Mary Higgins Clark, the First Lady of Suspense

Author Mary Higgins Clark’s stellar career began with three simple questions.

In her home in Saddle River, Mary Higgins Clark writes every morning. “I write about people whose lives, through no fault of their own, get caught in a web of danger,” she says. “My characters are smart and take their own action to solve the problem. I think my readers relate to that.”
Photo by Michael S. Barr.

She’s written 42 books—almost all bestsellers—and her suspense novels have sold more than 100 million copies in this country alone. At the age of 83, Mary Higgins Clark still sits down to write each morning in her Saddle River home.

Since her landmark mystery Where are the Children? was published in 1975 to critical and commercial success, Clark has been widely considered the premier mystery writer of our time. Her books are renowned for their intricate stories and solid plotting. Nearly all her books have debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.

Clark has earned fortune and fame. She reportedly signed a $64 million, four-book contract with her publisher, Simon & Schuster, in 2000. Forbes magazine has described her as one of the 10 most powerful women authors.

Persistence is a big part of her success. “When people say to me, ‘I know I can write a book and someday I’m going to, as soon as…,’ I say, ‘Stop right there; it’ll never happen. As soon as the children are a little grown, as soon as I quit my job, there will be another set of excuses waiting for you,’” Clark says. “The people with a desire, talent and a need to write, they are the ones who will write. They’ll write on the back of an envelope, they’ll write on the bus, anywhere.”

With her trademark chignon hairstyle, her remarkably unlined face and her topaz blue eyes, Clark is still a striking woman. The chignon—she twists her hair into a bun behind her head—is a result of her “never being very good with hair,” she says. “I can do a chignon, without it getting wrecked. And I’m blessed with my mother’s good skin.”

She is gracious, witty and generous with her time, working with a number of charities, especially Irish and Catholic groups. And she is encouraging to other writers.

Harlan Coben, the bestselling suspense writer who lives in nearby Ridgewood, has been a friend of Clark’s for years. He says Where are the Children? was an early influence on his own writing.

“Mary is a legend, she’s one of my heroes,” says Coben. “She taught me a great deal about how a writer behaves. She’s very encouraging and kind to everyone in the mystery field.”

Clark’s life wasn’t always so gilded. She grew up in the Bronx. Her father, an Irish immigrant, died when she and her two brothers were young, leaving their mother, a native New Yorker, to raise them alone.

Even as a girl, Clark enjoyed writing, and so after she married, she began taking writing classes at New York University. There, a professor advised the class to develop ideas for stories by reading the newspaper and asking, “Suppose?” and “What if?” and spinning the answers into fiction.

“I still use that method today,” she says. “And I have added one more question, which is, ‘Why?’ Because if three people had the opportunity and the motive to take a life, only one would have taken it—be psychotic enough, bitter and angry enough to go over the line. That was the beginning of my own version of suppose, what if and why?”

Clark began submitting short stories to magazines for publication, with little luck. Meanwhile, she and her husband, Warren Clark, began a family. Clark continued to write, and after six years and 40 rejections, a magazine finally agreed to buy one of her stories for $100.

But everything changed when Warren Clark died of a heart attack. Suddenly a widow with five children, Mary, who was 36 at the time, was forced to take a job as a scriptwriter for a radio program, Portrait of a Patriot, to support her young family.

After a few years, Clark decided to try her hand at a full-length novel, rising at 5 am to write, working until 7 am, when she would get her children ready for school. Her first published novel, Aspire to the Heavens, was a fictionalized account of the relationship between George and Martha Washington. The book did not do well—“If it had sold well, I’d be writing historical novels now!,” says Clark—yet the experience built Clark’s confidence.

“I said, ‘Now I want to write one that will sell,’” she remembers. “I realized all my recreational reading was suspense—when I was younger, it was Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, Agatha Christie. Even as a child, I wanted to be the first reader to say, ‘He was the one who did it.’ I realize now that I was training myself to write this kind of fiction.”

Her next novel, Where are the Children?, was inspired by the story of Alice Crimmins, a young New York mother who was charged with the murder of her two children in the 1960s. The book sold to Simon & Schuster for $3,000, and garnered good reviews.

Clark was thrilled, but the money wasn’t enough to support her children; by then, two of them were in law school, two in college and another in private school.

“I said to the kids, ‘I just want you guys to know that I’m going to have to second-mortgage the house.’ This really scared me because my mother lost our house after my father died. I said, ‘There’s no place else to go.’ And with that I got the call—that very same day,” she remembers. “Oh, there was joy in Mudville.”

Simon & Schuster had agreed to purchase the paperback rights to Where are the Children? for $100,000.

Her life would never be the same. Where are the Children? became a huge bestseller; eventually it was made into a feature film and is now in its 75th edition in paperback. Her second suspense novel, A Stranger is Watching, sold for $1 million. In 1996, she married John Conheeney, the retired chairman and CEO of Merrill-Lynch Futures, after they were introduced by one of her daughters.

These days, Clark writes in her cozy, third-floor office in her home, producing a new book every year. On a small couch are three pillows with the names of her first three novels written in needlepoint. The walls of her office are covered with her books, awards, degrees (she has 21 honorary doctorates) and photos of her with her family and famous people—including President Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who has become a friend. Clark has worked closely with Barbara Bush over the years on literacy campaigns, through the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

“Mary has become a close friend to our family over the years,” the former first lady said in an e-mail. “She is an extraordinary writer, but we were really drawn to her because she is as close to perfect as one can get. She is all-around a great person. I have huge respect for Mary.”

In preparing her novels, Clark creates character studies and determines the plot. Her main characters are  always strong women, and they are always of Irish descent, like her father.

“It’s natural to write about what you know,” she says with a smile. “After the first 50 pages, the book writes itself—and then joy sets in. The characters tell me what to do.”

Her latest, I’ll Walk Alone, was published in April. This month, her second children’s book, The Magical Christmas Horse, is coming out. Her next novel, The Lost Years, has a biblical background.
A longtime Garden State resident—in June she was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame—Clark sets many of her stories in New Jersey, including The Cradle Will Fall, much of which takes place in Ridgewood. Others have taken place in Spring Lake, where she and her husband have a summer home.

“As much as I can, I like to use New Jersey as a setting,” she says. “I get so sick of all the insults.”
Clark, who went back to school to earn her college degree from Fordham University when she was in her 40s, has inspired her children to strive professionally as well.

Two of her children, Marilyn and Warren, are judges in New Jersey. Two others, Patty and David, work in business. And daughter Carol writes suspense novels, the latest of which, Mobbed, is set at the Jersey Shore.

For the past several years, Carol Higgins Clark and her mother have had their books published on the same day. That allows them to travel together on book tours—a big help for Mary, who walks with a slight limp from an ankle injury that never healed properly. Daughter and mom have also written five Christmas-themed mystery novels together.

The senior Clark has managed to change with the times. She has a Facebook page with more than 200,000 followers, and owns a Kindle that she uses when she travels. And she tries to answer e-mails whenever she can: “Writing is solitary, so it’s nice to hear that people are enjoying my books!”

Jacqueline Mroz is a frequent contributor.

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