Uncertainty. For some, it’s a frightening state of existence. But for Hank Phillippi Ryan, it’s the force that drives her writing. For this interview, the veteran TV reporter and acclaimed thriller writer talked about the story behind her latest release, her dual careers, and that state of suspense she’s learned to embrace.
With 32 Emmys, 12 Edgar R. Murrow Awards, and multiple awards for her crime fiction, Ryan’s dual careers mean she’s always searching for the next story, and sees the two endeavors as highly complementary. Ryan said, “Writing crime fiction and writing investigative journalism are exactly the same thing—except in writing crime fiction I get to make things up!”
“I know I need a terrific story with a compelling character. A problem that needs to be solved. I know the good guys need to win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. I know I want justice and I want to change the world a little bit. I want to entertain and I want to inform. That’s exactly the same for a reporter or a crime fiction author.”
It’s a very long distance from concept to a complete novel and Ryan, as she sat down to write the first page of her latest novel, “Truth Be Told,” knew what she needed to do, but not how. She said, “Let me just say to you very, very clearly, I have no idea when I start how the story will develop.”
Ryan confesses that when she was about 60,000 words into the book, she told her husband she had no idea what would happen. He said to her, “At least you know who the bad guys are by now.” Her response was, “No, I don’t.”
Enter the element of uncertainty. “Just like in real life,” said Ryan, “you don’t know who the bad guys are until you discover it. In my job as a reporter, I don’t know what will be at the end. It would be a big mistake for me to assume I do know what the end will be. I can’t afford to make a decision based on assumptions or guesses or theories.”
Ryan added, “I just have this faith that at some point the ending will present itself to me somehow and so far, so good with that. It’s a funny concept. Somebody told me it was called emergent solution design. Some people can’t do it, but writers can. They trust their imagination that the solution will emerge. That’s an astonishing tightrope walk that all authors do. You believe you will get to your destination even though you don’t know exactly where it is.”
Those who are not experienced writers might be scared to death of facing the need to write an entire novel without a detailed roadmap. While Ryan believes implicitly in the emergent solution concept, she’s not immune to having her own concerns. “I’m not saying that there are not moments when I think this is going to be the time that I can’t think of it. But, I’ve been a reporter for forty years and not a story goes by when I don’t think that this is going to be the time I’m never going to find another good one.”
Each time, Ryan finds the solution. She said, “We all have our fears, we all have our apprehensions–can we do it again? Then we do. And then for thirty seconds we think, “Oh, success.” Then we wonder, will I ever be able to do it again? Which is fabulous. I embrace it. It’s a joy to be an author. Even on the bad days I count my blessings.”
Many authors feel the same. They love their jobs. They love the creative process so much that many journalists have turned to writing fiction. Yet, while they might have covered similar stories during their careers, they all write differently. “That’s what I think is so fascinating about the writer’s mind. Each of us has our own experiences and our own thought processes. So, each of us puts the puzzle pieces together in a different way. That’s why nobody could write the same book as someone else, even given the same topic.”
Ryan describes her writing process as solving the mystery along with her protagonists. Ryan believes the allure of solving the mystery is one reason the genre is so popular. She said, “That’s why we all watch crime movies and that’s why we all read crime fiction because solving the crime is, well, fun. It’s interesting. It’s intriguing. It’s making your brain work and your imagination work. That’s what I do as an author.”
A common sentiment among professional writers is that they don’t believe in writers block. Ryan said, “I’ve been a reporter for forty years. I can’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like writing today.’ So, I sit down and that’s it. I write and some days its terrible and I think, fine, that’s terrible, I’d better fix that later, but I go on.”
Despite her dedication, Ryan felt that dreaded uncertainty while writing “Truth Be Told.” She said there were days when she complained to her husband that she couldn’t go on. However, immediately after her outbursts, she’d tell him, “Okay fine, I’m finished complaining now. Thirty seconds of drama over. I’m going to go back to work.”
In addition to writing, Ryan is on the road almost constantly. In between writing and promoting, however, she finds time for another love, efforts to improve literacy. She said, “I am incredibly grateful that my parents bombarded me with books and let me go to the library and let me sit by myself up in the hayloft and read. Now, she describes helping others as one of the joys of her life.
“When I think about what a difference reading made to me as a child,” said Ryan, “I’m eager to make sure that as many kids as possible have the same experience, whether it’s in a hayloft or wherever they discover a place of their own. Reading, as a child, was a key to my life, so I’m happy to offer that key to as many other people as I can, as many other kids as I can.”
Learn more about Hank Phillippi Ryan and her writing on hankphillippiryan.com.