Hank Phillippi Ryan's debut Charlotte McNally novel, Prime Time, about a television reporter chasing down a big (and dangerous) story, earned the author an Agatha Award for best first novel in 2007. The Emmy Award-winning investigative television reporter for WHD-TV in Boston, hasn't slowed down since, penning another ten of her smart, socially incisive, female-powered novels to date, including five Jane Ryland thrillers, three more McNally books, and her first standalone, Trust Me (2018).
Her latest book, Trust Me, a psychological suspense, is a standout and possibly her best one yet. As in previous books, it features a reporter protagonist, but with a twist. Mercer Hennessey is commissioned to write a true crime bio of the sensational story of Ashlyn Bryant, a woman accused of murdering her young child. It's a tale about motherhood, murder, the sometimes elusive nature of 'truth.'
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I loved Trust Me so much and think it is by far your best book. How did it feel when you were writing it? Did it feel different?
Hank Phillippi Ryan: Thank you! And you are so wise—Trust Me felt different from moment one. First, my initial impetus for the book was not plot, and not character, but theme. And that’s completely different from any of the other nine books I’ve written.
Then, when I began page one, words and emotions appeared in a voice that was different from any I had written before. I wondered: Who is this talking? And where did this come from? That feeling of doing something special, of presenting someone special and distinctive and textured, lasted through the entire book. And at the moment Mercer and Ashlyn connected? I could not type fast enough.
And as my first psychological standalone, wow. The freedom of a standalone was breathtaking. Anyone could lie, anyone could be guilty, anyone could die. Absolutely everything goes on the table, and every loose end gets tied up. That’s very different from series writing, and though it took a while to understand the realities of it, I soon devotedly embraced the challenge—as well as the freedom and the power.
It's a slippery and deep dive into the nature of truth. Where did the inspiration for this theme come from?
Quick background: my husband is a criminal defense attorney, and one Sunday morning at the kitchen table, he was practicing his closing argument in an especially grim and dreadful murder case. He was so compelling, and so convincing, and so persuasive! I said, “Sweetheart, you are brilliant. You have woven the perfect truth using the evidence presented in the trial.” I told him: “This is a slam dunk acquittal.”
And then I thought about the prosecutor’s wife, listening to her husband practice his closing argument in the same case. Did she say to him “Sweetheart, you are brilliant. So persuasive, so convincing. You have woven the perfect truth using the evidence presented in the trial”? Did she then say, “This is a slam dunk conviction”?
That was so profound to me. How could there be two truths?
Then I decided what really happened in the murder it was probably something different from either one. And that’s when I thought: There are three sides to every story: yours and mine and the truth. I knew—this was my book. And that’s the essence of Trust Me.
And think about the real-life trials that end so jaw-droppingly: O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony. Will we ever know what truly happened in those cases? We probably won’t, and I’m fascinated by that.
Plus, and forgive me for this: What is truth, anyway? Is it what we believe? It is it what someone tries to convince us is true? Is there a true truth? I know that sounds lofty, but as a reporter, I think of that constantly. So as a crime fiction author, it made sense to continue to explore it. Writing this book changed my life as a reporter, and changed my life as a writer as well.
In each book you draw on your experience as an investigative reporter, which lends so a lot of credible detail to your books. How else has your experience helped your writing?
Oh my goodness, there’s no better experience for writing crime fiction than being a reporter. My entire career, I’ve explored motivation, and conflict, and goals, as well as desire, and manipulation, and rationalization. I have seen the darkest of the dark side, and the saddest of the sad. My stories have led to new laws, and changed people’s lives. Nothing happens to my fictional reporters that wouldn’t happen in real life, and, sure, often there are things that actually happened to me. I feel very lucky to be able to use all of that.
Plus, if a reporter is doing the job properly, viewers will have no idea how they really feel about the story, right? Are they afraid, skeptical, reluctant, obsessed? So I loved allowing readers to get inside Mercer’s head, and to understand what she thinks about the murder trial she’s covering, compared to what she actually writes.
Trust Me is one obsessed journalist and one troubled mom, facing off in a psychological cat and mouse game to prove their truth about a terrible crime. But which one is the cat, and which one is the mouse?
Let's talk about your book tours. You and Jenny Milchman are tied, I think, for the longest book tour, but no one does it like you do. You are everywhere. How do you pull this off while still working as a reporter, and as a novelist? What's your secret? No sleep?
Oh no! I love to sleep! It is one of my favorite things. And happily, I can sleep anywhere. My secret to good book tour? I enjoy it! Completely. (Thank you, Forge Books.) I pull my little wheelie bag through airport concourses and sing "Magical Mystery Tour." (Softly. To myself.) How lucky can anyone be to get to do this? So even when things go a little bit wrong, I still think, Wow, this is great.
Do you have a favorite story about a signing or appearance?
You know when you give a party, how there’s always the moment at two minutes ‘til seven where you think, Oh no! No one will come! My best moments are the ones when I peek out of the green room door, and the every chair is filled. It’s unbelievably reassuring, almost brings tears to my eyes, when I see a room full of people.
The worst, oh, I try to find some sort of positive, even in the ones that—and this really happened—take place during an gigantic blizzard, when the governor has declared a snow emergency, but the bookstore owner insists on having the event anyway, saying “Our attendees always walk.” When I said, “Well, probably not in a blizzard,” she insisted they would. They didn’t.
Actually, one person was there. I gave her my all, since everyone gets 100 percent, no matter what. When I thanked her for coming she said, “Well, I was just waiting for the bus, and watched for it out the window as you spoke.”
You have now have 10 books under your belt, which includes, as it does for most writers, a change of publishers. What have you learned about publishing in your time in this rapidly changing business?
Oh, the change of publisher was because Forge was incredibly enthusiastic about The Other Woman (Forge 2012), so I was thrilled to sign up with them. Although MIRA was terrific. What have I learned about publishing? To write the very best book I can, no matter what the circumstances, because “the circumstances” are so often out of my control that it would be a waste of time to try to force the universe to be the way I want it to be.
The only constant in my publishing world is me. My passion, and my desire, and my obsession.
I have been a television reporter for 43 years. Can you believe it? And I think one of the secrets to career longevity is to work hard, and then work harder, and do the best, the utterly best you can, on every story.
What makes you excited when you sit down to write?
I can’t wait to find out what happens next! I have no outline or plan, and I have no idea who did it or who is lying, or who will get killed, or why. So I am my own Scheherazade, keeping myself curious every day. So when people say to me, “Wow, the end of Trust Me! You really surprised me!” I reply, “I know, wasn’t that a surprise?” Talk about a surprise ending, I surprise myself. Every day. Sue Grafton used to call that the magic, and I think of her, and that, every day.
Your books keep getting better and better and better. What are some of the most noteworthy things about writing you've learned?
Thank you! (And, between us, I agree, though I still adore Prime Time, something about each books gets better.) What I learned, and I hope this doesn’t sound strange, is that a writer can get better. I learn something at every conference I attend, and in every class I teach. Specifically, I’ve tried to become more precise in my writing, more present, more focused. To probe more deeply, unearth more motivations. I think precision has become a Holy Grail for me, to choose the perfect words. And not to waste any of them.
What's coming up next for you? Can you talk about your next book?
My next book? I can’t begin to describe how much I love it. It’s called The Murder List. Here’s what I can say without giving anything away:
Law student Rachel North will tell you the absolute truth as she knows it. She’s smart, diligent, savvy, and determined. She’s married to a hotshot defense lawyer, a good guy from moment one. Her summer internship with the crusading district attorney is her fast track to big-time career. Problem is: she’s wrong. What’s the murder list? Who’s the next person on it? And who is the woman on the cover? She will change everyone’s lives.
Again, The Murder List is different from anything I’ve ever written. So, crossing fingers.
I read a memoir by one of Picasso's wives that related the story of him taking his paintings into the Louvre and putting them next to paintings by Delacroix (who drove him nuts, because Picasso thought he was so great). Who is Delacroix for you? Whom do you admire?
Such a great story! And revealing, too, in that even the masters can envy talent on the canvases of others. As for non-master me, and talking about writers who I might actually be on the shelf with? Ah. Such a cruel question, because I cannot list everyone. I’d adore to have the skill and talent of Megan Abbott, Michael Koryta, John Lescroart, Lisa Gardner, Ruth Ware—oh and certainly Anthony Horowitz. Clever, fair, boundary-breaking, fearless—every book they write is reliably wonderful and reliably different. In the bigger picture? Edith Wharton, Stephen King, Shakespeare, Mark Helprin, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson. Those authors changed my writing life and continue to do so.
Hank Phillippi Ryan has won five Agatha Awards, in addition to the Anthony, Macavity, Daphne du Maurier, and Mary Higgins Clark Awards for her bestselling mystery novels. As an investigative reporter, her work has resulted in new laws, criminals sent to prison, and millions of dollars in restitution for victims and consumers. Along with 34 Emmys and 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards, Ryan has received dozens of other honors for her groundbreaking journalism. A former president of Sisters in Crime and founder of MWA University, she lives in Boston with her husband, a nationally renowned civil rights and criminal defense attorney.