Interview with Mary Higgins Clark
by Andrew F. Gulli
I ve always justpreferred the idea of implied violence. The Hitchcock way. How many ways can you shoot people up? I thinkfootsteps…can be scarier…”
— Mary Higgins Clark
Mary Higgins Clark’s novels have stood the test of time, and the critics who have called them formulaic. In the last 30 years Clark has written twenty bestsellers and if anything her popularity and her appeal have grown. Part of that appeal lies in her gripping page turning plots, where one is unlikely to find the sex, violence, or cynicism that has pervaded mystery thrillers today.
She began her writing career in 1956, writing short stories until her husband Warren Clark passed away in 1964. Widowed at the age of 35, with five children to support, she turned to writing for radio and later to writing novels to support her family. Her first novel, Where Are the Children was published in 1975. For the next thirty years, she went on to publish such bestsellers as A Stranger is Watching (1978), A Cry in the Dark (1982) and Nighttime is My Time (2004). Many of her novels have been adapted for film, including Haven’t We Met Before (2002), Pretend You Don’t See Me (2002), and You Belong To Me (200 1). In 1980 she was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policiée’re. She was inducted as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 2000. In 2002 her memoir Kitchen Privileges was released by Simon and Schuster. Her latest novel, No Place Like Home, is due out this April.
— Steven Steinbock
AFG: So tell us about some of your upcoming books.
MHC: Well, of course, Carol [Higgins Clark, MHCs daughter] and I just did The Christmas Thief. No Place Like Home will be coming out in April and right now my entire concentration is on that. It’s like a woman who’s pregnant; she’s not thinking what next year’s kid is going to look like. [laughs]
AFG: What I like about your books is that there isn~t any of the sex and violence that you find in many mysteries nowadays. You’re one of the few writers in the mystery community who has managed to be very successful while keeping your books very clean-books that can be read by the whole family.
MHC: Well, I think that’s very important to me. Sherlock Holmes stories didn’t need it, you know. Agatha Christie didn’t need it. I mean, they were telling suspenseful stories without the need for the touchy-feely and the four letter words. I think part of this is that writers, my kind of writers, try to have the mind come in — you know, the sense of suspense and lurking terror — letting readers get involved through their own experience. I mean, I write about very nice people whose lives are endangered. People who are not looking for trouble, but something happens and they have to find their way out of a frightening and dangerous situation.
AFG: So how do you deal with some of the critics who claim that your writing is formulaic?
MHC: Well, the fact of life is that anybody who is commercially successful is going to get lambasted by some critic. It’s just the way it is. I do get very nice reviews and very excellent ones, so not everybody in the so-called literati feels the need to jump on my style of writing. But the way I feel is, the important critic is the reader. It’s the reader who comes back for the next one, the reader who rereads the old ones, and the reader who says to her sister or her children’s schoolteachers, “I know you’ll just enjoy this book.” You know, we have many, many writers who are praised to the skies by the critics and theyre damned lucky if they sell 5000 books.
AFG: That is true. Many times I’ve been disappointed in books that have received great reviews.
MHC: There are many wonderful books, magical books, but I think the bottom line in my judgement is, is it a good story? Are you a good storyteller? And I’ll let others judge whether or not I’m a good writer but, by God, I know I’m a good storyteller.
AFG: Would you ever like to try to do something different, something in which you’ve completely departed from your style?
MHC: I’d love to. When do I find the time? I’ve always said that I’d love to write a book that’s totally different and use, as a pseudonym, my grandmother’s name because she went to her grave saying, “I know I can write a book.” [laughs] But I don’t know when I’d get the time to do it. I mean, I am on a one book per year contract and I’m in front of the computer right now. Carole and I wrote The Christmas Thief over the summer, then we did a great deal of publicity for it. And I also have a husband and a family. So when do I find time to write it?
AFG: I know that you base your books on actual crimes.
MHC: Well, I often will base my books on a crime. I will take a piece of a crime and go with it. I got the idea for the book that I’m working on now because a realtor in New Jersey, where I live, told me about this law in New Jersey where a realtor must tell a prospective buyer if the house has a history — if there’s been a crime committed, a suicide, even if it’s reputed to be haunted. A murder, certainly. You must disclose that or else the buyer can come back and say give me my money back. I’m basing the book I’m writing on that piece of information.
AFG: And I also know that A Stranger is Watching was based on a true event. Am I right?
MHC: Well, it was several things at that time. Everybody was getting those CB radios and they were saying, isn’t it wonderful, you can be stranded on a dark road and a young girl doesn’t have to be worried; she can get on her CB. And I thought well, yes, but supposing a young girl gets on the radio and says, look, I’m stranded and alone. And supposing every truck driver who has a problem is then on his way! I used that as the basis. Also, at that time, the Mad Bomber was working around New York, so I put a guy with a bomb in Grand Central Station. So, I always use something in the news that is potentially a good story. If I see an interesting case I will just pull it out. I was in Pennsylvania once and read the local paper about a young woman who had been murdered. What had happened was that she had a town house and the next-door town house’s roof was leaking into her home and spoiling the décor. She finally took the guy to court but she didn’t show up and her friends got nervous and they rang his bell. He was in the process of dismembering her. And you know how he had gotten in?
MHC: They had a common wall and he went down in the basement and cut out the center block.
AFG: Oh God! That’s horrible.
MHC: So I wrote a version of that and I called it The Man Next Door. Well, there are so many crimes you don’t hear about that don’t make national news, but in the communities [where they occur], people hear about them.
AFG: So when you hear about these true crimes do you ever put yourself in the shoes of the detective?
MHC: Well, when I follow a true crime, some of the court cases, I make up my own mind about the evidence — who did it, why, and what evidence I think is real evidence and what is worthless.
AFG: I know that in a few of your books you’ve tackled the issue death penalty — its morality. What is your view about that?
MHC: I dotA believe in the death penalty
AFG: Nor do I. I’m happy to hear you say that!
MHC: When I wrote A Stranger is Watching, Connecticut had just reinstated the death penalty. In that book I have a seventeen year old about to be executed for a murder he did not commit. I have always been against the death penalty. The point is that it’s applied sometimes to people who, on the basis of retardation or psychotic behaviour have committed a crime. Then when the crime is committed age nineteen and they are executed at 36, I think, my God. And the other part of it is the appeal process. We spend more money letting these people appeal than if we would simply let them stay in prison and pay with their liberty for whatever they’ve done.
AFG: So which mystery writers do you enjoy reading?
MHC: Oh, I’m pretty much all over the patch. I have Philip Roth’s new book, which I haven’t had time to read yet because when I’m working, I simply can’t read. I read The Kite Runner recently which I absolutely loved. I thought that was fabulous. I finished Walter Mosley’s new book, Little Scarlet. I like his writing. I like history a lot. The most recent one I finished was [a biography] of Ben Franklin, and I also have the new George Washington book, which is excellent, too. Of course, I wrote a book about him myself.
AFG: Your first book!
MHC: That’s right. So there is always a book in my hand. Of course the Edgars are coming up and I’ll be active in that because it’s our fiftieth anniversary.
AFG: I hope I can make it but I’ll probably be working on the magazine.
MHC: Well, we will have a really splendid couple of days. You should try.
AFG: I will try. So tell me, had your first husband not passed away, do you think you would have become a novelist or do you think you would just have written short stories?
MHC: Well, there was no market for short stories, don’t forget, so I think that my need to write and get published was an asset. I was always writing, but certainly I was not writing with the idea of having to make my living at it. But I think, inevitably, I would have [become a novelist].
AFG: Which writers had a formative influence on you when you were growing up?
MHC: Well, of course, I loved the Bronte sisters. In the mystery field I always loved Sherlock Holmes. I read Dickens, of course, because Dickens is Dickens. And then I liked some off beat writers who told such charming stories. I remember A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. That was, and she was, wonderfiil — Betty Smith. She wrote several other books — magnificent books. When I was nine or ten I was reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. In fact I went to see Little Women on Broadway. I also liked the humorous kinds of books.
AFG: Did you like Daphne du Maurier? Because I see some of her influence in your work.
MHC: Oh yes! I thought she was a wonderful storyteller.
AFG: Very underrated.
MHC: Well, the thing is, she was a suspense writer and, in fact, when I was writing my third or fourth book, A Cry in the Night, I wanted it to be a combination of Psycho andRebecca. I wrote the first paragraph and the last paragraph of every chapter of Rebecca and I did a synopsis of what was in each chapter just to see how she was able to build that suspense.
AFG: That’s a good thing for writers to do.
MHC: It is a good idea — because you see how the writer builds the suspense.
AFG: So what happened to your magazine? I loved reading it.
MHC: Well, unfortunately, a new publisher came in and, actually, it was making money but not enough to satisfy him so he just, well, ended it. But you see, if we could only have gotten it on a subscription basis, it really would have done very well. It only came out every three months and it was only on the newsstands.
AFG: So what you’re saying is that they didn’t allow people to subscribe?
MHC: No, they did not allow subscriptions.
AFG: That’s crazy!
MHC: Well, that’s exactly right. If they had, by word of mouth we would have gotten a lot [of subscriptions], because everyone who read it liked it a lot.
AFG: It was great. The quality was incredible. I don’t want to sound too arrogant, but the two best mystery magazines were yours and ours, because you really tried to keep the quality up and we try to do the same thing.
MHC: I know you do. I know you do the same thing.
AFG: Well, thank you so much. It was great speaking with you.
MHC: Great speaking with you.
from The Strand Magazine, Issue XV 2005
The Strand Magazine Copyright (c) 2005