Mary Higgins Clark
by Jo Cooper
When Mary Higgins Clark was widowed and faced with supporting her five children, she began writing short stories for magazines and scripts for
"Each script was four minutes long," she said. "In that time you had to tell a story and leave room for two messages from the sponsor. It taught me how to write tightly."
Her tightly written suspense novels have become well-known worldwide. Where Are the Children? was a best-seller in 1975.
Since then, she has written five more successful novels, and has completed her bachelor's degree ar Fordham University; she graduated summa cum laude in 1979.
Jo Cooper interviewed Mary Higgins Clark in Beverly Hills, California, where she was conferring with producers about a mini-series.
Jo Cooper: Do you make up the plot first and figure out what's going to happen, or do you start with the characters?
|Mary Higgins Clark: I do it hand in hand. The victim is always the main character in any of my books. Because the victim dies, everything else happens. Why does that person die?" Who hates and/or loves him or her so much that a crime is committed? Liela (the victim) is the main character in Weep No More, My Lady. Elizabeth (the victim's sister) is the protagonist, but the main character is the victim, because the crime starts the action. It's like the starting gun. Now, why would Leila be murdered? she is outrageous and|
yet very lovable. When you start, you have to have a motivation before there is a crime. There has to be a reason for the crime.
Do you write lengthy character sketches before you write your story?
Clark: I do biographies of the people. I know where they went to grammar school and where they went to high school. I know what their hobbies are. I try to rfnd a person in the attic of my mind. I think of someone I knew, maybe twenty years ago, who fits the description. Then his or her gestures come out, little expressions come out the way a character gets a tentative look, or taps on a desk. That's very helpful.
Alvirah, the cleaning lady and lottery winner in Weep No more, My Lady, is a good example. Alvirah was inspired by Annie, our next-door neighbor when I was growing up. She was not a cleaning lady, but she had the same cheeriness as Alvirah. Annie was at home in the world. We used to say that what she couldn't wear, she carried. She had a fur coat and fur hat and fur muff and fur boots, and she was a very happy person. She was always even-tempered--nothing ever flustered her. When I was doing Alvirah, I described Annie's apprearance when she was about fifty years old. When I was writing, I'd think of how Annie would have spoken. So Annie was the essence of
Alvirah: faithful, loyal, very sure of herself, and a very bright lady.
Do you characters always end up the way you planned?
Clark: No. In Stillwatch I started with the girl, Pat, being tall, dark-haired and slender. As I started to write she kept saying, "No, you don't understand. I look like my father. I have rust-colored hair." And the fact that she had a slight limp when she was tired because of a childhood accident made her more vulnerable. But something kept telling me she was supposed to be smaller. She wasn't a big girl.
And the psychopathic killer? I hope you haven't known any. Are they harder to characterize?
Clark: I go to a lot of trials and see psychopathic killers. They often look perfectly normal I see the evidence and what happens to their victims. And then I read a lot of psychology books that include profiles of criminals.
Do you get ideas for your plots and characters at trials you attend?
Clark: What I try to do, when I'm starting a book, is think about what the public wants to read. When I did Where Are the Children? which was my first suspense novel, I knew I wanted to write a suspense story because I realized I loved to read them. That's one of the clues if you want to know what to write, write what you read. When I
decided to write suspense, then I thought, what kind of suspense? Everybody cares about missing
children, so I decided I wanted to write about a missing child. At that time, Alice Crimmins was on trial in New York. She was accused of murdering her two children. She was a
beautiful, beauitiful girl with the face of an angel.
Did you fictionalize her story?
Clark: No, I thought, I'm not going to write about Alice Crimmins, but...the magic word is "suppose." Suppose a woman is accused of murdering her missing children. Suppose she's absolutely innocent. She is acquitted, and then, seven years later, suppose it happens again. That's when I was on my way with Where Are the Children?
You're a master at "showing instead of telling." Can you give an example of how you dramatize a person's personality?
Clark: In A Stranger is Watching I think I show the kind of person the murderer is when he checks into the hotel. He has his green suit on that he's saved up for. He has to pay by cash when he registers instead of by credit card. And he washes the dishes himself after he orders room service. I think that shows this man has never stayed in a hotel.
Also, the way a person't home is furnished can tell a lot.
You've just demonstrated how observant good writers must be. Have you always been this way?
Clark: I cut my teeth on the Lindbergh kidnapping case when I was growing up I remember the night Hauptmann (the convicted kidnapper) was executed. My mother and father had the radio on, and they were totally unaware that big ears were absorbing it all while I was playing marbles with my brothers on the floor.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Clark: Always. Since the time I could write, I was writing. I wrote my first poem when I was seven. My mother saved everything. She would say, "Mary is going to be a wonderful writer." You know, that encouragement is tremendously important. She encouraged me and encouraged me.
Did you work on your high school newspaper?
Clark: I worked on the grammar school newspaper,; I was the editor in the seventh grade. Then I went to a Catholic girls' school, Villa Maria. In the Villa I wrote the class history. You see, I was always writing. Occasionally, people would say, "I forgot to write a poem for class." And for a dime, I'd sell them one of mine.
I know you sold your first manuscript on 1956 to Extension Magazine, but when did you submit your first manuscript?
Clark: In 1949 I decided to become a professional writer. I took a writing course at NYU (New York University). The professor said, "This will sell; this is a professonal story," about the first story I wrote
In that first class.
Six years later, after forty rejections, it sold.
Of course, you don't sit and wait for that one story. You go on to something else. You keep sending it out until you find a home for it. And if you don't find a home for it, in the meantime, you've written two or three or four other things, and maybe then you're ready to revise the original. A lot of successul writers have revised books that they couldn't sell to anyone when they started.
Are your books strictly for adults, or do younger people read them too?
Clark: My books are on the reading list for young people twelve and up in schools because I never have explicit sex or violence in them. I get letters from twelve-year-olds, because the teachers have found they cannot assign Moby Dick as a first book to read. They give students suspense, and then they start to read and enjoy reading.
When is the best time for you to write?
Clark: I am a morning person. I like to get up around 7 A.M. and make a cup of coffee and just start writing. That's the best time. The phone doesn't ring. I'm bright in the morning.
Do you make yourself write a certain number of hours a day?
Clark: When I don't travel, I just write. If I write from 7 A.M. to 1 P.M., that's a good day's work. I'm perfectly happy if I do that much. Then in the afternoons I can do anything else I want to unless I'm on a big deadline.
By the time you finish one book,
have you started on the next?
Clark: I finished Weep No More, My Lady i n November of 1986, and since that time, I've done a two-part novella that was published and I've done two mini--series and a television project, which isn't very much. I'm really anxious to get back to full-time writing again.
Is it a strain to try to top yourself when, each time, your last book was a best-seller?
Clark: Absolutely! The more you learn about writing, the less you know. And you get more critical of yourself. Each time I want to do a little more with each book. I want to go deeper into characterization or make the plot more intricate. I don't want to be considered a "formula" writer who just writes a lot of books.
What else do you do besides write?
Clark: I'm president of the Mystery Writers of America right now, which keeps me pretty busy. I'[m also chairman of the International Crime Congress. I do a lot of publicity for books, and I'm asked to speak quite a lot. It's getting to the point that I have to cut down, because at some point you have to stop talking about writing and write.
After I go to London to publicize Weep No More, My Lady, I can get back to writing. it's time now because I'm already involved with my new book and I want to get my teeth into it.
It sounds as if you really enjoy writing.
Clark: I love writing! It's part of my very persona.
By Ralph Cooper, 4-22-08