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Sister to Sister: Gayle Lynds
By Hank Phillippi Ryan
Posted on 10/22/2019 12:01 AM

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: You hardly ever get to meet a true icon.  And I remember the first time I saw Gayle Lynds, at Bouchercon in …Baltimore? She was over by the wall, talking to Lee Child. Eye to eye, and both in jeans and navy blazers. They were laughing together, over some secret fabulous thing, and I thought—this is what success and happiness look like. If I had been less a newbie, I would have considered that more carefully—I should have thought: This is what hard work and authenticity look like.

Gayle is a treasure. And an inspiration. Her triumph-over-rejection story—I’ll let her tell it below—is the perfect example of her life. How many people, I wonder, have told Gayle: you can’t do that? And she laughs and does it better than anyone could have imagined.

Her 1996 book, Masquerade, was listed by Publishers weekly as one of the top ten spy novels of all time. Of ALL TIME, sisters! She is the co-founder, with David Morell, of the International Thriller Organization.  And if you have ever taken a writing or suspense class from her, you’ll know how book-changing it is to learn from her. And if you have chatted with her, you’ll know how life-changing that is, too.

She is a dear friend, and an incredibly skilled writer, and an indelible part of the Sisters in Crime community.

HANK: Do you remember the very first time you thought: I'm going to write a book, and I can do it. What was that moment? 

GAYLE:  For me, one of the hardest parts of writing has always been to keep the whole book in my head so I know what happens when, and who does what, and why, why, why.  Oh, my goodness, all those details, plus the big sweep of it all!  I finally accomplished that sense of "I can do it" when I finished Masquerade, my first novel.  Before I began it, I had only a tremendous drive -- maybe need is the right word -- to write the story, even though I wasn't clear about a lot of it.  It eventually grew from a seed of an idea into a full-fledged spy novel, but I spent 4 years working to get it there.

Did that first book sell?

Yes, after first being rejected by a female publisher:  "No woman could've written this book."  Then becoming a New York Times bestseller.

How many of your books have been published since then? What do you think about that?

Nine more since then.  What do I think?  Owwww!  Not enough!


Gotta know, got to ask. Do you outline? Has your method changed over the years?

After Masquerade I was able to outline.  I really love having an outline -- it's like a big soft comfy blanky that I can wrap around myself when I'm in the cold misery of not knowing where I'm going next in the book.  Ah-ha!  I'll go read my outline!  Sigh of relief.  (I should say here my outlines were never written in granite, or even marble -- they changed and developed with the book.) Alas, being able to outline happened only on the next 3 books.   After that, I was back to feeling my way through, but at least working from a synopsis, which is sorta like an anorexic outline but definitely better than nothing.  The book on which I'm currently working has a more developed synopsis but definitely still not an outline.  So the long answer to this terrific question is, yep, my method has changed over the years, and I suspect will continue to change.

But is that the hardest part of the book for you? Or –what is?

The beginning is always challenging because I want to accomplish so much very quickly ... characterization of course, but also suspense and a firm sense of setting and voice.  When I say that, it seems simple enough.  But to do it well ... ah, that is the goal!

So….Is your first draft always terrible? Has it always been?

Pretty much always terrible.  To keep myself halfway cheerful, I look for what is right in it, too.

Was there ever a time when you thought you would give up writing?

It's like breathing.  Hard to give up.  Perhaps even fatal. 

How often in your process do you have doubts about what you're doing?

Too often to contemplate.

What do you tell yourself during those moments of writing fear?

What's the villain doing in the book?  That question always piques my interest, distracts me when I satisfy my curiosity, and then I'm off and writing again.

Yes—the motivation. You this—oh! This is why that’s happening!  Do you have a writing quirk, though, you have to watch out for?

Repetitive words.  "Look" in all its variations and uses is a particular tick of mine. 

Horrible! “Look” is one of mine, too. And often people seem to be shrugging.  And grinning.  Or, tragically, both. What's one writing thing you always do—write every day? Never stop at the end of a chapter? Write first thing in the morning?

Think.  I always think every day about the book, where I am in it, what I want to do next, what the book wants me to do, and whether I need to take some time off to recharge, research, or even forget I'm a writer for a while.  It's all about writing, whether the words go on the page or not.  Having a deadline is something else, and definitely requires words on pages daily.   

“What the book wants me to do”—what a great way of putting it. How do you know when your book is finished?

I'm of the school that the book is never finished.  Given the chance, I'd go back and rewrite, edit, rearrange, rework every one of them.  Sigh.

What is the biggest mistake you see in people's manuscripts?

Revealing backstory too early.  It's such a temptation. 

Yes! Because we as the author know it, and we can’t wait to tell it. When we should wait. Do you think anyone can be taught to be a better writer?

Absolutely.  The only question is whether the writer wants to learn.   

How do you feel about...stuff? Writing swag handouts giveaways that kind of thing. Do you think it matters? Do you have it?

I've done a lot of that over the years.  I think the most important point is to cherish our readers.  Many of them love bookmarks, giveaways, or seeing their name as a character in a book.  They also love to read interviews with us.  So if it matters to them, it matters to me. 

You've seen so much change in the publishing industry, what do you think new writers need to know about that?

Most of us come to writing novels as readers who love books so much that we want to do it, too.  It's hard in the beginning to wrap our heads around the fact that it is also a business.  Really and truly, a business.  No matter all the complaints of craziness and irrationality about the publishing industry one might hear, houses are run by people who actively love books but realize they need to make money, too, so they can keep publishing books they love.  Advice:  Read Publishers Weekly and Publishers Lunch and blogs about publishing.  Learn as much as you possibly can about the business -- covers, distribution, numbers, why a book a year is good business, etc. 

Been so successful, why do you think that is? What secret of yours can we bottle up and rely on?

I have no secrets, except those I put in my books!  🙂

What book are you reading right now?

I like reading outside our field sometimes to keep myself fresh.  So I've just finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and am about to start The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.  We live in a forest, so very different from the cities I've lived in all of my life.  I find our woody neighbors fascinating and want to know more, more, more!

Give us one piece of writing advice!

Writing well is like a roller coaster -- alternately hard and easy work, up and down sales, a career slow and fast and then slow again, and a multitude of exhilarating and sometimes dangerous curves.  In the end, if you've done well, you'll end up back at the beginning ... in love with books.  In love with the work of writing books.   But then, you've loved them all along, haven't you?


 HANK: You are so fabulous, Gayle. Thank you! Sisters, what do you think about Gayle’s listening to what the book tells her to do? Does your book talk to you?

New York Times bestseller Gayle Lynds is the award-winning author of ten international espionage novels, including The Assassins, The Book of Spies, and The Last Spymaster. Publishers Weekly lists her book Masquerade among the top ten spy novels of all time. The London Observer calls her a kick-ass thriller writer. Lee Child says she’s “today’s best thriller writer.”

Gayle began her writing career as a reporter for The Arizona Republic, where her investigative reporting made such an impact that it led to changes in state legislation. Later she was an editor with rare Top Secret security clearance at a government think tank, where assorted shadowy figures passed through. She was intrigued and inspired. Soon she began writing literary short stories, which were published in literary journals, and at the same time in what some considered to be surely schizophrenic, she also wrote male pulp adventure novels set around the world in the Nick Carter and Mack Bolan series.

Her first Gayle Lynds novel, Masquerade, was a New York Times bestseller and a People magazine “Page-Turner of the Week.” The Last Spymaster won Best Novel from both the American Authors Association and the Military Writers Society of America. The Coil won Best Contemporary Novel from Affaire de Coeur. Mosaic was RT Thriller of the Year. Mesmerized was a Daphne du Maurier Award best novel finalist. The Assassins won the Founder’s Award for Best Novel from MWSA.

About her work, reviewers have written: “superb,” Chicago Tribune; “immensely satisfying,” Wall Street Journal; “a potent storyteller,” Denver Post; “teeth-grinding suspense,” Publishers Weekly; “roller-coaster thrills,” Los Angeles Times; “terrific,” Cosmopolitan magazine; and “authentic,” Chicago Sun-Times.

With Robert Ludlum, she created the Covert-One Series and wrote three of the novels. The first one, The Hades Factor, was a CBS miniseries. Another, The Paris Option, was a People magazine “Beach Read of the Week.”

A member of the Association for Former Intelligence Officers, she cofounded International Thriller Writers with David Morrell and was copresident for several years. ITW’s annual convention is ThrillerFest, which is held in New York in July.

She lives in Maine with her husband, John C. Sheldon, three computers, and two opinionated cats.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, winning 34 EMMYs and 14 Edward R. Murrow Awards. A nationally bestselling author of 11 mysteries, Ryan's also won five Agathas, three Anthonys, two Macavitys, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her novels are Library Journal's Best of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Hank’s 2018 book  is TRUST ME, an Agatha Nominee, and a Best of the Year from The New York Post,  BOOK BUB, Real Simple Magazine, PopSugar, and CrimeReads. Her newest psychological  thriller is THE MURDER LIST, coming in August 2019. Find her at

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