A Conversation with Mary Higgins Clark about her first children’s book, Ghost Ship
Q: Your adult books are worldwide bestsellers. What made you decide to write a children’s book?
A: Wendell Minor is my good friend and did the covers of four of my novels. We happened to be at a party together. His editor was with him and said half jokingly, “You two should write a book together.” We instantly decided it was a good idea.
Q: Were there particular challenges in writing for children?
A: Not really — I always told my children stories. I have six grandchildren and eleven step-grandchildren, so I guess I have been telling stories for a while.
Q: For this project, you collaborated with your longtime friend Wendell Minor, who illustrated Ghost Ship. How do you know each other?
A: Wendell Minor did the cover for my first suspense novel, Where Are the Children?, which changed my life. I believe that his haunting, Edward Hopper-like cover contributed to its success.
Q: What was it like to collaborate with an illustrator? Did you determine what would be illustrated?
A: When Wendell received the text of the story, he called me to say that for him the text was very visual. He is a magnificent illustrator and I was delighted with every one of his sketches. They are truly works of art.
Q: Ghost Ship is set on Cape Cod. Why did you pick Cape Cod as the setting for your picture book?
A: I have been going to the Cape for the last forty years. The minute I stepped off the plane that first day, I felt as though I had lived there before. I have had a home there for thirty years, and it is a spirit-lifting retreat. A young cousin visiting from Ireland once said:”Mary, when you close your eyes in death and then open them in heaven, you’ll find yourself in Cape Cod.”
Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
A: I knew it as a child. The first thing I wrote was a poem, when I was six. I still have it. It’s pretty bad, but my mother thought it was beautiful and made me recite it for everyone who came in. I am sure the captive audience was ready to shoot me, but that kind of encouragement nurtures a budding talent. From the time I was seven, I also kept diaries. I can read them now and look back at what I was like at different ages. No one has seen them — they are locked in a trunk.
Q: What early experiences influenced you?
A: I grew up in the Bronx, where my father was the owner of Higgins Bar and Grille. When I was eleven years old, I had a terrible shock. Coming home from early Mass one morning, I found a crowd of neighbors outside the house. My father had died in his sleep. My mother went on to raise me and my two brothers alone. When I had said good night to my father, I didn’t know it was for the last time. His sudden death jolted me into awareness of the fragility of life. My mother’s example taught me resilience. The protagonists of my novels are strong and resourceful women — when calamity strikes, they carry on.
Q: When did you start your writing career?
A: Soon after my marriage to Warren Clark, I signed up for a short story writing course at New York University. Six years later and after forty rejections, I sold my first short story in 1956 to Extension Magazine for one hundred dollars. I framed that first letter of acceptance.
Q: What was your first book?
A: After Warren Clark’s death in 1964, I went to work writing radio scripts and, in addition, decided to try my hand at writing books. My first book, a biographical novel about George Washington, Aspire to the Heavens, was inspired by a radio series I was then writing called “Portrait of a Patriot.” Originally published in 1969 by Meredith Press, it seemed destined for obscurity. Its discovery years later by a George Washington descendant led to its reissue in 2002 by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and Simon & Schuster with a new title, Mount Vernon Love Story, and became a bestseller.
Q: What made you turn to the field of mystery and suspense?
A: One of the best clues about what to write is what one likes to read, and I had always loved reading suspense. I decided to see if I could write a suspense novel. My first one,Where Are the Children? published by Simon & Schuster in 1975, became my first bestseller and marked a turning point in my life and career. It is now in its seventy-fifth edition and was reissued in hardcover as a Simon & Schuster classic.
Q: Having reached the pinnacle of success, could you visualize a life of leisure?
A: Somebody once said, “If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, love what you do.” That’s the way it is with me — I’ll always keep writing.
Q: Do you plan to do more children’s books?
A: Yes. Wendell and I already have our heads together on the next one.