A Conversation with: Kathleen A. Ryan

January 31, 2011

Flash Fiction and Hint Fiction Author, and Multiple PSWA Award Winner

Kathleen A. Ryan

Thank you, Kathleen, for taking the time to chat with me. I recently read Secret Identity in Discount Noir, and loved it! Very appropriate for starting a New Year.

If I remember correctly, we first met at my first Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA) Conference a couple years back. You probably don’t remember, but we were sitting next to each other during a “get-to-know-everyone” luncheon meal. You made quite a favorable impression on me in that you were so friendly, warm in your comments, charming (don’t blush!), and extremely interesting. Not to mention your captivating east coast accent —which took me back in time!

We now keep connected through Facebook and blogs, and a fairly recent article/blog about you on Sea Minor-Dancing with Myself [1]was really fascinating, informative—and left me with a couple questions I wanted to ask you.

You mentioned you started writing at an early age, and at one time had fifty pen pals (I had one!). Do you still have contact with any of them? Or know that any became writers too? And do you think your broad world-view exposure at an early age influences your writing now?

Thanks for inviting me to chat, Madeline. It was a pleasure meeting you at the PSWA conference in Las Vegas in 2009. I certainly do remember your kind smile and warm disposition! I’m so glad we stayed connected online, and got to meet again at PSWA in 2010. Thank you for taking the time to read Secret Identity. As with most of my fiction, there’s evidence of real life events sewn in (there really was a case on Christmas Eve of a man stealing a woman’s wallet, and his kids witnessed it). I am so proud to be among the talented writers in Discount Noir, a crime fiction e-book edited by Patricia Abbott and Steve Weddle.

During my childhood and teen years, I kept journals, wrote poetry and songs, and corresponded with pen pals in the U.S. and Germany. We corresponded for years, but after starting college, the letters dwindled. I’d love to reconnect with some of them.

I think all of life’s experiences shapes us as writers; I’m sure that my correspondence with fellow teens, attending and graduating from college, teaching music, working retail, waitressing, delivering mail, becoming a police officer, getting married, raising children, experiencing grief, surviving cancer, volunteering, and traveling extensively has influenced me as a writer.

In the same world-view line of thought, you’ve traveled all over the world[2], from Las Vegas to Ireland. I have two questions on your travels. Is it a family affair? And again do you think “seeing the world” has helped or hindered your writing?

I have traveled with family, friends, and solo. I visit family, friends, attend writers conferences and sight-see. I can think of no greater growth experience than to travel and meet folks, witness how they live, and soak in the beauty the world has to offer. Traveling evokes all of the senses. It absolutely has helped my writing. I even make the most of my time spent on planes and hotel rooms — always a great opportunity to read and write.

My next question involves a phenomenon I’ve noticed in so many author friends—living forty-eight hour a day in twenty-four. Let’s see, don’t want to miss anything, but you’re a fulltime mom to two teenagers, read and write, blog(on two blogs!) and tweet, travel, volunteer with Crime Stoppers and the American Cancer  Society, actively participate in a writer’s group, and belong to NY and Long Island Sisters in Crime. And on Facebook, I also noticed that you do scrapbooking. How can you possibly find the time! What’s your “juggling” secret? I’m in awe.

I also belong to a breast cancer support group and I joined MWA at the end of last year.

I function on very little sleep. My day is filled with family responsibilities (which may include cleaning, laundry, shopping, cooking, appointments, and when the kids come home from school, it’s time to start making dinner, prompt the kids to do their homework, taxi them to their activities), by the time they go to bed and the house is quiet, I’m settling down to read or write, and I stay up very late. I’m thrilled when I have no commitments during a school day and I can devote it to writing.

I multi-task. I visit the library often and I borrow audiobooks. I listen while cleaning, cooking, or folding laundry. Four years ago, I gave up the radio in the car in favor of audio books. I use my slow cooker and Dutch oven quite often, so meals can cook throughout the day.

One of my juggling secrets is my husband, Joe. He’s my best friend and a great dad to our kids. I couldn’t do most of what I do without him and his unconditional support.

Of course, retiring after 21 years as a police officer has allowed me to pursue the dream of writing full-time. I thought I’d serve at least 30 years, but life had other plans. Surviving cancer was one of them. Being a survivor provides a whole new outlook on life. In addition, the sudden loss of my 37-year-old brother in 2001 was life-shattering. It was the most difficult time in my life. In facing death, I realized how short life is, and how we can’t take anything for granted.

You are so right about not taking anything for granted. You’ve mentioned Frank McCourt[3] in several of your interviews. I’m guessing he was not only one of your teachers, but also a guiding-light in your writing journey. Is that true? How has his counsel and advice helped you?

I was one of 14 writers accepted for Frank’s 2007 Memoir Writing Workshop at the Southampton Writers Conference. Frank was an excellent “Teacher Man.” I still shake when I think of the amazing comments he wrote on my papers. We turned in twenty pages for Frank to review and to workshop with the class. When Frank handed his critiques back, my heart pounded, wondering what the gifted Pulitzer prize-winning storyteller thought of my work.

Frank wrote, “This is more than competent. It has an air of assurance that promises (or shows) great talent…”

I was riveted to everything he said. I took extensive notes. When it was time to workshop my piece, Frank and the participants asked many questions. He said, “You’re sitting on a five-million dollar screenplay.” The class erupted; I was stunned.

Frank gave us several assignments, among them: a 150-word fairy tale and a 350-word letter explaining what we were doing at the Conference and why our stories should be told. On the back of my fairy tale, Frank wrote: “Perfect. Keep playing with this. Develop [the names of the characters].” On the back of the letter, he wrote: “Terrific. You know you have a rich topic. And your writing is just right for the material!”

I was truly overwhelmed.

When I shared a story with Frank and the class about a 911 call I handled on patrol in the late 80s, Frank suggested I write about it. I ultimately wrote a personal essay called “The Watcher,” which won a PSWA award in 2009 for Creative Non-Fiction. It was published in The Southampton Review in March 2010.

I saw Frank on several occasions after the conference, including a book signing for Angela and the Baby Jesus in Huntington and the AWP conference in NYC. In NYC, he asked if I was attending the next Southampton Writers Conference. I said I hadn’t decided. He said, “You don’t need it. Stay home and write. You know how to write; you know your story ~ stay home and write!” I almost fell over. I somehow managed to say, “Thank you!” Despite his kind opinion, I applied anyway. I studied Creative NonFiction with Matt Klam, and I got to chat with Frank several times throughout the conference, which turned out the be the last time I saw him; he passed away the following July.

I love hearing author/mentor/teacher stories. “Stay home and write!” Must have been music to your ears. Now, your true crime memoir is getting close to completion, is that correct? You must be very excited.

My book, A Perfect Night for Murder, has been a labor of love for many years. The reason it has been years is because I am still “living the story” that I started writing about in 2002. The case has captivated me since I was a child; my armchair detective grandmother discussed this unsolved hatchet murder quite often. When I became a cop and met my husband at my relief point (the East Northport Fire Department, he was a volunteer firefighter), I discovered he grew up on the street where the murder occurred. The story takes many turns from there. I got the privilege to review the case, and learn that four agencies handled it and didn’t share information. Over a period of about eight years, on my own time, I tracked down and interviewed dozens of witnesses and family members of witnesses from a half-century old case.

I’ve gotten advice from several trusted authors, and I’ve written and re-written the book many times over, equivalent to a novelist having written at least 3 novels. I must complete one more revision to reduce the word count, then it’s query time!

Glad to hear A Perfect Night for Murder will soon be “born.” I’m sure it will be a success!

Lastly Kathleen, and in a completely different train of thought, the fact that you were once a music teacher caught my interest. Since I’m tone-death and monotone, I’m also in awe of musical ability. Do you play an instrument, or sing? With all the other activities you’re involved with, I just can’t imagine you squeezing another interest in!

Music was the love of my life growing up, and I decided to study music and teach. My dream was to become a lyricist. Guess I ended up working with words, anyway. Even as a police officer, I wrote every day — including news releases, wanted profiles, crime alerts, tips, police reports and reward reports.

Although I haven’t played in years, when I was studying music education in college, I learned how to play the trumpet, flute, and violin. My major was the piano, and I had taken guitar lessons as a teenager. I taught piano for about five years, but gave it up when I joined the police academy in 1986.

For me, Kathleen, you are inspirational, not only for your literary skill and wonderful way of getting to the “meat” of a story, with few words, fast, and gracefully—but because of what I call your life-courage. You’ve had more than your share of tragedies—but have faced them with outstanding courage and endurance. My hat is off to you!

Thank you for your kind words, Madeline, and for inviting me to chat with you today.

Kathleen blogs at http://www.womenofmystery.net/, & http://www.kathleenaryan.blogspot.com/ Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/katcop13 & Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ kathleen.ryan1. You can visit her author page at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B004KI3ZXM


[2] Germany, Austria, Ireland, St. Thomas, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Arizona, every state on the eastern seaboard and more—In 2010 alone, Florida (twice), Maine, Canada, Las Vegas, and San Francisco

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14 Responses to “A Conversation with: Kathleen A. Ryan”

  1. Hi Wendy!
    I enjoy those kind of interviews, too. I’m so glad we’ve had the chance to meet via PSWA. Best wishes for 2011!

    Hi Anita,
    Thanks for stopping by Madeline’s blog to read our interview. So glad you enjoyed it.

    Hi Charles,
    Thanks! I’m proud to be in HINT FICTION with YOU! I wish we could be at Robert’s HINT FICTION panel on Friday at AWP in D.C. I’m sure he and our co-contributors will make us proud.

  2. I enjoyed that. Congrats to both interviewer and interviewee. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a collection with Ms. Ryan!

  3. I enjoyed that. Well done both interviewer and interviee. I have been lucky enough to be in a collection with Ms. Ryan!

  4. Anita Page said

    A rich, insightful interview, Kathy and Madeline. I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Kudos to both Madeline and Kathleen. I love interviews that intertwine the interviewer with the interviewee. I learned so much about you both and was fortunate to meet you both at PSWA conference.
    Wendy

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Gay! I appreciate it so much, my fellow HINT FICTION contributor!

    Hi Elena!
    It is something very special that we have in common, that unique opportunity to have studied memoir writing with Frank McCourt. He easily recognized your talent, and how thrilling that he gave you a wonderful blurb for A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS. We have precious memories of Frank and the Southampton Writers Conference, don’t we?
    Thanks for your kind and generous comments 🙂

    Thanks again to Madeline for chatting with me today ~ I enjoyed our conversation!

  7. Elena Gorokhova said

    What a terrific interview! I thought I knew you, Kathleen, but it revealed some interesting insights into your life and work. And I was very touched to hear about your time with Frank. We studied with him at different times, but to both of us he will always be an unforgettable mentor.
    Good luck with your memoir!

  8. gaydegani said

    Terrific interview. Congrats to Kathleen and to Marilyn.

  9. Hi Sue,
    Oh, yes, pen pals ~ a blast from the past! I had stickers, personalized return labels (I had lyrics & photos on them), and used melted wax & stamps to seal my letters…
    Thanks for your kind remarks…I’m a very lucky woman 🙂

  10. Pen Pals? I hadn’t thought about them in years. The forerunner to Facebook. Imagine that. I remember the thrill of both the letters and the stamps.

  11. What an amazing woman. The stuff about Frank McCourt was priceless.

  12. Thank you, Marilyn! I enjoyed our visit at Bouchercon, too ~ what a bonus to see you twice in one year 🙂 Isn’t it amazing, we found our way to write with people all over the world, years before the internet. It was a lot of fun. I remember my record, receiving 14 letters in one day. I loved walking to the mailbox. I’m hoping to still come to PSWA…I wasn’t going to go, because my daughter was slated to leave for Europe on the 14th, and I wanted to be here for her. However, her departure date just moved up ~ so that opens up the possibility to attend.

    Hi Paul!
    You are a sweetheart to stop by today. I’m a big Paul Brazill fan! I appreciate your kind support 🙂

  13. Oh, Kathleen, this was a wonderful interview! I do hope we’ll see you at PSWA again this year. I had about 80 pen pals when I was a kid from all over the place. Had to keep a card file to keep them straight. Postage was only 3 cents back when I was writing all those letters.

    By the way, I so enjoyed our visit at Bouchercon, a real hightlight for me.

    Marilyn

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