Please welcome Hank Phillippi Ryan to the blog! Hank was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about THE WRONG GIRL, winning the Agatha, and more!
Congratulations on the Agatha Award win for THE WRONG GIRL! Will you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
Oh, thank you! (And breaking news—THE WRONG GIRL just won the DAPHNE Award for Best Mystery/Suspense! I am still floating.)
Where did it come from? The answer is incredibly interesting, and one of the reasons it is such a joy to have a dual life as in investigative reporter and a crime fiction author. As you can imagine, I get hundreds of inquiries from people about stories they’d like me to investigate. Maybe—one in 200 turns out to be a news story, but every single one of them is delicious fodder for crime fiction.
So. One day at Channel 7, I got a call from a viewer who said, “Hank, I have a story I need you to investigate.” I’m always crossing my fingers that it’s something good—so I said, great! Tell me all about it.
She told me her cousin had been given up for adoption at birth. And she had never known her birth mother. Twenty-six years later, this caller tells me, the woman got a call from the adoption agency, asking if she’d like to meet her birth mother. The woman said yes.
So then the caller’s voice got all breathy and whispery, and she says—but listen to this, Hank. The young woman and her “mother” met for tea, and liked each other very much, but it soon became clear that they were not mother and daughter.
I get goosebumps just telling you about it. And I thought—wow. What if an adoption agency is reuniting birth parents with the wrong children? That’s a SCANDAL! I wonder how often it’s happened? Can you imagine how terrible that would be?
Now, as it turned out, the real story of what happened is a tale of coincidences and sloppy record-keeping, and nothing that could have been a pattern of incompetence or malevolence, which is what I was looking for as a reporter.
But as a crime fiction author? I knew it could be a terrific story. And that turned out to be THE WRONG GIRL.
You have a background in investigative reporting and have won a ton of Emmys, and many more awards for your journalism work, but what made you decide to start writing fiction?
Oh, gosh, funny. I’d always wanted to write mysteries and thrillers, ever since as a little girl I read Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, and later, sneaked books like FAILSAFE and ON THE BEACH from my parents’ shelves. Problem was, even though it was always in the back of my mind, I—and here’s the problem—could never come up with a good plot.
Then one day at Channel 7, I got an email. It was a spam, clearly, with the header “A new refinancing deal for you.” But the body of the email was what looked like lines from Shakespeare. I thought—that’s strange, why would that be? And my brain answered, “Maybe it’s a secret message.”
Secret message in computer spam? YES! I instantly knew that was a great plot for a mystery/thriller, and that went on to be PRIME TIME, which won the Agatha for Best First Mystery! (I was age 55 back then, by the way! So I am the proof it is never too late!)
Tell us more about Jane Ryland. What did you enjoy most about writing her character? Did you do any specific research for the book?
Jane Ryland is a Boston reporter who is tough, smart, determined and funny—in a wry kind of way. She’s also incredibly honorable, and strives to do the right thing in a world where there’s a lot of pressure to be first, be best, be exclusive, make headlines. In THE OTHER WOMAN (which some people call THE GOOD WIFE meets LAW AND ORDER, and which won the Mary Higgins Clark Award!), Jane has been fired from her TV reporting job because she protected a source. She was so determined to be honest and keep her word—that she lost her job over it.
So now Jane has to get her life back—and her reputation. We all know what it feels like to have the world treat you unfairly—when you are right and the world is wrong but it feels like there’s nothing you can do about it. So Jane is my hero for taking a deep breath, and starting over.
Research? Oh, well—I have been a TV reporter for 40 years! I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, gone undercover and in disguise. So I do research every day, right? And have been for 40 years—and still happily doing so!
What is your writing process like?
Every day is a surprise. I have no outline, and I need two things to begin a book. One—the gorgeous gem of a nugget of a plot, just one beautiful unique jewel of an idea. In THE WRONG GIRL, of course, it was, “What if an adoption agency were reuniting birth parents with the wrong children?” In my new TRUTH BE TOLD, it’s “What could really be going on inside all those empty foreclosed homes?”
The other thing I need is my first line. I never start if I don’t know it. In THE WRONG GIRL, it’s “But listen, Jane, I don’t think she’s my real mother.” In TRUTH BE TOLD, it’s “I know it’s legal, but it’s terrible.”
And then the process? I sit down at my desk, assign myself 1000 words a day, and go for it. And I never know.
So when people say wow, the endings of our books always surprise me, I say—yes, me too! Because I never know who is bad and who is good until the time comes. Talk about a surprise ending, I surprise myself!
About THE WRONG GIRL:
Does a respected adoption agency have a frightening secret? Tipped off by a determined ex-colleague on a desperate quest to find her birth mother, Boston newspaper reporter Jane Ryland begins to suspect that the agency is engaging in the ultimate betrayal—reuniting birth parents with the wrong children.
For detective Jake Brogan and his partner, a young woman’s brutal murder seems a sadly predictable case of domestic violence, one that results in two toddlers being shuttled into the foster care system. Then Jake finds an empty cradle at the murder scene. Where is the baby who should have been sleeping there?
Jane and Jake are soon on a trail full of twists and turns that takes them deep into the heart of a foster care system in crisis and threatens to blow the lid off an adoption agency scandal. When the threatening phone calls start, Jane knows she is on the right track…but with both a killer at large and an infant missing, time is running out….