Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hank Phillippi Ryan & Steve Hamilton at The Poisoned Pen!

When I learned that Hank Phillippi Ryan and Steve Hamilton were going to appear at The Poisoned Pen to promote their new books, it wasn't difficult to persuade Denis that we had to go even though we were going to be spending the Labor Day weekend with two dozen authors just a few days later. I think Denis just wanted to do something with me that took us outside the house yet still involved air conditioning. Whatever the reason, we were at our favorite bookstore nice and early to get the seats we wanted, and the time flew by.

L to R: Hank Phillippi Ryan & Steve Hamilton

Barbara Peters introduced the pair and then left center stage to them because, as she said, Ryan is a vastly superior interviewer. And since I now record these events, go home, listen to the recordings and type up the recaps, I'm just going to proceed as though I'm writing a screenplay. (Hope you don't mind!)

Ryan: How long have you been on book tour?

Hamilton: For almost two weeks.

Ryan: Do you have any idea what day it is?

Hamilton: Um... it's the middle of the week, right?

Ryan: I don't know! Book tour is so crazy. What a wild trip it is. It's so much fun, but you have no idea what day it is. There are mornings when I wake up in hotel rooms and think, 'Where am I?'  Do you have that?

Hamilton: Yes. It is a great privilege because we get to... Writing is such a solitary thing. You're in a room alone late at night, or if you're a morning person, early in the morning, and you can forget that there are people out there who read these books and they spend so much time with your characters. That's such an amazing thing, especially now when so many people don't read books. So it's great to come here and be reminded that there are still readers out there. It's something that I'll never take for granted.

Hank Phillippi Ryan
Ryan: I am not a morning writer. Lee Child always said nothing good ever happens before noon, so every time I put it off and put it off and put it off. But I think because I've been a television reporter for forty years I get more prolific as the night goes on. I think it's because I'm always half-ready for the eleven o'clock news, so at ten o'clock I can really write because I know my news deadline is coming. But in the morning I have plenty of time to put the story together. Do you write at night as well?

Hamilton: Yes, I do. I can't imagine getting up before dawn. We know writers who do it that way. William Kent Krueger in a coffee shop in Minnesota while the sun comes up, writing his books. That's like science fiction to me.

Ryan: Exactly! You would find my head clonked on a computer. [Holding up a copy of Hamilton's book] People are just effusive about Dead Man Running. This is marvelous. And it's not just because it's a fast-paced, interesting, compelling book; this has really touched some people.

Hamilton: Well! Thank you by the way... It's been five years since the last book with this guy, and actually as I go around this month, it's kind of mind-blowing that it was twenty years ago this month that A Cold Day in Paradise was released. Twenty years! And all the things that have happened since then. It's just incredible to look back on it. And now, five years since the last book... I knew I'd go back to him. I was here for the last few books, and I hope I said it whenever anyone asked about Alex-- that I'd go back to him. [character Alex McKnight]

Ryan: Why don't you tell us a bit about where Alex came from; he's such a favorite with readers! Do you remember the moment you first met him?

Steve Hamilton
Hamilton: Yeah, I remember the exact moment because I was trying to write what I thought was a private eye book. Which is the guy in the office with the hat and the thing and the bottle and the gun... you've got the whole thing in your head already. It's kind of formula, but there's nothing wrong with that formula, by the way. It still works really well. I loved that kind of book when I was growing up. I wanted to write that kind of book.

I had all this time set aside to write that kind of book, and I failed so utterly and completely. It just didn't happen.

Ryan: How did you know you had failed? Every author feels that at some point. It's not good... whose idea was this... this isn't going to work... but you had a pure, compelling thought that you were just on the wrong track. How did you know that?

Hamilton: When, after sixteen days, I had written two words. That was my clue. The words were 'Chapter One,' by the way. I mean, after all this time, I felt like such a failure. I just wanted to do this so bad, and I just thought, 'You're never going to be a writer. You don't have what it takes-- whatever that is. It's just not going to happen for you.'

And then at that point of giving up, I just decided that I was going to write something else. I had this idea about a guy who felt like I did. It felt real. I just thought of Alex McKnight sitting in a cabin in the most remote place I could think of. I thought, 'Why is he there? Why is he feeling this way?' It's a strange way to begin a story with that feeling of despair, so I just started answering questions about it. Maybe he's a cop. What's the big failure for a cop? His partner was killed and he didn't stop it. He left the force. He came to this place to get away from his life. And that first book was about how your life will always find you.

Available Now!
Ryan: What do you mean by that?

Hamilton: Well, it's like you can't get away from the past. You can't run away from your demons. And that was the point of that whole first book. It wasn't a private eye novel, it was a personal coming-to-terms-with-his-past novel. It just came about in a way that I never would have expected.

Ryan: When you start with your character in deep despair, you have two choices. You can have them come out of it, or not. Did you know you were writing a series, and how do you keep the idea that the core started with that despair but you can't keep despair going throughout the series?

Hamilton: No, you can't. He kinda gets dragged out of it. He kinda gets tricked out of it. I wasn't thinking of a second book, or a third book... or an eleventh book now. When the first book was published, they asked me where the second one was. I said, 'It's coming right up!' And when I went back, I realized that there was more stuff that he could do. This book is a lot different, though.

Ryan: Why?

Hamilton: Coming back from a break, it's like... have you seen the movie Skyfall? That was a brilliant movie I thought because all the stuff that had built up around the franchise was done away with. They made the decision to go back to what it was about this character that made us want to read the books and go see the first couple of movies when it was this new amazing thing before all the fancy cars and stuff. I was inspired by that. What was it about Alex McKnight twenty years ago that made me want to keep writing about him?

Steve Hamilton
Ryan: So you fell in love with your character all over again.

Hamilton: Yeah, I guess you could say that. I got back to back to that idea, and that's why he's alone in this book. It's about him on his own. It takes him out of his comfort zone, and it's a very different sort of circumstance. The book starts in the Mediterranean Sea with this guy who's on a cruise with his wife. He checks the video feed on his house back in Scottsdale, Arizona. He sees that something's not right. He checks the bedroom and sees there's a dead body in his bed.

In the next scene, you're in Arizona and they've captured this guy-- kinda too easily actually-- and the FBI is interviewing him. The guy tells them that there's one victim still alive, but you're going to have to take me to Michigan to find this ex-cop from Detroit, and you're going to have to bring him with us. That's the only way I'll cooperate.

Ryan: That's weird!

Hamilton: It is weird, especially when Alex gets there and this guy knows everything about his life-- and Alex has never seen him before.

Ryan: And that's one of the things about your books that is so terrific, that the two stories come together so beautifully. The personal story and the crime story. How do you weave that together? Do you plan it all, or does it just come together as you write?

Hamilton: This just comes out of Alex. It's who he is and how he deals with things. He uses his gut instincts to make his way through this nightmare that he's plunged into. It does tie into his own life, and there's a big twist at the end that we won't talk about. It's just part of making a story that's a complete story because you need all of that.

Ryan: To newcomers to the series, you don't have to start with the first book. They're a series of standalone books, right? That you can read in any order...

Hamilton: Right.

Hank Phillippi Ryan
Ryan: Did you know you were doing that with the first book, giving it that standalone feel?

Hamilton: I didn't know anything about the series when I wrote that first book, but as you go, you learn that it's a balancing act.

Ryan: I've learned so much about the difference between writing a series and writing a standalone because this is my first standalone, my first psychological standalone after writing nine series books. Two different series.

Hamilton: So let's talk about this book now.

Ryan: Okay!

Hamilton: I was reading your book on the plane to Phoenix, and here's the thing that struck me about it: we do these tours and events and conferences, and all that stuff is secondary to the words on the page and whether when you pick up the book that it really works for you as a reader. That's what really matters and what will last long after we're gone. As I was reading your book, I forgot that I was going to see you today and that I wanted to ask you questions about it, I just wanted to read because it's a really good book. It really pulled me in.

Ryan: It's interesting, because at the beginning of the book-- just like your Alex book, Mercer Hennessey-- who is a journalist-- quits her up and coming job as a writer to stay at home with her husband and daughter. Just to be a mom. This is what she wants to do. A year before the start of the book, she loses her husband and daughter in a terrible accident, and as the book begins, Mercer is writing in the steam on the bathroom mirror four, four, two-- the number of days since her family was taken from her. This is her daily ritual.

She can't find a reason for her to get out of bed in the morning, and she gets what may be a lifeline phone call from her old editor, asking her to cover the trial of a notorious party girl/murderer-- alleged murderer-- who's accused of killing her own daughter. Should Mercer cover the trial? Her grief over losing her own daughter is still so raw, but she's a journalist and she can be objective. So she's assigned to write the true crime coverage-- like In Cold Blood-- of this murder trial.

Hank Phillippi Ryan
Hamilton: And you actually read some of the things she's writing about the trial, so you kinda see it from the other side. She's trying to imagine herself in the mind of the person who's on trial.

Ryan: It's interesting because the first part of the book is a book in a book. So you read about Mercer's life and how she's covering this trial. She's under tremendous pressure because the book must be finished by the time the defendant is sentenced. She's under intense deadline pressure. She's writing like crazy. She's researching. She's watching the trial on a video feed in her house. She's in this sort of locked room situation with this grisly story about a horrible murder coming through the video feed.

You see Mercer covering the trial, and you see what she thinks about it. Then you're also reading the book she's writing about it. So we know what happens to the accused murderer through Mercer's eyes and through what Mercer is writing, and we can see Mercer trying to stay objective. And then everything changes, which I can't tell you about at all!

Hamilton: I know! The plane landed, and all I want to do is get back to the book and start reading, which is the highest compliment you can pay a writer, I think. I think tonight will be a long night because I want to see what happens next.

Ryan: What happens next is so fascinating because it's why we all read crime fiction. We want to see what happens in this case, we want to find out whodunit. 

This is a little-known story, and I'll tell it quickly. I was assigned many years ago by a big fancy publishing house to write the true crime novel of the Casey Anthony trial. I had to cover the trial and write the book and be done when the trial was over. I was supposed to hit send and the book was to be published the day she was sentenced to life in prison because, of course, she was guilty. Everyone knew that.

Hank Phillippi Ryan with Trust Me
I had three computers. I had one to do research, I had one where I was watching the trial feed, and I had one where I was writing the book. I wrote eighteen to twenty hours a day like crazy. I have to tell you that, at one point, I thought, 'This is really good, this is a good book. I have found my calling. It's going to be the new In Cold Blood!'

And then... and then... she was acquitted. The publisher called me and said, 'Thanks so much. We don't need this book.' It was over. But here's the point of it. When that happened to me, I realized that I had written this book which was supposed to be objective through the brain and eyes of a person-- me-- who really thought she was guilty. Now I'm a criminal defense attorney's wife. I can tell you why anybody is not guilty, but in this case, I really thought she was guilty.

It was very profound to me to have it revealed how I had actually been writing that book. Not objective in any way, and also, the jury had come up with a completely different version of the truth than I had. How could that be? That's when I realized that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. And that's what you see on the cover of the book.

[Looking at Hamilton] Do you know how your books will end before you start writing them?

Steve Hamilton
Hamilton: I used to sort of not know. Really, when I was first starting out, in the first ten McKnight books. I'd just start out with something really interesting and then ask myself what's the worst thing he could get himself into next. Okay-- so what has to happen next? That's a pretty good North Star for a writer. It seems inevitable, but you can work your way into some pretty big surprises. And you can really surprise yourself.

Ryan: Isn't that kind of fun, though, when you're typing and something gets put on the page and you think, 'Really? That happened? I didn't see that coming!' That's such a joy when that happens.

Hamilton: Unless it's something really horrible, and then it's not. It's 'Wait a minute! This can't happen!'

Ryan: One of the things I say about Trust Me is 'I dare you to show me the liar.' It's an obsessed journalist and a troubled mom in a cat-and-mouse game about this terrible crime, but only one can prevail. Which one is the cat, and which one is the mouse? And I dare you to find the liar. If you look at the book this way, see what the cover says?

Available Now!

Isn't that amazing? And once you see that it says 'LIAR', you can't unsee it.

Hamilton: That's really cool!

Ryan: They did a great job!

Hamilton: Was this your first standalone?

Ryan: Yes, it was. What was your first standalone?

Hamilton: I did a book called Night Work. Then any sensible person would've gone back, but I had this big idea for this eighteen-year-old safecracker who never talks.

Ryan: I remember interviewing you for The Lock Artist and asking 'Why would you choose to write about a character who never talks? That's hard for a book...'

Hamilton: I didn't know that was going to happen until about fifty pages in and he still hadn't said anything!

Hank Phillippi Ryan
Ryan: That has just stuck with me forever because that's absolutely what you were talking about... that you didn't even plan that, and if you had-- forgive me-- but if you had, you wouldn't've done it because it's such a stupid idea!

Hamilton: Exactly! Exactly! Maybe it was a stupid idea because it certainly felt that way.

Ryan: Did that not win the Edgar?

Hamilton: It kinda won the Edgar, yeah.

Ryan: Then that's not stupid.

Hamilton: But it still felt stupid in the middle. I was stuck and it would've been so helpful if my guy would just say something! But in that first scene, I just knew there was something different about him besides his talent with locks and safes. What is it about this kid that makes him different from everyone else? And as I wrote, he just kept his mouth shut. He would not say anything!

Ryan: That's just classic. And you could've gone on to write more books about him, but it would've been tedious and wouldn't work. And here's where the difference between writing series and writing standalones is so profound. In a series, Alex McKnight is not going to die because he's going to come back in the next book. So the tension in your book is from whatever the situation is.

But in a standalone, this is the biggest, most tectonic-plate-shifting thing, the most life-changing thing that has ever happened-- or will ever happen-- to Mercer Hennessy and Ashlynne Bryant. This will not happen again. This is a moment in time. This is a cat-and-mouse game that can only happen once. Only one can win. This makes a standalone be so no-holds-barred! You can do anything, you can kill anybody, anybody can be guilty.

Steve Hamilton
Hamilton: How did that feel not having any of your characters... because normally you know these guys, you know the place-- it's like coming back home-- and you gave up all that to write something totally from scratch. Was that scary?

Ryan: It was fabulous. I have to say that I'm in love with writing standalones.

As I said before, my husband is a criminal defense attorney, and I listened to him give his closing argument for a big murder trial. I told him that he had a slam-dunk acquittal.

Then I pictured the wife of the prosecuting attorney across town doing the same thing. That's what caused me to write this book-- whether I could take the same set of evidence and make two completely different stories that were equally believable.

Hamilton: So it sounds like we're going to see more standalones?

Ryan: Yeah, it's due Friday! It's almost done-- really!

And then after Hamilton admitted that, after recently losing his father,  he realized how much of his father was in the character of Alex McKnight, there was a short Q&A session.

It was another fun and informative night at The Poisoned Pen which Denis and I talked about all the way home. I hope you enjoyed it, too!


  1. I did enjoy it, Cathy! Thanks for sharing. What a good experience you had, and I'm glad for you.

    1. I've never had a bad experience at The Poisoned Pen, Margot. I think killing people on the page must be a great stress reducer because, on the whole, mystery writers are an amazingly laid back, fun-loving bunch.

  2. This was great and I completely enjoyed it! Like being there. I have a copy of TRUST ME and am reading it now (along with another book, of course). I had not noticed the thing with the cover at all. The 'LIAR' part. How very, very clever. Thanks for sharing this interview!

    1. You're welcome (and I hadn't noticed the thing about the cover, either)!

  3. I still don't notice the thing about the cover.

    Thanks for the interesting write-up about the event at the Poisoned Pen. Those are two smart, witty authors. But then again, nearly everyone who speaks there are a lot of fun.

    I guess the TBR list will be groaning a bit more.

    1. Take another look at the cover horizontally. In the background, in red, you should be able to see the word LIAR. Someone in the book is lying.

  4. I see. I think I'll wait to read your reviews until I get these out of the library. Too much on reserve already and piled up.


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