Like any good criminal on the run or a scruple-less administrator trying to pull one over on unsuspecting victims, Hank Phillippi Ryan leads somewhat of a double life. While many know her as the Emmy- and Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist on Boston’s NBC affiliate, many more have come to know her as the Agatha, Anthony, Daphne, Macavity, and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning mystery novelist whose most recent book, What You See, is another Agatha and Anthony nominee, a Library Journal “Best of” candidate, and the latest in her long string of second-career successes. What even these people may not know, however, is that Ryan is also a founding teacher at Mystery Writers of America University and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. And what may be most surprising of all is how it all came to be!
When asked how she got her start as a writer, Ryan looks way back before her first novel in 2004 or her first time at WHDH in 1983.
“I wanted to write mysteries since I was a little girl reading Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie,” Ryan recalls, admitting that she was a “bookish girl” who “yearned to have adventures…or at least to write adventures!”
Ryan says that mysteries appealed to her in particular because she loved the idea that a clever author could create a puzzle that a “smart person” could solve. “I thought it would be fun to write mysteries that I knew the answer to and see if someone else could solve them—but even better, whether I could keep the reader in suspense, and then surprise them at the end.”
This desire for a literary litmus test was compounded after college when Ryan decided that she also wanted to do something that “would make a difference and matter.” When her career in politics as a campaign staffer did not produce any winning candidates, however, Ryan decided to aim her writing and worthwhile dreams in a new direction. With only her gender and her chutzpah to speak for her, Ryan applied for a job at a radio station.
“I was not qualified in any way,” she admits, “with no experience in journalism at all, but I loved storytelling and that is the bottom line for a reporter. So I told them—I grew up here in Indiana, and I know where all the streets are. And then I added—and by the way, your FCC license is up for renewal and you don’t have any women working here.”
As the station had to watch its own bottom line, they hired Ryan and her life as a reporter began. It was 1971.
While the path may have been circuitous, Ryan reasons that it was all of a piece.
“From the time I was a little girl to the time I got hooked on reporting,” she says, “it was all about telling a great story – with an important topic, and characters you care about, and a satisfying ending.”
When asked how she knows a story is “great,” Ryan recites the line cited by so many famous journalists.
“I was and am authentically interested in the story itself,” she explains, noting that this is often the only way she can choose her produced pieces from the hundreds of recommendations and requests she receives every week. “I love to see how stories unfold–how people behave, and why, and how they act and react. I try to make each story unique, a jewel, something special. That’s one of the joys of my life”
From her childhood home of Indiana, Ryan moved to Washington DC (working at the US. Senate and the Rolling Stone Magazine) and then to Atlanta before landing in the top-ten media market of Boston. Becoming an investigative reporter in 1988, it was not until 10 years ago that she turned her pen to the world of fiction that had so inspired her as a child. Again, though the journey was not so direct, Ryan realized that there was more similarities between fiction and non-fiction than she had originally supposed.
“Whether you are writing a hard-nosed investigative story or making stuff up,” she observes, “I keep saying this, but it’s still all about telling a terrific story- That’s all that matters!”
In each case, she suggests, a quality story is composed of fascinating characters and a compelling story that leads readers and viewers to root for the “good guys” and to care about the subject .And to entertain. As she has always been able to find (and now create) such stories, Ryan has loved every moment of her career.
“I fell in love with being a reporter,” she recalls. “I look forward to it every day—the politics and the crimes and the disasters, the features and the triumphs, it’s always something new and challenging and unexpected. It’s the adventure that I had wanted as a little girl. I could go anywhere and ask anyone anything and tell a story about it!”
Another element of Ryan’s own story in which pieces came together in mysterious ways is the fact that, while her stepfather and husband are both attorneys, her father was once the music critic for the Chicago Daily News who is himself a published author as well. So, despite the fact that Ryan never took a class in journalism, she apparently always had it in her.
“I never thought about that connection since we didn’t grow up together,” she explains. “It was a delight to realize that I had followed in his footsteps without knowing that I was.”
Another delight of her career is the fact that she has also been able to realize another childhood dream through her work.
“I was the only Jewish kid in my school,” she recalls, “and I used to gripe to my mother that it wasn’t fair. She would always reply: well, kiddo, life isn’t fair. I think that even back then, I wanted to work to make the world more fair. To prove that it could be fair and that I could be part of making that happen. That is such a key to my devotion to reporting.”
It is this devotion that has Ryan poring through hundreds of calls, emails and letters each week to find the stories that she feels she can do the most with.
“While she claims that the way a journalist chooses a subject is “one of the great mysteries of life,” Ryan credits her experience and her own story sense with helping her pick her pieces.
“In general,” she explains, “it’s a story that is important and that affects more than one person. It’s a story where we can inform people about how to improve their lives or their lot, and where we can make a difference.”
So even with her one-on-one focused “Help Me Hank” segments, Ryan says that she always hopes to help more than just the person who initially contacted her with the concern.
“We give information for people with similar problems,” she explains, noting that her larger investigative pieces for “Hank Investigates” are also intended to be relatable and educational to all viewers.
“Every time I get a phone call or an email or a letter,” Ryan explains, “there is always the hope that it contains the next big blockbuster story. People always ask—what’s the best story you’ve ever done? Even with 32 Emmys, I always say—it’s still to come.”
As he job requires patience, diligence, research, instinct, passion and confidence, Ryan relates her life to that of the detectives she loves to write about. “We follow leads, we collect clues, we do research,” she says, recalling undercover investigations, disguises and other occupational hazards that have helped put her in the mind of her subjects and put ideas for her subjects into her mind.
No matter what she does, who she talks to or what she wears, Ryan says the goal is always the same.
“The goal is to make a difference in the world,” she says, “and to change people’s lives and to stand up for the little guy.
In her previous release, Truth Be Told (which won the 2015 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and was also named Library Journal’s “Best Book of 2014” and an RT Book Reviews “Top Pick”), the little guys are all those who were caught up in the recent spate of housing loan scandals.
“It focuses on a series of murder victims found in empty foreclosed homes,” Ryan reveals, noting that three of her 32 Emmys were for stories about bank and mortgage fraud. “We got people out of foreclosure and got laws changed as a result of our stories. And now I get to take all that information and twist and turn and polish it and inject it with adrenaline and turn it into page-turning crime fiction.”
By taking elements of her own life and work and putting it down on the page in the guise of characters like her popular heroine Jane Ryland, the woman who covered the Claus Von Bulow trial and the Marathon bombing and other real-life cases that, in many ways, seem stranger than fiction, has been able to combine not only her childhood dreams and reality but fiction and reality in a most successful way.
“It turns out that for the past 40 years or so, I have been doing research for my new career as a crime novelist,” she muses, “and that’s hilarious!”
Matt Robinson has been a professional journalist for 20 years, in which time, he has contributed and edited over 4,000 pieces in the Jewish and general press. He also appears regularly on WBZ radio and The Needham Channel. Among Matt’s favorite topics are music, food, travel, parenting, education, and whatever else his colleagues ask of him. Matt also composes blog posts, development, marketing, and public relations materials, and other writings for individuals and organizations around the world.
To see more of Matt’s work, go to www.matt-meals.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.