Mary Higgins Clark is the author of twenty bestsellers. Stop for a moment. Consider that. You're thinking, That's twenty more than I have!
Clark also graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University at Lincoln Center (with a B.A. in Philosophy) and holds thirteen honorary doctorates. The day we spoke, she'd come to Portland to read from We'll Meet Again, the story of a beautiful young wife convicted of manslaughter. Six years later, freed from prison, Molly asserts her innocence again. Perhaps the HMO her murdered husband founded might hold some clues to the truth surrounding his death.
I met the woman also known as "The Queen of Suspense" in the lounge of the Benson Hotel. We sat in big cushy chairs, drinking coffee and talking about the arc of her career, from a young international stewardess to one of the most successful suspense writers in the world.
Dave: A year before Where Are the Children was published, you went back to school. Why did you study Philosophy?
Higgins Clark: My daughter, when she was in school, had been a Philosophy major. She's a judge now. And I was always intrigued by what she was studying. And of course Philosophy also covers a lot of Psychology, which is very good for a writer. You have Logic, too, and logic, of course, to a suspense writer, is fascinating. I enjoyed it.
The first course I took was on C.S. Lewis. It was a very good, broadening background. I was a voracious reader, but I'd gone to secretarial school initially because my father had died and money was tight. I wanted to get a job. I wanted to grow up.
Dave: Then your first published book was a biographical novel based on the life of George Washington, Aspire to the Heavens. How did you come to write that?
Higgins Clark: I thought he was the biggest bore in the world until I started to do a couple radio scripts - I was doing a patriotic radio series - and I kept coming back to him because I found more and more stuff. Most people don't know he was the best dancer in the colony of Virginia. Do you think of him like that? He rode his horse like an Indian; he was a marvelous rider. He had a very wry, dry sense of humor. But those idiotic allegorical tales, which of course got him free dinners for the rest of his life, he made up all those silly stories that we know.
Well, I was writing and selling short stories, but the short story market had collapsed. I was a young widow. My agent said, "Write a book. I can't sell short stories." So I thought I'd write a book about George Washington. I knew him and I liked him. And I considered it a triumph: I'd written a book, and it had been published.
Dave: You were widowed young with five children, and you were still writing. How did you manage that?
Higgins Clark: I'd been a flying hostess with Pan Am, which in those days was very glamorous. You had to be between 5'2" and 5'7". You couldn't wear glasses. You had to speak a foreign language. You had to either have college or have worked in PR. And you went through all kinds of personality tests that today would bring harassment suits. You could only weigh so much... when you got a Pan Am job, it was like being a starlet in those days. Pan Am was the airline.
It was very glamorous, but I did it for a year and got married. When I got married, I said, "Now I have to learn how to be a professional writer." In the meantime I'd seen Europe, Africa, and Asia, at a time when I would have been a senior in college. I saw a revolution in Syria. In India they had independence, but it still felt like the colonial empire. I was in Africa when it was still the Belgian Congo and the British Gold Coast and French West Africa. Marvelous experiences. But then when I got married, well, in those days you had to quit. But I was ready. I'd seen the world, and I wanted to become a professional writer. I had to learn how. And I started taking writing courses at NYU.
I knew I had the talent. When I was fifteen I was picking out clothes that I would wear when I became a successful writer. I was sure I'd make it, but you have to learn the craft, how to tell the story.
For the next nine years I wrote short stories. The first one was rejected for six years. Then it sold for $100.
Dave: So how did you end up writing suspense?
Higgins Clark: Because after the George book was published - and remaindered as it came off the press - I said, "Okay, I've written a book that's slithered into a few bookstores. A few people have read it. Now I want to write a book that sells."
One of the tips I give people who want to write is: turn around, look at your shelves, and ask yourself: "What do I like to read?" I looked at mine, and I'd started with Nancy Drew. I remember reading The Bobbsey Twins when I was six. Then I went on to Agatha Christie, of course, and Sherlock Holmes, and I was always trying to keep up with the author.
Dave: How would you compare the process of sitting down to start a novel back then to starting one now, after having written so many?
Higgins Clark: It's a funny thing. Where Are the Children, the first one, just was brought out as a classic by Simon & Schuster. A Stranger is Watching, my second book, won the Grand Prix in France.
I don't have the feeling that there's a marked difference. I think I now intuitively understand better why I did some things. But you don't get better and better. You just ask, "Does the story work? As well as another story?" It's like having a baby: the twelfth is not necessarily healthier than the first. It depends on the genetic make-up. Did everything gel?
Dave: So now in We'll Meet Again, you focus on HMOs and the medical industry.
Higgins Clark: I like to use something that's in the news. When I wrote Where Are the Children, for the first time children were starting to be picked up. It used to be that a kidnapped child was a wealthy child. The average person could let their kids run in the street. "Be home by five, and not a minute later." Today, you're driving your kids everywhere, even in the suburbs - and that was just starting at the time. So I was touching on the disappearance of children; that was what intrigued me.
For A Stranger is Watching, it was capital punishment. The third book, The Cradle Will Fall, was written when the first test tube baby had been born, and I asked, "What does this mean? What are the social and legal implications? Soon there will be host mothers, surrogate mothers - who is the mother?"
There's so much about HMOs now. I started asking my doctor friends, "What do you think of HMOs? I'm writing a book." One nurse said to me, "We could do the X-rays here; we could do the blood tests, but they don't allow it."
They're sending patients here and there - and why? Because they don't want you to see the doctor. They discourage you from fulfilling your treatment.
Doctors get out of medical school in terrible debt. They're paying off their loans. They have to see fifty patients a week. They have to meet quotas. And they would say to me, "I don't have time to go to the bathroom, and I'm supposed to be a good doctor?" No matter where I went.
So, yes, I try to pull in something each time.
Dave: Which must make it interesting for you. That must keep it fresh. You've been pretty prolific over the last twenty five years. You have a lot of books.
Higgins Clark: Twenty-one.
Dave: And all all except the first, the George Washington book, are bestsellers. There aren't many people who can say that.
Higgins Clark: I've been blessed. I have many writer friends, and I've seen people who have worked so hard. They get beautifully reviewed. I have one friend, she's in her eighties. She said, "I've written twenty-seven books and not one of them is in print. It's like watching your children die, you know? None of them are around." Always beautifully reviewed. And nothing happens. So the fact that my books reach a large audience, and they're all out there, I consider myself blessed.
Dave: Do you ever think, I want to do something completely different, off the wall? Not suspense? Who knows what?
Higgins Clark: Yes. But I'll always do suspense. I'm always amused by the people who kick over the ladder they climb on. It seems so crazy when you've made a name in something, and you're doing pretty well at it, and people are enjoying it. Maybe if you're writing penny dreadfuls, fine. The first story I sent out was for True Confessions, when I was sixteen, on the basis that everything they published was so lousy that they'd be sure to take mine.
Dave: That's some business savvy right there.
Higgins Clark: But it came back by return mail. They said my people were too upscale. You have to have a truck driver. You can't write about people in advertising.
I'd love to do a freelance novel, a straight novel, and send it in the slush pile, and just see. I will do a memoir. So both of those, yes.
Dave: What are you reading?
Higgins Clark: I'm eclectic. Right here [points to her bag], I have Michael Korda's book, Another Life, which is simply wonderful. He's my editor. Michael's is one of the smartest, most rounded men I've ever met. You just laugh out loud. He's a funny, smart man.
I just finished Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, which I thought was wonderful. I read Memoirs of a Geisha because I hadn't had time before. What else? Tara Road by Maeve Binchy. I read a Jeffrey Archer one on the plane yesterday. Also Are You Somebody [by Nuala O'Faolain] - which, I just looked at the first bit, but that was very good. That's the last two weeks.
Dave: How do you feel when you see someone reading one of your books?
Higgins Clark: I remember once on a plane I was walking down the aisle, and I saw a woman reading one. And she was engrossed! I found my seat and settled down, put my seat belt on, pulled out a book to read. Then just a few minutes later I looked over at the woman and [pretends to have passed out]... she was fast asleep! I thought, Oh well, so much for that.
But I get a lot of nice responses. At readings I get daughters and their mothers and sometimes their mothers. I don't use explicit sex or violence so I wind up on the reading list for the seventh grade.
And it's not that I'm a prude; I've always just preferred the idea of implied violence. The Hitchcock way. How many ways can you shoot people up? I think footsteps... that can be scarier. And I think the sexiest line written this century is, "You'll not shut me out of your bedroom tonight." I swear that's sexier than all this rolling in the hay.
Dave: Are there certain books that you'd like to be remembered for?
Higgins Clark: People ask if I have a favorite. That's like asking who was my favorite child. The one I'm working on is the crabby baby that gets all the attention. But when the book is finished and the manuscript is turned in, it's the story I wanted to tell, and I've told it as well as I'm capable of telling it.
Some people will say Where Are the Children. Somebody else will say "your last one." Someone will say "the multiple personality one." That's fine because reading is subjective. One story interests you more than another. But I've never turned in a book and wished six months later that I'd taken more time with it. By the time it's in, I've done my best.
It's as though you've given birth to a child, and you never drank, you never smoked, you did all the tests, went to the doctor - you did everything right. And someone says, "Gee, that is one homely kid!" Well, I think it's gorgeous!
David Weich interviewed Mary Higgins Clark prior to her appearance at Powell's Beaverton store, May 13, 1999.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State