Hank Phillippi Ryan, HER PERFECT LIFE

Hank Phillippi Ryan, HER PERFECT LIFE

Zibby is joined by 37-time Emmy award-winning journalist and bestselling author Hank Phillippi Ryan to discuss her latest novel, Her Perfect Life. Hank shares which elements of her own life inspired storylines for her protagonist and when she decided to take the leap into writing fiction. Hank also tells Zibby about the inner conflict that arises when breaking a news story and where she draws the line between hurting and helping people.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hank. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Her Perfect Life.

Hank Phillippi Ryan: Zibby, I am so happy to be here this morning. I’m seeing you holding that beautiful book. Have you ever seen such a gorgeous cover as on Her Perfect Life?

Zibby: I love this cover. Actually, I was thinking when I was reading it, who is this girl on the cover? Who is she? Did you pick her? Did you find her? Do you know her?

Hank: A mysterious woman in this photograph who — the art department at Forge did a fantastic job with this cover. I wanted something elegant and mysterious and a woman who was powerful and strong but who had a secret. I was hoping for a picture of a woman with a secret. You know how it is when you get your cover from your editor. There’s an email with an attachment. It’ll have the subject line, “Your Cover!” with an exclamation mark which is supposed to telegraph, you’re going to love this. You hover your finger over the mouse. You know in one click, up is going to come your future. I clicked on this. Up came my complete vision of this book, a powerful woman with a secret, with that gorgeous girl with a pearl earring, lighting. It’s just so elegant.

Zibby: It’s so true. Yes, an absolute Vermeer original, for sure.

Hank: Exactly. I do think the title is so ironic, Her Perfect Life. You wonder and you know that her life cannot be perfect. You wonder, why isn’t it perfect? Why is it supposed to be perfect? You see this steely undercurrent of her trying to make a decision about what’s going to happen next and how she can keep juggling and what the stakes are. I know we’re just talking about a picture of a woman on the cover, but that’s what it tells me.

Zibby: No, it means a lot. It pulls you right in, for sure. Why don’t you tell listeners what Her Perfect Life is about? What inspired you to write this book?

Hank: Oh, my gosh, this is my thirteenth book, which is crazy. When I think about this, I started writing when I was fifty-five, so to have it be my thirteenth book is kind of amazing. The DNA of a Hank Phillippi Ryan book, if I can say so, is sort of a twisty, turn-y psychological cat-and-mouse thriller, but which character is the cat and which character is the mouse? That’s what Her Perfect Life is all about. It stars Lily Atwood. Lily Atwood is a television reporter who is so beloved that her fans actually made a hashtag for her, #PerfectLily. Everyone knows who Lily Atwood is. That may be her biggest problem. She is in the spotlight all the time. She’s worked hard. She’s devoted. She’s a good journalist. She has fame. She has fortune. She has Emmys. She has a beautiful, beloved seven-year-old daughter. She also has one dark secret, a deep, dark, life-changing secret. Her problem is, how do you keep a secret when you’re in the spotlight all the time? Lily Atwood begins to learn that the spotlight might be the most vulnerable and dangerous place of all.

Zibby: Reading this book, I was like, hmm, double-edged sword here of fame. She was very vulnerable. It made me sort of nervous on behalf of every public figure. There was a line you had about the fact that you’re on TV, but you don’t know who’s watching you. Who’s out there watching everything you do? You don’t know. Before, it didn’t sound quite as dark. The way you made it seem, I was like, oh, my gosh, these poor newscasters.

Hank: It’s interesting. I’ve been a television reporter for forty-three years. I’m still on the air here in Boston. I love it. I embrace it. We want people to watch. My goal is to have people watch my stories. My goal is to have people know who I am. My goal is to have people tell me things. As Lily Atwood learns, no one tells a secret without a reason. That’s really a wonderful undercurrent. On the other side of fame is this idea that you really can’t go anywhere without someone knowing who you are. Think about how that feels to know that your every move, in every way, is being scrutinized by people you don’t know. The good side is that people come up to me on the street and say, “Hank Phillippi Ryan, I love you,” people I don’t know. That’s incredibly gratifying, but think about the dark side of that. It happened to me when I was anchoring the weekend news in Atlanta years ago. I had just finished doing the eleven o’clock news, PM. I was coming home, midnight or so. There were police cars surrounding my house. The house where I lived in Atlanta had been broken into, burglarized while I was on the air. The police caught the guy. He told them that the reason he had chosen my house, which he knew was my house, was that he knew I wasn’t home because I was live in the studio on television.

In live TV, you not only know where someone is, you know where they’re not. Each of those is equally potentially dangerous. It’s usually fine. It’s usually wonderful. If someone wanted to use that knowledge for nefarious, evil, sinister, revengeful reasons, it just wouldn’t be hard to do. That’s what I was trying to show in Her Perfect Life. Of course, Lily’s glamorous. She has makeup people, she has hair people, she has a nanny, but she works very hard. Every day, she’s vulnerable. She chose this life, but her daughter did not. Her little daughter, Rowan, didn’t choose it. What position is she putting, what vulnerability, what dangerousness is she putting her little daughter in by her choice of career? It’s a balance. Her Perfect Life is this balance between motherhood and her responsibility to her daughter — she’s a single mom — and her responsibility to her job as a journalist and to be brave and intrepid and to go into places that people might not want her to be. She can take risks for herself, but can she take risks for her daughter? That’s all part of this balance that I focus on in the book.

Zibby: I feel like a lot of it is about trust. Greer, who works with Lily, who she thinks is her right-hand woman, trusts implicitly, in one of the scenes where they are filming the behind-the-scenes — why is Lily so perfect? Here you are with your daughter at home and everything. Lily’s like, do not put her face in. That’s enough. This is not about her. Greer is like, no, no, no, it’s fine, I won’t put her face in. Then you show us what Greer is thinking. She’s like, maybe I’ll just slip it in. Even her most trusted people — of course, a lot happens with this relationship along the way. It sets it up that you just don’t know. You don’t know who to trust. How do you protect your daughter when your whole life is public domain like that? Just like you were saying.

Hank: Exactly. I love hearing you talk about Her Perfect Life, Zibby. It’s so great. It’s funny because I sit here for a year writing this book by myself, and then there’s the moment when someone actually reads it. I really think that the book is not fulfilled until someone reads it. The idea of having you tell me about the book, that’s just so great. I know exactly what scene you’re talking about. Greer is Lily’s producer. The producer-reporter team in television is this incredibly marriage of necessity, of talent, of ambition, of skill. Local television is a very nomadic kind of job. You’re always wanting to go to a bigger market, to get a better job, to be higher on the ladder. Greer, Lily’s producer, her teammate, is not only working with Lily to make sure that Lily’s career blossoms, but also that Greer’s career blossoms. Greer is trying to balance her loyalty to Lily, her teammate, with her loyalty and ambition for herself.

If she can put darling little Rowan on TV and have people watch it and having the ratings go up, might that not be better? What if she convinces herself that Lily is really wrong and that everyone wants to see her daughter? This will enhance Lily’s reputation. There’s this manipulation that we do of each other. It’s interesting. My books are not graphically violent. I don’t like inappropriate language. I don’t like graphic violence. I don’t like graphic sex in books. I don’t do that. What I do in Her Perfect Life and all my books is mind games. It’s manipulation and gaslighting and what we do to each other and how destructive of a weapon our emotions can be, just as destructive as a gun or a knife, what we do to each other and how we try to convince each other of things and how we as individuals rationalize that what we’re doing is a good thing.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like, also, Greer feels this sense of entitlement because — Lily had to turn down this big job offer in New York City for Rowan’s school. She was like, I’m so sorry. Greer had attached herself to Lily at this point. She’s like, that’s okay, we’ll stay here. She’s single. She doesn’t have not even a pet because she’s never home. Because of that tradeoff, I think Greer feels, well, if we need to bolster ourself here, I did this for her. Now she has to do — it’s sort of, I pat your — what’s that expression? I pat your back. You pat mine.

Hank: Whatever it is, yeah.

Zibby: Scratch my back? I don’t know. Whatever.

Hank: I think it works for pat your back too, actually. I think that’s kind of brilliant, Zibby, because if I’m nice to you and you’re nice to me and everybody’s nice to each other, then probably, that’s a good idea. When it really is a tradeoff, it really is this currency that we have, that I’ll do something for you and you do something for me, usually, it works except when it takes a darker cast, when we use, you owe me. I did this for you, so now you owe me. You start hearing the difference in the tone. That’s what suspense is. That’s what a suspense novel is. Psychological suspense like Her Perfect Life, that’s what that is. We all have friends, we all have acquaintances who do this, who pretend that they’re doing it for you, but they’re not. They’re doing it for themselves. That’s a wonderful thing to plumb, to write about in novels of suspense. That’s what I think makes books like this, psychological suspense, domestic suspense, be so relatable and engaging. I want my readers to think, ooh, I know somebody like that, or even, ooh, I’ve felt like that. I didn’t really recognize it. It’s this illumination, sometimes, that we all have a little bit of a darker side and how we have to understand what that is. Plus, it’s about the power of guilt, when you do something and then you think, oh, this is not quite right, but nobody will notice. Nobody will know. That’s exactly what they notice.

Zibby: Hank, first of all, how did you learn how to write? The way you speak about psychological thrillers and dramas and all of this and what it takes is obviously so on point, as you’ve mastered with your collection of books. You were already a successful journalist. Why go into writing these types of novels? How did you pick up that skill along the way?

Hank: I love this question because it makes it sound like there’s a plan in that. It makes it sound like I had this process that was my five-year plan. There was nothing like that. I can tell you very quickly — my husband and I don’t celebrate the anniversary of the day we met. We celebrate the anniversary of the day before we met. We call it You Never Know Day because you never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner. You never know. We never know in our lives what decisions we make that will bloom into something else. 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’d read up in the hayloft of the barn behind our house. I would read Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew and all the wonderful Golden Age mystery authors, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers. I knew that I wanted to either be — I was maybe twelve — that I wanted to either be a mystery writer or a detective. I thought it might be cooler to be Sherlock Holmes than it would be to write Sherlock Holmes. That’s sort of what a television reporter is. That’s sort of what a journalist is, is a detective. We’re tracking down clues and uncovering secrets and telling the world about things.

One day when I was at Channel 7, I just had a good idea for a novel. I knew it was a good idea. You’ve had a million good ideas, Zibby. You know this. There’s that moment when you have a good idea and you think, wow, this is going to work. This is totally going to work. I came home and I said to my husband, “I’ve got a great idea for a mystery. I’m going to write a novel.” My husband says, “Great, honey.” He says, “Do you know how to write a book?” I’m like, “How hard can it be? I’ve read a million of these.” I’ve read thrillers and mysteries my whole life. How hard can it be? I soon learned how hard it could be, but I persevered. I was so passionate. I was so obsessed. I was driven to do this nights and weekends while I was on the air. I worked all day at my TV job. I came home, and I just wrote. That became Prime Time, my first novel, which won the Agatha for Best First Novel. That was the crazy beginning, the random, unpredictable, unplanned totally, beginning of my second career as a fiction writer. Is it Malcom Gladwell, you have to write a million words or something like that in order to be a writer? Think about it. When I started writing fiction, I’d been writing nonfiction for thirty years at that point with a character who you care about, with a problem that needs to be solved, an important problem that needs to be solved where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. In the end, you want some justice. You want to change the world a little bit. As an investigative reporter, that’s what I did every day. That’s exactly what I did as a crime fiction writer.

The difference is, of course, that I had to make stuff up. I wondered, Zibby, whether I could. That was the big hurdle for me. Would my brain, after all these years of telling stories with a beginning, middle, and end — but I only could use the facts. I could only use the setting that I had. I could only use the real dialogue that someone said. Would I be able to make something up? As I sat here right at this desk looking out at the sugar maple tree in my backyard, I realized that I could do that. I could create a world that never existed before, a world that I could introduce readers to that could take them to a new place, a place they’d never been. It was so exciting. I even get goosebumps talking to you about it because that moment of realization that I had conquered something that I had wanted to do since I was a little girl — I always say to people, if you want to do something, why not now? Why not be brave? We are brave when we’re teenagers, but we lose that bravery. We lose that self-sufficiency. We lose that idea that we can accomplish pretty much whatever we want, but we have to go for it. That’s sort of my mantra about this. Why not just try it now? What is there to lose? There’s nothing to lose. I’m in a completely different place as a result of just exactly that. You never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner.

Zibby: That’s kind of how I feel about this whole podcast. I didn’t have to start it. I just started it. Now, look, I get to sit here and talk to people like you. I hang on your every word, the way you talk, the way you write. It’s so interesting, deeply interesting and inspiring to me. I get to do this with you. This is what I do now. It’s amazing. I didn’t have to do this. Why not? That was sort of how I started too. Why not try it? I think I can do it. Why not? I totally understand.

Hank: Oh, good. I was wondering whether you felt this way, if I said to you, Zibby, how did you get to do this podcast? Uh, I just thought it was a good idea. I saw your face when I was talking about knowing that you had a good idea. When that happens, I don’t know whether it’s bravery or naïveté, the obstacles just seem to disappear. You just go for it. You learn along the way. Everything isn’t always perfect. Everything isn’t always Her Perfect Life. When you face an obstacle, it’s like if someone promised you — it’s that adage that says, what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? If someone said to you, I promise this will work, it may be tough along the way, but I promise you, you will be successful at this, you would say, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll try it because I know that I will succeed. Everything always works some way. It may not work the way you thought it would or hoped it would, but it works some way. Often, the way it works is surprising and wonderful if you are open to embrace that.

Zibby: I love it. I love it for you. I love it for Lily. It’s such an inspiring message because I think people so often feel stuck and afraid. This whole message, it’s like, why not? Also, knowing, I’ll handle it. Yeah, things will go wrong. Lily handles it. Also, just being aware of the tradeoffs. One thing with Lily too, all the Emmys that she wins — I’m looking at your Emmys behind you, which is so cool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life. This is as close to real life as — oh, my god, they go all the way up the wall. That’s so cool. For people listening, I’ll post this little clip on Instagram so we can see all the awards. It’s so exciting. When Lily is up there accepting her award, she’s also, in the back of her head, thinking about the fact that her success sometimes comes and causes the downfall of other people, for example, her investigative report of the health system inspector who basically forges reports. It’s one of the things that wins her this award, is uncovering this ring, essentially. Success comes at a cost. Who is the cost for? I was just wondering about that in terms of you and your awards. Do you feel like there’s a cost associated with it? Do you feel guilt or something at any of the stories you’ve covered? Where did that little piece come from?

Hank: That is so wise of you, Zibby, so wise. You were talking about the Emmys. Every one of those Emmys on my shelf represents a secret that someone didn’t want me to tell, represents a story that someone else would rather have kept hidden. Part of my responsibility as a journalist, exactly as you say, is to first do no harm, but if someone else is doing harm, how many people can I help by revealing that someone is stealing money or cheating or harming you in some way? We’ve done stories about the 911 system that was sending emergency responders, police and firefighters, to the wrong address thousands of times a year in Massachusetts. You’d call 911, and the people go to the wrong place. The person who was in charge of that, as a result of our story, was fired. I had a moment of thinking, oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean you to lose your job. On the other hand, you were putting thousands of people at risk. There is that balance. I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras and gone undercover and confronted corrupt politicians and chased down criminals and gone in disguise. All of those things were to get to the secrets that people were hiding that were harming the public. Was it risky? Sometimes risky. Was it scary? Sometimes scary. I have been stalked and yelled at and threatened and followed and had people come to my home. I’ve had people call and scream at me and say, how could you do that to me? I say, I didn’t do it. You did. You did it. You have to get a little bit of a thick skin to be an investigative reporter.

I told you earlier that people come up to me on the street and say, oh, Hank, I love you. There are other people who feel exactly the opposite about that. There are people who do not want to see me in their doorway. I had a news director once who said to me, he said, “Every good investigative reporter comes to town and works until everybody hates them.” Luckily, Boston is big. I still have a lot of people to go. In answer to your question, Lily has the same situation. Lily is a devoted, honorable journalist who has given her life to enlightening and education and illustrating problems and putting the sunlight on a problem. That’s what she does, but that absolutely comes at a cost. It comes at a cost of her own personal scrutiny and her own personal privacy and her own personal vulnerability. One of the things that starts Her Perfect Life is when one of her anonymous sources who’s given her story after story that really work out — so clearly, this person knows something — starts telling her secrets about herself. Ah, so the tables are turned. She’s the one who’s telling other people’s secrets. Now someone knows hers. I loved the idea of, how does a reporter feel when they’re not the one telling the secrets, but when someone is telling the secrets about them? How do you protect your perfect life when that is what’s happening?

Zibby: Wow. It is very clear why Rowan, Lily’s daughter, feels like she is actually a spy and not a reporter because talking to you, it feels that way too, that you are a detective. You really are like one of those. I’m wondering what else you have. What book is coming next? I’m assuming there’s another book, but maybe not. Tell me what’s coming next and then also what advice you have for aspiring authors.

Hank: Oh, my goodness, the book that’s coming next, in a couple of weeks, talk to me about that. I’m in the middle of my new book, which is — I can tell you, Zibby. Nobody knows this yet. It’s called Her New Best Friend. It’s about the power of friendship and how women deal with each other as friends and when that can be the best thing that could possibly ever happen, but how someone could possibly weaponize friendship in order to get someone to do what they want them to do. The key of good suspense is, what does someone want? How far will they go to get it? I am exploring in my new book, which comes out this time next year, crossing fingers and all kinds of things that you have to say to make good luck happen, will be —

Zibby: — I’ll knock wood.

Hank: Thank you. Thank you for knocking on wood. Every little bit helps. Will be called Her New Best Friend. We’ll see what happens. We’re talking today. I’m about halfway through. Writers call this the muddle in the middle when we think, oh, my golly, I have no idea. I always come out the other end. We shall see. You asked about advice to writers. It’s interesting. People talk about, I’m an aspiring writer. I say, are you writing? If you’re writing, you’re not aspiring. You’re doing it. I think that writing comes from love. Writing comes from passion. Writing comes from the desire to tell a story and share a story. Sometimes I have bad writing days. Sometimes I’m sitting at my desk going, oh, my golly, you just wrote the worst sentence that’s ever been written in the history of humankind. Oh, my gosh, that’s terrible. Then I think, yep, that was pretty bad. Let’s write another bad sentence, Hank. Let’s just keep going and keep going and keep going. My advice, Zibby, is just to keep going. If you have a story to tell, you need to tell it. No one cares about your book as much as you do. If you don’t write it, there’s no one that’s going to be calling you and saying, how’s your book going, Hank? How’s it going? You have to have the responsibility. You have to have the passion. You need to have the drive. You need to have the joy every day, like I do, of sitting down at my computer. I think, okay, I wonder what’s going to happen next. That’s what keeps me going, that joy of my own suspense, of creating my own mystery, and discovering my own answers. I highly recommend it. It’s work. It’s difficult. If it’s not difficult, you’re not working hard enough. There is nothing like the joy of telling a good story.

Zibby: I love it. And a wrap. No, I’m kidding. Thank you. It’s so professional. I love it. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for even the backstory of this awesome cover for Her Perfect Life. I’m excited for your next book. Keep at it. This is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story.

Hank: Thank you. Zibby, I’ve had a wonderful time this morning. I’m a huge fan, as everyone is, as you well know. I love the idea that you are bringing us all together to talk about things that we share and care about even in this crazy time. What you do is just more important than ever. I’m pleased to be a part of it.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s so nice. Thank you. Take care. Thank you for everything.

Hank Phillippi Ryan, HER PERFECT LIFE

HER PERFECT LIFE by Hank Phillippi Ryan

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