Award-winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan: a life of secrets and intrigue

Hank Phillippi Ryan

by Timothy Pike

As Hank Phillippi Ryan drove home late one night after anchoring the weekend newscast in Atlanta, she made the turn down her block—and gasped.

Her house was surrounded by police cars.

“Someone had broken into my house,” she tells me. “The police caught him, and he confessed to them that he had chosen my house to break into because he knew I was live on television.”

Hank realized it was one of the many perils of living life in the spotlight. “Because he knew where I was, he knew where I wasn’t,” she says. “That understanding of the deep vulnerability of being a television reporter began to haunt me.”

While that bone-chilling experience happened in the 1980s, it actually inspired her most recent thriller novel, Her Perfect Life. For Hank, who now works as an investigative reporter in Boston, the incident raised a lot of questions in her mind. “What if I had something hidden in my house that I didn’t want anyone to see?” she wondered. “What if he had found it? What if he threatened to make it public? And that was the beginning of the story.”

The story centers on Lily, a television reporter who seemingly has everything: fame, fortune, an adorable young daughter, and even her own hashtag: #PerfectLily. Interestingly, the real-life burglary of Hank’s house, which sparked the idea for the novel, is not part of the plot. “Her Perfect Life,” Hank says, “turned out to be about sisters, betrayal, guilt, fame, and revenge.”

It’s also about the enemies Lily makes by spilling secrets. “Although in Her Perfect Life Lily has many fans, she also has a lot of enemies,” Hank explains. “Think about it: every one of those Emmys she’s won—just like the ones I’ve won—means there is someone whose secret she’s told. Someone who’d rather she’d have stayed quiet. Every one of those Emmys represents a new enemy.”

Hank’s love of books started when she was growing up in rural Indiana. And when I say rural, we’re talking rural. “So rural,” Hank says, “that you couldn’t see another house from my house.”

“My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library to get books,” Hank recounts, “and we read up in the hayloft of the barn behind our house. That’s where I fell in love with Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie.”

Later in life, Hank would win five awards named after the latter author: the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, along with four others. And Her Perfect Life was just nominated for yet another.

The wide-eyed wonder that lingered from the hayloft days—and the belief that good triumphs over evil—was what led Hank to journalism.

Early on, the appeal of fiction writing took a back seat to the allure of sleuthing. “Though I always thought about being a writer, even as a little girl,” Hank tells me, “I decided, back then, it might be more fun to be Sherlock Holmes than to write about Sherlock. So being an investigative reporter and a crime fiction author, I got a little of each.”

The two professions truly go hand in hand. “Both those careers are about storytelling, right?” Hank says. “And suspense. And secrets. And I do think being a reporter taught me even more about storytelling—so it all works.”

“I’m writing stories all the time,” she says. “Hundreds of stories, maybe thousands, all with a character you care about, a problem that needs to be solved, where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.”

Then, in 2005, the idea for a mystery novel hit her. “I’d been on the air for thirty years when I got the idea for a novel,” Hank says. “I can still clearly recall that moment, because I got chills at the time. You know that feeling when you have the perfect idea? And I knew I had. So I came home and told my husband I was going to write a novel. He was incredibly supportive, although his first words were, ‘Do you know how to write a novel?’ And I said—and I remember this so well, too—’How hard can it be? I’ve read a million of them.'”

“I soon found out how hard it could be,” she recalls, “but I was obsessed, and driven, and worked nights and weekends and all through vacations.” Her obsession paid off: the result was the award-winning Prime Time.

Since then, Hank hasn’t slowed down, and still brings her A-game to the writing table on a daily basis. “I set myself up to succeed every day,” Hank says. “Here’s how: I know if I write 540 words a day, my first draft will be done a month before I have to turn it in, and that way I can edit for a solid month—my favorite part.”

“As a little girl,” Hank says, “I decided it might be more fun to be Sherlock Holmes than to write about Sherlock.”

“I remind myself that writing a novel is all about arithmetic,” she says. “Addition. And that if I write every day, adding and adding, eventually I will have a first draft. It’s such a step-by-step process, isn’t it?”

Part of that process involves setting realistic targets. “Writing 540 words is a reachable goal,” Hank says. “And that means I succeed. And success gives me the fuel to want to succeed again the next day.”

The recipe for a winning novel, as far as Hank is concerned, is simple. “Tell a good, solid, riveting story about an irresistibly interesting person,” she says, “a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Learn the rules before you try to break them. Don’t try to be all writerly and clever.”

And try not to be overly concerned with every aspect and detail of the process. “The only thing you have control of is that you write the best story you can,” Hank says. “And it is going to take much longer than you think. It’s much harder than you think. And that is a good thing.”

“It’s going to be terrible at first,” she adds. “But you can always fix it.”

Hank admits she doesn’t always know where her own stories are going even as she writes them. “My favorite part of writing Her Perfect Life was when I finally figured out how it would all end. And that came very late in the book,” she says. “I don’t use an outline, so I’m writing along, happily, and the story is emerging—if I am lucky—but there is some point in the book where you have to find the answer. It’s like setting up a mystery that I then have to solve.”

“Tell a good, solid, riveting story—with a beginning, middle, and end—about an irresistibly interesting person.”

Hank’s next book is slated for release in January 2023. “My upcoming novel from Forge Books is called The House Guest,” she says. “It’s a standalone, psychological suspense novel. Here’s how I describe it: A loving young wife is baffled—and bitter—when she’s unceremoniously dumped by her powerful husband. But when the FBI comes calling, she wonders what’s really behind his shocking change of heart. She is alone and terrified and about to lose everything—and then a seductive new friend moves in, offering a tantalizing idea. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller about toxic husbands and tempting new friendships, and the devastating choices women are forced to make.”

As Hank continues to balance her high-profile writing career with her high-profile TV career, she knows the pressure is on every single day, especially given the nature of her investigative work. “You can never be wrong,” she tells me, “never make a mistake, never use the wrong word, or call someone the wrong name, or miscalculate, and never be one second late. And you have to do the whole thing with perfect hair and makeup and a hundred thousand people watching. All part of the job.”

As for the dangers inherent in her line of work, the break-in she experienced in the 80s was just the tip of the iceberg. “I’ve been stalked, followed, yelled at, threatened,” Hank says, “had people come to my house, and harass me on the phone.”

In Hank’s mind, however, it’s all worth it. The wide-eyed wonder that lingered from the hayloft days—and the belief that good triumphs over evil—was what led Hank to journalism in the first place. “I think my career as an investigative reporter is a result of my curiosity, and my love of storytelling, and my—if I can say so—desire to stand up for the little guy and change the world.”

Hank Phillippi Ryan is the USA Today bestselling author of thirteen thrillers, winning five Agathas, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and thirty-seven Emmys for investigative reporting in Boston. Her newest is Her Perfect Life, a chilling psychological standalone about fame, family, and revenge. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, calling it “superlative.” It’s now nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel. Her next is The House Guest, coming in January 2023.

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