I don't think I've ever had so much fun with an interview. Hank Phillippi Ryan took time from her busy schedule to allow me to interview her and Charlotte, "Charlie" McNally, the investigative reporter in Hank's mysteries.
"Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is currently on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate, where she's broken big stories for the past 22 years. Her stories have resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers.
"Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s also won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a legislative aide in the United States Senate (working on the Freedom of Information Act) and at Rolling Stone Magazine (working with Hunter S. Thompson).
"Her first mysteries, Prime Time (which won the prestigious Agatha Award for Best First Novel, was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel, and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner) and Face Time (Book Sense Notable Book), were best sellers. They were both re-issued this summer from MIRA Books. The next in the series are Air Time (MIRA Sept. 2009) (Sue Grafton says: "Sassy, fast-paced and appealing. This is first-class entertainment.") and Drive Time (MIRA February 2010.) Her website is http://www.hankphillippiryan.com."
I was slightly intimidated to be interviewing two of the best investigative reporters in the business today, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Charlotte “Charlie” McNally. Ryan is the author of the Charlotte McNally crime novels, relating Charlie’s investigations.
Lesa: Hank, would you introduce Charlie to my readers, and, Charlie, would you introduce Hank?
HANK: Charlotte McNally—Charlie—is a veteran reporter at a Boston television station. She’s smart, and savvy, and successful—
CHARLIE: Yeah, well, you never know when that’ll end. I do have a study full of Emmys, just like you do, Hank, but as you well know, you’re only as good as your last story. If I don’t come up with a blockbuster for the next ratings sweeps, it’s goodbye Charlie. And I’ll be replaced by someone younger. And I bet you’ve had that feeling, too, Hank, in your thirty years as a TV reporter. Just guessing here, of course.
HANK: You see how she is.
Lesa: Charlie, how do you see that you and Hank are alike, and different?
CHARLIE: I’m younger. And a better driver.
HANK: Fine. She’s younger. And a better driver. And I do admit, when my husband talks about Charlie, he calls her “you.” As in: when “you” get chased by the bad guys, or when “you” get held at gunpoint. And I have to remind him, “Sweetheart, it’s fiction.” But Charlie can say things I can’t say about the reality of television, and because she’s (whispering) fictional, she can go places I can’t go.
CHARLIE: But Lesa asked me about this, so let me say. I think we’re both devoted journalists. Hank was married to her job for years, really, verging on workaholic, I heard that from everyone. But she was—is—driven to find justice, and to change the world, and to stand up for the little guy. And I know Hank’s found true love—though she was older than I am when it happened. We’ve both wired ourselves with hidden cameras, confronted corrupt politicians, and chased down criminals. And we both still do that.
Lesa: Charlie, what’s the most interesting story you ever covered? And, would you tell us about your undercover investigation in Air Time?
CHARLIE: Well, I must say there were moments when I was covering the AIR TIME story when I wondered if it would be the last story I ever did! You know those fancy designer purses you see on street corners and in flea markets? They look like the expensive Pradas and Chanels—but they’re actually cheap knockoffs.
I wondered—who’s making those? Where do they get the designs? How do they distribute them? And who’s getting all the money from purse-addicted women? And even more—how do they get away with selling them right under the noses of law enforcement?
So I went undercover and in disguise to find out. And Lesa, you won’t believe what I found out. Amazing. Scary.
Lesa: Hank, what was the most interesting story you ever covered?
HANK: Well, interestingly! I’ve done a lot of stories on counterfeit designer merchandise! And much of AIR TIME, including the undercover work, is been there-done that, I must admit. (Of course the scheme I devise for the bad guys is completely from my imagination! But when I described it to law enforcement types, they had to agree it would work!)
My most interesting story? Ah, we’ve found serious flaws in the state’s 911 system, which resulted in emergency responders being sent to the wrong addresses. We found federal jury pools without one person of color—and now that system is changing. We’ve uncovered predatory practices in the mortgage and home improvement industry, and our stories led to people getting their homes out of foreclosure and several new laws enacted. (I think every one of my Emmys represents a secret someone didn’t want revealed—and a time when we changed the world a bit.)
But I always hope my most interesting story is just around the corner
Lesa: Hank, what do you know about Charlie’s future cases?
HANK: Let me just say this: It’s lucky Charlie is a good driver. (DRIVE TIME comes out in February.)
Lesa: Hank, what made you decide you wanted to be a journalist? And, what made you decide to tell about Charlie’s career?
HANK: I had some ideas about making a difference with my life. I started out working in political campaigns in my early-early twenties, and then in Washington DC as an aide in the US Senate, then moved to Rolling Stone Magazine. I got my first job as a TV reporter after that, and I was hooked. Being a reporter is such a responsibility—you have a lot of power to expose, confront, and change the world.
And I love to tell a good story.
So—as a reporter—tracking down leads. Interviewing compelling characters. Going after the bad guys. Finding justice. Having a satisfying conclusion. Changing the world. That’s what reporters do. And that’s what mystery authors do, too! So it all worked perfectly.
When Charlie presented herself—she opened the door to a new career for me.
Lesa: Charlie, why did you decide to let Hank write about your career?
CHARLIE: Huh. Try and stop Hank if she wants to do something. But there are times when Hank pushes me in a way I don’t want to go. Like that gun scene in—well, I won’t give it away. But the two of us do have some battles over my decision-making process. And my perceptions of the bad guys. And I can tell you, I always win. She can’t make me do what I don’t want to do.
HANK (whispering): I let her think that.
CHARLIE (rolling eyes) : I’m ignoring her. As usual. But you know, being a television reporter is a high-pressure job. You can never be wrong! You can never make a mistake, You can never be one second late. And you can never have a bad hair day, because millions of people will see you. Women of a certain age are fighting the on-air aging battle. And many of us, who chose to devote our lives to our careers, are now assessing the results of that. I think that’s important.
So I’m glad Hank offered to write about it. And she seems happy about that, I must say.
Lesa: Hank, Josh has a difficult time with the dangers and hours of Charlie’s job. How does your husband handle it?
HANK: He knows I won’t make risky decisions. Usually. And when I’m out on a story, I have a photographer with me. So I just tell the photog—if someone tries to hit me, just make sure you get it on camera.
The hours on the job is a touchier subject. And Charlie’s battles with Josh over her devotion to her work, I must say, do stem from some actual--
CHARLIE: Hey, TV is 24/7. Nothing I can do about that. And Josh is devoted to his job, too, you know. If one of his students were in trouble, he’d be there in an instant. So it’s not just me.
HANK: As I was saying. What makes it work is that my husband, a criminal defense attorney, is devoted t his job, too. So when he has a big case, or an important trial, I understand the focus and attention he needs to give it. And I think his work is exciting and important, so I actually enjoy it.
Lesa: Hank, do you like to go undercover as much as Charlie does?
HANK: It’s–a necessary tool of TV journalists. A newspaper reporter just needs a notebook and a pen—or even just a good memory. A TV reporter has to get video. And sometimes, the only way to do that is with a hidden camera. We don’t break any laws.
Do I like it? I like the results.
CHARLIE: Let me just say: it can be scary. It can be stressful. And there’s always the possibility of getting caught, which is unpleasant. Hank can tell you that, for sure.
Lesa: Charlie, is there anything else you would like to add to the interview?
CHARLIE: Well, I have a question.
HANK: As usual.
CHARLIE: You should know.
HANK: (shrugging, but with affection)
CHARLIE: I’m thinking I might get a big job offer, from the network, to move to New York. My dream job. What I’ve always wanted. What should I do? What would happen to my love life—which suddenly, surprisingly, seems to exist? In life and in love, how do I tell the real thing?
HANK: I’m sure you’ll make the right decision when the time comes. I hope so, at least.
Lesa: I’d like to thank both of you for taking time for this interview. And, Hank, I have one more question for you. I always end with the same question. I’m a public librarian. Do you have any stories or comments about public libraries?
CHARLIE: Love your blog, Lesa, and thanks for inviting us! Hank’s devoted to libraries. She’s always visiting them, and doing speeches and seminars. As you know, a library and a brave librarian played a pivotal role in my adventure with—
HANK: Charlie, cool it. Someone might not have read that yet. Lesa, I can say with certainty that I would not be where I am today without libraries. Summers, as a kid, I’d lug home the limit—ten books at a time—from our local library. (Indianapolis.) Those blue biographies, and Edward Eager, and anything about horses. The smell of the books. The beautiful stacks. The big wooden desks. The Dewey Decimal system that puts everything in such perfect order—I love it. The devoted librarians who always had one more wonderful book to share. In Massachusetts, as everywhere, libraries are facing devastating financial challenges. I try to do what I can to help.
CHARLIE: Me, too. Libraries? Give Hank a call. We’d love to come visit..
I can't thank Hank Phillippi Ryan and Charlie McNally enough. I hope they enjoyed the interview as much as I did. Watch for Charlie's future adventures. As they said, Air Time is just out, and Drive Time will be out in February.
Hank Phillippi Ryan's website is www.hankphillippiryan.com
Air Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Mira, ©2009. ISBN 9780778327196 (paperback), 280p.