Who’s the cat and who’s the mouse? Hank Phillippi Ryan talks her latest thriller

Hank Phillippi Ryan

by Timothy Pike

Our cover author this month is investigative journalist Hank Phillippi Ryan, who has written fourteen thriller novels. Her latest, The House Guest, was just released, and here she discusses how she came up with the premise.

For more about Hank, check out our interview with her from last year.

Hank, thank you for joining us. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started writing.

I’ve been a television reporter for 43 years! I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras and confronted corrupt politicians, and gone undercover and in disguise. And won thirty-seven Emmys for investigative reporting.

But one day, gosh, sixteen years ago? I had what I knew would be a good idea for a novel. I came home and said to my husband, “I’ve got a great idea for a book! I’m going to write a thriller.” And my husband almost laughed (he’s very supportive, truly), and said, “Honey, do you know how to write a book?” And I replied—I remember it so well—”How hard can it be?” I soon learned how hard it could be, but that turned out to be my first novel, Prime Time, which won the coveted Agatha Award for best first novel. And that was the beginning of my career.

What are some things you enjoy when not writing?

When I am not writing, I am usually thinking about writing, worrying about writing, or thinking I should be writing. But I do love reading (I know, busman’s holiday). And cooking, and walking in our garden, seeing what flowers are arriving and departing. I love good movies and good TV, and sitting by the ocean with my husband, watching the pelicans skim across the water. I also enjoy sleeping, which becomes one of my major goals.

Do you have a particular writing routine?

I try not to have a routine because I worry if I had one, what would happen if I didn’t do that? Would I not be able to write? I’m very focused, though, and promise myself I will write 540 words a day, whether it takes half an hour or five hours. Sometimes, I even set a timer for thirty-four minutes and promise myself I will not do anything else—not do the laundry, not get a cup of coffee, not get the mail, not plan dinner—until those thirty-four minutes are up. I think my routine is to be completely focused on writing and to try not to be distracted. But my “routine” is to force myself to be utterly present and focused.

I love to write on airplanes, I think because it is so enclosed with a set time to begin and a set time to end. I have finished several novels on JetBlue, I have to say!

I started to realize how my husband could be doing who knows what in the other room, and if the feds swooped down on him, I would be utterly shocked.

Is there anything major that changed in this novel from when you plotted it out?

I have not plotted one bit of The House Guest. Every page was a surprise.

What career did you think you’d have as an adult?

I always thought I’d be a lawyer or maybe a geneticist. I know those sound different, but they both seemed like problem solving to me. It’s funny to think back and ask myself, What did I want to be when I grow up? And I will confess to you that I honestly had no idea. Everything in my life—from working in political campaigns, to being a radio reporter, to being a legislative aid on Capitol Hill, to working for Rolling Stone magazine, to being a television reporter, and then an author—has been a serendipitous surprise.

What was the original title of this book?

Oh, great question! It was originally called Her New Best Friend. But my editor worried that because the previous book was called Her Perfect Life, it might feel like a sequel. I’m really glad we changed it. I absolutely adore The House Guest (because which character is really The House Guest?)

What inspired the plot?

It’s so much fun to try to deconstruct how the character and plot of The House Guest evolved. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, where you take a million little squares of different things and twist and turn and click-click-click and then, somehow, it’s a finished puzzle. You just don’t know what the puzzle pieces will be right away.

So for The House Guest, a few things became the puzzle pieces. First, since the beginning of the pandemic, my criminal defense attorney husband and I have worked from home—me in my study and him in the breakfast room-turned-law office. For many hours a day, we don’t see each other. But we can kind of, sometimes, hear each other.

I hear things like “plea bargain” and “mandatory minimum sentence” and “absolutely not guilty” and “How was he supposed to know there was money in the dropped ceiling?” Once, even, “I know it seems unlikely that he would commit a crime wearing a GPS bracelet, but there you have it.”)

But I began to realize that he was lawyering for eight hours a day, and I actually had no idea what he was doing. I mean, we’ve been married for twenty-seven years or something, and I know what a lawyer does. And we talk about his cases in general, and about the law, and it’s very rewarding to have in-house counsel.

But I started thinking, what, specifically, was going on in the breakfast room? I realized I had no idea. And then I started thinking about how many couples are shocked when one of them is accused of some crime and the other one says those very words: “Oh, I had no idea!” And the rest of us all raise our eyebrows and sneer and say, Come on, that person lives with you! There’s no way you don’t know what they’re doing. And I was among the scornful disbelievers.

I also adore the second to last chapter of the book. I was by myself in my study as I wrote it—and when I finished, I stood up and applauded.

Not anymore. I started to realize how my husband could be doing who knows what in the other room, and if the feds swooped down on him, I would be utterly shocked. Now, you know my darling husband, he’s a paragon and adorable and brilliant and perfect, but I’m just saying. I think of all the people—Bernie Madoff’s wife, Ted Bundy’s wife, Anna Delvey’s pals—who insist they had no idea, and we think, well, then you’re not paying attention.

But it’s possible, I began to realize, that it was true. What if they really didn’t know? Or successfully pretended they didn’t? So that was one idea.

Then. I had an acquaintance long ago who thought she was happily married, and she’d go to work every day and send her husband off to whatever he did—accounting or insurance or something financial. And for him, the “next big sale” and the “next big deal” was always around the corner, and she was incredibly supportive. And then one day the police came.

She found that he had been trading in child pornography at home on the computer all day, and had never, never, never even been to that supposed job! She was a really smart woman. Truly. And she absolutely had no idea.

So then I put those things together. And I was interested in what it would be like to be the woman whose husband is accused of a terrible thing, and add to that that he’s dumped her. So she’s baffled and angry, and terrified of being alone for the first time in her life. What does she do? Does she believe his denials? Or law enforcement’s accusations? And what does she do then?

So it’s a story about Alyssa Macallen getting her power back. You can see glimmers of Gaslight, Thelma & Louise, and even Strangers on a Train, but it’s not any of those. But it certainly was a joy to write. I have no idea how my books will end, so in the end, I will admit there were days that I sat at my computer and read my screen—and applauded. Thinking, Wow, who would’ve thought that would happen?

Greed. Betrayal. Gaslighting. Female empowerment. Revenge. The House Guest is a high-stakes psychological cat and mouse game. But which character is the cat, and which character is the mouse?

Do you have a favorite chapter or scene?

It’s so funny, but in The House Guest, I absolutely love Chapter 6. Isn’t that random and strange? But a lot happens in that chapter. And then I also adore the second to last chapter of the book. Honestly, I will admit, I was by myself in my study as I wrote it—and when I finished, I stood up and applauded. We take our joys when we can, right?

Do you have a manuscript in your drawer?

No, I really don’t. Isn’t that odd? But my first book was Prime Time, and that’s all there ever has been.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Oh, golly. There’s something about trust. It’s all about trusting the process. The process of storytelling. Being a successful author is much harder than anyone could ever have imagined. It takes a long time, and it takes even longer to be good. It can be depressing and intimidating. An incredible amount depends on luck and timing, and those are things you can’t control.

But what you can control is writing the very best book you can, every single minute of every day. Do not compare yourself to others. Just keep forging forward. So much in your life is being decided by forces that you can’t change, so one step at a time, just keep going. Be kind, be generous, be happy for others. Be patient with yourself. Your turn will come.

Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV. She’s won thirty-seven Emmys and dozens more honors for her groundbreaking journalism. The nationally bestselling author of fourteen thrillers, Hank is also an award winner in her second profession, with five Agathas, five Anthonys, two Macavitys, the Daphne, and for The Other Woman, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her newest release is The House Guest, which follows 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. Hank lives in Boston.

Visit Hank online at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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