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Mary Higgins Clark
07/03/2012 - By Paul Williams
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Mary Higgins Clark
"Queen of Suspense
Still on Her Throne"
Almost 40 years after her trademark suspense thriller, Where are the Children? landed on the bookshelves in 1975, Mary Higgins Clark’s latest masterpiece, The Lost Years, debuted at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list this spring, proving that the last chapter in the storied career of “The Queen of Suspense” has yet to be written. Widely regarded as the premier author in the murder mystery genre, whose novels have defined multiple generations, Clark continues to use her insatiable desire to write to please fans, critics, and readers around the world. She has sold more than 100 million copies of her books worldwide, 80 million in the U.S. alone, and has remained dedicated to bringing her readers along a fascinating, suspenseful journey in a modern-world setting.
Clark was born in 1927 and raised in New York City. She developed an affinity for writing as a child, often keeping journals of her daily life. Although she didn’t become a professional author until well into her 20s, she attributes her long-standing success to the experience she gained from traveling the world as a flight attendant for Pan American, and the skills learned from her previous secretarial career at Remington-Rand. Accompanying Clark’s professional success of more than 40 best-selling works, she has received 18 honorary doctorates, and the Papal honor of Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. She was named Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Minister of Culture, and was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame.
Clark and her husband, John J. Conheeney, reside in Saddle River, but spend their summers here along the Jersey Shore. As I drove to Spring Lake for our interview, a layer of fog slowly crept in from the ocean, blanketed the town and settled in by the time I arrived. It provided an eerily appropriate backdrop to a conversation with one of the most acclaimed murder mystery writers of all time. Inside her home decorated with various photos of herself with celebrities and some of the awards she has amassed, Clark, with a unique sense of humor and wit that would be impressive at any age, opened up the book of her life to Living In.
LIM: You grew up in New York City during the Great Depression. What was that like?
MHC: I grew up in the Bronx and lived there until I was 21. My father died of stress trying to keep his bar business open because nobody paid him. Back then, customers used to sign; there were no credit cards. But he still had to pay his bills and his liquor license. When I was 11, he died from a heart attack in his sleep.
LIM: That had to be difficult at such a young age.
MHC: It was, because children miss their fathers. In my own case, my first husband, Warren, died when my own kids were five, eight, 10, 12, and 13. So I knew what they would miss for the rest of their lives.
LIM: As a single mother of five children, how did you find the time to still write successfully?
MHC: I was always a writer. Before Warren died, I had gotten successful at selling short stories. I was in the 10 best stories of the Saturday Evening Post, a premier magazine at the time in 1961, and they published 10 stories a week. I also sold to places like Good Housekeeping and magazines in California and England. Simon and Schuster bought me in 1974 and I’ve been dancing with the folks who’ve bought me ever since. They’ve been good to me and I’ve been good for them.
LIM: Did you always have an affinity for writing?
MHC: Always, from the time I was six years old, and could write. There are people with a talent for writing, a desire to write, and then there are people with a need to write. And those are the ones who become bestsellers, or at least have a substantial career. If you have a day job you’ll get up early, if you have a night job you’ll stay up late. You will find time to write. A lot of people get up at 5 a.m. and do yoga, or whatever their passion is. So the fact that I got up and wrote early in the morning was really not that miraculous.
LIM: Were there any authors you read growing up who were an inspiration to you?
MHC: I always loved to read. When I was nine I read The Good Earth, which Pearl Buck won a Nobel Prize for. We were renting an apartment in Rockaway Beach for the summer and that book was in the room. I was up all night reading it. My mother would call up and ask, “Mary, is the light out?” And I would say yes, and it was. But the streetlight wasn’t, and if I held the book a certain way, I could read by it. So, the compulsion to read was always there.
LIM: Did you pursue your writing career after high school?
MHC: I went to secretary school, which worked out very well for me. I worked for Remington-Rand, which had an in-house advertising agency. I was secretary to the creative director and had a three-year tutorial. I earned a Ph.D in advertising, but just didn’t know it at the time. I would sit in on all the meetings and plan the campaigns. I’d find why this caption worked, why this one did not; why the inside front page is good but for this, and not this. I really learned so much about advertising that when I was widowed and went into script writing, which was also selling, I knew which product was the right one for which company.
LIM: So, those skills helped you understand the market for books too?
MHC:Yes, infinitely. And then I became a Pan American flight host, which was extremely glamorous back in those days.
LIM: That’s an odd transition. Did you just want to travel?
MHC: One night my friend said, “I’m having a drink tonight with a friend of mine who’s a Pan Am stewardess. Do you want to go?” And I said, “God knows I have nothing else to do.” Well, that night changed my life. This gorgeous redhead, a beautiful gal, walked across the room and said, “God, it was beastly hot in Calcutta!” And I’d never been out of the tri-state area. So, the next day I phoned in and said, “My mother’s sick. I have to stay home.”
Meanwhile, my friend and I were charging over to LaGuardia airport to apply for a job. I always wanted to travel and I was ready to break out. We both got jobs. And then I got engaged to Warren the very night I went in. I had always had a crush on him. He had put up our Christmas tree when I was 12. He told me he was no St. Joseph and he was right - the tree fell over.
LIM: How long did you work for Pan Am?
MHC: From 1949 to 1950. I was on the last flight allowed into Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain fell. We didn’t know at the time that it would be the last one, but the Soviet president had a military air show in the terminal. They were standing there with machine guns, so it wasn’t a very cheery atmosphere. But it was a great experience because it gave me one of the ideas for my first short story that I ever sold, “Stowaway.”
LIM: When you were traveling, were you looking for inspiration for stories?
MHC: I was going to my writing class for short stories at NYU, and I learned everything I needed to know in it. My teacher told me to write about what I knew. He said, “Mary, you’ve been a Pan Am hostess. Take the most dramatic incident that occurred and turn it into fiction.” And I thought that was certainly the most dramatic.
LIM: Why did you make the shift from short stories to novels? And was that difficult?
MHC: I did it by necessity. There was no more market for short stories. I was writing radio stories for a living, but I missed the printed work. That was why I wrote the book about George Washington. I was writing radio series about patriots and I got enchanted by him because I thought we didn’t really know this man. I heard he married Martha for her money, and that she was an older woman. And she was older, about eight months older. And her estate was called the White House. She went through the British lines to join him in Boston, and she was with him in Valley Forge. Did you ever hear that in the history books?
LIM: Not at all.
MHC: It was a great love story. Washington wore a locket with her picture in it all his life. When he was elected to lead the army, he wrote a letter to her saying he had to go straight to Boston, and in it he wrote, “I would rather spend one month in your company than a lifetime elsewhere. ”It was a wonderful love story, and that’s why I did it. The stupid thing was I called it Aspire to the Heavens, after Washington’s family motto. Everyone thought I’d written a prayer book. Ten years ago, a descendent of Washington’s brother heard me joking about that book. She dug up a copy of it and brought it to the Mount Vernon Historical Society, and said we ought to re-publish this book. And I said sure, but call it Mount Vernon Love Story.
LIM: After Aspire to the Heavens, you wrote your first suspense novel, Where are the Children?, which was extremely successful and is still being printed today.
MHC: I’ve been blessed with my success and I know it because I know excellent, excellent writers who get published, but nobody buys their books. Sometimes they just don’t catch on.
LIM: Why the shift to suspense?
MHC: Well, if Aspire to the Heavens had been a success I would have kept writing historical fiction. I wanted to write what would sell, and I looked at my bookshelves, which were covered with suspense. I’m pretty widely read, but that was my reading of choice. There are books that you have to drag yourself through and others that you can’t put down. That was what I wanted to write. Suspense should be an express train. You can’t get off the express train. You want to leave a hook at the end of the chapters that makes you want to keep reading.
LIM: Speaking of express, you have such a knack for quickly developing a character without a lot of narrative. How did you learn that?
MHC: It’s show, do not tell. If the character is one of five children, he or she is not the same as the only child. Not better, not worse, but just different. If you go in casual clothes, you’re not the same as someone who is formally dressed. You’re a different person. It says something as to if you’re light-hearted, or on the serious side. I don’t like description. I want to keep it as brief as possible.
LIM: You have a philosophy degree from Fordham. Does that help you get into the heads of the characters, and better understand them?
MHC: I think all education helps in that regard. Philosophy includes a lot of psychology. And certainly the psychology is of great interest when figuring out what makes a person tick, but all education helps.
LIM: How long ago did you move to Spring Lake?
MHC: I moved here 12 years ago. We actually had to take this house down and put it back up on the footprint of the old house.
LIM: 2000? That almost coincides with when On the Street Where You Live - based in Spring Lake - was released. Was that intentional?
MHC: When the previous owner had died, an elderly lady, her lawyers handled everything. But the joke is that when I bought the house, I found out her name was Eleanor Higgins Lambo, and I’m Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins. And I thought it was almost as though it was meant to be. Then, when I met her son and his wife, he said, “Did you find our skeletons in the backyard?” He said they buried two dogs there. So I thought, suppose someone buys the home of their great-great aunt, and wanted to renovate it. And then suppose just as she comes to owning the house, she hears a construction guy yell, “Turn that back hoe off, there’s a skeleton down there.” So, I say the house inspired the book and the book bought the house.
LIM: In that book, you connected the murders that were 110 years apart through a form of reincarnation. Do you believe that such a thing could actually happen?
MHC: I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I wonder if we don’t have memory that comes down from years before. We all get that déjà vu feeling. I believe we have inherited memory that serves us at some point. Maybe it existed in an ancestor 10 generations ago. And when writing that, it was fun to go through the Asbury Park Press archives from the 1890s.
LIM: Did you use real names of people from that era?
MHC: I did, and I mixed them all up. Using real names gives the story much more validity. One day coming out of St. Catherine’s Church, a woman came over to me and said, “My family is so excited that you used my name in your book. But why did you strangle me on the boardwalk?” So I said, “Absolutely nothing personal.” (laughs).
LIM: How much research do you do for each novel?
MHC: I do a lot of research. If I do a crime that’s set in New York, I have two retired detectives that I hire. In I’ll Walk Alone, I had the detective re-investigating the crime three years later. At one point, he walks about five blocks with an umbrella. My detective called me up and he was very upset. He said, “Mary, all detectives don’t walk. We take a car. Secondly, detectives do not carry umbrellas since they may have to reach for their gun.” These are the little details that are important and give each story that much more validity. You must get things like that straight, or else, as someone in the business might say, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
LIM: Obviously you have spanned decades with your writing. How do you continue to evolve with the changing technology, and incorporate it into your novels?
MHC: Oh, you have to evolve with and be aware of the technical advances. When the fax first came out, I used a fax in a story. The message was: “I didn’t mean to kill her. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to kill her,” with no name and return address. If you want to use a computer, you go to the library if you don’t want things to be on your computer so it can’t be traced to you. Now, I look into where you can buy a prepaid phone and how many minutes, since criminals today use them so their number can’t be traced. Or if you have a girlfriend you don’t want your wife to see. (laughs). I had that in my latest book, The Lost Years.
LIM: What inspired the biblical-based plot of The Lost Years?
MHC: After I turn in a book in early January, my editor, Michael and I have lunch. Either I go in and tell him I have the best idea, or he says he was thinking of something. A little over a year ago, he said he was thinking of using a biblical story background, say, a letter written by Christ. I said, “Michael, that’s crazy.” But I kept going back to it. Then, I realized Christ was educated, since they went to temple three times a day back then, and he spoke about the scriptures at age 12, which meant he’d read them. It was always believed that between the ages of 12 and 30, he went to Egypt to study. There was a Jewish temple in the Valley of the Kings. So I thought, suppose Joseph (of Arimathea) the secret disciple of Christ, went to Mary and Joseph and told them Christ wasn’t safe because Herod’s son had heard about this wondrous child who was born in Bethlehem. And, of course, Herod had executed all of the Jewish boys under the age of two. So, if Joseph had befriended Christ from that young age on, and moved with him (to Egypt) and protected him, then if Christ wrote a letter, he might very simply thank Joseph for the kindness he showed since he was a child.And that parchment was taken by Peter to Rome and stayed in the Vatican for 1,400 years, until they were getting sick of the controversy, and the Pope was going to destroy it. So, the Cardinal told the librarian to give it to a monk and told him to hide it well. And it disappeared for 600 years until the story began.
LIM: That sounds very intriguing. How has the book fared so far?
MHC: It made the bestseller list, and had a good run, which has been great since there are so many books out now, like the stars in the sky.
LIM: How do you stay on top in the industry today? With e-books and hardcover, it seems as though there may be more competition than ever.
MHC: As far as the e-books, I think they can only get bigger. It goes both ways. If you like an author, you can swipe a book and it’s yours, as opposed to waiting to go to the bookstore to get it. In the meantime, they don’t want print books to disappear either.
LIM: Are you working on a book right now?
MHC: Yes. Daddy’s Gone Hunting. Pray God it will be finished in December and out after that. I work on a yearly pattern. And the fact is, in this day and age you can’t stay out of the market long. I mean I don’t know how much more I will do it, but I enjoy writing.
LIM: I understand you have also worked closely with Barbara Bush in the past?
MHC: Yes. I was regularly at the White House working with her on literacy campaigns [for The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy]. And I’ve stayed with her at their house in Houston.
LIM: And you were in Washington D.C. the day President Ronald Reagan was shot?
MHC: I was. My friend calls me and she tells me to turn on the television, the President was just shot. And I turned it on and I thought, this is happening four blocks away, why should I sit in here? I might as well be in Alaska! I had a press pass, so I went to the auditorium where the briefing was and I was there the entire time.
LIM: Did you ask a question?
MHC: I did. When the doctor finally spoke, he said the President was laughing, joking and just fine. All of which was a lie, since he was dying. I asked the question, “Is the President aware that three people in his party have been gravely injured?” Because it sounded ridiculous and insensitive if he was laughing and he knew that. And he said, “Oh, no he does not know that. He is separated from where they are.” They didn’t admit it, but Reagan was asked if he wanted to see a spiritual adviser, and he said he wanted to talk to Cardinal Cooke. And the Cardinal flew down and was with him for a few hours. The next year, when the Cardinal was dying of leukemia, the President went to visit him. The Cardinal told the President that he must be too busy to come and visit him. Reagan said, “Last year you visited a dying man. This year it’s my turn.”
LIM: That’s a fascinating story. Did you learn that from church officials, when you received the Papal Honor of Dame?
MHC: No, actually when I was writing The Shadow of Your Smile, I was having a nun about to be beatified, and I spoke to them because Cardinal Cooke was on his way to being beatified and that’s how I got the story.
LIM: You’ve written some books with your daughter, Carol, too. What are those about?
MHC: Carol writes funny suspense. I can’t be funny in my books because I would destroy the mood. My one character, Elyria, is funny. She and her husband won $40 million in the lottery. They save half of it every year and they keep their apartment in Jackson Heights, just in case New York goes bust and stops paying them. She writes a column for a newspaper and solves crimes. So, she steps up with Carol’s private detective to solve the crimes.
LIM: Did Carol start writing a lot when she was child too?
MHC: No. All the kids have the gift of telling a story, but none of them had chosen to do it. Carol was out in Hollywood acting when she told an agent that she used to type some of my early books during the summer. So, an agent said to her, “Write a book that you could play the part in a movie.” So, she wrote about Reagan Reilly, a private investigator, and they wanted her mother to be a famous suspense writer. So she said, “OK, but she’s not going to be a widow,” as I was at that time, “and her father is going to own three funeral homes.” We’ve done five books together, and we’d like to do more, but one a year is tough enough. Two deadlines a year would be an awful lot.
LIM: How often do you see your other children?
MHC: My kids live close to home; I’ve been blessed. Marilyn is presiding judge of criminal court in Passaic County. And Warren is a municipal judge in two towns, and has his own law firm. They both live in Ridgewood. David has always been in advertising, similar to what I did. Carol is the writer and Patty was with the mercantile exchange for 23 years.
LIM: How did you meet your current husband, John Conheeney?
MHC: My daughter, Patty, invited him to a cocktail party I was having. He had just gotten on the Board of the New York Mercantile Exchange. He lived four miles away, he had read some of my books and was curious about me. So he came to the cocktail party, and that was it, which is lovely. We’re married 15-and-a-half years now. It’s been very good.
LIM: You have had an immense amount of international success too. Do you and your husband travel?
MHC: I go to France every other year and I travel to Germany on occasion. I’ve been to Africa twice and Australia once or twice.
LIM: You’ve had a very accomplished life and storied career. Do you have any idea when you would like to stop, or retire?
MHC: When I feel like I can’t tell a good story anymore, that’s when I’ll stop. I enjoy writing, and if I think I’m telling a good story - and the last one hit number one and it was very well-reviewed - I’ll still do it. If I feel I couldn’t or don’t have the energy anymore, I wouldn’t have a contract and just fool around.
LIM: Did you ever consider writing any different genres?
MHC: It would have been very foolish to do that. I get paid very well to be a suspense writer and it’s a very competitive market. If you have a spot, it’s like having a good post at the Kentucky Derby. Don’t lose it, pal.
LIM: What have you found most satisfying about your work over the years?
MHC: The sense of satisfaction I have from writing. There’s an old saying: If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for life, love what you do. And I love what I do.
Gone with the Wind
Getting somewhere and forgetting what I needed
Three people you would like to dine with
John F. Kennedy
Queen Elizabeth II
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