Thursday, January 21, 2010

Susan Palmquist Interviews Hank Phillippi Ryan

How do I begin to tell you about my first interviewee of the year? She’s had success in just about every venture of her life. Hank Phillippi Ryan is a multi Emmy Award (yes, 26 of them!) winning investigative reporter who currently works for Boston’s 7News.

She’s been the vice president of the Midwest Chapter of the National Beatles Fan Club, she’s worked at Rolling Stone magazine. She’s interviewed famous people like Prince Charles and Warren Beatty. She’s undercover to catch some bad guys. Oh, and don’t let me forget to tell you that she also writes great books too. Her first Prime Time won the prestigious Agatha Award. Her latest, Drive Time is released next month (February 2010). So here without further ado is my chat with the very talented Hank.

Susan Palmquist (SP)-Growing up, did you ever think you’d be an investigative reporter?
Hank Phillippi Ryan (HPR)-Definitely—not. You know, I have a funny juxtaposition of desire to be in the spotlight—and sheer terror of being in the spotlight. I love my job in TV—and have to go live and unrehearsed all the time. Confession: I’m still terrified every time. I want to be perfect, and when you’re on live, you can’t possibly be. That’s one reason why I love investigative reporting—there’s more time to work, and dig, and polish, and produce, It’s like making a little movie, and I can make it as perfect as possible. Anyway, my sisters and I used to create musical shows when we were all young, and perform for our parents in our back yard. I did acting in high school and college. I wanted to be a DJ on the radio for a long time!  But I thought I would be an English teacher, or a lawyer for the Mine Workers union, or for awhile, a political activist. (My mother, though, says she always knew I would be a television reporter—but I think that was just her way of rationalizing that all I did as a pre-teen and teenager was read books and watch TV.) I knew from my first Nancy Drew that I loved mysteries. Nancy was my first best friend—I was a geeky unpopular kid, and it was such a relief to go home and hang out with Nancy. She was smart, and made it be okay to be smart. She was confident and inquisitive and resourceful. I loved that.  But being a TV reporter was not in my sights. Little did I know!

SP-How did you get started in that type of journalism?
HPR-I got into TV by chance. I had worked as a radio reporter (hired because, as I informed the radio station, they didn’t have any women working at the station! Hey. It was the seventies.) But after a few years working in Washington DC (on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide and then for Rolling Stone Magazine,) Rolling Stone closed its Washington office and I needed a new job. I went back home to Indianapolis, and applied for a job as a TV reporter. It was 1975. I had covered politics in Washington, and the news director of the station figured he could teach me to be a TV reporter. (This was incredibly risky—I had never taken journalism and didn’t know one thing about TV. But I wasn’t afraid and I knew I could do it.) Problem was, I should have been afraid! I quickly learned I had no idea what I was doing. I went home every night for the first two weeks, sobbing. Because I thought I would never understand it. Soon after—it hit me--oh, I get it! And I have adored it ever since. I took a chance, and found my calling. I started as the political reporter (and was also the movie reviewer, of all things! At age 26.)  At various times I’ve been the medical reporter, a weekend anchor, and an on the road feature reporter.  When I  came to Boston, I was the funny feature reporter--cat shows, sports features, poems, and anything quirky or funny. They used to call me “something out of nothing productions,” because I could find a story in anything. But starting in 1988, I covered the presidential election, doing long elaborate think pieces. It was terrific. And then I told my news director I didn’t want to be the funny one anymore. I wanted to be the serious one. And from that day on, I've been the investigative reporter. And I love it every day.

SP-When I was reading about all the things you’ve done as a reporter... like being chased by criminals, confronting corrupt politicians, etc, it’s almost like immersing myself in a nail biting novel. Have any of these experiences found their way into your books? 
HPR-There’s a huge been-there-done-that element to the books—I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, chased down criminals…been in disguise, been stalked, and threatened and had many a door slammed in my face. I’ve had people confess to murder, and others, from prison, insist they were innocent.  So when that happens to Charlie, it’s fair to imagine me. Although the plots are completely from my imagination, those are real-life experiences!

SP-How did the character of Charlotte ‘Charlie’ McNally come about?
HPR-What a great question. I have NO idea. She was born when I got a weird spam in my email. It was what looked like lines from a play by Shakespeare.  I thought--why would someone send a spam like that?  And it crossed my mind--maybe it's a secret message. I still get goose bumps telling you about it. And I knew, after all those years of wanting to write a mystery, that was my plot. And that turned out to be the Agatha-winning PRIME TIME. But Charlie? Well, I knew I had a good story, but who would tell it? A television reporter, of course. And she just instantly popped into my head. Named, fully formed. I knew her perfectly. The other characters were more difficult to get to know. But now, Charlie surprises me a lot! And I love when that happens.

SP-Is she anything like you? Has she ever done anything you wouldn’t do to get your story?
HPR-When my husband talks about Charlie, he calls her “you.” As in—when “you” are held at gunpoint, when you track down the bad guys, when you solve the mystery… and I have to remind him, “Sweetheart, it’s fiction. It didn’t really happen.” But a couple of things: I’ve been a TV reporter for more than 30 years. (Yes, really.) And so it would be silly, in writing a mystery about TV, not to use my own experiences. Think about it—as a TV reporter, you can never be wrong! Never be one minute late. Never choose the wrong word or miscalculate. You can never have a bad hair day, because it’ll be seen by millions of people! It’s high-stakes and high-stress—literally, people’s lives at stake--and I really wanted to convey that in the books. And everything that TV people do and say in the books is authentic and genuine. (Of course, Charlie can say things I can’t say, and reveal things I can’t reveal.) We’re both devoted journalists, and over-focused on our jobs. But Charlotte McNally is different, too. She’s single—I’m happily married. She’s ten years younger than I am, and so is facing different choices and dilemmas. She’s braver than I am, certainly. Funnier. And a much better driver.

SP-You’ve got four books under your belt, you’ve won an Agatha, and been compared to Lisa Scottoline. Will there come a time when you say goodbye to journalism to focus full time on your fiction?
HRP-Ain't that the question! I still smile in delight every time I see my Agatha teapot. And when the starred review in Library Journal for DRIVE TIME compared me to Lisa Scottoline, well, I burst into tears. But I still love my job in TV. So--you could ask me that question every day, and every day I'd have a different answer. And I guess the bottom line is: who knows?

SP-Any plans to write a non Charlotte McNally novel?
HPR-Yup. Absolutely. It's in the works. You heard it here first.

SP-Any other genre you want to tackle?
HPR-Yup.  :-)  It’s in the works. You heard it here first.

SP-Your husband’s a criminal defense attorney. Does he read your work or give you any tips or even ideas for plots?
HPR-He’s the most patient man on the planet. Yes, he's really the only person who reads my pages while they’re in process. When I first started writing PRIME TIME, I'd give him my five pages or so a day, and I'd hear him laughing and I was so delighted!  And he would tell me every day how terrific it was. Then, about fifty pages in, I went in for my daily pat on the back. And he had a funny look on his face.  "Honey?" he asked. "Is something going to happen soon?"  So I knew I had some work to do. Ideas for plots? Ah, no, not really. I'm always running ideas by him, to see if he thinks they’re plausible and believable.  And sometimes he'll come up with just the perfect little thing I need to pull something together. But we think very differently. He’s much more--wedded to reality.

SP-Your first two books were published by Harlequin Next but then the line was axed. Did you have other Charlie McNally books planned or already written? What was your reaction to the news?
HPR-Oh, yeah, that was briefly terrible. I got the news the day--I know it sounds crazy but it’s true--the day I finished book 3, AIR TIME. I was really happy about that, because I'm not sure I would have had the emotional wherewithal to persevere in the face of an imprint that was dying.  I--well, I freaked out. Then I went on a mental hunt for the good news in it, which was not terribly successful, I must say. But then--as so often happens--the good news emerged. A week or two later, my agent called to tell me the series had been moved to MIRA!  That was fantastic. And the rest is history.

SP-You’ve won accolades from some of the top writers in the business including some of my favorite authors like Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. Any tips you can offer for writing top notch mysteries and creating a great character like Charlie?
HPR-Well, thank you! Yes, it’s great, and Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton are my idols. (They’re also wonderfully generous, and truly authentic. I have three little talismans on my desk that Sue Grafton gave me, and I look at them every day.) Tips? Well, I read an interview with the poet Anne Sexton some time ago--and she was asked, "What, truly, can a creative writing teacher give her students?" And her answer was:" Courage."  I think that's so wonderful. And I think my advice would be similar--just don’t be afraid. Fear is a waste of time. Write your book. One page at a time. You can do it.

SP-Any mistakes you’ve made along the way, have you learned anything from them?
HPR-Hah. That’s another long blog for another day. Mistakes? Ah, on a huge level, people always yell at me for working all the time. ALL the time. Is that a mistake? None of this would have happened without that. Would I change it? I have to say no. So is that a mistake? I'm not sure.  On a tiny level, I should have put together a mailing list of bookstores. Still haven’t done that. Wish I had.

SP-What’s next for you?
HPR-Exactly what I'm trying to figure out. DRIVE TIME comes out February 1, with fantastic blurbs from the much-missed and iconic Robert B. Parker and Suzanne Brockmann and Margaret Maron and Carla Neggers and a rave starred review from Library Journal. So I'm hoping people love it. (And I'll be visiting lots of places across the US--hope some of our readers come visit! And then...we’ll see. I can't tell you how excited I am.

Win Some Prizes-Hank has very kindly offered to give an autographed copy of a Charlotte McNally Mysteries of your choice to Between the Pages readers. Just leave a comment for Hank and she’ll pick some winners. Good luck to all.

GIVEAWAY IS CLOSED: Qualifing names have been sent to the author so she can pick the winners. I'll list those as soon as I get the list of names back. 

Our Winners are: Nancye, Kris, Book Dileantte


1. You must be a blog follower to qualify 
2. You must leave an email address with your comment
3. Limited to the US and Canada
4. No PO Boxes

Susan Palmquist is a freelance writer and author of four novels including her latest release from Lyrical Press called Sleeping With Fairies. Check out her monthly blog here at Between the Pages where she ‘chats’ with an author or publisher/editor. And learn more about Susan at


  1. Thanks so much, Susan! Terrific and thought-provoking questions, as always! I'll check in from time to time to chat--any questions, please ask!

  2. You must have so many awesome stories! I really can't wait to read your work :)



  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Great interview Susan and Hank. I am so impressed with all your accomplishments, Hank. Like Amber Leigh Williams, I've got to read you books. It's been a pleasure to host both you and Susan here at Between the Pages.

  5. Hi Hank and Lynda,
    It was a great pleasure to interview you Hank, what a career you've had and an inspiration to us all. Lynda, it's also a great pleasure to have these interviews posted on your site.

  6. Thank you so much, Lynda! I love this site :)

  7. Enjoyed the interview, can't wait to read your work!

  8. I enjoyed your interview very much. You have a fascinating career, it must give you lots of ideas for your books. I can't wait to read them.

    seriousreader at live dot com

  9. I'm so happy to find a new mystery author! Always a reason to celebrate.
    (You have my email.)

  10. Author interviews inspire me to write more. I've enjoyed Hank Phillipi's Prime Time, so Drive Time will be fast-paced and intense, too.

  11. I'm a blog follower

    I'd love to win!

    harvee44 at

  12. Very interesting interview....but what I want to know out off all of's it feel to win all those awards! That's fantastic!

  13. I would love to win! thanks for the chance!