Bouchercon 2019: Lisa Unger interviews Hank Phillippi Ryan, Guest of Honor

Bouchercon 2019. Lisa Unger interviews Hank Phillippi Ryan, Guest of Honor. Saturday, 2 November, 9:30AM in Landmark C. Recorded by Patrick von Wiegandt and transcribed here by me, Gabriel Valjan. Any errors are my own. Photos are from the web. Squeak, my cat who posed with my inscribed copy of The Murder List, passed away 27 November 2019.

LU: Guest of Honor Hank Phillippi Ryan, welcome.

HPR: I have to say, and then I’m gonna be really quiet. Ha. Ha. Maybe. Lisa stayed home with her darling daughter Ocean to go Tick-or-Treating on Halloween.

LU: Yes.

HPR: And Ocean was a…

LU: A vampire-kitty-mermaid. She’s a very creative type.

HPR: And you came all the way to do this for us, so this is great.

LU: I’m thrilled. Thrilled, and thank you all for being here. And so, this is Hank. She is the on-the-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV. Does everyone know that about her? Does everyone know that she’s won…wait for it…36 Emmy Awards. How does that happen?

HPR: I’m old.

LU: No, stop. As well as, 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards for her work. That’s pretty amazing, but more importantly, her work as a journalist has resulted in new laws; in criminals sent to prison; homes rescued from foreclosures; and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers. Hank, basically as an investigative reporter, is a living, breathing, thriller heroine.

[Link to Hank’s Investigates via WHDH-TV, Boston]

HPR: I’ve never thought about that.

LU: You are. You could be the hero of your own books.

HPR: Do you have a pen? I just got some ideas.

LU: That would be enough for most people, right? You have work, but not Hank. She’s also the national bestselling author of 11 smart, twisty, gripping novels, which have earned her…wait for it… five Agatha Awards, three Anthonys, the Daphne, two Macavitys, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Did I miss anything?

HPR: No, I’m blushing like crazy now, but I could call you when I have one of those Bad Writing Days and say, “Can you read that list to me?”

LU: I’ll give this to you so you can put it on your den. So of course, there are too many reviews to list here, but Hank has been hailed as a master at creating suspenseful mysteries and a superb and gifted storyteller. Her novels—two series, one featuring Charlotte McNally, a Boston television reporter, and the other featuring a newspaper reporter Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan, as well as two stellar standalones, Trust Me and her most recent, The Murder List—all feature strong women, breakneck pacing, and twists you will never see coming. B. A. Paris said that The Murder List is “her best yet!” The starred Library Journal raved, “it is masterly plotted thriller with a twisted ending.” It’s hard to talk about The Murder List without talking about the ending. B.A. [Paris] went on to say that it is “a riveting character-driven story.” It really is. Has everybody read it? It’s fantastic.

HPR: My editor is back there, so thank you. That was great

LU: Hi, Editor.

HPR: If you haven’t read it, There’s still time. No pressure. It’s just my career.

LU: I can go on and on about Hank, but I reached out to a few friends.

HPR: I just noticed.

LU: She didn’t know this before I sat here before and I didn’t tell her a lot of things. They had a few things to say. Sara Blædel, who is like Denmark’s number one bestselling crime author, and she’s been here [at Bouchercon] many times as our guest. She said that from the minute she met Hank, she was so friendly and so warm, and felt that you were one of the people who truly welcomed her into our US crime fiction community which, as we all know, is a wonderful community of warm, loving people. Weirdly. We are all liars, plot murders, but love each other, so that’s good.

She said not only that, but when she was in Boston for her event, it was a super cold February night in Boston, and when she looked out in the audience she saw Hank and her husband Jonathan [Shapiro] in the audience. She said she felt so grateful for that. She mentioned that, and since besides being a brilliant writer, a funny and generous person, Hank is also a wonderful colleague.

Alafair Burke said, “Hank is not only a prolific and talented author, but she is also one of the biggest champions of other writers within the crime fiction community.”

Of course I also had to talk to Karin Slaughter, my bud, and asked if she had something to add. She did, and she mentioned that when she [Karin] accepted the Edgar for Gillian Flynn, and when you were posting pictures online, Hank had all the dirtiest ideas of how they might position Edgar for these photos

HPR: That’s not true!

LU: Do you have anything to say about this, Hank?

HPR: I do before we start the interview. I do remember this. We all went out to the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station after the Edgars. It was Meg Gardiner, and you, and Karin Slaughter.

LU: Me?

HPR: Yes, you, because you’re the one who had all the ideas. It’s true. Alafair took us there. Gorgeous. Secret bar. Beautiful. Don’t tell anybody. So, we had Gillian’s Edgar, the four of us in this bar, and it was actually you, Karin, and Meg who were thinking of what to do and—

LU: I’m 90 percent sure I wasn’t there. Okay, maybe 80 or 85.

HPR: It was like putting salt on the table and making lines of salt. I—because I’m the wild and crazy person—took the ‘I Voted’ sticker off my phone and put it on the Edgar. Karin said, ‘Oh my gosh, Hank, you’re such a wimp. Your idea of wild and crazy is to put an “I Voted” sticker on something. Okay, tell Karin I’m going to call her.

LU: Okay. I’d like to begin at the beginning because I think everybody’s favorite thing to talk about is the journey of the writer. For many of us, the journey starts in childhood, or for most of us, it does. You said in an interview that even as a child you loved the architecture of the mystery. I thought that was an interesting way to talk about it, so what I want to know is, Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction, and what was that moment for you? Tell us a little about your journey, which took you first to journalism.

HPR: Oh, yikes. How much time do we have here? I grew up in really rural Indiana, so rural that you couldn’t see another house from our house, My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library to get books. We did. We’d fill up the saddlebags with books.

LU: Is that true? That is so cool.

HPR: We saddle Cadet and Sable and go to the Zionsville Library. We’d read up in the hayloft in the barn behind our house, and that’s where I fell in love with storytelling. Nancy Drew. You read Nancy Drew? We’d read The Secret of the Old Clock. I read Clue in the Diary, which I thought was Clue in the Dairy.

My parents lost me for a month reading up in the hayloft reading every Sherlock Holmes short story and novella. Every single one. Sir Conan Doyle taught me how a mystery would work. You needed a character. You needed a problem. You needed clues. In the end, you needed to lure the reader along and, in the end, surprise them with something that was unexpected but perfect. One of those things where you say, “I should have seen that. I should have seen that.”

I was a kid, but I was understanding the structure of how a mystery would go step by step. Then I read all the Golden Age mysteries: Ngaio Marsh; Josephine Tey; Margery Allingham; Dorothy Sayers, and then I read Murder on the Orient Express. I think I was—how old? Eleven or twelve. I thought in the end, “Are you kidding me? Remember when you read that, and you thought, “Wait a minute. That was all there. All the clues were there.” So that is what I mean when I talk about the architecture of the mystery. Every single element of the story is there, but the clever author is saying, “Look at this. Isn’t this interesting? But when what you should be watching is really over here. It’s all there, all there for you to see, just you didn’t notice.”  I loved that.

I wanted to do something like that. The thing that about Nancy Drew that was cool, and the thing about Poirot is there was a problem and they solved the problem; they figured it out, and I loved the idea that you can figure something out. I thought at the time not so much to be a mystery author but to be a detective, that it’d be cooler to be Nancy Drew than to write about Nancy Drew, so I think that was what took me to journalism school although that was a winding path and a funny one that you could ask about. Well, that was what set my love of storytelling. That is what it was, how I learned the total immersion story. When you’re a kid and someone says ‘Once upon a time’ and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, tell me a story.’ We know this, when someone puts us on their lap and says, ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’

LU: I wanted to jump ahead because it sort of touches on one of the big questions, and you talk about this a lot: the difference between—and I don’t like the current phrases—Plotters and Pantsers. I just had an online discussion with a couple of authors about Architect versus Gardener. The architect is the person who constructs an outline, the gardener is the sort of person who lets the story evolve. You are more of a Gardener, right?

HPR: George Martin said that. George Martin is one of my complete heroes, and I loved Game of Thrones, and I loved everything about it and the comment about Architect versus Gardener. I met him at ThrillerFest. I went up to him and said, “Oh, Mr. Martin. I’m such a huge fan of yours, and I think about you every night.” He was like, “Huh?” What I meant and if I had been less whacked out over it, I would’ve been more artful about the question. What I wanted to tell him was, What a risk-taker he is. He will kill anyone. So, that is what I love about the gardening part of writing.

LU: And my theory is sort of that people who can write that way have been, if not writing since childhood, at least been reading since childhood because, like the avid reader who disappeared into the barn for a month and that was the kind of reader I was, it’s almost like you internalize the form of the novel, like it becomes the way you think about things.

HPR: Exactly. It’s a Beginning, Middle, and an End. It’s a story you have a rhythm of what you expect Once upon a time, and there’s a character, and there’s going to be a problem, and there’s going to be a setting. We understand that. We viscerally understand that. I think, from the standpoint of Gardener versus Architect, Lee Child and I have talked about this: that both come from journalism. As a reporter, I’m not looking for the story, I don’t know what the end of the story is, so I’m not fearful until it gets right down to the deadline. I’m not fearful that I’m not going to find the end of the story.

LU: You have to go out there and find it.

HPR: That’s how I write my investigative stories, and that’s how I write my novels.

I’m looking for the story to come to me. A person I met once on a plane had another wonderful way of describing this. You know how you love writing on a plane, because you’re in this bubble and nobody is going to bother you? Nobody is going to talk to you. This guy was sitting next to me, and he was going to talk no matter what I did. He was going to talk to me. I was like, “C’mon, Hank, be a person.”

He says to me, “What do you do?”

I said, “I’m a writer,” which was kind of a cool moment.

I asked him, being a person, “What do you do?” and he said, “I’m a consultant.”

I asked him what he consulted about. He said, “I teach ‘emergent design.’”

I said, “Emergent design? What is that?”

He said, “Well, as an author, do you know what the end of your book is going to be?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “Do you have faith when you start, a belief, that when you type Chapter One that you will eventually get to the end?”

I said, “Sure.”

He said, “That is emergent design. Isn’t that cool?”

LU: I love that.

HPR: The book emerges as you work on it. He said, “Some people cannot do that. They need a structure.” He teaches people how to not be afraid to step off that tightrope, and just go for it with the belief that you will get to the end. He said artists, like painters—and I don’t know how to paint. I can make a horse.

LU: Must be all that pony riding as a child.

HPR: The idea that you believe that the story will come

LU: So, You talk to people on the plane, is that what you’re saying?

HPR: No. I’ve had my one cool discussion on a plane.

LU: I think that the universe gave you that moment to be the person, so you could have that information and give to me and all the people sitting here. That is how a story should evolve. Emergent design. So we were talking how you were in love with the architecture, your love of Nancy Drew, so let’s talk about your early life as a journalist. Before heading to Boston, you worked at Rolling Stone, and you did a lot of cool things while working at Rolling Stone. One of the extra-cool things you did was that you toured the country with Hunter S. Thompson.

HPR: I love that you know who that is.

LU: And he taught you an important skill involving lighter fluid.

HPR: You have looked me up.

LU: I’ve done my research.

HPR: I went to Washington DC. I was a radio reporter in 1970. Don’t forget to ask me about that because that’s a good story, too. Put that on your list.

LU: I don’t have a pen. Somebody remind us to ask us a question about 1970, if I forget.

HPR: I was a radio reporter in 1970, and I moved to Washington DC and went to work on Capitol Hill in the Administrative—actually, I was the press secretary to the congressman from El Paso for about a month, going to door-to-door handing out resumes. I think I was twenty-one and saying, “Does anybody need a person to do something?” They said “Yeah, I need a press secretary – I was just quitting”, and I should have realized it was a bad job when they said, “Yeah, we need a press secretary.” I said, “Yeah sure, I can do that.” I’d been a radio reporter for six months.

[Find Hank in the newspaper clipping]

And because of the way things work on Capitol Hill, I heard of another job opening. I got a job as a legislative assistant to the, as you say—wait for it—the Administrative Practices and Procedures Subcommittee to the Senate Judiciary Committee. And that was fantastic!

I worked on the Freedom of Information Act. I worked on the reorganization of the Internal Revenue Service—and it’s not my fault, none of it is my fault. I also sued the CIA to get information on the retrieval of the Glomar, the Russian submarine that was sunk in the Pacific [1974]. Remember that? The CIA had hired Howard Hughes with his Glomar Explorer to pull up this submarine from the ocean.

LU: See —She is a thriller here.

HPR: We sued the CIA. There’s a lawsuit captioned Harriet Ann Phillippi versus the CIA. We lost the lawsuit. The response from the CIA for our request for information was, “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of this information.” And that was the first time the CIA or anyone had ever sent a letter saying, “We can neither confirm nor deny.” We were the first people to ever hear that phrase from a government official, and now that is what everyone says to everyone. We had no idea we were reading this thing that was history. I wish I had saved the letter because that would be kind of cool. When we got the letter, we were like, “Are you kidding me? What a thing to say” because we had never heard it before.

LU:  From there, how do you get into Rolling Stone? I’m trying to keep on track, and don’t forget about the lighter fluid.

HPR: One second for name dropping. The chairman of Administrative Subcommittee was Ted Kennedy, and he would have all his staff members assemble at Ethel and Robert Kennedy’s house, Hickory Hill, so we’d go there on the weekends and swim in the pool. One weekend there was Richard Goodwin, who was the speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. Jann Wenner the editor at Rolling Stone had asked him to start a new magazine as part of Rolling Stone called Politics. I happened to be sitting there and he, Richard Goodwin, knew that I worked for the Subcommittee, and he said, “Do you want to be the assistant editor of the politics section of Rolling Stone?” I said, “Sure. I can do that.”

I remember my dad was in the Foreign Service, and I remembered having lunch with him in Washington DC and saying to him: “You know, Dad, I just don’t have any idea what I’m doing in this job. I just don’t know.”

He said “Sweetheart, nobody knows what they’re doing.”

I said “I’m making it up as I go.”

He said “Yeah, everybody is making it up as they go.”

It was a real revelation for me.

LU: Yeah. I remember you telling me that before, and when I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m making it up as I go along. I think of you, and it makes me feel better.

HPR: See, Dad is still with us. One of the things I did for Rolling Stone was that I went on a national tour with Hunter Thompson. I had arranged his schedule for his coverage of the 1976 presidential campaign, so we’d travel and fly around and go to various parts of the country. Once in Florida we were covering a Jimmy Carter thing, and Jimmy Carter’s aide Pat Caddell was a great friend of Hunter Thompson. In a hotel room in Florida, they were practicing inhaling the lighter fluid. DON’T DO THIS. They were inhaling the lighter fluid, breathing it out and lighting it on fire.

Hunter Thompson, if you didn’t know this, was notoriously whacky and crazy. I never actually did the breathing fire with lighter fluid at all because it seems my hair would’ve gone up. It’s dangerous

LU: And you do have good hair, and you don’t need lighter fluid.

HPR: You should write that down. That’s a quote.

LU: And what else Hunter Thompson teach you?

HPR: Hunter Thompson was actually the nicest of guys. He bought me every Jimmy Buffett album. He was very expansive, very generous and very smart. He taught me not to be afraid, and that was what his gift was to me. Don’t be afraid in writing. Just go for it. Use your voice. Write what you feel. Just give it a try. Not everybody is going to love it, but some people will really love it. That was in the Seventies, and that has stuck with me so thoroughly. That bravery.

LU: Probably the most important advice you can give to an aspiring writer is, Don’t be afraid. There is really nothing else to know.

HPR: There’s a really great quote from Thomas Edison, and I think I can keep it straight. He said, “Remember, when you think you have exhausted all of the possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.” Isn’t that great? It isn’t that you can’t come up with the answer, just that you haven’t thought of it yet.

And that moment of inspiration that we all hope we have every time, I always think if I can have one good idea day that is plenty.

LU: You’ve had this exciting early life as a journalist. You wound up in Boston. Is that where your investigative career took off, when you moved to Boston?

HPR: I started out as a reporter in Indianapolis. That was 1975, if you can imagine, and I was the political reporter, and then I was the weekend anchor. I also read the farm news. I seriously did: the agricultural report. I was also the movie critic because they didn’t have a lot of people. That was fun.

Then I was offered a job in Atlanta, where I worked for five years at WSB-TV as the political reporter. Then I got a job offer in Dallas, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Boston—all essentially at the same time, and I chose Boston. I went to Boston and that’s where I’ve been ever since. I started out as the features reporter. I was the funny one. They called us Something Out of Nothing Productions, and they’ll say, “If you don’t have a story, Hank will go out and find something.”

So, I was the funny one. I did poems and I did songs. My famous song was the “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Anyway, one day I went to my news director and I said, “I can’t be the Funny One any more. I think I’m the Serious One.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll try you out,” so they had me covering the 1988 presidential conventions. When I came back, they said, “You’ve got this. You’re going to be the investigative reporter.” I started doing long-form journalism in 1988 as a result of that. I’ve been doing that ever since.

LU: Then, all this time, did you have your secret, beating heart of the novelist? Did you hold this dream of writing fiction, and when did that moment come for you? We hear, “I’ve been in love with these kind of stories since I was a kid, and now I want to write it.” Can you tell us a little about that?

HPR: Wouldn’t that be a good story, if that was what happened? I’m teasing you. It’s not that I thought about it all the time. From time to time, I would think, “Gee, I would love to write a mystery, and I would think, “What about…I wonder,” and then I would think, “I don’t know. I don’t have any ideas.”

But one day at Channel 7, I can tell: I was fifty-five when this happened, so that’s what? Fifteen years ago. I was fifty-five. This was back when spam filters were terrible, and you had to delete your own spam every morning, back in the day. And I opened one by mistake, and the subject line of the email said, ‘A New Refinancing Deal for You.’ When you opened the email, there was dialogue that looked like it was from a Shakespearean play. I majored in Shakespeare in college, much to my parent’s chagrin. There were like, ‘O sister, you’re never going to get a job.’ Anyway, I recognized it was not Shakespeare but it was from that era and I said to myself, “Why would someone send a spam email that is clearly going to be opened by millions of people, with the subject line ‘A New Refinancing Deal for You’ with the body as a message that has nothing to do with refinancing. Why would someone do that?”

My brain—and I remember this perfectly and I still get goosebumps when I say this—my brain said, “Maybe this is a secret message.” I thought, secret messages in computer spam is a great idea. I did. That’s a great idea. Could you do it? How would that work? What would be the point of it? Who would solve the murder? What would be the story? Who would solve the murder, because it was clearly going to be a murder-mystery?

I went home, and I said to my husband, “I’m going to write a novel. I have a great idea for a mystery. I’m going to write a mystery.” He was like, “G-r-r-r-eat.”

LU: That’s what everybody says the first time you say you’re going to write a novel.

HPR: He wanted to be supportive, but you can see what was going through his mind. He said, “Do you know how to write a novel?” I said, “No, but how hard can it be. I’ve read a million of them.” I know it sounds cliché but that’s exactly what happened. He remembers it so perfectly clear because it was so funny.

I was obsessed from that moment on. I was obsessed with writing this mystery about secret messages in computer spam, and that turned out to be Prime Time, which won the Agatha for Best First Novel. That was the beginning of my crime fiction career, which is so crazy because it was again the universe saying, “Now, it’s your turn,” and you sort of have to be open to that moment. Serendipitous messages from who knows what writer universe there is, and I still wait, hope for, expect, am ready for those moments. Aren’t you? Sometimes, I’m like, “Okay, any time.”

LU: I’m right here. Absolutely. Speaking of moments, this is something I always like to ask because usually there are writers in the audience, of all levels, and at one point everybody, whether you’re a bestselling author or an aspiring writer, and there’s that moment when you are alone in a room, working on a novel that you weren’t sure was good enough. Every person who has achieved anything in the writing life has been inside that moment. I always like to ask about the first big Yes, that moment when the book is done and you’ve sent it out to agents and somebody calls and says, “Yes, I want to represent you, or Yes, I want to publish you.” This is a Big Moment for writers, the biggest moment, especially if it’s something you’ve had in your heart and dreaming about since childhood, something that gives you goosebumps. Tell us about your first Big Moment.

HPR: It’s interesting, and that was such a nice, lovely, connected question, and there is a moment in your life when the universe clicks into another mode. It’s fun to remember. I was such a newbie that when I wrote Prime Time, I had it on a floppy disk and I didn’t have a printer, so I took it to the Kinkos. My first draft. I went to Kinkos and I said to the guy, “Can you print this for me? and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “It’s my novel.” He was like, “Yeah. Yeah.”

I came back a couple hours later and I said, “I’m here to pick up my printing,” and he said, “Oh, you’re the one who wrote the novel.” I honestly thought, he read it, and he loved it. Loved it. He says, “I have it for you,” and he reaches for a ream box, 500 pages, and he puts the ream box on the counter. I say, “Thank you,” and he says, “No, wait.” He goes down. Another ream box of paper, and put it on the box. It was 723 pages long. Kristin [Sevick Brown at Tom Doherty Associates], my editor is back there and is like, “I’m not surprised.”

I had to cut 400 pages.

LU: [unintelligible]

HPR: That’s interesting because I thought: No, all those 400 pages were stupid, derivative, trying to be a good writer, trying to show up, tangential, attempting to be funny, and all that stuff that is horrific, terrible, go, go, go, and it made me realize that I repeated things. Now I’m gonna say that I tell people things more than once, and that’s the same thing, and that was what the problem was. All that had to go, and that was a big lesson.

I sent the book out. On paper, with the three chapters and the query letter that you used to do with the self-addressed stamped envelope, and you’d wait every morning every day when we’d come back from work. I’d go up the driveway and I’d see that manila envelope with my handwriting on it in the mailbox, meaning it was another No, another rejection. This was the Charlie McNally book Prime Time. I said to my husband, “Charlie McNally is going to die! Nobody is ever going to meet her.”

My husband said, “Honey, Charlie McNally is not going to die.”

I said, “How do you know? You don’t know.”

Finally, people started saying, “Yes.”  I can tell you a fast writing thing. How many of you are writing? How many of you are writing your first book?

Here’s what I did. My first query letter was, “Prime Time is a mystery about a smart, successful television reporter in Boston, who is worried she is getting too old for her job, and wonders what happens when somebody is married to a job in television and the camera doesn’t love her anymore.” And it was Nope, Nope. We don’t hear you. We don’t care. Go away.

So I started writing query letters that said, What if that pesky computer spam clogging up your computer is really secret messages. Everybody said, “Yes” and that was how it started. Once I told the story, people were interested, and that was terrific. One more thing: my agent at the time, who isn’t my agent now but whom I love and was fabulous said, “I love that you’re writing a story about a heroine who is a little bit older. It’s just great. People are tired of 21-year-old girls with their first job and their first expensive shoes. You’ve written a women of the world, who is confident, savvy and smart and funny in Charlie McNally,” then said, “People are not ready for an older heroine. How old is she? How old is Charlie really?”

I said, “I made her my age; she’s 55.” My agent said, “Oh, that’s too old.”

You’ll be happy to hear this, words to the wise. I said, “What if I made her 46? Is 46 too old?”

“No, 46 is not too old,” so now you know.

LU: I’m going to skip through all my other questions. I’m very prepared. Let’s talk about The Murder List, so we can have time for everyone to ask questions. The Murder List is actually impossible to talk about. Literally can’t talk about it, because those of you who read it know, and those who have not read it will soon know. There is no way to talk about it, but I’d like to talk about Rachel North, who is the heroine of the novel and she’s different from Charlie and Jane. So different. Maybe you want to talk about her just a little bit. How is she different, and how is she the same from your two characters in your two series?

HPR: Good question. Can I start with a little about where she came from?

LU: You can do whatever you want.

HPR: Nobody has ever said that to me. My husband is a criminal defense attorney, and one day at breakfast he was talking to me about this unfortunate, grisly murder case that he was working on, and he’s defending a client charged in a pretty horrible murder. It’s good to have in-house counsel.

With one track of my mind, I was thinking about the evidence, this case, I was thinking about the story, about how he might handle it and with the other track in my mind, I was thinking what a good guy my husband is, as criminal defense attorney, because he’s standing up for the little guy. He’s protecting the individual and he’s making sure the jury understand it’s innocent until proven guilty, and that the power of the prosecution doesn’t hammer this guy into oblivion. What a good guy he is.

And then I thought about the prosecutor’s wife, sitting across town, listening to her husband and talking about exactly the same case, and was she’s thinking, what a good guy he is, He’s protecting the public, he standing up for all of us, and keeping law and order and keeping criminals off the streets; he’s standing up for the Constitution and making sure our lives are safe. What a good guy he is.

And then I started to think about Good, and what does Good mean, and what does being a good guy mean and how can everyone believe that they’re the good guy, and I started thinking that it depends on, What do we mean by good? If you’re working for Justice and there are different elements of Good, How does that work? How does Justice exist in that kind of a world where there is such a conflict? Then I thought about every young lawyer who decides to go into the law has kind of a mindset of what kind of lawyer they want to be. Are you a defense attorney, or are you a prosecutor? And you can make a wonderful case for either one.

I thought about a young woman, who is in law school and having to decide whether to be a prosecutor or a defense attorney, and what would go through her mind. Rachel North is a young law student. She calls herself ‘the world’s oldest law student’ because she’s thirty-something. She’s at Harvard Law School, in her third year, and she is married to Jack Kirlkland who is Boston’s best defense attorney, a powerful, smart, determined and faithful—we think—defense attorney. She is working her summer internship with Margaret Gardner, who is a powerful, strong, determined and manipulative prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney. Now, Rachel, who is beautiful, is on her second career as a lawyer, married to the defense attorney, working for the prosecutor, and in this triangle, How will she decide what to do? What do all those people want from each other? And what do they need, and how far will they go to get it? Who will be trampled along the way? And who is next on The Murder List?

Rachel is the apex of the triangle and what effect will these people on her. Rachel, Jack and Martha.

LU: You do a masterful job, in telling everyone’s different perspective. You start out feeling one way about certain characters and at the end of the book, feeling a completely different way about the same characters.

HPR. I know that readers of The Murder List and books, like ours, are smart readers. You have expectations, and you’re trying second-guess us all the time and third-guess us all the time. My goal in The Murder List was to have you feel a certain way at the beginning, like a juror might, and you have all this figured out, and then at some point it’s, “Hold on, reader. What if it is this way?” and you’re, “Oh, that’s got to be right. You’re right. You’re right.” Then I’d say, “Wait a minute, a little bit later. Wait a minute. What if it is really this way? Everything you thought was true is not true.”

My goal is to have you go back read the book a second time, and look at it through the perspective of the second read to have you see what you didn’t see before.

Oh, and again for the Architect and Gardener part…I didn’t know the ending, and I have the little piece of paper that I had thought just in the nick of time. I thought: Oh, my gosh, can that be what happens on there? I have that piece of paper. Much to the delight of my editor, and everybody at Forge was like, “Are you going to figure that out, honey?”

LU: I’m going to ask a few more questions, and then I’m going to open it up to floor. Quickly, what do you love about the writing life? What do you find the most challenging?

HPR: I worked 43 years as a reporter, and everything I do as a reporter is collaborative. We are always working together. I learned to work together. I learned about deadlines. I learned how someone else could have a good idea, which is a powerful thing to learn. The writing life, now that I’m at Channel 7 part-time, I’m juggling both of those things.

On my writing days, when I get to get up and put on sweatpants and have my morning coffee, and nobody is telling me to do something, except for me. I am the boss of my own life. I realize we all have bosses, and we try to please the boss. I love the idea that I am the boss on my writing days, and I can make my life work however I want it to work. I love that freedom.

LU: What do you wish that all aspiring writers knew?

HPR: Oh gosh, nothing is bad as it seems at the time.

LU: That is so true.

HPR: We all have disappointment, we all have things we wished, we hoped that would happen and doesn’t happen and we think, “I’m doomed. I’m never going to be happy again” and right after that you say that, something wonderful happens that wouldn’t have happened if the bad thing hadn’t happened. It shows every time that we don’t even know what we should hope for, because the thing we’re hoping for might not even be the thing that is the good thing.

My book Prime Time was turned down by the publisher I loved. They didn’t want it, and I was so upset about it. A couple months later, that publisher went out of business, the imprint went out of business and I would’ve been an orphan author. The one thing I wanted so much would’ve been the worst thing that could have happened, so now I try to think, “Plot twist. Let’s see what happens. I always think, “We’re going to laugh about this later, so why not laugh sooner.” That’s my little motto: laugh sooner.

LU: I’m going to do a speed round. Red or white?

HPR: Red.

LU: Mac or PC?

HPR: Mac.

LU: Gardener or Architect?

HPR: Gardener, with the wish to be an Architect. Someday, I’ll grow up and be an Architect.

LU: No. No. Don’t. Chocolate or vanilla.

HPR: Toughie. Depends on what. I’m a Libra. We could do a test later. I’m gonna say both

LU: Go-to comfort food.

HPR: Pizza. And You know the pop corners that you get on Jet Blue.

LU: What was your first, first fictional character love?

HPR: My first fiction love was Henry V. In college, I used to dream about Henry V, and then when I was writing mysteries, Lord Peter Wimsey and Morse.

LU: Now, an Oprah moment. You are a successful award-winning journalist, an acclaimed bestselling and award-winning author, a devoted wife, a giving and wonderful friend, and beloved in everything you have touched, what do you know for sure?

HPR: Now, you’re going to make me cry. I think I know for sure that all there is is Now, and to be whatever happy is and open, not judgmental and to be optimistic. I think if we look forward with just a belief that everything will be okay, how can that be wrong? Because it will eventually be okay, in a way that we can’t even understand. We just don’t know. I think all of us want to know, and I’m a reporter, I want to know and, as a reader, we want to know the end of the book. There’s this condition as humans that we want to be certain, and if you can let go…and you know this, my husband and I don’t celebrate the anniversary of the day we met. We celebrate the anniversary of the day before we met, and we call it ‘You Never Know Day.’ You never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner, and that is the one thing I know: you never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner.


Q: What is a murder list?

HPR: There is a real Murder List. My husband is on it. As is in all my titles, this one of the real meaning, among other meanings. The murder list in real life is a list of lawyers who are experienced, wise, and benevolent enough to take on cases of accused murderers who can’t pay for a lawyer. In Massachusetts, we believe that everyone deserves a great attorney no matter whether they can pay for that or not. The murder list is a list of lawyers who have been approved to handle murder cases of indigent clients, and my husband Jonathan is on the list. That’s where the title came from, although, like I said, it’s not the only meaning, as you know.

Q: Radio Seventies

HPR: You get the brain.  My producer had this plastic brain in our office. Whoever has the best idea of the day, or asks the best question gets the brain. In 1970, I started out in politics in Indianapolis as an activist, and sadly none of the candidates I worked for ever won. Nobody won, so you’d think, “Should I do something else?”

I went to the biggest radio station in Indianapolis. I talked to the News Director and I applied for this job as a reporter. I knew they had a reporter opening. The News Director says, “Great. We do need someone. When was your last radio reporter job?”

I said, “Well, no. I’ve never been a radio reporter.”



“Newspaper? Magazines?”


“Did you go to journalism school?”


“Have you ever done an interview, or written a story, or written an article that has anything do with anything with the reporter’s life thing?”


You could see this job was just going away.

And finally he says, “When you were a little girl, do you have that mimeograph paper door-to-door?”

“No” and I really wanted this job, so I thought I’m not going to get it.

Finally he says, “You seem like a very nice young woman.” I was twenty. “You seem like a nice young woman, but you are supremely unqualified for this job. Can you tell me one good reason why I should hire you?”

I said, “Well, yes I can. Your license is up for renewal at the FCC right now, and you don’t have any women working here.” And then, I just smiled, and the next day I had my first job in broadcasting.

I tell this story when I speak to journalism classes. I tell them about this, because this won’t work now. My boss is a woman, and her boss is a woman, and her boss is a woman. Jane Pauley calls us the Class of 1970, those of us who didn’t just start in broadcasting, but anyone in any career at that time really made a difference in how our world works. I see that as part of breaking the gender barrier in broadcasting, the Class of 1970, and my first job I got by threatening my potential employer with a lawsuit, which is not something I would suggest to any of you.

One last question. Jungle Reds

HPR: She is talking about Jungle Red Writers, a blog I’m on, along with some wonderful mystery writers, and Career Authors is another blog I do. She says when she’s ready but I want to tell you that when you are ready to jump, you will be jumping into open arms of other authors who are waiting to lift you up.

About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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