Monday, June 25, 2007

On Bad Guys

"The women who inspired this play deserved to be smacked across the head with a meat ax, and that, I flatter myself, is exactly what I smacked them with."

*** Clare Boothe Luce on "The Women."

You know when you listen to the sharp, catty dialogue of the women undermining each other in The Women that Luce had a good ear for women at their worst. Have any real, live a**holes in your lives inspired your fictional bad guys?

Funny you should ask. There is a real life a**hole who lives too close to me to identify beyond that, but I was so pissed at him - for unneighborly behaviour - that I made him a wife beater in my book. As it happens I had too many interwoven story lines and decided to pull that one out, but one false move and the guy makes it into book three.

I'm sitting at my computer, staring at the screen. Wondering who inspired my bad guys, and why. And I realized it's not so much specific people, as it is the way some people treat others. My bad guys are self-centered, greedy, manipulative. They're only interested in themselves--and how others can help them get what they want. And if someone gets in the way or interferes, they mow them down. Physically, psychologically and emotionally. Their flaws stem from power, money, and control.

The good guys--listen, think, care about others as much as they do themselves. Their flaws stem from love.As for you, Ro, my darling husband is a lawyer, if you need him.

Free associating on the lawyer is interesting how mystery readers are far more partial to dead lawyers than they are to dead dogs. I know, off topic. I LOVE that quote, but I confess I hate asshole characters. The 'villain' in my work in progress is based loosely on a girl I barely knew in high school. She was very sweet and needy and clingy (and annoying) and I imagined what might have happened to her if she got twisted, seriously twisted. I like villains who are real, complex people who've convinced themselves that they HAVE to do bad things for all the 'right' reasons. As Hanks says, they're 'flawed.'

I hung around with a guy in college who I knew was evil. Okay, no one believes in evil today, so maybe he wasn't evil, just a sociopath. But it was like the air changed in the room whenever he walked in. When asked about his plans after graduation, he announced that he was going to go to Las Vegas and make his "killing" gambling. He never went to Las Vegas, but in the back room in a bar in Boston, he won a couple grand in a backgammon game.

In lieu of the cash, he was offered the chance to make money driving car loads of marijuana up from Florida. He soon graduated from driver to investor, and after a stint in jail wound up distributing a synthetic heroin that killed something like 200 junkies up and down the east coast. The Herald did a story on it and quoted one of his associates as saying that Chris chuckled over this.

When I read the quote, I could actually hear the laugh Chris would have used. To make a long story short, Chris died, execution style, with two bullets in the back of his head, shortly after deciding to turn state's evidence. None of his college friends were shocked.

Anyway, I'm clearly fascinated by Chris. He was the inspiration for one of my earliest short stories, and the basis for my bad guy in Final Copy. Over and over, even when I was doing investigative journalism, I found myself drawn to the subject of charismatic con men (and women). Why is that the trait of utter selfishness is so often coupled with extraordinary charm?

Maybe it's that mystery that keeps us writing crime fiction!

We're so thrilled to announce Jungle Red's own Hank Phillippi Ryan's debut novel Prime Time is now on the Boston Globe's bestseller list! Prime Time has been on sale for just twelve days..and now is the number 10 best-selling paper back as listed in New England's flagship newspaper.
(The second book in Hank's Charlotte McNally Mysteries, FACE TIME, will be published this October.)

Sunday, June 17, 2007


Zippy the Pinhead: You mean we have no idea what will happen next? Or when? Or why?
His pal: That's pretty much it, yeah.
Zippy: Cool.
***Bill Griffith, cartoonist

Hallie is gallivanting through the olive groves and vineyards (and boutiques) of Italy. Jan is leading a group of teenagers through the jungles (jungles?) of the Dominican Republic and Ro is in Tanzania helping a village build a library. Do we have a jet-setting group or what?

And as for me—I’m here in Boston—but doing a big take off of my own. And I can't wait to show you the photos! (See below!)

Prime Time, my first novel is now in bookstores. (I’ll dare to say it one more time—RT Book Reviews gave it a top pick, and called it “a perfect combination of mystery and romance.”)

And launch week was—well, you know they always talk about once-in-a-lifetime experiences? This was one. And it’s still happening.

Tuesday morning—launch day—I got up at the crack of dawn to appear on the Breakfast Club on WODS radio. (A fast-paced and hilarious morning show that plays all the oldies.) Dale Dorman and his wacky colleagues (they love to be called that) made it a great time. And provided coffee, luckily. I didn’t know what to expect—and that’s what happened.

The first question? They asked me to explicate and explain the lyrics of the sixties anthem Walk Away Renee. Okay, talk about random! But it was fun—and I’m pretty good at sixties song lyrics. Thank goodness.
But we also talked about Prime Time—and Dale had clearly read it—what a treat! But then it was back to music—they’d read somewhere that I was vice president of the national Beatles Fan Club (when I was 14, for gosh sake). So with that, they asked me to sing Rocky Raccoon! These guys are unstoppable. My incredibly bad singing voice aside, Rocky Raccoon? No problem. (All together now: Rocky came in, stinking of gin, only to find Gideon’s Bible…)

That afternoon—it was off to Borders in Boston’s Back Bay. Would it rain and keep the lunchtime shoppers in their offices and away from the store? Would the place be empty and I’d wind up chatting with myself?
Hurray. No. In fact, the place was so full of people, the Borders crew had to bring in extra chairs. And what a terrific group—many many many folks I didn’t know—and some wonderfully familiar pals: YA series author Marley Gibson, NEC-RWA mogul Katy Cooper—well, it was great.
And I signed and signed.
And look at the display of Prime Time.
Thanks Borders. You, um, rock.
Tuesday ended with a cocktail bash and signing at the ultra-chic and very elegant Ralph Lauren boutique on Newbury Street. (If you’ve been there, you know how fabulous it is. Three floors, filled with the most fantastic…well, you know.)

Anyway—it was packed and hilarious…champagne and beef tenderloin and white wine and crab cakes. And many friends, colleagues, and members of the press.
Here’s the inimitable Bill Brett (author of the amazing book of Boston faces called All One Family), taking my photo for the Boston Globe. (Where it appeared the next day in a very lovely article by Carol Beggy.)

And here’s (from right) author Becky Motew ( of the wonderfully funny Coupon Girl), fashion mavens from “Dressing Well” Mary Lou Andre and June Tartar, and the extraordinary Hope Denekamp from Kneerim and Williams Agency, whose expertise guided me through unfamiliar territory when Prime Time was in its earliest of stages.

And again, I signed and signed.

I’ve got so many more photos of that signing on the way—its was absolutely SRO--and I’ll show you all the good ones at some point—but the party photographer still has them all! We sold lots and lots of books on launch day—and I’m already getting some incredibly enthusiastic reaction.
Wine and champagne as a sales tool. Remember it.

And then the next day: an event with the incomparable Kate Mattes of Kate’s Mystery Books!

She hosted a bustling and convivial reading—it was lively and full of old friends and new friends (Hi Pat from DL! Thank you so much for coming) and fellow authors. Here’s my independent editor Francesca Coltrera and her husband Andrew Cornell and the two Emmas---and my husband.
Here’s how it looked as I read from Prime Time. In the audience—Vinnie O’Neil, winner of last year’s Malice Domestic contest for Murder in Exile, who came all the way from Rhode Island to share the fun.

Friday: Borders in Braintree where they set up a special display of Prime Time with the amazing Claire Cook’s latest Life’s a Beach.
Saturday: Barnes & Noble in Burlington--where I signed for three hours! The B & N gang was was wonderful. See all those books stacked on the metal cart? All gone… And there wasn't even wine.
Lots more wonderful singings and readings and appearances coming up…but you get the, um, picture. I’ll put more on my website…

But I know this is not a typical week in the life of a mystery author. And I'm so grateful for everyone who made this work. Who came to these signings. It was --as I said--once in a lifetime. And now it's back to the computer.

But let me say--each time I sign a book, and hand it over to the strangers who have just pulled out their wallet to BUY Prime Time, pages unread, author untested, just taking my word for it that it’s worthwhile and it’ll be a good companion on beach or airplane or pillow—I think—they’re taking off too. Just as I am. On a journey into the unknown.

Prime Time. My first novel. So far, so good.

Now back to our usual programming.

(and thank you to my darling husband Jonathan for the wonderful photography...)

Sunday, June 10, 2007


One’s favorite book is as elusive as one’s favorite pudding.
***E. M. Forster
“In My Library” pt. II (1949)

There's a discussion going on elsewhere--what's your favorite book? it's asking. And interestingly, although mystery writers/readers could all talk for hours about books we adore, and are thankful to have read, my favorite of all favorites was a winner by a mile. So I typed it in, and said, anyone else love this? I'd love to know. Days went by, and I didn't hear a 'Me, too' from anyone.

There were Jane Eyres (of course) and a lot of To Kill a Mockingbirds (who doesn't love that?) and a Shogun or two. And many more, of course. But I started wondering, if my favorite book is no one else's favorite book, why is that? And then, days later, a reply came in...Carol Shmurak of Connecticut says, she was just about to type in the same book. And I felt--let's have dinner! I just know I'll like her. The book is Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. And if any of you have read it....

And doesn't it feel like a betrayal when a best friend hates a book you loved-loved-loved and recommended? I recommended one of my favorite books from last year, Joseph Wambaugh's Hollywood Station to several good friends and their response was tepid.

Well, you gave it to my darling husband for his birthday, and he's loving loving living it, I must say. So there's at least one soulmate. But yes, you offer a wonderful book, like a treasure you've discovered and want to share, and part of the fun is sharing the experience, right? Like in a book club. But then they look at you like, thanks but no thanks.

When it was my turn for book group, I chose Custom of the Country, my favorite of my favorite Edith Wharton. I went to the meeting, eager to share in a true reading delight. Instead I was hooted and booed. (Not really, but some of the group thought it was boruing and stilted.) The other half thought--as I do--it was innovative and thought-provoking and revealing and marvelous.

I've been in a reading group for over a year and a few months ago, I finally got to choose a book. I chose The Egyptologist, which I thought was clever, fun, smart, engaging, and original. Not my favorite book of all time, but a good read, as they say. People didn't get it, some hated it. I sat there and felt like I was from Mars. One of my favorite writers is Robert Hellenga (Sixteen Pleasures, Fall of a Sparrow.) And no one's ever heard of him. I keep waiting to mention his name and have someone say "Omigod, you like him,too!"

Everybody brings their own life to a book. Also the mood of the moment. When I was in my late teens I went on an F. Scott Fitzgerald rampage, reading and adoring every single one of his books.

Now I'm reading The Great Gatsby for a second time. Clearly the revered author's most highly regarded book, and a story that intrigued me the first time around. You know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking, geez Scott, this sentence construction is a little pretentious. And man, you could never get away with this melodrama today. In short, now that I've gone through my jazz-age fascination, I have less patience. But other favorites -- and less revered works -- that I've reread have only gotten better as a repeat. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry for one. I could read that book once a year and still enjoy it. And yet one of my very best friends, a writing buddy, couldn't stand it. It's all just all so personal...

Yes, going back is always interesting. Maybe it means there's a favoirte for each time of your life. (I read Look Homeward Angel about 6 times.) It means something to you then, lasting, sometimes, but sometimes ephemeral. I had a lavender hot pants suit once, I loved it. It was my favorite. (I will pause now, for the general hilarity.) And when I think about it in that time--I still love it. (I will join in, now, with the general hilarity.)

BREAKING NEWS. (Hank couldn't resist.) Just to remind you all that the pub date for my first novel, PRIME TIME is Tuesday June 12! Reviewers say "it's a perfect comimbination of mystery and romance." Here's a fun photo of some of the (very wonderful) people who came to Book Expo America last week and actually stood in line to get a copy. (That's me in the black and white checks. The chic woman in the ice green jacket is the charming and indefatigible Anita Sultmanis from Harlequin, who kept everything working perfectly.)
And it makes me wonder--might PT someday be someone's favorite book? At least for as long as they loved their hot pants?
Anyway. I hope you like it.
And looking back at our opening quote--does anyone actually have a favorite pudding?

Monday, June 4, 2007

(Who's) ON FIRST

"I am born."

"I had a farm in Africa"

"I have never begun a novel with more misgiving."

Back in the day, novels written in the first person got some respect. When did that change?

I don't know if it's a mystery thing or a "literary" thing, but it seems that writing in third person (or some other variation or combination) gets all the reviews while first person novels are somehow seen as lightweight, anyone-can-bang-them-out yarns. When I started Pushing up Daisies, I wrote in the third person - then when it seemed I would be writing a series I switched to first to put my protagonist right in the action. I had fun writing lines like "I whacked him in the head with the weed whacker", or my foot connected with his nose..."
What do you all think?


Books written in the first person seem to be perceived as "small" which bugs me because I love writing in the first person. I also prefer reading first person books and I find I like movies and tv shows where there is a first person voice over (which oddly enough seems to be an increasing trend). What I like about voiceovers and first person novels is the perspective they offer. But I guess the rest of the world wants a more global view. Like everything else in literature, its probably just a passing phase.

We all grew up with "Once upon a time..." Think about it. From our first moment of hearing a story, we heard it in the omniscient view, and usually past tense. "There was a beautiful princess, and she went...." "The frog said "But wait, if you..."

What's more, I always feel that a third person, past tense story is one that's over, that's already happened. Which is kind of interesting, isn't it? Because if done properly, a tale told in first person doesn't telegraph that something is over. It brings the reader in at the beginning, to go on the journey with whoever the main character is. (Whomever?)

I mean, Rebecca. Last night, Rebecca dreamt she was at Manderley again. (I guess she had told someone about it?) His name was Ishmael. And how could you possibly third-person-ize Catcher in the Rye ? And why would you want to?

One pal of mine got a review (of a book I thought was hilarious and wonderful) which said something along the lines of: "I can't understand why this is written in first person. I couldn't even read it." Huh?

Don't get me wrong. I'm comfortable either way. If I open the book, and at the end of page one I'm transported into the book's world--fine with me. First, third. I'm happy.

But I agree--I'd love to hear what you all think about why first person is so often vilified. Is it too--self-centered? Does it make the focus too narrow? Does it require too many coincidences?

RO: So let us know what you think.....and anyone know which books those three lines are from? First person to answer gets a Jungle Red gift!