Wednesday, October 8, 2014

An Interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan—Truth Be Told

She half-smiled hearing the voices of every j-school teacher
and news director repeating the same thing. The truth was
not always easy, and not always pleasant, and not always fair,
but it was her job to tell it, no matter what.
…Nothing mattered except what was true.
Hank Phillippi Ryan
                                                                                                                                              Truth Be Told (p. 283)

After up-and-coming TV reporter Jane Ryland is unfairly fired, she fears failure. She is concerned about her reputation, which depends on her telling the truth and getting the facts right, and sometimes she must fight with management to do so. Yesterday, the third book of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Jane Ryland series was released. I loved Truth Be Told.

Why? Here are a few examples. Hank writes a character’s observations of a married couple—“Betty Crocker meets Tommy Lee Jones.” Her dialogue infuses speech with thought/emotion. “’Pro—yikes—fessionally,’ Jane said, wincing as a buzzy little Fiat convertible cut in front of them.” There isn’t much I can add to compliment her work. It speaks for itself.

Please welcome Hank back to WWK.                        E. B. Davis

Book Jacket
While digging up the facts on a heartbreaking story about a middle-class family evicted from their suburban home—and on other foreclosures—reporter Jane Ryland soon learns the truth behind a big-bucks scheme and the surprising players who will stop at nothing, including murder, to keep their goal a secret. Turns out, there's more than one way to rob a bank.                                                                                                                                      

Jane Ryland, your main character, and her cameraman, TJ Foy, are covering a story about an eviction. They attend the clearing of a house by police when it becomes obvious they have found something nefarious in the house. Is it typical that one story leads to another?

HANK: TRUTH BE TOLD did come from an actual story! My photographer and I were covering an eviction, lots of deputies and lots of commotion and lots of trash in the front yard. It was incredibly sad. Unlike Jane in the book, I did not know who owned the home. We were just getting video for a story I was working on about mortgage fraud.

At one point a deputy came to the front door, I saw his silhouette outlined in the door frame. His whole body sagged, his shoulders, his head. So telling and so emotional. And I wondered… What if he just found a body in a back room?

Remember the deputies had been there for hours, cleaning out the house. And I thought—as a crime fiction author, of course: law-enforcement officers themselves have been inside that house, touching everything and moving everything around. What if they have ruined a crime scene? 
What if the cops ruined their own crime scene!

And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that would be the terrific beginning of the
thriller. And that is exactly how TRUTH BE TOLD begins.

And yes, in investigative reporting and in crime fiction, one story always leads to another! And it's those dominoes falling that make them so interesting.

(And a starred review from Library Journal says “Drop everything and binge-read until the mind boggling conclusion!” So I guess it worked.)

At one point, Jane asks TJ to stop filming. How much discretion does a reporter have in directing the camera person?

HANK: A videographer might give you a different answer, but as a reporter I can tell you the photographer generally shoots what they know is important, as well as what I ask for.

Doing a television story is by necessity a team effort of reporter and photographer, a wonderful collaboration. Each of us must use our skills.  I am envisioning the story, looking at the scene, understanding the relationships. Knowing what story I'm thinking about writing. The photographer sees the world in a different way, through the viewfinder. And I have to put together the final story based on what pictures I have to use. The better the video, the better the story.

I have learned so much that translates into writing from my video experience! There have to be wide, medium, and tight shots in the video, just as there have to be wide, medium, and tight shots in my crime fiction. Understanding focal length has made such a big difference in how cinematic my books are.  It’s all about the video—even though it’s only on paper.

With the advent of online editions, Jane’s stories are immediately posted. She no longer has the time to double check facts. The truth can mean the difference of one word, such as “possible” murder. Do you write for online additions, and is it increasingly hard to write truthful stories?

HANK: I don't write for online editions, but all of my stories (and the video) get put online. It is not increasingly hard to write "truthful "stories, since the care we take in writing stories is already as diligent as anyone could ever imagine.

It is, of course, incredibly difficult to be accurate when you are in a live situation—things are changing all around you, and you arrived at the scene of the story and have to go on the air instantly. I had to announce the Boston Marathon bombing, for instance, within minutes of the explosions, before anyone knew exactly what had happened. And I relied on my storytelling skills, interestingly, to make that work.

Sure, back in the day (imagine old-sounding voice) when we had only film, we had to get back to the station to develop the film by 2:45 if it wanted to be on the 6 o'clock news.

Now things can be on TV instantly. So that ramps up the pressure considerably. And that's what makes television reporting such a high-stress, high-stakes occupation. Which also, of course, is what makes the Jane Ryland books an exciting tightrope walk. When the goal is TRUTH BE TOLD, but instantly, how do you make sure you’re not making a mistake?

I was unfamiliar with a few journalism/broadcasting terms. Would you define the terms “white balanced” and “daybook radar?”

HANK: “White balancing” is a way to make sure the video color is correct. The photographer points the camera at something pure white, and then pushes the white balance button on the camera, and it calculates the color of the video. And when it “knows” white correctly, all the other colors are correct. When you see video on TV that’s green or orange? Someone hasn't white balanced.

The daybook is the list of stories that the assignment desk knows are taking place on a certain day. City Council meetings, school committee meeting, a court arraignment, press conference. So if it’s on the assignment desk daybook “radar,” that means they are aware of a story. If it's not on the daybook radar, that means it's a story the assignment desk has not been notified of.

There were a few essential legal facts that propelled your story. 1. Convicted felons didn’t always have to have DNA on file, but now they do. 2. Police need probable cause to search a suspect 3. A violation of parole gives police the authority to arrest a person.  Did you know these facts before you plotted the story, or did you incorporate them into the story after doing research and changed the plot?

HANK: It's always fascinating to see how a smart reader understands a story. The research elements of TRUTH BE TOLD I mostly knew from experience and incorporated them as I was writing. Often people ask me if I do research for my stories…. And I say, I’ve been a television reporter for 40 years, and I've been doing research that whole time! I just didn't know it. It also helps to have a criminal-defense attorney husband as in-house counsel.

I love the character, Liz. The reader feels and fears for her. She’s not only a Robin Hood (especially now that we know of the two-fold abuse of the bank mortgage industry), but she is also a smart cookie. How did you develop such a wonderful character? Can intelligence overcome naiveté, youth, and inexperience?

HANK:  Sue Grafton once told me that her Kinsey Millhone revealed herself to her over the course of the books. Thank you so much for your kind words about Liz! But where she came from is one of the mysteries of writing mysteries.

Her opening scene in TRUTH BE TOLD has her deciding what name she is going to use. That’s
because I was thinking about how we present ourselves to the world, and how we want others to perceive us. Liz knew from that moment that she was planning to do something that was goodhearted and well meaning, but illegal. And that was the genesis of Liz. She was teeming with conflict from moment one.

And yes, I agree she is wonderful…! And she’s still exploring who she'll be. But she is passionate, and compassionate, and really really smart. But as Sue Grafton explains about Kinsey, Liz revealed herself to me over time, and as the story evolved. She turned out to be even smarter than I had thought.

(And a starred review from Booklist says “In Ryan’s adroit hands, even foreclosures can be sexy!”)

Was there a case like “Lilac Sunday,” a long ago unsolved case, that stuck with you compelling you to write about it?

HANK: My husband, who is a criminal defense attorney, had a case where he represented a certain defendant in a murder trial. Jonathan got his first two convictions overturned, then a hung jury, then the defendant got a new attorney. And was convicted. And this is the one case that my husband really thinks a convicted murderer was innocent.

There is no "Lilac Sunday Killer,” though. Where that came from? Again, my imagination. But there is a case similar to it, which became the jumping off point for the Lilac Sunday murders. There is actually a Lilac Sunday in Boston, where the lilacs are in full bloom at the Arboretum. I thought that was a compellingly gorgeous setting.

You cover the topic of false confessions in Truth Be Told. Does it happen frequently? Is it usually done for the notoriety, however convoluted that is?

HANK: False confessions, and that someone would confess to a crime they did not commit? Who knows how often that happens.

False confessions that are coerced by law-enforcement? Again who knows how often that happens. I certainly know of cases of each type.

The level of despair and manipulation and conflict inherent in all of them is fascinating, isn't it? How much would you give up to get what you want? And that's the essence of a thriller—whether you are a bad guy or a good guy.

What if you do the wrong thing for the right reason? And that is one of the themes of truth be told.

I loved the evolution of Jane’s and Jake’s relationship and the complications. I also loved that Jake may have a rival. Jane wants information from Jake, which he doesn’t offer. But at times, Jane has information that Jake needs. Often in the interest of justice and others’ safety, Jane gives Jake facts she’s learned. This leads to inequities in their relationship—one giving, the other—not. Can this relationship be saved?

HANK:  Ha. Isn't that the big question? And they struggle with exactly that in TRUTH BE TOLD.  You can see how devoted they are to each other. Kind of. You can hear how connected they are, and how perfect they are for each other. Maybe.
But what does happiness mean? 
And because I don’t use an outline, I can tell you I have no idea what happens to them!

You wrote the story in five third-person POVs. Did you write each story separately first? How did you know where to break each story to give way to anther’s story?

You know, I have talked to authors who write each story separately first. I can't even comprehend how they do that.

I write the story as it happens. I simply have to tell it from the standpoint of five different people, and inhabit five different lives. But it completely makes sense to me.

Talk about plate-spinning! The biggest challenge is keeping track of the time. I do it in a very low-tech way, by keeping a list on a yellow pad, scene by scene as I write the story.

How do I know where to break each story to give way to another story? The story does that, itself. It feels very natural to me.

Jane Austen died in 1817, but you chose a quote by her at the opening of Truth Be Told. Why?

HANK: Isn't that terrific? It shows how some things never change. Jane Austen is such a master of duplicity, and manipulation, and presenting oneself one way when the reality is something very different, and that of course is the essence of truth be told.

In this series you write in past tense, but the style is almost stream of consciousness. How did that develop?

I put myself in each character’s head. And I try to think the way that character would think, see what that character would see, and watch the world the way they would do it.

It's almost…Method acting. So I try to think the way they would think. And a real person doesn't think in soundbites, right? Ideas pop into their head, thoughts and decisions emerge, and they make mistakes.

So I wanted it to sound realistic. Asking “how did that develop” is such a great question… Because it implies it was planned. Ha. It just turned out to be the voice.

How long does it take you to complete a manuscript? Is writing revision? 

It takes about eight months to complete a manuscript. And then about a month to revise. I am in love with revisions. That is exciting every day. The slog of the first draft is very tough for me, most of the time. And I say to myself – just keep going just keep going just keep going. Advance the story. In the revision is when I can make it shine.

I could ask Hank questions forever, but I’ll stop. Put picking up a copy of Truth Be Told on your to-do list. You won’t want to miss this book in Hank’s series.

HANK: And might I offer a copy of THE OTHER WOMAN (which won the Mary Higgins Clark award) or THE WRONG GIRL (which won the Agatha and the Daphne) to two commenters? You don’t have to read the books in order, but happy to help you do so!                                                       


Jim Jackson said...

Great interview Hank and E.B. Jan and I are looking forward to our next Jane and Jake adventure.

~ Jim

Shari Randall said...

Oh, great, there goes another night's sleep! I just started TBT and I'm already hooked. I lived in Boston for four wonderful years and love "visiting" through your books.
And that Jane Austen quote is utterly perfect.
Thank you for stopping by WWK, Hank!

Warren Bull said...

Hi, Hank,

It sounds like your novels are increasing in depth and complexity as your protagonist learns more about herself.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Wonderful interview, Hank and E.B. So looking forward to reading Truth Be Told. Congratulations on your continuing success!

E. B. Davis said...

When you read the book, I think you'll find that you get to know the characters intimately--the result of Hank's writing style.

There were several points of this interview that made me pause:

One story leads to another--In terms of continuing a series, I think it is an important point. Although a book must stand on its own, acknowledging where the characters end in the last book and continuing from there brings readers back and leads to the next plot.

Many authors get their first drafts out in a few months. I was glad to know that it took eight months for her to get out a first draft. Even so, for multiple POVs, that's fast, and I should know because I write multiple POVs! I might have to study Method acting.

Thanks for the interview, Hank.

KM Rockwood said...

Wonderful interview, Hank! We can learn so much from you. And it's interesting to hear a little of what goes on behind the scenes of your writing.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thank you--this is one of the best most thought-provoking interviews ever!

Grandma Cootie said...

This was a great interview. Added info that I had not read in previous interviews. I know I will love this book!

Christina Spicuzza said...

I am a new fan! It would be an honor to receive your books! I LOVE mysteries and found you via social media and am so excited to read your books!!!
This was a great interview too!!! Thanks for sharing with us!
My email address is if you ever need someone for your street team! I love promoting authors I like!

Elaine N. said...

The book is "in transit" from the library but I wouldn't mind having my own copy.

Gloria Alden said...

Hank, is was nice seeing and hearing you Sunday at our NeoSinc event with Catriona an Frankie. I bought your book there and am looking forward to reading it.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi, all! Grandma C, so great to see you! xo

Christina, you're on! Thank you! Come find me on Facebook andtwitter, okay? We'll talk. xoxo

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

HI Elaine! LOVE that you're getting it from the library,too..makes a huge difference.
Gloria! Wasn't that amazing! Such a triumph of technology. Hope you love TRUTH BE TOLD...let me know, okay?

Kelli Jo said...

I just cannot wait to get and read this book! Love your books!!

Kelli Jo said...

I just cannot wait to get and read this book! Love your books!!

Elaine said...

Great interview! That has now been added to my long list of books to be read. Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

I can hardly wait for this . . . on such an important issue. AARP newsletter covered senior citizens losing their homes for relatively small unpaid loans and taxes, terribly sad situation. The loss of independence and security is heart-breaking.
I know how well you can keep those POV plates spinning, and I know that nothing else will get done once the book is opened.
Thanks for making time to write amid the bustle of your "day job." <3

Clamo88 said...

Terrific interview, E.B. and Hank. Full of good questions for readers and writers alike.

I'm hooked on Ryland and can't wait to get my hands on this one.