Mary Higgins Clark Discusses Books, Touring, and Libraries in this 1990 Interview with LJ

Prolific, best-selling author Mary Higgins Clark died on Friday, January 31. In this 1990 cover story from LJ's archives, she discussed her career, book tours, libraries, and the growing popularity of audiobooks.

Mary Higgins Clark on Library Journal's March 15, 1990 coverIN COMMON WITH many of the characters in her books, Mary Higgins Clark considers herself just an ordinary woman to whom extraordinary things happen. Her recent multiple book contract with Simon & Schuster—$11.4 million for four novels and one collection of stories, the highest ever offered—is the talk of the book world.

But it's not all glamour. I talked with Clark in her New York apartment during a rare pause from her editing pen (her writing is done at her New Jersey home) and from a feverish international traveling schedule that includes many speaking engagements at libraries.

"I said that if anyone gave me luggage for Christmas, I'd kill 'em," she laughs. Nevertheless, Clark likes to take the time to talk to librarian audiences. Long a friend of libraries, Clark made time in her tight schedule to sit down to talk to the audience about the popularity of her genre, the transformation of her books into audio, and her relationship with libraries.

Modern tragedies of ordinary lives

"I write about ordinary people whose lives are invaded." says Clark. Her books are popular, she feels, because they tap into modern day feelings of victimization and powerlessness. Clark's protagonists (pawns, really) are beset by modern day angst-isolation, powerlessness, and minimal self-worth. These are victims, not heroes, people to whom things happen by chance, from the outside.

"My characters are not looking for trouble, they are not carrying secret messages to the Kremlin," Clark observes. They are in their own cars and in their own homes." She mentions that in A Stranger Is Watching, a flat tire—surely an ordinary and random event—precipitates murder. These are the all-too-real phenomena of you happen to be in the wrong place." says Clark.

But Clark is also adept at the restoration of order and rationality to an otherwise chaotic and shattered world. To the satisfaction of readers, there is the ultimate refuge in the comprehensible—in religion, as in the case of Clark's life (she considers herself very much in touch with her Catholic roots: "I went to Mass twice on Sunday!"), and in reason. By the end of each book, causality explains all, there is no more occultist uncertainty, there is a sense of logical closure, and, finally, the reassuring triumph of the good.

Raised in New York, Clark brings her enthusiasm for her city's glamorous side into many of her books and also takes full advantage of its renowned seedier side wedged between the pleasure palaces. She has used other less familiar settings, of course, which she thoroughly researches. But one of Clark's favorite research projects is to attend trials. "I like to look at the ways criminals explain or excuse their behavior."

Whence came the writer

Clark's obsession with sleuthing and the sometimes morbid underbelly of life began early: she was an avid reader of the Bobbsey Twins books and was fascinated by the Lindbergh case. Those familiar with both the books and the event may find clues to the origin of Clark's very first suspense book Where Are the Children?

Opening Spread of 1990 LJ cover feature on Mary Higgins ClarkAccording to Clark, in The Bobbsey Twins and Baby May, the children—remember Nan, Bert, Flossie, and Freddie?—find an infant at their door. Simultaneously, an old woman begins to lurk around their home. It was a wonderful solution," Clark recalls. "The old woman had been the nurse for the baby. A can of soup had hit her on the head and she had forgotten the baby. Once she remembered, she tried to steal the baby back."

As a little girl, Clark remembers her parents talking about the ransom note for the Lindbergh baby, and the trial. "We had a cottage in Silver Beach, which is up near the Throg's Neck Bridge, the tip of the Bronx on Long Island Sound," she says. "And you pass St. Raymond's Cemetery to get there, and the ransom note had been left in the flower shop at St. Raymond's across the street. We never passed that shop without my father saying—Clark affects an Irish accent and points at a distant spot in the room—‘and there, my dear is where the note for that poor little baby was left.’"

After the Bobbsey Twins, Clark went on to Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton, and later to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Charlotte Armstrong, and others. She was always writing, with her audience never far from her mind. "I was a storyteller, not a liar," she says. "I wrote plays and my poor brothers, I made them perform in them. The best parts, Clark recalls, were for her she was always the star. We would put plays on in the garage, under the house, and we'd charge two cents."

Round about to the radio

These episodes foreshadow another twist in this plot—her career writing scripts for radio shows. But that career came circuitously. First, she attempted to establish herself as a short story writer. Enrolling in secretarial school after high school, working in advertising for a couple of years, followed by a stint as a stewardess—Mary Higgins had no time for college until her marriage to Warren Clark in 1950. "But the minute I got married I said I have to learn how to be a writer. So I went over to New York University."

two pages of text from LJ's 1990 article on Mary Higgins ClarkSix years and 40 rejection slips later (to collapse much careful plotting and hard work into one unsentimental phrase) she sold her first short story. Seven years later, in 1963, Clark says, "the short story market absolutely went sour. Collier's went under-that had been a big market. The Saturday Evening Post changed its format and did no short stories. The Woman's Home Companion went under. The rest of the magazines went to how-to-type articles. And I'm not a New Yorker writer: they, of course, had always done short stories. But the women's magazines gave them up, so that was when I started writing radio shows.”

There was another, more important reason Clark shifted her efforts. Her husband died in 1964, and she knew that she could not support five children on her income as a freelance writer.

The first show she wrote for was Portrait of a Patriot, "vignettes about historical figures. Calling those shows part of a three-year tutorial in history." Clark acknowledges her experience with the demands of radio scriptwriting-fast pacing and believable dialog to her future in novels. She spent 14 years writing radio programs on all different subjects, including one she loosely defined as now for your daily hint from the FBI,"intended to guide people safely through potentially dangerous situations. Those programs had to be approved by the FBI, because Clark was lifting the material right out its bulletins.

This varied experience added to her writing style. "Nothing you do is ever lost," she says, "and it did hone me. I interviewed fashion designers which gave me all the background on Pretty One." Perhaps the most direct connection between radio shows and novels was the need to compress vast amounts of information (or clues) into dense, well-placed segments.

"When you have a four-minute program, you learn to write succinctly," she comments. "Suspense also must move quickly. Indeed, no one can accuse Clark's novels of dragging along.

In 1968, her first book was published. It was not characteristic of the books that would follow; it was a biographical novel about George Washington. Two years later, in 1970, she and a partner started their own business creating radio shows. At the same time, Clark looked at the books she loved to read, and decided to try her hand at a similar kind of book in the suspense genre. After rejections from two other publishers, Children found a home with Simon & Schuster, where it was published in 1975, instantly establishing Clark as a bestselling author. By 1977 she had received a six-figure advance for her second book, Stranger, and left the radio business to her partner. She then published The Cradle Will Fall, A Cry in the Night, Stillwatch, and Weep No More, My Lady.

Clark's very able agent at the literary agency of McIntosh & Otis, Eugene Winnick, approached the self styled connoisseur of glitz Michael Korda of S. & S., who has edited all of Clark's books since Phyllis Grann (who acquired Children) left the company for Putnam. The upshot of their small talk was the $11.4 million contract. Pretty One, which spent 21 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, is the first book to come out of that contract, followed by her current The Anastasia Syndrome.

To catch the Mother's Day sale. Clark says, the publication date of Pretty One was changed from June 1989 to May 1989. She calls the move "brilliant. It's the only reason I hit number one, because we had such a huge Mother's Day sale on that title. I was out before Clancy (writer Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger), and let's face it, Clancy is always number one. If you have a chance to be the top book, you don't pit yourself against—well, there are two or three authors you don't want to be up against. It's smarter to be out a few weeks before and get that boost. I have the daughter, mother, and grandmother coming to see me when I sign books. So Mother's Day was important."

Clark finds the exclusivity of her contract with Simon & Schuster comforting. Unlike other writers, who have found that such agreements impinge on their creative freedom, Clark has taken it in stride. "I'd be writing anyhow, and I'm always good when I know I have a book due," she notes. "And when a publisher puts an investment in you, he's going to put the publicity into it, to recoup his money."

Clark recognizes that the publisher expects her to turn in suspense manuscripts. If she were to try her hand at another kind of book, she would make one change. "People expect suspense when they see my name," she admits. "And they might be disappointed if they didn't get it. If I ever wanted to do something totally different, I would use the name Brisitte Kennedy my grandmother's name, and she always wanted to write."

If people haven't read Clark's books, they may have seen the film or TV adaptations of several titles. In addition, Simon & Schuster's audio division has produced Weep No More, My Lady, Pretty One, and the title selection from Anastasia, while Dove Books on Tape has or will have available Stillwatch, and a short story Death on the Cape, both narrated by Clark's daughter Carol, as well as Cradle and Cry.

Clark is pleased with the audiocassette versions of her books, noting their usefulness for commuters. As for the production of the tapes, this former radio writer pays it a high compliment when she says audios are becoming "much more sophisticated-more like radio."

Clark in libraries

With audio one of the fastest growing collections in libraries, Clark's popularity in several formats seems assured. On a recent search through several Manhattan public library branches, only one book by her was on the shelf, although the libraries stock multiple copies of each title. Clark's explanation for the popularity of her books: 'I never use explicit violence or sex. I get letters from 12 year-olds. The books are scary-I want them to be scary. You take eight-year-olds on a roller coaster because they like to be scared."

Clark also credits librarians for keeping her books perpetually checked out by patrons of all ages. “The libraries have been good to me. The librarians have recommended my books to their readers." Clark, according to librarians, has also been good for the libraries. The hubbub and liveliness of high-traffic books help keep the library more like a "living organism" than a repository of valuable objects saved from the deluge.

Librarian Janet Nocek, Salem Public Library (Massachusetts), says she's had people say, “My doctor says it's better than tranquilizers. This kind of reading is light and recreational. And Clark's name draws people to the library."

"We appreciate that traffic." reports Tom Hogan, librarian one at the Literature and Language division of the Chicago Public Library, who himself is familiar with Clark's books, "We like to do a lot of business. We have a large budget, and people know it, so they come here first, perhaps because they see we have a lot of books."

When new Clark titles are released, the Chicago Public Library obtains multiple copies from the McNaughton Rental Collection. But there is still a long waiting list." acknowledges Hogan. "When interest goes down, we send back the copies, and then for the permanent collection we have at least two copies of each title." He credits Clark with providing patrons of popular reading with the books they crave. "Not too many people are reading literature anymore: they want recreational, entertainment reading. And she's a big name."

It isn't always just Clark's books that draw people into the libraries-in many instances, it's been the woman herself. Her travel calendar includes libraries. She had just recently spoken at the Monmouth Public Library in Manalapan, N.J.). That appearance brought in an estimated crowd of 500.

Clearing the decks

Despite her enjoyment of these library engagements, Clark's conversation often drifts to the idea of slowing down, including declining the invitations to speak that come weekly. "You have to say, 'I'm clearing the decks until the next book is finished. Because I did nothing but speak and travel from May until Thanksgiving. Suddenly, you're drained and you need to not move around. My suitcase was never closed. And there is no priming of the pump, I realized that I was weary."

However, Clark's ideas of slowing down and those of lesser mortals may be quite different. In the next few months, while her decks are allegedly clear for her to finish Loves Music, Loves to Dance, which highlights the darker aspects of the personal ads, Clark has radio and TV dates, writing seminars, and regular monthly meetings of her mystery writers' round table. Because she keeps her deadlines, however, there will surely be time for Clark's favorite activity.

"I think that there is an expression," she says. "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."

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