's just not very sympathetic, you know, poor thing or famous. But there is this sort of darkness to celebrity, the vulnerability of celebrity, the juggle of keeping your life private, the private part of your life gets to be private, when yet as a reporter, or a movie star, or whatever you are, you're in people's homes every day and everyone knows Lily Atwood. She's in their living room every night. So they feel as if she's their friend and they're her friend, but they're not. And it's this fake phony relationship, a one-sided relationship. And the difficulty for a reporter like Lily is that part of her job is to encourage people to like her, to want to watch her to be interested in what she says, and to learn from what her investigative stories reveal. So on one hand, she's saying watch me like me. And on the other hand, she's saying but don't get too close, especially to my daughter. So it's a juggle that one cannot complain about. And that, that's a problem.

Linda 04:21

Yes, I could see where it would be. And I would think it would be very hard for her to keep a secret too because so many people think they know her and the people who – I’m presuming that at least one other person knows her secret. Is that the case?

 Hank 04:38

Well, and that is exactly the point of the book. You know, she as a reporter and her producer Greer, who is also a main character, gauge their success by their sources and by the stories that they're given. And really what a source’s, what a news source is a secret tell somebody who is telling a reporter a secret for some reason because no one tells the secret without a reason. And that's Lily's way of life. That's how she gets her stories is by people revealing secrets. As the story begins one of her anonymous sources, he calls himself Mr. Smith – or it might be a woman – starts telling really good stories, and Lily and Greer do them and they after their investigation, they turn out to be true, the source is correct. The source starts indicating that he might know a secret or two about Lily herself, oh, resource starts telling her secrets about herself. And he's trained her, hasn't he, that he's told her things that are true? Oh, if he's alluding to this, maybe he's telling the truth about this, too. And that's her decision.

Linda 05:46

She has no reason not to believe that he knows her secret or has information about her because what he's told her in the past has proven to be the case.

Hank 05:57

Exactly. He's laid the foundation. But is the foundation a trap?

Linda 06:01

That's really interesting. And I think it's quite intriguing.

Hank 06:06

Thank you. It was really fun to write from that perspective. I've been a television reporter for 43 years now. And I've really had to juggle some of this. I learned about it. Because when I was started out on television in 1975 if you can even believe that it's hard to believe. No, it is for me too – I went to the laundromat. I know it's very glamorous. I was a newbie reporter, I went to the laundromat. And somebody came up to me in the laundromat and said, Oh, I saw your story about X, Y, and Z. And let me tell you a story and asking me questions about myself. And I went home and I called my mom and I said, you can't believe what just happened. Somebody came up to me in the laundromat and started talking to me. And my mom was quiet for a minute. And then she said, sweetheart, you chose a life in the spotlight. So welcome to the spotlight. And I never want to hear you complain about that again. And I really took that to heart because I did choose with some agency to have a job where I'm on television, where people see me, where I want them to see. I can't complain when they do see me. And that and that's also a juggle that Lily has to make.

Linda 07:18

I think you know that being said, you don't know what it's like until you're actually in the circumstance. And I don't think you can truly imagine the reality until you're in it.

Hank 07:30

Well, true. When I was working in Atlanta, I was the weekend anchor in Atlanta. And one night after the 11 O'Clock News was over, I drove home around it was around midnight, and my house was surrounded by police cars. And someone had broken into my house while I was on the air. And they caught him. And he told them that the reason he chose to break into my house was that he knew that it was my house. And he knew that I was live on television at the television station. And as a result was not home. I was absolutely not home because I was publicly live somewhere else. And that was really chilling to me. I mean, isn't that creepy? It really is. That was one of the elements of this story that if you're doing a live shot on location, or if you're live in the news station, you're not somewhere else, you are there. So if I'm live in front of the firehouse or live in front of the State House, or live on TV, someone could find me because they know exactly where I am. 

Linda

You're vulnerable to someone who would do you harm because they know where you are. 

Hank 

Exactly. And that's why the spotlight can be the most dangerous place of all. You're very vulnerable in this life and especially in these times of just raging social media. Everything that anybody does, is videoed and photographed and repeated and shared and you know, in television, you can't make any mistakes, as a journalist, you can't make any mistakes. You can't say the wrong word or call someone the wrong name. You can't miscalculate. You can't be one second late. You can't have a bad hair day because a million people will see it.

Linda 09:10

It's funny you say that because when the pandemic first started and people were on the Today Show, and Savannah Guthrie is reporting from home in a makeshift studio in her basement and people are complaining about her hair and makeup because she did it herself and it's like cut someone some slack.

Hank 09:30

And it's so perfect that you say that because what do they think happens? She is superly famous she is immensely enormously famous and there are hair and makeup people that make her look perfect, Her Perfect Life when she goes on TV, but when she's just Savannah, when she when you're judging her whatever word you use for her journalism and presentation skills, which are mammoth and fabulous. What do you care what her hair looks like, but you do but people and that's what they comment about.

Linda 10:00

Do you feel pressure as a person who's in the public eye to always be on when you're out in public?

Hank 10:08

Oh, Oh, absolutely. 100% and I, again, I'm very, I'm very wary of sounding like I'm whining and complaining about this, I embrace it thoroughly. And I love my job as a reporter. I love my job as an investigative reporter. Not everyone loves me know that, which is another element of the thing Emmys on my wall represents something a secret that someone's told about someone that I put on TV. And so people are not always happy to see me but in answer to your question. Sure, you know, if I'm walking down the street or in a mall, remember malls? Yes. If I'm walking down the street or just thinking about something, I can tell you that I actively remember to have a pleasant look on my face. So people don't think oh, what is she angry about? No, let's just say that something happens in a store that might be annoying. And that you might say, could you just help me or whatever it is, whatever thing whatever little tiny human frustration you might have, and we all have them. I can't do that. I can't do that. I can't ever be angry or annoyed or upset in public because then it colors my whole – the whole vision of myself. I mean, people will say, Well, wait, aren't you Hank Phillippi Ryan? And I say, Oh, yeah, it's fine. You know, that kind of thing. So it's always a tightrope. And again, I'm saying this over and over, but I, I love it. But it's just something that you have to be careful about. 

Linda

Is this book part of a series?

Hank

No, Her Perfect Life is a standalone. I love writing standalones. I've written many series books, and I adore that too. But writing a standalone is different. Because there are no holds barred. And a standalone – a standalone is the biggest thing that ever has happened in this person's life. And the reader gets to be in on this big moment, this big decision, this big change that happens to them, this big dramatic thing. And the cool part about writing a standalone is that yeah, you have to make up the whole story. Unlike a series where you have your character and you're happy and you have your setting, and you have the job of the – you know what's going on. In a standalone, anything can happen. There are no expectations for the reader, it's just take me on this ride. So it can be good, and anyone can be bad, and anyone can be lying. And anyone could die, anyone could die. So when you open the pages of Her Perfect Life, you have no idea when you read the first page, who will still be alive at the end of the book, it could be anyone and that for a writer is this enormous fun of just saying what Watch, watch me die, watch what happens now. And don't even try to figure this out because you never will.

Linda 13:03

Because with a series, you've got a world that you've created that things have happened before. And the presumption is that things will happen after so you have a fair amount of comfort that the main characters that you know and love will still be alive at the end of the book. But you're right, in a standalone, that comfort is part of the mystery, because there's no guarantee that they will be alive at the end. 

Hank 13:29

Exactly. But it is interesting from the other standpoint to a point that you bring up so beautifully is that in a series, you do have all those things, the main character, and the setting and the goals. But what you don't have in a series is the knowledge that the reader knows that the main character is not going to die. And the challenge for the author at that point is to create a story that's so compelling, and so riveting, and so interesting, and such a page turner, even though the reader knows that the main character cannot be in truly mortal danger because they can't die. Jane Ryland isn't going to die in Say No More because she's coming back for another book and the reader knows that. So that is a separate but equally difficult challenge for a writer.

Linda 14:16

And they may be alive but they may be beaten or bruised at the end.

Hank 14:21

Well, sure, emotionally and physically right. But they will return for the next book in the series. So that is an element of suspense that is taken from a series author.

Linda 14:32

Yes. Do you have a writing routine or schedule?

Hank 14:36

I have one. And it's interesting because as a result of being a reporter for all those years, I think my writing metabolism has been trained by the six o'clock news and the 11 O'Clock News. I mean, I can tell you right now what it's going to be when it's five minutes till six o'clock, no matter what's happening, I can tell you when that is and I can tell you when 11 o'clock is. Because for so many years, that was my deadline, my brain starts kicking into gear at about four in the afternoon. I think it thinks it's getting ready for the six o'clock news. So poor thing. So I write best in the afternoon and evening and late-night, I'm pretty good at writing at 10 11 12 at night, which does not really work in the real world. But that's what I'm best. So I my routine is to sort of try to get my administrative stuff done in the morning, I'm working part-time at CHANNEL SEVEN now. So I do that in the morning. And all I write articles and blogs and you know, first chapter fun and The Back Room and a mighty blaze projects that I'm working on. So happily, and then when my writing brain kicks in, I turn everything off. And I actually set a timer for 34 minutes, which is about my length of time, you know, my time span of attention at one point, I make myself work for 34 minutes, no phone, no getting a Diet Pepsi, no doing the laundry, no checking email, nothing, nothing, nothing. And if I can do that, usually what happens is I just set the timer again for another 34 minutes, because I've learned that I have to immerse myself in the book. And once I force myself to do that, then I take off writing.

Linda 16:19

That's really interesting. And I think it's funny that 34 minutes is such a specific amount of time, it's not 20 or 25 minutes. 34 is just very specific. But it's interesting that over the years, you have determined that that's your window before you need a break.

Hank 16:35

I know, it's funny, and we all have our set times, but 30 minutes didn't really seem long enough. But 45 minutes seemed too long. So I just came up with 34. And one of my mottos as a writer is if it works, it works. 

Linda

Exactly. Do you outline? 

Hank 

No, I do not. You know, I'm writing my 14th book now to book one, which I just completely had no idea what I was doing after Prime Time. During Prime Time I didn't know what I was doing at all. But after that, I began to realize that, wouldn't it be fun to have an outline? So I knew what I was doing. Imagine that, wouldn't that be great, but I could never do it. I sort of tried. Every book I write, I think this time, I'm going to write an outline. And then this time, I don't. And I just do it the way I do it. And I can tell you, Linda, that my theory about this is that after all these years as a reporter, when I'm doing a television story, I don't know what the end of the story will be. I start with a theory or an idea or a question. And I go out and I find the story. And I wait to take in all the information before I figure out what the end will be. And I think that's what I do as a writer as well. I set myself up in a situation and then I go out and find the story. So even though I have some writing days when I think whose idea was this, and I have more, what's going to happen next. And I cannot do this, I do think that I've trained myself not to be afraid of not knowing what happens next, but just sort of to embrace the idea that anything could happen. And now let's see what it is. And I can't wait to get to the computer to find out…

Linda 18:20

…and trust the process that you had a glimmer of an idea. And even though you may not consciously know at this moment where it's going, your subconscious will guide you in the end to where you want to go. 

Hank

This is my fervent hope every minute of every day. 

Linda

Now, you mentioned The Back Room tell us a little bit about The Back Room, because I have really enjoyed that. It's not a venue per se – I guess it's an online venue. But tell us a little bit about The Back Room. 

Hank 18:53

Well, I would love to figure out a name for it and maybe you all can help me. But Karen Dionne, the fabulous internationally bestselling author Karen Dionne, and I had an event together early on in the pandemic. And it was one of those author events where you don't see the audience, and there wasn't even chat. So it was just the two of us on screen talking with each other when we realized how much we missed the feedback of actual people listening to us, you know, we had no idea if anybody was out there. And that was so bizarre. I mean, we've sort of gotten used to that in the pandemic. But early on that was very weird just talking to a screen and wondering if that sound was going anywhere and making any difference. So we spent a couple of days on the phone for hours and hours and hours and hours trying to cook up a way to have a real author event as close to up close and personal as you could have during the pandemic, where readers and authors could connect and meet and really talk one-on-one as much as there could be, because how would we learn about new books during the pandemic? How would we learn about new authors during the pandemic? Back in the before times we were trained that an author would come into town. And we would go to their bookstore or the library and hear them speak for an hour. And that was great. And we could meet them. And we could get a book then we get it signed. And we get a picture of all that we just went to the wayside in the pandemic. So Karen and I were trying to recreate a way to keep that connection. So we decided on a series of writer panels done via Zoom breakout rooms, where the four authors on the panel would have a little 20 questions type of thing so that the audience could get to know them, each would be assigned a breakout room, and the audience would be divided into four, each quarter of the audience would get 15 minutes, essentially one-on-one with a breakout room with the author with their video on and with their audio on if they wanted. So just like a cocktail party on Zoom with an author that was new to you, or a favorite author or someone that you always wanted to meet, a way to really connect. And it's crazy that we've been doing this for more than a year now, which is quite astonishing, with more than 100 authors who have been there with us to – I don't want to say wild success, but kinda. People are so grateful for the opportunity readers and authors – and I guess that's the same thing – grateful for the opportunity to really get to talk to really get to see each other in our upcoming season at The Back Room, which is The Back Room dot ORG, The Back Room dot ORG. We're having Linwood Barclay and Tess Gerritsen and Jane Healy and Mark Sullivan, Naomi Hirahara, and Wanda Morrison, Tamron Hall, and just it's this great, amazing jaw-droppingly wonderful group of authors, and it's every other Sunday at 7pm. Online, and it's free, and it's just great. So we're quite thrilled with that.

Linda 21:50

It's really been fabulous. Even if an author wasn't on book tour, or was on book tour, but not coming to your town, the booksellers still knew about it. So they would hand sell books where they would tell you about what had just come out, or you would see their top 10 or their top 20 bestsellers. So you would know what has recently come out. So I think The Back Room is doing a really terrific job of getting the word out for new and not so new releases, too. Because just this past Sunday, I think all of the books had been out for a little bit of time, the spy thriller panel with…

Hank 22:28

Lara Prescott and Lauren Wilkinson, Aya de Leon and Alma Katsu, whose great, wonderful book Red Widow is about to be a TV movie. So that's fantastic. And we want to have people you know, and people you love and people you've never heard of, and debut authors. So we have this wonderful mix of panelists every time and the other thing we decided to do was Karen and I decided to ask each author to also recommend a book that they love and that they're reading. So we not only hear about the panelists books, but we hear about one of their favorite books as well.

Linda 23:02

And that's really terrific. Because I can tell you that I have either picked up a new book that way, or gotten a book out of the library that way, because I do get in a rut with my reading, I tend to read the people that I'm familiar with. So hearing from someone that they love this book or hearing about the book from the author, just gives me another reason to buy a book – as if I needed another reason.

Hank 23:27

I know that's so sad. But that's Karen and my diabolical plan is to keep your to be read pile is just top almost toppling over.

Linda 23:35

I can tell you that it's successful. Yeah. Well, this has been really terrific. And I will have the links to The Back Room.org and to your website in the show notes. Some of the other topics that we've talked about as well. I'll have a link to your new book, which comes out in a couple of days. It's been as always a pleasure talking with you, Hank.

Hank 23:56

Oh, my goodness. Thank you. Your questions are so profound and so wonderful. So eager to be able to talk about this book, I have a wonderful array of events coming up to celebrate Her Perfect Life with Jennifer Hillier, and Samantha Downing, and Mary Kubica, and one person who's interviewing me for Her Perfect Life is James Patterson. Wow. I know, is that so crazy? So I'm sort of blinking in awe at that and I hope you'll all come to the events and celebrate with me, the pandemic has been awful and we're so full of sorrow during this time. So we are looking for bright lights and you Linda are definitely one of them.

Linda 24:35

Oh, well, thank you so much. 

Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit tartwords.com/tart450. Before you go, Follow or Subscribe for free to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Follow now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for Bakers, Readers, and/or Writers at tartwords.com/about. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words. 

Hank Phillippi Ryan

Author

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 13 psychological thrillers, winning the genre's most prestigious awards: five Agathas, four Anthonys, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also an investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, winning 37 EMMYs. Book reviewers call her “a master of suspense” and a “superb and gifted storyteller.” THE FIRST TO LIE garnered a Publishers Weekly starred review and is nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Novel and Mary Higgins Clark Award. Watch for HER PERFECT LIFE on September 14, 2021, which received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, which called it "A superlative thriller."