Sunday, March 30, 2014

They came, they talked, they concurred ... great book!

What do you do when the discussion goes too far off topic?
Joan Killough-Miller, leader of the Women's Issues Book Discussion Group in Worcester, said "It’s hard to know where to draw the line between personal sharing that relates to the book and people who just don’t know when to stop! It’s nice when people enrich the discussion by sharing relevant personal experiences. (We’ve had a biologist bring in actual micrographs of “Henrietta Lacks” (HeLa) cells, and we have a couple of members who grew up in Nazi Germany. Their memories help make some of the wartime books real to the rest of us.) But sometimes the conversation veers off in an irrelevant direction, and I have a hard time bringing it back!"
Not an unfamiliar problem. In Lancaster, we recognized chatter's inevitability—and its popularity—by naming ourselves The Off-Track Bookies. But, face it: competing conversations destroy the main topic in the room.
Let's be truthful: Women love to talk. That's one reason book groups are so popular among us. Men do have or attend book groups, and I'd love to hear if this problem is endemic to their experience as well.
Solutions mostly come from within. A strong group leader bears the main burden for reining in side conversations. While unintended, chatter is rude and distracting. If any member has a hearing impediment, participation becomes difficult. Many times these conversations are not whispered but spoken at the same level of the main conversation, or louder.
We all learned better than this in school, right?
The biggest problem is that getting together after a few weeks' absence is more than tempting; it's almost obligatory to share what's up, what we missed last time, what we're reading now, a particular author's other books, or one of the endless gossip topics related to movies, church or work life, people we know in common, the winter's broken arms and other injuries ... and on and on and on!
Anne Young, of the Heywood Library book group, resolved the issue: "When we first started, we did have this problem," she said. But time constraints for a one-hour meeting just don't permit it. "I allow 5 minutes after we begin for people to speak about other things. (One of the benefits of this is one of our members informed us about the program on PBS, Channel 44, that reviews books daily.) Since I am the facilitator, I limit the discussions, but allow people the chance to speak as they wish at the end of our meeting. I guess this is the other benefit of having the meetings at the public library versus a home meeting. Many of the members linger longer discussing other books or events after the meeting."
Establish ground rules when you launch a book group (they'll need to be restated, sometimes at each meeting). Plus, use email as a reminder, if necessary: no crosstalk, instead respect the main conversation (and those speaking); hold back once you've stated your opinion, to allow everyone a chance to talk about the book; stay on topic—limit comments to the book on hand, or at least related literary info.
One group leader allows a half-hour's conversation as she sets out snacks, then it's time to focus.
These things seem obvious and basic, yet groups ignore them. Strong leaders need to be coaches, cheerfully reminding everyone to stay with the main discussion and reaching out to quieter members, who may hold back rather than compete with the babble. It's the leader's job to make sure everyone has a chance to speak. Yes, there is a communal call to book group meetings, but many attend because they're interested in the book and want to discuss it!
It all boils down to one thing: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Don't cut another person's point of view to shreds, interrupt him or her, or otherwise show disdainful disagreement. It's OK to think differently, but it's not OK to pierce others' ideas. We're all fallible, and discussions are made up of differing opinions. You don't have to be a 1950s good girl in your manners—just follow the basics. To neglect that is to risk losing members who might otherwise contribute to the understanding of a selection.

Area book groups for April

A reader suggests forming a network of area groups to allow shared resources, such as an author visit, and communications. Not sure how to go about that, but it's worth considering. Any ideas? Send them to the address following the column.
Worcester Public Library readers will meet at 7 p.m., May 20, to discuss "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguru.
The Women's Issues Group, meeting April 14 at Barnes & Noble, Worcester, will focus on "Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers," by Valerie Lawson. (This story is also at the movies, as "Saving Mr. Banks").
Members of the Crawford Library group in Dudley will discuss "The Book Thief" by Marcus Zusak at their 6 p.m., April 3 meeting.
The C.S. Lewis Society of Central Massachusetts will discuss Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming" at both April meetings, at 9 a.m. April 12 and 26 (Saturdays) in Auburn Public Library. Nouwen's encounter with Rembrandt's masterpiece is the topic.
Readers at Fitchburg Public Library will discuss "Defending Jacob" by William Landay during meetings at 1 and 6 p.m., April 9. Call 978-829-1780 for details.
On April 10, at noon, members of Leominster Public Library's book group will discuss "Mudbound," by Hillary Jordan. Edward Bergman, director of adult services, has details. The Brown Bag Book Group meets one Thursday each month for an informal book chat led by Jane Maguire. Bring your lunch; Friends of the Library provides beverages. On April 28, there's a 7 p.m. discussion of Stephanie Reents' "The Kissing List," short stories written by Holy Cross faculty member Reents. Patrick Ireland will lead the discussion.
Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies will discuss B.A. Shapiro's "The Art Forger" on April 10.
O'Connor's Books, Brews and Banters group will discuss Ann Patchett's "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage" at 6:30 p.m., April 23.
The April 30 selection at Heywood Library in Gardner is "The Interestings," a novel by Meg Wolitzer.

Ann Connery Frantz invites your ideas and questions about book club gatherings at ann.frantz@gmail.com. Groups, send the next month's selection by mid-month for end of month publication.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Confess to Oprah before starting a book club

When Oprah Winfrey talks, people listen, and Oprah's a big reader, so it follows suit that her book selections led the best-seller lists for many months while she was doing her television program. 
I like her taste in books, though I disagreed when she announced she would discontinue her Oprah book club because not enough good books were being published. She later changed her mind, and gave it a go for awhile. These days, she recommends  good books through Oprah's Book Club 2.0, online. Cheryl Strayed's "Wild" was the first in this incarnation of the club.
Anyway, Oprah asked a few questions for those starting a book club, to get it started on the right note.
I've repeated the questions here, providing my own answers:
·  "Why are you starting a book club?" If you don't like to go along with crowd, and don't really care what anyone else thinks about a book, you may not be the ideal candidate for this project. If you lack enough time to read the book and be prepared for a meeting, forget about it; getting there will become a major challenge.
·  "What type of people will make up the club?" Are you thinking of friends or acquaintances only, or looking to meet new people? How wide open will you get to new members? What do you think a member should bring to the group? Do you plan to discuss the book online, instead of meeting? Then another sort of reader entirely may be best.
·  "What types of books will your club read?" This is important, as you can lose members by picking a stream of books that members dislike. Decide early on whether novels, spirituality, travel, classics, etc., are the genre for your group. Don't vary without discussing it.
·  "Do you want to lead the club?" This is a critical role. Leaders coordinate meetings, inform members and help them find books, answer questions and make sure everyone has directions to the meeting. They may end up contacting guest authors, arranging to Skype or answering last-minute questions from people interested in joining. Evaluate your time and your disposition before roping yourself in. If the meeting is at your house, will you provide refreshments? If not, who will?
·  "What are the minimum and maximum number of members your club can accommodate?" If you are meeting outside anyone's home—say at a local book store or restaurant—size may be stated. But also, when a group gets over a certain size, discussion can fly into the wind. Discussion has to be controlled, and membership numbers play into that.
·  "When will your first meeting take place?" Members need to discuss frequency with a realistic view to reading time, vacations, holidays and such. Some groups take December and January off, and we can certainly understand why, having missed the last two meetings because of work deadlines.

Books and authors:
Former Massachusetts resident Connie Matuzek, a Worcester Polytechnical Institute graduate, has published "Forty Years at Saquish Beach," a memoir about his life with a wife and two daughters at the private beach community 30 miles south of Boston. For more information, visit www.fortyyearsatsaquishbeach.com.

(Read It and Reap, Jan. 26)
Ann Connery Frantz, a fiction writer and freelance writer/editor, welcomes ideas, questions and news of your group’s upcoming meetings at ann.frantz@gmail.com.

Bookmovement.com, and two reading gems: Nancy Pearl, Hallie Ephron

Somewhere in the heat of things, I missed posting this column, published Dec. 29. Here's a look at Internet link Bookmovement.com, for book groups, and an interview with Hallie Ephron.

There's an Internet link for readers with every kind of shared interest, at which readers will find rich options, both to learn more about literature and to connect.
Bookmovement.com is free, and includes a service that's a little different. 
As with meetup.com, a regional link for all kinds of clubs, Bookmovement gives clubs their own space, but the site is limited to book groups. Each group has its own visual and easily accessible page, “My Club Page,” for listing materials related to upcoming books, authors, meeting times, reading lists and suggested discussion questions, as well as forums to continue discussion online.
If you are overwhelmed by multiple schedules (and who isn't?), this is a place to quickly locate meeting info and book details. Bookmovement provides reading guides for 20,000 books, shows how many clubs are reading each, and gives clubs space for ratings, plot summary and discussion questions. Individuals may join in to add perspective, or add a specific book guide to their club page with a simple click.
There’s a place to post individual “wish” lists, archive books already read, and other book-related info. This definitely tops using ripped-out notebook pages, I'd say.
There’s also a newsletter, book recommendations, new releases, and–always welcome–book giveaways. The site claims to compile the ratings of books discussed at 35,000 clubs. Since not all great books make great club selections, the ratings give readers an idea of which may yield stimulating discussions.
The site also includes books nominated for writing awards, lists of light reading, and reviews. As an added feature, a section dubbed Author Chats reprints author interviews. There are also lists for group leaders, to help them run the meeting and guide the discussion.

The site links to Nancy Pearl (“Book Lust”), a well-known librarian who has abundant advice for book clubs on operating a group, selecting books, and getting the most out of reading. (Genre fiction, she points out, doesn’t lend itself to any discussion, since everything is pretty well spelled out for the reader and nothing is left to question.)
Her recommendations: mark up the pages as you go along—yes, go ahead and write in the margins if it’s your book; look for the tough questions as you read—everyone may have a different answer when it comes time for discussion; analyze the themes and the characters, as getting to know them well provides insight into the story; notice the book’s structure, and decide whether it works for you as a reader, and whether it helps to tell the story; compare the book to other authors and books, considering who else may have written on the same theme.

Hallie on touring:
Hallie Ephron, a Boston area author from a markedly creative family, is often on tour, visiting a lot of book clubs between the conventional book store stops. I asked her about the large number of book clubs on her tour—as opposed to the old bookstore visits.
Clubs, she says, are a natural venue. “Writing and publishing books is gratifying, but it's mostly one-way communication until you actually get to interact with readers. So getting to speak to a book group or a book club is really the icing on the cake. It's been a treat to speak with local book groups at homes and libraries, where there might be a dozen or more readers, and big book clubs with hundreds of avid readers—like the Greenbrook Country Club's Book Club in New Jersey. Lately I've been speaking about my new novel at a string of Jewish book clubs across the United States."

A plus for any visit: She says club members usually have already read the book when they meet. “The neat thing about speaking to book clubs is that anyone in a book club is, by definition, an enthusiastic reader and an informed human being. Which is to say, these are the most interesting people you can hope to meet. Plus they ask the best questions. I'm always delighted when someone spots a theme or a connection or a clue that I didn't consciously put in, and yet, there it is.” 

This column appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on Dec. 29, 2013. Send your central Massachusetts group meeting info, questions and suggestions to ann.frantz@gmail.com.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Being prepared for book club means reading the book!

There's an adage that goes: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. The same might be said for some book groups, who discover once-avid readers falling behind in the reading and either skipping meetings or coming unprepared (while eating the munchies and conversing about jobs or kids throughout the discussion).

So how do you keep busy members focused on the next book? Several area book group leaders shared their methods.

"I am very fortunate in that the members of my group really do read the assigned pages," said Betsy Johnson of Holden's book group. "We take our time working our way through books, however, allowing for plenty of discussion along the way (no chit-chat; I allow time at the beginning of our meetings for that)."

Being too busy is addressed by discussing how members want to approach the reading. Some may want more time to read it, with less-frequent meetings, while others meet more frequently or break the discussion into parts. "I suspect that clubs which meet monthly and read a book for each meeting do run into trouble, given the length of many books and the demands on contemporary women's time. We meet weekly," Johnson said.

Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies has at least a dozen members, so leader Sue Billings believes preparation is key. "Have prepared questions ready, to help the group stay focused on the book," she said, "and make the book selections a shared responsibility."

Karen Silverthorn, who leads Thayer Memorial Library's adult evening book group, also in Lancaster, echoes that philosophy. "Group members want a say in what books are chosen to be read," she said. "Hopefully, those less interested in particular ones will see that their choices are part of our yearly list and so will give others' choices a chance. They also like to plan ahead, not choose a new book each month. Since some like fiction, while others not so much, we do fiction one month and nonfiction or a biography the next."

Ann Young of Gardner's Heywood Library says one member mentioned she belongs to a group that meets in someone's home. There, she has to get the book on her own. It is sometimes a problem getting to a bookstore or ordering online, she said. Members prefer the library group, "because Heywood's librarians order the books for us and when we return one book, we can pick up the next," one member said.

But there is no discouragement for nonreaders either. Young adds: "Our group accepts members where they are. If they show up, they are welcome whether or not they have read the book. Some people just do not find it interesting, or do not have the time that month. We give everyone a chance to speak, but some have more to say than others and that is OK." Most members do at least try to read the book. "Because we collaborate in coming up with the books for the year, most people buy into the books we are reading," Young said. "I am not sure that if just one or two people selected the books we would get the same results."

Members are also encouraged to speak out, regardless of their opinion about the book. "One of our principles is to respect each person and the opinion they voice, so that people are comfortable saying what they think about a book — even if it is not in line with the majority."

Celine L. Livingston, coordinator of the New Earth Book Club in Shrewsbury, said she announces on the book club's website (www.meetup.com/newearth/) that it is required to read the book to attend a meeting. "We take turns to talk at the meetings, and each member gets a chance to reflect on the book," she said. The group meets at Shrewsbury Public Library.

In Sutton, the Full Court Press (a group of moms affiliated with a basketball program in Central Massachusetts and Rhode Island), staggers meetings to allow more than a month between selections. "We meet every six weeks (roughly), and we find that with that longer time frame most people usually have time to read the books," said Brenda Yates. "However, we really don't mind if people come to the meeting without reading the book. In general, nine out of 10 people probably have read all, or most, of the book. If someone has not read it, they understand that we can't worry about spoiling the book by talking about it if they haven't had a chance to read it.

"We also try not to pick books that are too long or intensive; that helps increase the odds of people finishing the story. We often get book recommendations from other book groups, so we know that the books have been well received by other book groups, which also helps. For us, the most important aspect of having a book group is the friendship and social time that the meetings provide, so we encourage people to come even if they haven't read the story. In short, we keep a low key, relaxed outlook and that keeps it fun."

The Women's Issues Book Group of Worcester, sponsored by the National Organization for Women, takes another approach, quipped Joan Killough-Miller. "We give away spoilers to ruin the book for those who haven't managed to finish it by the night of the meeting. And we make them sit in the time-out chair."

OK, not really. But she says reading the book is not a big problem within the group. "We're generally tolerant when someone had a hard time getting their hands on the book or hasn't quite made it to the end," she said. "Some of our people will read into the wee hours of the morning, or stay in all weekend to finish the book by Monday night. They're also good about sharing scarce copies. I've seen out-of-print books be passed along three-four times in the course of a month."

She supplements the book choice with related material. For instance, the March selection is "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," by Susan Cain. The group refers members to the author's website to listen to her TED talk and find links to forums and other resources. They may even take the Quiet Quiz, says Killough-Miller, "though you probably know whether you're an introvert or an extrovert."

Upcoming meetings

The Founding Fathers' Reading Group meets at the Northborough Free Library the last Wednesday of every month, focusing on the Founding Fathers and that period. Interested persons are welcome, says Barbara O'Mara. Next meeting is Tuesday at 10 a.m. Members will discuss the first half of Gordon Wood's Pulitzer-winning "The Radicalism of the American Revolution." For more information: bhomara@gmail.com">bhomara@gmail.com.

Dudley's Crawford Library book group will discuss "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand at 6 p.m. March 6 in the library.

Lancaster's Off-Track Bookies has slated Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son" for its March 13 meeting.

Women's Issues Book Club, Worcester will discuss "Quiet" by Susan Cain at 7 p.m. March 10 (second Monday) in Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 541 Lincoln St., Worcester.

Ann Frantz writes about authors, books and book groups in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. Send club news and suggestions to ann.frantz@gmail.com.   

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Matthew Quick launches 'The Good Luck of Right Now' to follow 'Silver Linings Playbook'

Matthew Quick, Holden resident and author of the novel-turned-film, "Silver Linings Playbook," has begun a book tour to promote his latest novel, "The Good Luck of Right Now." That book, too, has been optioned for film by DreamWorks. In fact, all six of his novels have been optioned for film. 

That's pretty good luck as well. 

Though Quick wasn't published until age 34, he's written since his teens. He's won several prestigious book awards and finally met a primary goal in his life: to be a full-time writer. For several years, he taught literature and coached high school soccer. The kids nicknamed him "Q," a moniker that has stuck. 

On Feb. 11, "The Good Luck of Right Now" is being released by HarperCollins, his U.S. publisher. Little Brown & Co. publishes his young adult books: "Sorta Like a Rock Star," "Boy21" and "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock." His books are published internationally. 

Quick will appear at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7 p.m. Feb. 25 to give a talk and sign books. He'll do the same at 6 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Boston Public Library, and at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport. No appearances have yet been scheduled in the Worcester area, though the tour is just getting started. 

Quick loves seeing the finished product. "I'm thrilled," he said. "It's very exciting. I worked so hard on this book; it's exciting to put it into the world. DreamWorks is busy with the adaptation as well. It's still wonderful to me to open up a finished book when I have received by box of new books. A book tour is a nice time to celebrate and mark the occasion of finishing another story. Most writers will tell you it's almost like giving birth." 

Although he keeps writing — his next book is in the wings — Quick finds book tours a wonderful distraction. "The schedule involves traveling every day on airplanes, cars and trains. For me, it's hard to write fiction when I'm not alone in a room. I love talking with people (about the book) but writers mostly sit alone in a room all day by themselves. When they're thrust into society, as they are on tour, it takes a different kind of energy." 

"The Good Luck of Right Now" is written as a series of letters to actor Richard Gere. Reviewers have used terms like "quirky," "off-beat" and (from author Garth Stein): "the greatest feel-good misfit road story." It deals with Bartholomew Neil, a middle-aged man who lives with his mother and is poorly equipped to find his own way in life. When she dies, he finds a "Free Tibet" letter from Gere in his mother's underwear drawer and sets out to find the answers to life from Gere. (Do we see a starring role there?) 

Quick likes that his books are finding their way into film. He's open to looming opportunities to do screenplays, saying, "I will probably try that at some point." In the meantime, he's happy to be living in Holden with his wife, novelist and pianist Alicia Bessette. 

(Ann Connery Frantz writes about authors and book clubs for the Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, and blogs at this site).

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Life is good for Della Valle, author of 'Jerks in Boston History'

History doesn't have to be a dry subject. Author Paul Della Valle is having quite a lot of fun with it. After the Sterling resident wrote "Massachusetts Troublemakers: Rebels, Reformers and Radicals from the Bay State" (Globe, Pequot Press 2009), its publisher approached him for a second book, one that was right up this history buff's alley: a profile of people behaving badly, titled "Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Boston History." A topic more suited to Della Valle's biting wit may not exist.

Della Valle, familiar to locals as a bluegrass musician and journalist, has turned his talents toward teaching and historical writing. He's having as much fun as ever.

A former reporter with the Telegram & Gazette, he founded the Lancaster Times & Clinton Courier, covering both towns with a vigilant eye for nearly a decade before selling the paper several years ago. He teaches English at Clinton High School, having previously taught at Southbridge and Ashburnham public schools. (He has also taught writing at Clark University and journalism at Northeastern.) One can sometimes find one of his bands — Lizzie O'Dowd and the Sheep Shaggers and the Worcester County Bluegrass All Stars — performing at a local nightspot, festival or town square.

His first book launched the second.

" 'Troublemakers' was my idea," he said. "Then, they asked me to do this one, part of a series they have in different states and cities. There must be at least 25 of them with the same title — Jerks in Colorado, Jerks in Arizona." He laughs.

Don't think that means Della Valle simply filled the book with tried-and-true tales, however. This book is a quirky, funny read, bursting with choice bits of history, employing his trademark candor. He applied both wit and skill from his newspaper years toward researching his choice of 18 notorious bad guys. The publisher insisted that his subjects be dead for at least 50 years. ("You can't libel dead people," Della Valle quips.)

He talked Pequot into letting him break that rule, however, to profile Charles Stuart, one of Boston's most shocking modern-day killers. Stuart joins Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler), Charles Ponzi and Mayor James Michael Curley in the book. Perhaps less predictable were historical figures like A. Bronson Alcott (father of author Louisa May Alcott) and Gov. Henry J. Gardner, whose drive to rid Boston of Irish scum personified the Know-Nothing Party of the mid-1850s. Even Abe Lincoln criticized Gardner's viciousness toward Irish immigrants.

From the get-go, Della Valle had some characters in mind: "My grandmother loved James Michael Curley because he gave a pillow to her brother in the Fernald School (in those days, pillows weren't always standard issue); she loved him for that. That's the way he operated — he gave things to people; he sealed loyalties. The 'mayor of the poor' was also a total crook. I love the joke line from the times — when the City of Boston bought his house after he died, it was the second time they'd paid for it. Curley was outrageous and powerful, with friends as staunch as his enemies."

Another subject in the book is serial killer Jane Toppan. "Karen (his wife, poet Karen Sharpe) came up with Jane. I had never heard of her before. She killed at least 31 people. She did it for sexual kicks; she'd get in bed with her victims as they were dying. And she was remorseless."

He wanted to profile more women, but couldn't find suitable subjects. "There aren't that many females that are jerks," he said. He opted to leave Lizzie Borden out, since so much has already been written about her case.

He has one regret. "I would have loved to put in Whitey (Bulger)," he said. But the incarcerated mob leader doesn't fit the profile: "You can't have someone who is still alive."

Della Valle has woven historical tidbits with wicked twists. With an 18-month window to write, he chose to cram the work into six months before its due date. The guy still prefers being on deadline.

"I need to have the gun to my head," he said. "I worked during vacations and school breaks, but not much at night, 'cause you're tired from teaching; there's so much you have to do for teaching, to prepare and such."

He has another book in his head, and is working on a plan for it, centered on the concept of "banned in Boston."

"I love histories that reveal the stuff the history books didn't teach you," he said. "The Mass Bay founders were hateful, despite what good they did. A lot of people say the U.S. is a Christian nation, but Thomas Paine was so anti-Christian. He wanted complete separation of church and state. It was the age of reason, of free thinkers. The Founding Fathers did not intend us to be just a Christian nation."

He's also fascinated by Horace Mann, whose accomplishments inspired Della Valle to become a teacher.

In the meantime, he has his English classes, and he's started an acoustic café on Thursdays at the high school, having discovered a multi-national chorus of voices at the school when he brought his guitar to class. "They love it. Kids are so talented," he said. "They all know every word of every pop song. They all know the harmony parts. One class said we should just do some after-school stuff. There are about 20 kids a week who come, and they're from all over."

On his own, Della Valle can sometimes be found playing with the Sheep Shaggers — a band his son, Rocky, and daughter, Lisa, are involved with — at the Black Sheep Tavern, or, in better weather, golfing. And then there are the grandkids, 4 and 1, to occupy him. Life is good.
    

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hank Phillippi Ryan: From first line to Finish, a thriller

She waits for a really great plot idea and the perfect first line before starting, but once in motion with a new novel, Hank Phillippi Ryan launches ahead without any outline. Before she stops, she'll have created another complex, authentically detailed crime story that's witty, absorbing and fast-paced.

Since the Sept. 10 release of her latest, "The Wrong Girl," Hank Phillippi Ryan has experienced — alongside its rise to The Boston Globe's bestseller list — a national book tour and continued prominence as an award-winning crime writer. The real mystery about her, though, is how she manages to juggle full-time writing and touring, a full-time role as an on-air investigative reporter at Boston's NBC affiliate, Channel 7, and her role as a wife and grandmother. Each is part of a life she loves despite its chaotic claim on her time.

"I'm always on the go; some days I don't realize what city I'm in when I wake up in a hotel — but how lucky am I to be doing that?" she said laughing. "It's wonderful. In life, we do what we choose to do. We make priorities, we make selections; I try not to worry because worrying just takes up time."

Lucky, she said in an interview Thursday, because she began writing fiction in 2005, after first spending 30 years in television news, a career now approaching its fourth decade. Always an avid reader, from Nancy Drew on up to Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark, she secretly desired to write mysteries. And one day, she just up and did it.

"One day in my office at Channel 7, I got a call from a woman, telling me the story of how a relative had been reunited with her birth mother and realized the adoption agency had made a mistake. She said, 'Can you believe it? They sent the woman the wrong girl.' I got goosebumps. I knew I had the idea for a novel. I remember sitting at my desk, thinking 'This will be a fabulous mystery.' I became obsessed with writing "Prime Time," which won the Agatha for best first mystery novel. My career has taken off since that time. I wanted it, and the universe provided ... and that has been what the second half of my life is about."

"Prime Time" was the first of four Charlotte McNally mysteries, but it was the Boston world of Jane and Jake that burst into the world of national readership and fame.

Her newest novel follows "The Other Woman" (2012), winner of the Mary Clark Higgins Award and a nominee for every major mystery writing award out there. "The Wrong Girl" is the second in a series featuring a Boston setting and characters. She expects to see the third published in the fall of 2014.

The series features the same protagonists, reporter Jane Ryland and her boyfriend, Boston police Detective Jake Brogan. In the latest mystery, Ryland, a disgraced TV reporter now working in a newsroom, and Brogan, a gruff, dedicated officer with a soft spot for Ryland, uncover deceptive practices within a foster care agency. Like her other books, it is based on a world that Ryan has known intimately as an investigative reporter. She calls her experiences and knowledge into play as fictional reality in her books, bringing a distinct ring of authenticity to her themes.

"New England is almost a character," she said. "Certainly, my books have a special draw for people who live in New England and can recognize all of the places and (types of) characters."

In one scene, for instance, a character patiently explains Boston's peculiar ethics surrounding lawn chair-trash can markers to save shoveled-out parking spots.

"It's completely inexplicable, unless you live here and understand that social contract," she said.

Authentic touches such as that are throughout her work, but so is skilled, smart writing. From an early image of "blood and Cheerios" at a crime scene to a sadly wise reflection on foster care ("It's not their fault, and there's no way the system can save them all. I'm supposed to send them to new homes, but how can I be sure they'll thrive and flourish? They so often don't."), she injects reality alongside the grim wit of those who deal with crime and grisly murders, Ryan writes masterfully.

"It's very hard work," she said.

"Writing a novel is astonishingly difficult. It's 100,000 words, every one of which has to be perfect. It has to be new, fascinating, unique, riveting and compelling."

Working without an outline requires tenacity — and faith. "I truly believe I'll be able to solve the mystery, because that's what I'm doing, laying out the groundwork for a real event in my head. It's just as true as if something had really happened, so the end has to be what really happened. I'm a reporter, so I'm going to find that out. Like the detective in the book, I am solving the mystery."

She could not have done this 20 years ago, she says.

"I wasn't the person I am now. I was 55 when I started writing, and it turned out that it was the perfect moment in my life to start this new part of my career. I didn't plan it, didn't look for it, and wasn't expecting it. But I've learned to be aware when a door is opened for you, and I think at that moment, that's what happened."

It wasn't easy then, and isn't easy now. Ryan's schedule is busy from start to finish, and more than one person has called her a juggler. Heck, she uses the term on herself.

"I take it one item at a time. I plan, I organize, I schedule. There are things I give up. My husband and I haven't had a vacation for five years, maybe six. I write on weekends; I never have a day off." Something, obviously, had to give, she said. "Cooking was first to go, then sleep. My fun level is very low; I don't think my husband and I have been to a movie in years. We don't have any dinner parties now. Is it a sacrifice? Sure, but I feel I'm getting so much more than I'm giving up. To be following your dreams at midcareer is lucky. I always wanted to be a writer, and I count my blessings every year."

This chaotic, happy career is enough, she says.

"My days are fulfilled, but they're full of joy and full of love and full of delight that I have followed my dreams through so much success."

By Ann Connery Frantz
From the Telegram & Gazette, Dec. 6, 2013