The Higgins Clark Ladies
They did it! On Sunday, April 27, 2008, Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark became the first mother and daughter authors to place two separate books on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list at the same time. Mary Higgins Clark retains her “Queen of Suspense” crown as her novel Where Are You Now?, the story of a sister’s search for her Columbia University student brother who disappeared ten years before yet telephones his mother each Mother’s Day, debuted at number one. Zapped, the eleventh mystery in Carol Higgins Clark’s fast-paced and very funny series featuring Regan Reilly, the Manhattan private investigator, captured number twelve. Exciting!
As Mary and Carol began the joint book tour that would take them across the country (see CarolHigginsClark.com for the schedule) the pleasure they derive from their work, from their success and from each other was obvious as they began the first of many events signing books at the Mysterious Book Shop and Barnes and Noble in Manhattan’s Tribeca. “Blossoms of spring and heaps of good wishes to you, my cherished readers. I hope you enjoy reading this tale as much as I enjoyed writing it,” Mary Higgins Clark tells her fans on the acknowledgment page that opens Where Are You Now? That intimacy between the writer and her fans is expressed in the more than 150 million copies of her 27 suspense novels, three collections of short stories, her historical novel and the four Christmas suspense novels written with Carol that have sold worldwide.
Though Mary Higgins Clark’s novels center on murder and dark family secrets and put her heroines into heart-pounding jeopardy, they have something of the open-hearted optimism of their creator. She meets life’s sorrows head on and refuses to be defeated by them. She attributes this resilience to her Irish-American roots. “I am a descendant of Kellys, Kennedys, Durkins and Higgins, all from the Sligo/Mayo area,” Mary says. Her father, Luke Higgins, came to New York in 1905 and, as Mary reports, “kept company” with Nora Durkin for seven years. They married when her father was 45 and her mother almost 40. They had three children. Mary was the middle one and the only girl.
In her memoir, Kitchen Privileges, Mary describes a happy childhood surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins. Her father’s Bronx pub flourished and the family moved into their own house on rural Pelham Parkway. But the Depression and her father’s too early death ended their financial security. Her mother supported the children by renting out rooms, with kitchen privileges, in the house. But Mary says that her mother’s determination to be upbeat cushioned the children and made their house a center for the talk and stories that fed her writer’s imagination. Her mother gave her a journal when Mary was seven years old and encouraged her to read the poems she wrote to guests. “My mother’s belief in me kept alive my dreams to be a writer,” she says.
And it was writing radio shows that enabled Mary to take care of her five young children when her own husband died and Mary needed to put in practice the lesson she’d learned from her mother – no self-pity.
She devoted the time from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. to writing her first novel on the typewriter she set up on her kitchen table. She had sold short stories -– the first to Extension magazine after receiving 40 rejection slips from other publications, but the book, a biographical novel about George Washington, was published by a company that went out of business and did not sell. She kept writing and found that by telling stories of suspense she could impart insights from her own life. And people responded.
Mary and Carol talked about this as these two beautiful women, elegantly dressed, with the down-to-earth glamour that’s fun to be around, sat down with Irish America magazine.
Mary Higgins Clark: I’ve always understood the fragility of life. You’re lucky if you can count heads at the end of the day and everybody you care about is okay and there. Because nobody knows. How many people get the phone call – somebody was killed in an accident.
In my books a sense of justice prevails and the world seems a little calmer. The bad are punished, the good – after a series of trials – at least have the promise of a bright future. They have the hope of living happily. That’s what I try to give my readers.
I just received a little gold heart locket from a woman waiting for a heart transplant. She said she was so tired she could hardly read anymore, but she wanted me to have it because, she said, “You’ve given me so much pleasure.”
Carol Higgins Clark: Hearing from readers is the most fulfilling part for me too. I get e-mails that talk about Regan Reilly and Jack as if they were real people. I created Regan when a producer, who knew I was an actress, said to me, “write a series character you could possibly play. You have the acting background and you’ve worked with your mother.” So I came up with Regan Reilly, who of course hasn’t aged a day in 16 years since I started writing her, so I couldn’t play her anymore. The publisher who liked my idea said, “Make her mother a mystery writer.” I did and named her Nora after my grandmother. They’re Irish from Summit, New Jersey, and her father, Luke (for my grandfather), owns three funeral homes. In the first four books Regan was single. Then my mother and I were asked to write a Christmas book together, and we came up with a love interest for her – the head of the major case squad when her father is kidnapped along with his driver. My mother and I thought Jack would be a good name for him, but what should his last name be? At the same moment we looked at each other and said, “Reilly.” So he’s Jack Reilly and now she’s Regan Reilly Reilly. They honeymooned in Ireland for Laced. For Zapped, they’re back in Tribeca. I went to Ashford Castle and to Galway to do the research and had a wonderful time.
You write your Christmas books together, but are you in touch when you write separately?
Mary Higgins Clark: All the time. It’s wonderful to have somebody else who exactly understands what you’re doing -– first the creative process and then the times when you think something doesn’t work. I’ll ship Carol a chapter and we talk out something I’m thinking of doing, wondering if it plays. You don’t know because you’ve rewritten it forty-two times. We consult on each other’s covers, and on the titles. I take the credit for naming Decked, but it was Carol’s idea to have each one end in –ed. When you have a continuing character, to have a title that is identifiable is brilliant. I’ll let Carol tell it.
Carol Higgins Clark: The second book was about a murder at a pantyhose convention. As a joke I said, “It should be Snagged.” Iced, Twanged and the rest followed.
Mary Higgins Clark: Carol has the gift of humor. It’s not easy to be funny, as any comedian will tell you, and harder still to be consistently humorous. Carol writes comic mysteries and I do the psychological. Her voice is utterly different. Suspense is a building of tension, so I can’t break the mood with laughter.
I notice that the characters in both of your books visit Jimmy Neary’s and sometimes order the steak sandwich and that the real proprietor of the 57th Street fixture appears.
Mary Higgins Clark: Both Carol and I love to go to Jimmy Neary’s but I really create people out of nothing by asking the question, “Who are they?” I may give the character Aunt Louise’s attitude and somebody else’s looks but they’re invented individuals. I always have a strong woman protagonist. She’s always at least twenty-six because by then she has accomplished something – she’s a lawyer, she’s a journalist, she’s whatever she is. She has accomplished something, and she’s always of Irish descent because my DNA has shamrocks on it. I know how she thinks. I know what she was told growing up, what her grandmother told her. So I’m more comfortable. It amuses me that I’m No. 1 in France and have been for thirty-four years, yet there’s never a French person in the book. Storytelling is universal. That’s what I learned sitting at the kitchen table. My heroines are like the Irish women I knew. They’re not victims tied to the railroad tracks waiting for the Lone Ranger and Tonto to come by. My protagonist has to save herself. She does it through her intelligence. She unravels the problem.
Your own success is quite a tale.
Mary Higgins Clark: I know I have been very blessed. I’m very grateful. I mean, the celebrity is somewhere over there in the corner and has nothing to do with my everyday life or how I think about myself. But I still remember how bowled over I was when my agent called me in 1977 to tell me the paperback rights for my second book, A Stranger Is Waiting, had sold for one million dollars. I was on my way to class at Fordham where I was studying for my college degree. All I did for the hour was write $1,000,000 in all different ways, including roman numerals. My car had nearly 200,000 miles on it. The tail pipe and muffler fell off on the way home. Driving on the West Side Highway, I stopped and tried to tie the belt of my dress around them. It was late, everything closed, so I kerplunked for twenty-one miles. The next day I bought a Cadillac.
Recently, I found a letter and a poem I’d sent in 1941 to a nun in Jersey City who had a small religious magazine. She’d returned my lovely poem, saying they had enough poetry, however, if I said a Hail Mary every night I’d grow up to be a famous writer. It’s so important to encourage someone as my mother did me.
Carol Higgins Clark: And mine encouraged me.