20 Great Interviews:
Mary Higgins Clark
Mary Higgins Clark is one of America’s premier “who done it” writers. Her books are worldwide best-sellers. Several of her novels have been made into television dramas and major movies. In April 2000, she signed a five-book deal with Simon & Schuster worth an astonishing $64 million, but as one book after another passes the million mark in sales, the arrangement looks like a bargain.
All four of Higgins Clark’s grandparents were born in Ireland. She considers her Irish heritage an important influence on her writing. Her father owned a pub in the Bronx, and as a young girl Mary listened to the yarns told by the Irish patrons. “The Irish are by nature storytellers,” she says.
Soon after her marriage Higgins started writing short stories. She sold her first short story to Extension magazine in 1956 for $100. But the untimely death of her husband, Warren, in 1964 left her with five young children to support. She went to work writing radio scripts and, in addition, decided to write books. Every morning she got up at five and wrote until seven, when she had to get the kids ready for school. Her first suspense novel, Where Are the Children? (1975), was a best-seller.
Higgins Clark still belongs to the same writing group she formed over 30 years ago.
In your books there’s a sense of danger intruding on ordinary life.
Well, it can. That’s what I write about, the fragility of life…For example, I’m so sick of hearing about generation gaps. I got along with my first family. I got along with my husband beautifully. I get along with my children. My grandchildren like me. There are millions of people like that. For all the people who are having problems, there are so many who are thoroughly happy with their families. The trouble comes from the outside.
Who were your early influences?
[My writing teacher] Bill Mallary — he was a short story writer who sold a lot to the Saturday Evening Post — said, “Write what you know.”
He said, “Take the most dramatic incident that occurred to you as a stewardess and ask yourself, what if?”
I started out as a Pan American stewardess. I was 21. I flew to Europe, Africa and Asia. This was 1949. The war had ended and I was seeing the whole world. They were still cleaning rubble out of London. I was in a revolution in Syria. India had just gotten its freedom, but it was still a colonial empire.
I had been on the last flight going to Czechoslovakia before it was closed to Western planes. We went in with no one on board. The Soviets were having an air show. There were a couple of thousand people at the airport and they turned from watching all those military formations to wave and cheer for our American plane.
When we landed the terminal was empty except for seven Americans huddled together, the men we had come to pick up. There were soldiers all over with guns. The captain said to me, “Don’t wander around. I’m going to fuel up and get out of here — I don’t like it.” When we left, the people watched us go in total silence. One of our passengers was weeping and said, “There’s no one in that crowd who wouldn’t give half of the rest of his life to be on this ship.”
I thought, suppose a stewardess goes to the back of the plane and there’s an 18-year-old kid trying to hide. He’s a member of the underground. And they’re searching the airport, coming towards the plane, and he says, “Help me.”
She has to decide whether or not to turn him over or try to help him. She knows that even if she succeeds, she’ll lose her job. It’ll be an international incident. Then you throw in a little love interest. Of course, she tries to save the kid, and does. It’s [the book] is called Stowaway.
What would you say about your women characters?
They’re strong. They are often self-made. They are intelligent. They are the main viewpoint character, even though I use multiple viewpoints. And they always solve their own problems, even if in the end they get a little help. ♦