By Peggy Carroll
It was in a writing class at New York University that Mary Higgins Clark received advice that would change her life.
The assignment was to write a short story, Clark recalls, which somewhat dismayed the students. So the instructor told them to pick a story from the newspaper, or from their lives, and ask two questions:
“Suppose?” and “What if?”
The instructor suggested that Clark, a former airline stewardess, think of a dramatic incident in her short career in the air and apply those prompts. He pronounced the story she finally wrote, Stowaway, of “professional quality, sure to be published.”
And it was, she says with a laugh– six years and 40 rejections later. It sold for $100.
But she applied the same questions to another story– and this time she struck gold. She took a highly controversial case – the trial of the beautiful Alice Crimmins, a young New York mother charged with murdering her two young children, found guilty at two trials, but released on a technicality.
And she turned the story around. Suppose, she asked , the mother was innocent. Suppose she moved after her trial from California to Cape Cod. Suppose she remarried and had more children. And what if those two children disappeared.
This story became a suspense thriller called Where Are the Children? It catapulted her onto the best-seller lists and opened doors to a career as one of the nation’s leading mystery writers.
Critics and fans have crowned her the “Queen of Suspense.”
Fans can hear her story — her career and her craft –when Clark joins fellow best-selling suspense writer Karin Slaughter on Oct. 1, 2016, at the third annual Morristown Festival of Books.
The two will answer questions and discuss their genre at what Clark calls a “conversation” at 1:15 p.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. Admission is free.
PLENTY TO TALK ABOUT
Clark, now 88, has a great deal to talk about. In all, she has written 34 suspense novels, three collections of short stories, a historical novel about George Washington, two children’s books and a memoir.
With her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, she has co-authored five more suspense novels. She has also written two books with best-selling author Alafair Burke in the Under Suspicion series.
Her books have sold more than 100 million copies in the United States alone. Two of them have been made into theater films and numerous others into television plays.
And her list of works continues to grow.
As Time Goes By was released just this year. Sleeping Beauty Killer, the third in the Under Suspicion series, will be published in November and another suspense novel, titled All By Myself Alone, is due for release next Mother’s Day.
Her own life story would make a novel, perhaps of the three-generation kind.
Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins was born in the Bronx, the second of three children and only daughter of Luke Higgins, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Nora, an American of Irish descent.
She was a writer from the get-go. “As soon as I was able to put words together in sentences,” she said, “I was writing poems and little stories.”
That was when she six years old.
The family owned an Irish pub, prosperous enough to allow them a summer beach cottage. That life was shattered first by the Depression and then, when she was 11, by Luke Higgins’ death. The business failed, the family lost their house and her mother struggled to raise Clark and her two brothers.
Clark won a scholarship to Villa Maria Academy and after graduation, again with scholarship aid, went to the Wood Secretarial School. Her goal: To get a job and help with the family finances. She graduated, worked as a secretary in advertising for three years and then was bitten by the travel bug.
So she applied to Pan American Airlines and was hired as a flight attendant, then known as a “stewardess.”
“My run was Europe, Africa and Asia,” she says. “I was in a revolution in Syria, and on the last flight to Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain went down.”
She flew on propeller planes and recalls with amusement that one of her duties was “handing out chewing gum to passengers so their ears wouldn’t pop.”
“He told me to get this out of my system,” she laughs, “and that in the meantime he would take his mother to the drive-in movies.”
She landed home after a year and the two were married on Dec. 26, 1949– two days after she turned 22. Her first child, Marilyn, was born nine months later and was followed in quick succession by Warren Jr., David, Carol and Patricia.
It was during these years that she set out to become a professional writer – hence the writing course at NYU.
Then life changed again. Warren died of heart disease in 1964 and Clark was left alone to raise their five children. She went to work writing radio scripts and decided to try her hand at a book as well.
Every morning, she remembers, she got up at five and wrote until seven. Then it was time to get the kids off to school and go about her day job.
Her first book was a novel about Washington, inspired by a radio series she was writing. It was published in 1969 under the title Aspire to the Heavens.
It was well reviewed, but not well read. “It went right from the presses to the remainder table,” she recalls. (Years later, when she was well known, it was republished as Mount Vernon Love Story, and this time, it was a success.)
But it had been published. And that, she says, gave her the impetus to try again. This time, she wanted a book that would make money. “I had kids in law school, kids in college, kids in private school,” she says. “My head was barely above water.”
Then she looked at her bookshelves and saw that since she first started to read, she had gravitated towards mysteries, from Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
“Whenever I read these books, I always tried to keep up with the author to spot the bad guy, to solve the crime early on,” she says.
These books were good teachers. Without conscious thought, she learned the lessons of writing suspense.
So she took the case of Alice Crimmins, whose story was on everyone’s lips and in every paper in the nation. “Nobody lacked an opinion on whether she was guilty or not,” Clark said. “Her case dragged on for years.” And she went to work.
It took her three years to write; it was sold in less than six weeks. Since publication in 1995, it has gone through 75 printings.
REWARDS OF SUCCESS
There is a happy ending to her life’s novel.
In her middle years, freed from financial struggle, she did what she had always wanted to do and went back to school. She enrolled at Fordham University, and graduated, summa cum laude, in 1979, with a degree in philosophy.
She has been awarded 18 honorary doctorates, including one from her alma mater.
Simon & Schuster, which published all of her novels, in the late 1990s signed her to a $64 million, four-book contract. The publisher also sponsors an annual award, given by the Mystery Writers of America, for suspense fiction writing in the Clark tradition.
Professionally, she has been showered with honors. She is a favorite here, but is the Number One fiction best-selling author in France, where she received the Grand Prix de Literature Policière in 1980 and The Literary Award at the 1998 Deauville Film Festival. In 2000, she was named by the French Minister of Culture “Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.”
She was Grand Master of the 2000 Edgar Awards. Simon & Schuster sponsors an annual award for of suspense fiction writing in the Mary Higgins Clark tradition.
She was the 1987 president of Mystery Writers of America and, for many years, served on their Board of Directors. In May, 1988, she was Chairman of the International Crime Congress.
Active in Catholic affairs, she was named a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, a papal honor. She is also a Dame of Malta and a Lady of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.
Honors she has received run the gamut from the Gold Medal of Honor from the American-Irish Historical Society to the Spirit of Achievement Award from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.
Her children have done well. Marilyn and Joseph are judges, David is CEO of Talk Marketing Enterprises, Carol is a writer with 20 books to her credit and Patricia works at the Mercantile Exchange,
Patty, (who once modeled in Gerber baby ads) also played another role: Matchmaker.
“She called me and said, ‘Mom, have I got a hunk for you,'” Clark says with a chuckle.
She met the “hunk” – a man named John Conheeney, the retired Chairman and CEO of Merrill-Lynch Futures. They were married in 1996 and live in Saddle River, with a shore home in Spring Lake – a town also known as the Irish Riviera.
She has six grandchildren and John has 11.
Anything else she could want?
“Well, “ she says with a sigh, “maybe a great-grandchild?”
WRITER AND MENTOR
Clark still writes everyday, when she can. “But at my age,” she admits, “half of my social life is with doctors.”
She is not at a loss for plot ideas and she follows the writing habits of a lifetime. “For the first 50 pages, I write and rewrite and rewrite until the characters suddenly come alive,” she says. “Then I chase them through the rest of the story.”
She sets her stories in places she knows – five are in New Jersey – and the protagonist is always a woman, a reason, she believes, she has a large female fan base. Not that it is exclusive. “Men read me too,” she says.
Given her own history, what does she tell young writers just starting out? Should she write about what she knows? Or should she write what she herself likes to read?
“A young woman may answer that she is an eclectic reader,” she says.
“But then I ask – if you are relaxing at night, when you just want to get away from everything, when you cozy up with a glass of wine or a cup of cocoa, what book do you reach for then?”
And that book, she says, may tell them what path they should take.