Killer Nashville Interview with
2022 Guest of HonorHank Phillippi Ryan
KN: First, we loved Her Perfect Life. What sparked the idea?
HPR: Oh, thank you! That is the best thing an author can ever hear.
Here’s the beginning of the idea: When I worked in Atlanta, in the 80s, I was anchoring the weekend news. I came home after the late news one night, midnight or even later, and my street was clogged with police cars. As I got closer, I saw that they were focused on my house! And turned out, someone had broken in! The police had already caught the burglar, and told me he confessed to them that he had chosen my house to break into because he knew I was live on television. Isn’t that chilling?
Because he knew where I was, he knew where I wasn’t. That understanding of the deep vulnerability of being a television reporter began to haunt me. What if I had something hidden in my house that I didn’t want anyone to see? What if he had found it? What if he threatened to make it public? And that was the beginning of the story.
And led to the irony in the title.
But, as you can see when you read the book, that’s the theme, but that break-in is not part of the plot.
Her Perfect Life turned out to be about sisters, betrayal, guilt, fame, and revenge. Everyone knows television reporter Lily Atwood, and that may be her biggest problem. She has fame, fortune, and beloved daughter; and her devoted fans have even given her a hashtag: #PerfectLily. But Lily also has one life-changing dark secret—and if anyone finds out, she fears her career and happiness are over. Problem is: how do you keep a secret when you’re always in the spotlight? And when an anonymous source begins to tell Lily secrets about Lily’s own life—she learns the spotlight may be the most dangerous place of all.
And so incredibly thrilled that it got a starred review from Kirkus, and also a star from Publishers Weekly, which called it “A superlative thriller.” Whew.
KN: Lily sounds a bit like you in some ways, at least. She’s an Emmy winning TV reporter in Boston. Is anything based on real-life experience?
HPR: So funny! Well, yes and no. They say write what you know—and also to write what you fear. I’ve been an investigative television reporter for more than 40 years now, yikes. And I’m still on the air in Boston, of course. But many years ago, when I was just starting as a television reporter, I went to the laundromat. (Very exciting, right? Glamorous.) And a woman came up to me and said ‘Oh, you’re Hank from television!” And she proceeded to tell me about a story she wanted me to do. I listened politely, but I went home and called my mother and whined. “Can you believe it?” I asked. “Someone came up to me in the laundromat! “ And my mother paused, and then she said: “You chose the life in the spotlight. Welcome to the spotlight. And I never want to hear you complain again.” She was completely right, of course, and that has truly stuck with me.
But my family did not choose that spotlight. What if that makes them vulnerable too? So much for the perfect life.
And although in Her Perfect Life Lily has many fans, she also has a lot of enemies. Think about it: every one of those Emmy’s she’s won—just like the ones I’ve won—means there is someone whose secret she’s told. Someone who’d rather she’d have stayed quiet. Every one of those Emmys represents a new enemy, right? Scary.
It’s also a huge responsibility. You can never be wrong! Never make a mistake, never use the wrong word, or call someone the wrong name, or miscalculate, and never be one second late. And you have to do the whole thing with perfect hair and make-up and a hundred thousand people watching. All part of the job.
Personally? I’ve been stalked, followed, yelled at, threatened, had people come to my house, and harass me on the phone. As Lily learns, being in the spotlight can bring antipathy, too.
KN: You’ve just finished your 14th manuscript. How do you tend to come up with story ideas? Do you worry you’ll run out?
HPR: Ha! That’s the toughest of all questions. How do I come up with ideas? I have no idea. I truly don’t. Sometimes it’s one tiny nugget from an investigation I’m working on—my novels are not my news stories made into fiction—but maybe a tiny fact, or a possibility, or a personality, or something that didn’t turn out to be true in real life but would be fascinating in fiction. Maybe it’s simply a passing random moment of “what if?” I think reporters and storytellers have a sort of ‘blink’ reflex, where we hear something, and in an instant, can say—oh, that’s a great story! So, I have to admit, much of my life is spent remembering to be open to those moments of inspiration.
Am I worried that I will run out of ideas? Daily. And never. I am terrified, I’ll confess, before the beginning of every book that I’ll never have another good idea. I hear about authors who have stashes of them. But I tell myself—I don’t need a stash. I just need one at a time.
KN: The pacing and plot twists are fantastic—how do you write/plan the plot?
HPR: It’s a writerly answer, but my favorite part of writing Her Perfect Life was when I finally figured out how it would all end. And that came very late in the book! I don’t use an outline, so I’m writing along, happily, and the story is emerging –if I am lucky–but there is some point in the book where you have to find the answer! It’s like—setting up a mystery that then I have to solve.
And it was very difficult this time. I walked around and walked around and got to the point where I thought – I can’t do this. I have no idea. And then, at some point, it just appeared to me. And when I figured out the end, I stood up and applauded. You have to picture this, because I was by myself. But I stood up and applauded.
KN: Tell us about yourself. Did you always love mysteries growing up?
HPR: I grew up in really rural Indiana, so rural that you couldn’t see another house from my house. My sister and I used to ride our ponies to the library to get books, and we read up in the hayloft of the barn behind our house. That’s where I fell in love with Nancy Drew, and Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie. (So funny that later in life I won awards named after the fabulous Agatha!)
I think my career as an investigative reporter is a result of my curiosity, and my love of storytelling, and my—if I can say so—desire to stand up for the little guy and change the world. So I was a reporter for more than thirty years before I started writing fiction.
Still, though I always thought about being a writer, even as a little girl, I decided, back then, it might be more fun to be Sherlock Holmes than to write about Sherlock. So being an investigative reporter and a crime fiction author—I got a little of each.
But both those careers are about storytelling, right? And suspense, and secrets. And I do think being a reporter taught me even more about storytelling—so it all works.
I live just outside of Boston now, with my darling husband, in a big Victorian with gardens and huge trees and lots of green.
KN: What are you currently reading? Some best mysteries you’ve read lately?
HPR: Oh, what a wonderful question! A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz—he is the cleverest person ever. All Her Little Secrets—a terrific psychological legal thriller by debut author Wanda Morris. Hannah Morrissey’s debut, Hello Transcriber. And oh, Vera Kurian’s We Were Never Here. Another terrific (and diabolical) debut. One more? Another debut: Amanda Jayatissa’s My Sweet Girl. (Read with the lights on.) And if you ask me two weeks from now, there’ll be more.
KN: Can you tell us about your next book?
HPR: Ah, well, sure. The fabulous news is that I just sent my first draft to my editor in New York. And it’s always a huge relief to get that crazy first draft on paper and make my deadline. So soon it will be time to edit, and that’s very exciting.
It’s a thriller—and I would say: “Two smart women face off in a high stakes psychological cat-and-mouse game to prove their truth about who is behind a devastating financial scam—but which woman is the cat, and which is the mouse? Money changes everything—that’s what friends are for.”
What’s the title, you ask? It was originally called Her New Best Friend. But that may change. And I’ll let you know! But crossing fingers this will be my best yet.