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Ryan says journalism, fiction ways to tell story

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'Truth Be Told' by Hank Phillippi Ryan
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Author Hank Phillippi Ryan

As a television investigative reporter, Hank Phillippi Ryan has gone undercover wired with hidden cameras and wearing disguises. She’s interviewed death-row inmates and cultivated sources in the back rooms of courthouses.

On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, she literally had 10 seconds to compose herself (with her knees shaking, she admits) before going on the air to inform viewers of WHDH-TV in Boston of the tragedy.

When Ryan started to write crime fiction a decade ago, she wasn’t sure whether her experiences on television would translate to the pages of book. That they did, Ryan says, was “a wonderful surprise.”

“It’s all about telling a good story,” says the author, who will visit Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont on Dec. 2. “You want the good guys to win and the bad guys to get what they deserve. … Whether I’m making stuff up or telling a crime story for television, it’s exactly, amazingly, the same thing.”

Since delving into crime fiction at the age of 55, Ryan has met with nothing but success. She’s earned three Agatha Awards for mystery and crime fiction and won Anthony, Daphne and Macavity awards for her books. Her latest, “Truth Be Told” (Forge, $18.99), has been selected as a Library Journal Best Book of 2014.

“I’m the poster child for following your dreams in mid-life,” she says, laughing, noting her relatively late entry into the world of fiction. “It was something I always wanted to do.”

“Truth Be Told” features Jane Ryland, a newspaper reporter, and Jake Brogan, a detective with the Boston Police Department. Their relationship is fraught with tension because of the need, Ryan says, to be “honorable to their professions” while being madly in love with each other.

“The problem is a reporter and a detective and a cop cannot be friends,” Ryan says. “A reporter and a source cannot be friends. … It’s a conflict of interest with a big ‘C.’ ”

Ryan, who started out as a radio reporter, has worked as a press secretary for a congressman, as a legislative aide in the Senate and as a political campaign worker. But the experience she draws upon most is arguably her oddest: working with the legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson, the author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and the progenitor of gonzo journalism.

Given his manic reputation, it’s no surprise to learn that Thompson hid some things from his public persona.

“One of Hunter’s secrets was that he really was a generous, compassionate and thoughtful guy,” says Ryan, who helped Thompson arrange coverage of the 1976 presidential election. “He had this reputation of being wacky and wild and impetuous, but he was such a brilliant guy.”

Thompson’s lessons helped Ryan throughout her career as television reporter, but really came into focus when she started to write fiction. Ryan says Thompson always emphasized that storytelling should be riveting and suspenseful, no matter the subject.

“He taught me how to take reality and make it into a fabulous story and inject it with more excitement and adrenaline and suspense, so the story was so compelling you couldn’t put it down,” she says. “He taught me that a good thriller has be suspenseful and full of secrets, but also entertaining.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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