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Hank Phillippi Ryan & Paddy Hirsch Sit Down for a Conversation On Journalism & Writing Fiction

Two of our favorite authors at Forge are journalists, and what better way to get the scoop on NPR star Parry Hirsch’s new historical financial thriller Hudson’s Kill than to ask our TV investigative reporter star Hank Phillippi Ryan (The Murder List) to interview him! As always, Hank uncovers exactly what readers need to know.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: So much of your life has been just-the-facts journalism (and more about that coming up) but when you decided to take on fiction, did you worry that you’d have trouble making stuff up?

PADDY HIRSCH: Not really – I’m Irish after, all! No, but seriously, how does that old saying go … there is nothing new under the sun? Combine that with another old saying, truth is stranger than fiction, and you have all you need to make stuff up: just keep an eye on the news. Journalists are very well placed to write fiction, because part of our job is to read or listen to or watch everything that happens in the news, which means taking a ringside seat to the human circus and observing the entire panoply of crazy human behavior. Some of the stories I’ve come across in 20 years of journalism are far more brutal, hair-raising and bizarre than anything I’ve read in fiction, so all I really need to do to create a good story is mash a few real events together and change a few details. The real challenge is grafting that storyline onto characters, who way too often have their own ideas about what should happen. In short, making it up is not an issue: making it fit is a whole other kettle of fish.

HANK: The thing I love about training in journalism to write fiction is that both are all about story-telling. And no matter if the story is true or imagined, it’s still has the same necessary elements. Have you found that to be true?

PADDY: Absolutely. I work as an editor at NPR, producing a daily show called The Indicator from Planet Money. That means I help reporters shape news stories about business, finance and the economy. And it’s remarkable how the same questions I ask myself about my fiction work come up over and over when I’m editing these news stories about the economy: Where’s the drama? Where’s the tension? What’s the arc of this story? Why should the listener care about this? What’s at stake? And then the mechanics of storytelling: Use active verbs; write short; make every word count; don’t let the story slow down; find good characters and let them speak; don’t use too much exposition at any one time; be creative about helping the listener understand the complicated parts of the narrative. The same things that keep you glued to a news story about a financial fraud or a merger gone bad are the same things that keep you turning the pages of a thriller.

HANK: And you’ve made such a wonderful name for yourself with your Whiteboard videos–cleverly and brilliantly explaining complicated concepts in a relatable and entertaining way. How does complicated-into-entertaining inform your fiction?

PADDY: That’s so kind of you, Hank, thank you! I loved producing those Whiteboard explainers, and in fact my debut novel, The Devil’s Half Mile, actually started out as a non-fiction extension of that work. I’d already written a book called Man versus Markets, explaining how markets work, and wanted to write a follow up about stock exchanges, and how and why the New York Stock Exchange was created. I found the research process fascinating, but I didn’t find it easy writing a compelling narrative. In fact, frankly, what I was writing was deadly dull, and I found myself writing less and less. So, to keep my hand in –  and to spice things up – I decided to write a murder into the story. It was much more fun to write, of course, and it gave me a way to put some color into the otherwise rather colorless topic of financial regulation! This isn’t a new thing, to be sure: fables do exactly the same thing, by using a simple fictional narrative as a vehicle to deliver a moral or practical message. I do the same thing with my explainers, and I’m enjoying doing the same thing in my novel series, each of which has some kind of business shenanigans at its core.

HANK: Your newest book, Hudson’s Kill, is getting rave reviews… Congratulations! You transport the reader to what one reviewer called “the powder keg” of New York in 1803. I always start with one gorgeous core of an idea for my books, do you? What was that core for Hudson’s Kill?

PADDY:  The aim of the series is to have some kind of business or financial wrongdoing at the core of very book. In Hudson’s Kill, it’s the wild speculation that went on when the plans for the development of the island of Manhattan were being drawn up in secret in the early 1800s. While I was researching the effects of that speculation on marginal communities in New York, I stumbled upon a story about what was likely the first Muslim community in America – made up of men and women sold into slavery in West Africa, and sold to plantation owners in the Carolinas. These slaves were particularly valuable to owners in that area because they had a very specific skillset – the ability to farm rice. So valuable to one plantation owner, in fact, that he allowed them to practice their religion  – or at least turned a blind eye to it. This story fascinated me, and became the germ of an idea that became a central part of Hudson’s Kill.

HANK: I started to say: “the research must have been so much fun!” And then I realized… Some people don’t like research. But you do, don’t you?

PADDY: Oh I love it. I get lost in it. I love the big stuff, like who did what, and how, and when, but I’m particularly attracted to the research of what the British historical novels Antonia Hodgson calls “street history”, that is winkling out the details of how people lived at ground level back then: what they wore under their clothes, how much sugar they put in their tea; how often they bathed; what they used to clean their teeth; where they went to the loo when they were caught short in the middle of the day etc etc.  I love those details, and I think they really bring a story alive. I also love researching how people used to speak: argot and slang are fascinating to me, which is why I love Lyndsay Faye’s work so much: her book The Gods of Gotham is in some ways all about language. And again, argot is another way to really transport a reader and add color to a narrative. It does make a glossary vital, however!

HANK: In true Paddy Hirsch style, you include an explainer in Hudson’s Kill, a way to make sure that readers understand the language differences. What was it like to live back then, do you think?

PADDY: I think it must have been incredibly hard to live back then – especially if you were poor, as most people were. The pace of life would have been a lot slower, of course, so that might have been a bit nicer, but staying alive to enjoy that slower pace would have been a challenge. If you didn’t die early from some disease that no-one understood, you still had to navigate a world that was cruel and unstable for those without some kind of financial cushion. There were hardly any rules governing commerce or the workplace; there were no protections for the poor; and the rule of law was capricious and wielded in favour of the rich. One mistake could tip you out of your dwelling and into the street, and if you didn’t have money to buy your way out of a problem, your life would likely become severely truncated.

HANK: In historical fiction, there is always the balance —in that you know what actually happened, and the characters don’t. How does that inform what you write, if it does?

PADDY: I think it depends on the frame you’re writing in. You always know what the timeline of events was, but how your characters react to those events and the way they interact is the most important part of a work of historical fiction, just as it is in any other novel and you have almost completed freedom there. It does mean that you can’t frame your story too tightly, of course. I try to have as accurate a frame as possible, but I keep the boundaries pretty wide and don’t hem in the characters too much. It also helps that there’s not much written about the early 1800s in New York, so I can get away with a lot more!

HANK: How does Hudson’s Kill–the experience of it, the writing of it, the research for it— color how you see financial New York now?

PADDY: I was stunned when I saw the first map for the development of New York, produced by a man named Joseph Mangin in 1801. At that time, New York hadn’t even been but as far as Canal Street. But Mangin envisaged a city that occupied the whole of the island of Manhattan, and apart from the addition of landfill and the city’s parks – including Central Park – his plan looks almost identical to the map of New York today. It’s incredible to me that politicians then had kind of foresight and courage, when it came to making long-term plans. Today politicians can’t think beyond the next election cycle, which precludes that kind of planning on a grand scale. As for financial New York, it showed me that little has changed on Wall Street. The lack of transparency in any business or civic plan inevitably results in speculation, and without any kind of check or balance, speculation can lead to individual ruin and institutional collapse. That’s an argument for simple but firm regulation in financial markets, something that was being wildly debated then, and continues to be debated today.

HANK: We always talk about how a book’s main character must change in a good novel. But how do you want your readers to change?  After they read the book’s final words, close it, and think about it?

PADDY: I’d like my writing to raise questions in people’s minds about the big themes in my books: slavery, immigration, gender equality, religious tension, financial regulation. The tension in these issues is what drives my characters, so I’d love to hear whether they make people see a side to those issues than they might not have considered before.

HANK: Do you remember how you felt about writing fiction before you started, and how you feel now? Are you… Proud of yourself? Surprised? Thrilled?

PADDY: I’m a bit stunned, to be honest. I’ve always loved fiction – everything from spy thrillers to classic murder mysteries – and I’d tried my hand at writing a novel a few times before. Those efforts were….not very good, to be honest. So I convinced myself that I’d never be able to sell anything as a novelist, and I focused on my non-fiction work. But the creative work just kept calling, like an itch I had to scratch, and eventually I quit my job to see if I could complete a manuscript and sell it. I would never have been able to do that without the support of a host of people, in particular my wife, who gave me the space and encouragement I needed, and the occasional spur. Now that my second book is going out, I feel proud and grateful and excited all at the same time. This has opened a door for me that I never thought would open, and that’s an incredible gift. Frankly, I feel more lucky than even an Irishman has any right to be!

HANK: Yes, we’re both lucky to be living the writing—and reading—life! Congratulations, Paddy, on a wonderful novel!


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV, winning 36 EMMYs and dozens more journalism honors. Nationally bestselling author of 11 thrillers, Ryan’s also an award-winner in her second profession—with five Agathas, three Anthonys, the Daphne, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. Critics call her “a master of suspense.” Her novels are Library Journal’s Best of 2014, 2105, and 2016, and her highly-acclaimed TRUST ME was chosen for numerous prestigious Best of 2018 lists. Hank’s newest book is THE MURDER LIST. The Library Journal starred review says, “Masterly plotted—with a twisted ending—a riveting, character-driven story. A must-read.”

PADDY HIRSCH has worked in public radio at NPR and Marketplace for ten years. He came to journalism after serving for eight years as an officer in the British Royal Marines, and lives in Los Angeles. While The Devil’s Half Mile is his fiction debut, Hirsh has also written Man vs. Markets, a nonfiction book explaining economics.

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