Having careers in pharmacy, health administration and insurance, Ryn Pitts turned her attention to mystery writing. She has authored the book, Deadly Benefits and is currently writing her second novel, Placebo.
Join me in reading my interview with Ryn, and learn more about how she started her writing career, her writing quirks, and inside her thoughts of how her book came to be.
DFTT: Do you recall how your interest in writing started?
Ryn: Actually, I do not, but my 97 year old mother reminds me that one autumn, I came home from grade school with a poem I’d written. This was accompanied with a note from my teacher explaining that I was supposed to look out the window and draw what I saw. Instead, I wrote a short poem about “the sun hiding, and fall taking its place.” Words have always been my preferred method of expression. This was affirmed throughout my education: “you should become a writer.” But I undertook a different path and followed a scientific curriculum that tapped into a different part of my brain. And I did so with absolutely no regrets.
DFTT: What inspired you to write your first book?
Ryn: To this day, former English teachers have always been whispering in my ear to keep writing, but once out of college, I felt that I didn’t have anything yet to say. Since then, I’ve enjoyed wonderful careers, first as a community pharmacist, next as a medical administrator and most recently, as an insurance executive. Along this path I’ve collected great stories, memorable observations, unforgettable characters and important conversations; I’ve tucked them away into a brain file called “Later.”
In 2003, the notion of writing a book and writing it now gripped me in a way I could no longer ignore. I retired “young” and began my novel in an office I’d rented in a former elementary school in Fargo. What caused me to actually sit down at a keyboard and take that first brave step was the knowledge that I had imagined a really good story about a mysterious death, and I believed that no one could tell this story but me. That was the launch into a nine-year journey that finally resulted in the publication of Deadly Benefits in May, 2013.
After lots of writing that ultimately ended in my trash folder, I learned that writing a compelling mystery was more than assembling random stories from my past. I am an avid reader of Scandinavian crime and have been influenced by the writing of Henning Mankell, creator of the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander series. In a Guardian article, he once said that every good novel begins with a big question. It doesn’t start with a tricky plot or a polished character, but with an important social question. This resonated deeply within me. What is the big question I’m asking? My attempts to articulate this question provided the necessary focus for Deadly Benefits. I’ve worked in the healthcare and insurance environments for 35 years and for much of that time, the system has been described as “broken.” Too costly, too many mistakes, poor outcomes. So the big question underlying my novel is this: if healthcare is broken, who benefits and who suffers the consequences? From that question emerged the title; then I created characters to tell their story.
DFTT: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Ryn: Honestly, everything about writing is hard. There are many quotes by writers describing this torture. For me, three issues stand out. The first challenge was recognizing that there is a craft to writing, and that it must be learned. Acquiring and maintaining one’s “voice” takes time and attention, as does plotting, characterization and nearly everything else involved in a successful book. Although this was difficult, I was smart enough to recognize this and energized by the acquisition of a new skill.
Secondly, it has been a continuing challenge to trust my own authorial instincts in light of feedback, both positive and negative, from a variety of sources. What of this feedback is useful and makes my book better, versus what is someone’s personal preference and does not harmonize with my story? I sought lots of advice from experienced editors in the publishing world as well as readers with rich backgrounds in mystery and other literary genres. The novel endured 17 drafts before I was satisfied. In the end, it was my choice and my choice uniquely.
Lastly, it was difficult to leave a corporate environment replete with affirmation and approval and move to the lonely existence of an aspiring writer. I recall cocktail conversations where friends asked what I was doing with my time, now that I was retired. “I’m writing a book,” I said. This was followed by a nervous chuckle and a change in conversation. I’d moved from a life where speeches = applause, an executive title=approval and hours of work=a paycheck. In my nine years of writing Deadly Benefits, there was little encouragement except from a phenomenal husband. There was absolutely no paycheck. It was an excruciatingly lonely time but one of personal growth and re-invention.
DFTT: Did you learn anything about yourself from writing your book and what was it?
Ryn: Definitely. As most writers will admit, there are discouraging moments along the way in both writing and publishing a book. The temptation to quit is mightily strong. In writing Deadly Benefits, my protagonist seemed to be speaking to me during such moments of despair and defeat. “If I have sisu, where’s yours? Get back to it, girl! I deserve better from you!” Heli’s voice in my head, combined with the loving support of my husband who keeps me on task to write, has enabled me to persevere when I’d temporarily lose confidence.
DFTT: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Ryn: Although I cannot lay claim to the originality of this idea, I actually wrote full biographies of each principle character in Deadly Benefits. By this, I mean that I developed the fundamental life timeline of each: family tree, birthdays, childhood pets, parental relationships, the instrument played in the high school band, early loves, hobbies, factors involving career choices, favorite foods, disappointments and notable fears. This really helped me to develop a consistent voice when I was writing “in their head.” I knew them so well it was if they spoke through me, and I was simply at the keyboard writing down their lines. I lived with these characters in my head so long that they became as real to me as my friends and family. Although time-consuming, this early work paid off for me. Readers are emotionally invested in many of my characters. Shortly after Downtown Abbey, season 4, began without Matthew Crawley, a reader messaged me, putting me on alert that if I had any ideas of killing off a certain character, she’d quit reading any future books!
DFTT: What book are you reading now?
Ryn: Because I’m now living in Paris for two months, I’m reading everything with Paris in the title. I just finished “Paris in Love” by Eloisa James. Now I’m on to a Parisian mystery, “The Paris Vendeta” by Steve Berry. Then, “Paris” by Rutherford. Up next: “Provence, 1970.”
Typically, I try to read a blend of fiction and non-fiction, but my choices are directed to some extent by the project I’m working on.
DFTT: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Ryn: Yes, I keep an eye open for new mystery writers, at least new to me. I thought that Leonard Rosen’s debut novel, “All Cry Chaos” was especially good. I haven’t yet read Gunnar Staalesen’s “Cold Hearts” but I will soon.
DFTT: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Ryn: I am a fiber artist with a fabulous quilting studio that overlooks a Minnesota lake. There I create original design art quilts of a contemporary style. I’ve enjoyed some success as a number of my quilts have been juried into both regional and national fiber shows. Sitting at my Bernina is both creative and meditative. People often ask where ideas come from; I tell them that the most fertile time for me is either on the tread mill or running fabric through my sewing machine. I actually keep a writing pad by each to capture what pops into my head.
DFTT: What books have most influenced your life?
Ryn: The Hardy Boys series (inspired me to write mysteries)
The Seven Story Mountain, by Thomas Merton (spiritual direction)
Kristin Lavrensdatter, by Sigrud Undset (fostered an interest in my Norwegian heritage and strong female protagonists)
The poetry of Robert Frost (enriches my experience of daily living)
DFTT: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Ryn: The ‘favorite author’ question is subject to change and is as difficult to answer as “who is your favorite child?” That said, I have never been disappointed in a novel by P.D. James. She is timeless and intuitive in telling stories that have advanced the mystery genre.
Close seconds are Henning Mankell, Abraham Verghese, Barbara Kingsolver, and Kate Atkinson.
DFTT: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Ryn: Learn the craft of writing, and write every day. Join a writers’ group, or start one as I did. Seek feedback on your writing and listen carefully to it. Support other writers; help them tell their story.
DFTT: What current projects are you working on?
Ryn: I am currently writing my second novel, Placebo, a sequel to Deadly Benefits. A placebo is a pharmaceutical term for a medicine with no active ingredient. Yet in controlled scientific experiments, patients often believe they improve while taking it. So Placebo is a story about believing in something that has no basis in the truth. The “big” question that drives this novel is: What is the price of believing something that isn’t true? I reprise Heli Harri and Sandeep Venkata and involve them in a broader world of healthcare politics. The novel is still grounded in Fargo but there is a Parisian twist in the plot.
DFTT: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Ryn: A book is the basis for a relationship between an author and a reader. The author tells a story as she imagines it, and the reader brings her/his own experience in which to consider and interpret that story. During a time when there are more books being published than ever before, I thank my readers for the time we’ve shared together. And in the midst of so many choices, I thank readers who have supported a regional author in her debut novel, and especially so many who went on to write good reviews, positive comments and who assigned the coveted “stars” to the book. As they say in Paris, merci beau coups!
Beyond the enjoyment of reading a good mystery, I hope that readers will feel some call to action, however modest or incremental, even if it is to think differently about what we have long taken for granted, and to question what we are being told. I believe the power of a good story about health care trumps all of the media sound bytes, political speeches and statistical charts and graphs on the subject. I hope my readers will demand something better as a result of reading Deadly Benefits.