When she was a little girl growing up in the Bronx, acclaimed Irish American writer Mary Higgins Clark used to write short plays and perform them with the help of her brothers. It was, she says, a fun way to get in touch with her writing abilities.
So in answer to the question when did she become a writer she replies, “When was I not?”
“It was decided for me,” she says in a genteel accent that retains clear traces of her Bronx Irish origins. “From the time I was six years old I was writing skits and making my brothers perform in them.
“I remember my little brother saying, ‘Can I be the star, just once?’ and I replied, ‘No, I’m the writer, that makes me the star.’”
Nowadays of course, Higgins Clark enjoys the kind of success most people can only dream of. In 2000 alone she made $64 million under order to write four new books for Simon & Schuster.
Her literary output has always been prodigious, a fact that served her well whenever tragedy struck, which it often did. In 1964, when she was 36, her first husband Warren Clark and her mother-in-law died on the same night (her husband from a heart attack, her mother-in-law was overcome at the news and collapsed).
To maintain her sanity, her family and to keep the roof over her head Higgins Clark threw herself into her writing work. It paid off almost right away.
But resilience and toughness in the face of life’s challenges is something Higgins Clark learned from her Irish grandmother. “My grandmother had a sense of herself as a writer. She went to he grave saying, ‘I know I can write a book,’” Higgins Clark said.
“Of course she never had a chance with nine kids and a couple of orphans to look after, including nieces and nephews who moved in with them. So she was a busy lady who died at 62.
“I was thinking of her today as I was filling out the census form that just arrived. Years ago when she was filling out her census form she was asked to give her occupation and she wrote, washes and Irons. She had a sense of irony, you know?”
Higgins Clark’s own Irish background is typical of her generations. Her father came over to New York from Roscommon when he was 20 in 1905. Her mother was raised here in New York, and both of her grandparents were immigrants.
“They lived on 79th Street between York and First Avenue in a parlor floor and basement back before it was glamorous to live there. My mother was almost 40 when she married and my father was 42,” Higgins Clark says.
“She didn’t rush to get married at 21 or 22. For years she was a bridal buyer at B. Altman’s department store (it closed for the last time in 1989, after over a century of business) and she enjoyed a very successful career. She and my father went steady for seven years before they married, which as you know is very Irish.”
As for her own development as a writer, Higgins Clark feels that some of it is innate and some of is a skill she developed over the years.
“When I was little and would have my girlfriends over for a pajama party I would say, ‘Let’s turn out all the lights, light one candle and tell ghost stories.’ How Irish is that?
“That was in my bones I guess. And the very first story I sold was a suspense story. It was called Stowaway, and so was the second one, which was called Deadline From Paradise.”
Higgins Clark finally discovered her true talent by looking at her own bookshelf. She noticed it was filled with suspense novels.
In essence she had been training herself to write them for years. From the time she wrote her first suspense novel it became a best-seller.
“When people ask me what kind of writer they should be I ask them, ‘What do you read?’ Usually they reply that they read everything.
“So we’ve established the person is eclectic, so I ask, ‘What do you pick up at the end of the day? What do you grab when you just want to curl up? For me it was always suspense.
“I looked at my bookshelf and it was Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. I was always trying to be the reader who figured out whodunit. I wanted to have it figured out by page 32. I was training myself to be that kind of writer.”
As her fans know, each of Higgins Clark’s heroines is always an Irish girl or a girl of Irish descent. In her new thriller, The Shadow of Your Smile (Simon & Schuster), her heroine is a pediatrician called Monica Farrell.
“It’s always an Irish girl in the books because I know what her grandmother told her, I know how she thinks, I know how she reacts,” says Higgins Clark.
“They’re always in jobs that make them intelligent and interesting and thoughtful so that they come through with authority in whatever position I have them in.”
Higgins Clark’s books also share what fellow best-selling author Stephen King calls the “gotta” factor. You have “gotta” know what happens on the next page and the next chapter.
“I use the short chapters because once I’ve gotten across what I want to have happen in that chapter I’m not going to belabor it. I want to leave a cliffhanger so that you have to read one more chapter before you go to bed,” she says.
Some critics scoff that her novels are formulaic, but in doing so they miss her considerable strengths -- her plotting is so deft, her characterization so skillful.
“If you’ve read a book that needs 15 pages of explanation to tell you what happened? Well, that’s not a good book,” she feels.
Olivia Morrow, the heroine of Higgins Clark’s latest, is one of her most memorable to date, and the author was inspired to create her in an unusual way.
“The book started last April when a bishop who’s a close friend of our invited us to the beautification ceremony of Mother Mary Angeline McCrory who was credited with a miracle. That’s what gave me the idea for this book. It’s a suspense story that is also a mystery,” she says.
In the book her doctor has told Olivia, who is 82, that she has two weeks to live. Complications ensue when Olivia realizes she’s the key to a series of fateful secrets that will make and break the fortunes of others, some of whom would prefer to have her out of the way before she confesses.
“Within the first seven pages you know that an 82-year-old and a 31-year-old are marked for death,” Higgins Clark says.
When you have sold 100 million books, just in the United States alone, how do you inspire yourself to continue? “What would I do? I never played golf or tennis or bridge. I have a very active social life, but I’d rather get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and go to the computer than just fiddle around somewhere,” she says.
“I enjoy writing. As long as I think I can tell a good story I’ll do it.”