The Wisdom of Mary Higgins Clark

The Brooklyn Book Festival took place last weekend, and I still can't stop thinking about Mary Higgins Clark. She's a GILF, a grandmother I'd like to "Friend," and leave inside jokes on her Facebook wall. Her career and writing advice are inspiring.

Before attending the Brooklyn Book Festival, the literary equivalent of Coachella, I never gave much thought to Mary Higgins Clark. From the inescapable magazine advertisements of her suspense novels, she seemed more like a factory than a person. A brand, not a writer. After stumbling upon her appearance at the festival, my dismissive assessment now makes me feel foolish. Just as presuming a strikingly attractive person can't be very nice, or the insanely successful must be sell-outs, the seemingly lucky are too often seen as somehow superficial. If only that lazy thinking could be eradicated from the face of the earth.

Mary, (that's what I call her, because we're now friends in my mind), didn't publish her first novel until 1969, when she was 42 years old. It failed to get any attention. A historical novel about George Washington, it was inspired by a patriotic series she wrote for the radio. (Writing radio scripts was one of her many day jobs.) The experience proved to her that she could write a novel. So she tried again, realizing that historical fiction was perhaps not her strong suit.

She looked at her book shelf full of suspense novels, and had an epiphany. She enjoyed reading thrillers, and decided to write one. Six years later, in 1974, she published her first best-seller, Where are the Children?, currently in its 75th printing. Since then, she has sold over 100 million books in America alone. She's a regular on the New York Times best-sellers list, and has a dedicated following that keeps up with her recurring characters. Her latest thriller, The Lost Years, focuses on a mystery surrounding the possible existence of a letter written by Jesus.

In person, Mary is very warm, incredibly sharp and funny, and glamorous. She's 84-years old, and churns out a novel a year. She said she learned how to write thrillers by loving to read them, and still does; only now she calls it keeping up with "the competition." Her number one rule for writing is to always keep in mind that the reader is very sophisticated, and so her stories must fit together like a crossword puzzle. One "wrong word" ruins the whole. "Writing is building blocks," she said. "Make each piece intricately fit." 

Her inspiration for how she crafts suspense comes from Alfred Hitchcock. She re-told the famous Psycho shower scene frame-by-frame to illustrate its terrifying impact. Yet we never see the gruesome slash of the knife digging into the victim; as Mary pointed out, the reader's mind fills in the rest.

Mary struggled for many years to become a full-time fiction writer, working hard to sell short stories, juggling day-jobs. She became a widower at 35 when her first husband passed away after a heart-attack. And she didn't have an easy childhood, either, growing up in the Bronx and losing her father at a young age. She began working at an early age to help her mother support their family. But as soon as she hit it big with her first suspense novel, she celebrated by going to college, for the first time, in her mid-forties, receiving a B.A. in philosophy.

Image Credit: Mark Coggins/Flickr

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