Friday, May 29, 2015
MARY HIGGINS CLARK ENCHANTS FAIRFIELD CROWD
Mary Higgins Clark has come a long way since the year she was twenty-one and toured the world as a flying hostess for Pan American Airlines. She attended secretarial school and much later in life graduated summa cum laude from Fordham University. She holds thirteen honorary doctorates. She freely admitted, “I love to talk about writing and I love to write.” In her early years she voraciously read Nancy Drew and graduated to Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes and still reads extensively today.
Mary Higgins Clark began writing poems early in life, claiming “writing is the only talent I have. When the singing and dancing fairies gave out their gifts, I was clearly not available.” She describes herself as a storyteller, lucky enough to have been born into an Irish family. Raised in the Bronx, she wrote from the time she could hold a pencil and always starred in her own plays, much to the chagrin of her siblings, whom she made perform whether they wanted to or not. At monthly family gatherings, she listened to and adored the stories told by relatives and often was caught writing her own short stories in math class instead of doing arithmetic.
Her father died when she was eleven, a tragedy that was repeated when she became a young widow herself in 1964, at age 36, when her husband died suddenly, leaving her to raise five children between the ages of five and thirteen. Clark always wanted to be a professional writer and soon after marriage she took a class in short story writing that set her on her path in life. Her professor advised her to write about what you know, to take a dramatic situation and ask “suppose and what if” and turn it into fiction. She looked to her year as a flight attendant and wrote a short story about being on the last American flight into Czeckoslovakia in 1949, where the plane was to pick up seven Americans. The crowd that cheered their arrival was silent at their departure, and she knew that there was “no one in the crowd who wouldn’t give half their life to be on this plane.” Her short story was entitled “Stowaway,” about a man who hid on the plane and the stewardess who helped him escape. Her professor assured her she would sell it and she did: six years and forty rejection slips later, for $100. That check was the “biggest thrill in my entire life” and it is framed in her Saddle Ridge, New Jersey home where she lives with her current husband. Her short story “Stowaway” is now one of the ones included in her newly released collection “Death Wears a Beauty Mask and other stories.”
This new collection includes tales about a famous model who suddenly disappears, a grieving mother who has lost her son, her favorite lottery winner Alvirah who finds mystery on Cape Cod, a former vice president who is accused of murder, a creepy next door neighbor, and many more intriguing plots. Recently her grandson aged 12, selected one of her books for his summer reading list requirements. So pleased, she asked him why he selected her book and he replied “because it was the shortest.” So much for her ego.
Not without a wonderful sense of humor, she related how some of her rejection letters even came with handwritten comments, like the one that called her writing “light, slight, and trite.” Like the director who penned a note to Fred Astaire telling him he couldn’t dance, one wonders where that editor is today.
Fortuitously, when her husband died, Clark had been offered her own radio show that very morning, a show entitled “Portrait of a Patriot,” vignettes on presidents, first ladies, artists and actors, giving clues to their identity. It was during research for this show that she discovered the subject for her first book, George Washington, “Aspire to the Heavens.” She had studiously avoided the first president because of the stories of the cherry tree and his wooden teeth, but on further reflection, she discovered a charismatic man of six feet, three inches, a hero of the French and Indian Wars, the best dancer in the colonies, a man who rode a horse like an Indian and who had a great love affair with his wife, Martha.
Her routine was to wake up at five a.m., put on a pot of coffee, and write until seven a.m. when she had to get the children ready for school. The book took three years and convinced her that she wanted to write books, now that the short story market had dried up, but the next time she’d prefer a best seller. She learned she needed “a hook” and produced “Where Are the Children?,” about child abduction. Clark claims the first fifty pages of a book are the hardest, when she rewrites over and over, and the excitement when the story “comes to life like the Nutcracker ballet...when you’re chasing the characters down the block and not dragging them.”
One of her many books, “Two Little Girls in Blue,” concerns identical twins, a subject that has always fascinated her. She likes to learn something from her research and was intrigued by how twins feel each other’s emotions and pain, even if they are separated. The book has been optioned for a television movie, although she is still waiting for a true blockbuster from a movie theater. Unlike many writers, she has never felt the need to use vulgarity, sex or extreme violence. She also uses women as her key characters. Clark has also collaborated on several novels with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark.
When she experiences a writer’s block, which she claims is frequently, she whispers to herself “royalty checks” and as ”literary royalty” and the “Queen of Suspense” that seems only proper and fit and works like a charm every time.