There’s no mystery behind Hank Phillippi Ryan’s towering achievements in both the journalism and fiction-writing realms: She’s an intelligent, passionate, persistent and entertaining presence.
The Communicators Club’s Sept. 14 audience enjoyed a personal tour of Hank’s ongoing run as a multiple-Emmy-winning investigative television reporter and mid-life pivot to a mystery novelist of equal stature. The memorable presentation marked the start of TCC’s 2022-23 event series. We’re currently working out the details for our next virtual guest speaker in early November.
Hank’s driven personality took shape early. As a 14-year-old middle school outcast and “book nerd” being raised in rural Indiana, she recalled the moment that set her future paths: immersing herself in the Agatha Christie masterpiece, “Murder on the Orient Express.”
“I really fell in love with storytelling … to turn the pages and wonder what was going to happen next,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I could be a mystery writer when I grow up. And then I thought, ‘Maybe it would be better to be a detective than to write about detectives.’
“I knew I was going to grow up to do something that mattered, something that made a difference. Something that stood up for the little guy,” she said. “To have it matter that my life existed.”
Thirty-seven broadcast Emmys, and five Agatha Awards, four Anthony Awards and one Mary Higgins Clark Award later, Hank has more than lived up to that prophecy.
‘If you learn one thing from tonight, it’s that it is never too late to follow your dreams. I’m the poster child for following your dreams in mid-life.’
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN
Her TCC discussion included the revelation that, aside from a starting point, her mysteries are devoid of outlines or predetermined plot points.
“George R.R. Martin said there are two types of writers: plotters, who plot out everything, and pantsers, who write everything by the seat of their pants. I’m definitely a pantser,” Hank mused, noting a similar analogy that compares architects to gardeners. In her writing process, she’s “the gardener (who) plants a seed and watches it grow.”
Long before her Emmy-earning television work that sparked reforms within the 9-1-1 emergency call system, spurred legislative funding for decrepit firehouses and exposed mortgage-financing fraud, Hank related two profound moments rooted in 1970.
The first occurred when, as a recent college graduate (who’d majored in Shakespeare) and failed political operative, she sought a reporting gig at her home state’s largest radio outlet. When the station’s news editor asked why he should hire someone with “zero” relevant experience, Hank’s investigative chops were unleashed.
Having researched recently passed federal equal-opportunity laws, she pounced: “ ‘I can give you one good reason: Your license is up for renewal with the Federal Communications Commission, and you don’t have any women working here.’ The next day, I had my first job in broadcasting.”
A more encompassing milestone was the emerging “Class of 1970” that championed women’s rights while upending the media cart.
“All of of us who started in the ’70s had to deal with that change, and had to be more passionate and a little more aggressive and confident,” Hank said in citing contemporaries Jane Pauley, Lesley Stahl, Barbara Walters and Jessica Savitch. “I’m so proud to be a part of that group that changed the world and broke the gender barrier.”
As a TV anchor and reporter for 43 years, Hank is renowned for her work at Boston’s WHDH-TV. But she wasn’t bitten by the mystery bug until age 55.
“One day at Channel 7, I just had a good idea for a (mystery) novel,” Hank said. Unmoved by her attorney husband’s warnings about the many possible pitfalls, she explained that “you try to poke holes in it, and it just becomes stronger.”
Her budding obsession blossomed into “Prime Time,” the Agatha Award-winning Best First Novel of 2007. She’s authored a dozen more mysteries over the past 15 years. Her latest, “The House Guest,” is on deck for a February 2023 release.
Hank revealed to TCC’s attendees how an earlier job as a TV anchor in Atlanta inspired her current cliffhanger, “Her Perfect Life.” The book has starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, with the latter hailing it as “a superlative thriller.”
Arriving home one night from a late shift, she saw police cruisers clustered in front of her property. The officers explained that a media-aware burglar “knew where you were,” and had surmised the house was unoccupied. As Hank relived “the vulnerability of being in the public eye” in that long-ago moment, the idea of “Her Perfect Life” percolated. “I started thinking, ‘What if I had a secret inside my house, and he discovered that secret? What could he do with that bit of knowledge, and how could he hurt me with it?’ ”
Those ruminations became the basis for Lily Atwood, a Boston TV reporter and single mom whose ‘Perfect Life’ character harbors a dark secret. “It’s about sisters, and fame, and betrayal, and revenge,” teased Hank. “It’s two smart women facing off in a psychological cat-and-mouse game.”
The book’s nomination has placed Hank in the running for a sixth Agatha – the namesake award of the author who fired the imagination of an isolated Indiana teen.
Hank graciously took time to answer questions after the talk, touching on techniques to get to your novel started; detailing how to “fall back in love” with your story when tedium and self-doubt set in; and offering advice on getting published and recruiting the right book editor.