Interview with Hank Phillipi Ryan

Charlotte McNally is a fresh and original character. Where did the idea of Charlie come from? Is she modeled after you or someone you know?

Charlie arrived in my life fully formed…I absolutely knew her life, her background, how she looked, how she thought. She’s definitely not modeled after anyone in particular I know—but the question: “is she modeled after you?” is one I always struggle to answer. We’re both investigative reporters for a Boston TV station. We’ve both been in television a long time, and we’re both devoted to our jobs. But Charlie’s—younger than I am. I think—she’s braver than I am. We do share a sense of humor. And of course I’ve brought my experience and my experiences to her world. But sometimes people say—oh, I’ve learned so much about you from reading the book! And I warn them—a lot of Charlie’s psyche and personality and history—is absolutely fiction! But confession: not all.

There is such a fun flavor to your Charlotte McNally novels, is humor an important aspect of your writing?

Oh my goodness, yes. I don’t think about being “funny,” you know? It’s just how Charlie is. She sees the world in her own quirky way—and that just comes out in how she responds. I know some authors go back during revisions and work to make their books “funnier.” I don’t really do that. I think if the books are humorous (and I’m so delighted you think so! Thank you!—it all comes from Charlie’s reactions and vulnerabilities. It’s not slapstick, and it’s not “jokes”, you know? But people tell me they laugh out loud. That’s the most wonderful thing to hear!

How do you choose names for your characters?

Two things happen. One type of character appears with a name already in place. Charlie. Franklin was Franklin Brooks Parrish instantly, it just came out of the computer before I even thought of it. Names are one of the most fascinating things to me, because a name has to work, and be the essence of the character, without being heavy handed. You’re not going to make a bad guy something like Kill Devilman unless it’s comedy or you’re Ian Fleming. But you’re also not going to name a bad guy Ace Goodman. I guess.

So some I struggle with a bit. Penny, for instance. Was instantly Penny. Then I thought no, maybe that’s not a hip enough name for an eight-year-old with contemporary parents. So I changed her name in the manuscript to Emma. Then Annie. Then Ella. And all the while every time she showed up in the story, I kept typing Penny. Because, apparently, that’s what her name is—Penny. And so she stayed.

Anyway—the naming of Josh Gelston, the Atticus Finch looking college professor Charlotte is so interest in—was truly hilarious. My first boyfriend ever, I think when I was about seven years old? Was named Phillip Gelston. So I wanted a non-ethnic, sort of strong last name that wouldn’t instantly telegraph anything. Gelston worked.

But he couldn’t be Phillip, because of my own last name. So I started thinking about names that were one syllable, masculine, strong, traditional not trendy, very simple and that someone who is about 48 would logically have been named. So I thought: Luke. Jake. Max. Sam. Ben. Josh. Yes, Josh. Then Joshua Ives Gelston just came out of my brain. Which I loved.

SO soon after Prime Time was released, I got an email with the subject line: Hello From Josh Gelston. Can you imagine how weird that was? And turned out, there’s a very cool guy, caterer to rock stars who lives in New Hampshire, and his name is Josh Gelston! (And he says, his brother is Ben.) So now he’s a big Charlotte McNally fan.

Of all things you have accomplished, is there one accomplishment you are most proud of?

As an investigative reporter, I have a lot of opportunity to bring a lot of injustices to light, and to cause some big changes, and that’s one of the real delights of my life. We have gotten literally millions of dollars in restitution and refunds for consumers, gotten homes released from foreclosure proceedings, sent bad guys to prison and caused state officials to resign. At least 4—no, 5—new laws were passed as a result of our stores: to regulate home improvement contractors, mortgage lenders, infant health testing, condo management, home inspectors.

But sometimes, people I don’t know come up to me on the street and say—thank you—a story you did helped me, or saved me money, or stopped me from making a mistake. And that’s what makes me the most proud.

With the variety of jobs you have held, I imagine you have many stories to tell. Can you tell us about your next book, FACE TIME?

Face Time goes deep behind the scenes of TV news—and the stresses and goals of a devoted reporter! Charlotte McNally gets explosive info that may free an innocent woman from prison. Problem is—the woman confessed to the crime. And why doesn’t she want Charlie’s help? And the bad news—the more Charlie snoops around the more people end up dead. Her sleuthing makes Charlie—and someone she loves—the killers next target.

Charlie and the sexy new love of her life also are working out their potential future—which includes a possessive eight year old girl who’s not sure she wants to share her dad with Charlie. And Charlie’s mom is in town having a little work done—and she’s pushing Charlie to have some face time with the plastic surgeon, too.

It’s a page-turner, I hope. With a twist of an ending! Filled with mystery, and romance and humor. And some who have read it call it not only a romance, but a mother-daughter love story—on several levels. It’s a good book to share with your mom—or with your grown-up a daughter.

Do your characters live with you as you write? Do they haunt your dreams?

Oh my goodness! Absolutely. Well, not so much my dreams, as my thoughts. I’ll be walking along the street, and then not realize I’ve gotten from point A to point B because I’m lost in Charlie world. (I must say, it’s a fun place to be.)

How has being published changed your life, if at all? What would you like to accomplish with your writing career?

(Here’s the sound of me bursting into laughter.) I read once where when you get a book published you’re exactly the same person you were before, just busier. I have a full time –and I mean full time—job as a reporter. So now I’m essentially adding a second job to my life. As well as still wanting to hang out with my husband, and not leave him feeling suddenly deserted. Sleeping was the first thing to go. Then cooking. I haven’t been to a movie in literally years. Not taken a vacation, except to write. This is not a complaint at all! I adore it. But it’s a different life.

What does your work space look like? Are you really neat or are do you have things strewn all over?

I’m organized. Neat, I would say… definitely no. But I know where things are! I’ve got two rows of book on the floor beside, in case I need to look things up. Or stall. And two pretty basket of files of research and info. My desk is an antique, a semi circle. It’s tucked in a bay window in my study, with a beautiful view of maple trees. One wall is ceiling to floor bookshelves, another has a fireplace and lots of art on the walls.

You find yourself stranded on a desert island, what things would you have to have with you?

Stranded? Now, I’ll be the reporter. Stranded forever? Or with hope of being rescued. A deserted island? Or just a desert? Alone? Um, sunscreen. Water. But that’s not what you mean. If I were stranded on a deserted desert island, alone, and figured someone would find me soonish, and there was no problem with food or water, somehow (this is imaginary, after all) I’d want—music, Maybe the Three Tenors albums? Or all of Linda Ronstadt? And all of Beethoven’s symphonies? I’d want—books. All of Shakespeare, definitely. Lots of paper and pencils. I love pencils. And a sharpener. Any way I could get lattes?

What is the biggest misconception about being an author?

That it’s a solitary task. Being a writer? Yes, that’s sort of on your own, when it gets down to it. Being an author? That, forgive me, takes a village. I’m amazed and filled with gratitude for all the people who have helped me.

What would we find on your bookshelf?

You’d laugh. There are so many bookshelves in our house! Two and three books deep. Everyone who comes to visit says they’ve never seen so many books. We have everything from mysteries to classics. Everything. And a whole raft of children’s books in case kids come over…from A Hole is to Dig though a Wrinkle in Time to Diamond in the Window to all the Pooh books and Edward Eager. And Phillip Pullman. Of Eager and Pullman I have extras—and I always give them to friend’s children who come visit if they don’t have them yet.

If you could go anywhere, be anyone, do anything for 24 hours, what would it be?

Oh, this is so sad, and forgive me for being shallow. I’d love to be able to sing. I’m just a terrible singer, and always have been. So I’d love to be, oh, I don’t know. Ella Fitzgerald at her peak? Linda Ronstadt in the 60’s?

What is your favorite comfort food, favorite hobby?

Comfort food: I don’t really look at it that way, oddly. But if I had to choose a dinner, there’s a restaurant called Blue Ginger nearby. (You know the chef Ming Tsai? It’s his restaurant.) One of their signature dishes is butterfish, which is like thick white fish, with grilled with miso glaze and ginger and wasabi, and then veggie sushi with soy sauce. Yum. Filet grilled outside with blue cheese. Avocadoes. Pizza, when it’s just right. There used to be an ice cream called Jamoca Almond fudge, which was coffee ice cream with chocolate covered almonds. And I love coffee anything.

My favorite hobby? Ahhh..don’t really have hobbies, except for reading. And reading newspapers, I love then. Movies. And I love arranging flowers.

Was there any one person or event in your life that finally inspired you to sit down and write your first book?

Yes! Even though I’d always wanted to write mystery novels, and I mean always, since age 7! I just didn’t have a good idea for a story. And then one day at work I opened a SPAM, just by mistake, and in it was what looked like a quote from a play of Shakespeare’s. (Anyone who has read Prime Time knows this is the essence of the plot! And yes, it really happened. This part at least.) So I thought to myself—whoa. Why would anyone send a Shakespeare quote in a Spam? It must be a secret message. And I was stopped in my tracks. I thought—this is my plot. And there it was.

Everyone needs a break from time to time, even when doing something they love, how do you like to spend your time away from writing?

Sleeping. Buying shoes. Talking to my husband. Reading. Cooking. Giving dinner parties. Sitting in the back yard and watching the birds. Did I mention shoes?

Oh—and doing wonderful interviews like this. I can’t wait for you all to read Face Time. (Visit my website http://www.hankphillippiryan.com for some really fun photos, and let me know how you like it!)

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posted Monday, September 17th, 2007 | filed under Harlequin NEXT, Interviews, September 2007

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