SADDLE RIVER, N.J. - The desk of Mary Higgins Clark looks remarkably ordered for one of the world's most popular novelists. But the upkeep can be explained by spring cleaning and by a pause between projects as Clark promotes a new novel, and plans her next.
"It's a total mess when I'm working, because I have research books here," she says. "And last year, it was getting all dusty from all the books, so we had to take them out. I get allergies easily and it was getting too dusty."
The long-reigning "Queen of Suspense" works out of the top floor of this three-story converted ranch house, logging on to a Dell computer that is foreign to her in many ways, but just familiar enough for Clark to have mastered how to store a day's material.
She is 85, could have retired long ago, but worries more when she's not writing ("I was never a gardener. If I plant something, it dies.") She's completed more than 40 books, not just mysteries, but children's stories, Christmas novels, an historical novel and a memoir, "Kitchen Privileges." She has co-written a few books with daughter Carol Higgins Clark and has so many ideas that she's thinking of bringing in collaborators for other projects.
Her current book, "Daddy's Gone a Hunting," is a vintage Clark thriller featuring women in distress, tragic pasts and secret identities. It's about a deadly explosion that destroys a family furniture business in Long Island City and about one of the founder's granddaughters — injured in the blast, suspected of being in on the crime — who lies in a coma.
Explaining how she thought of the story, Clark talks about an old acquaintance who ran an unprofitable restaurant on Long Island, one that was ruined in a fire. He opened another restaurant, only to have another fire burn it down. "So the FBI said to him, 'Jimmy, next time have a flood,'" she says with a laugh.
She is also fascinated by memory, what happens to it after a traumatic event and what we're capable of understanding while supposedly unconscious. She discusses an incident from a few years ago, when she was recovering from surgery and was accidentally given too much medication.
"My blood pressure was dropping and so was my heart rate, and I actually had that out of body experience where I was floating above," she says. "And John (her husband, former Merrill Lynch Futures CEO John J. Conheeney) and the kids were all standing around the bed and it was a cathedral-like room. And I thought, 'I have a choice. If I turn right, I will not come back. If I go down, I will come back and I'm not ready yet.' And I came down."
She is a well-spoken woman with a good-natured, staccato laugh and a confident, but informal manner. Dressed stylishly in a red and white Escada jacket and dark slacks, she looks born to live well, to have a tennis court and swimming pool and an assistant who brings her tea. But commercial fortune did not come until middle age and her affinity for women who struggle, and prevail, is clearly personal.
Mary Higgins was born in New York City in 1927, an Irish-American whose immigrant father owned a popular pub. But when she was 11, her father died and the family lost their home. One of her brothers died of meningitis when she was a teenager. While still in high school, she worked as a switchboard operator to help support her family.
As an adult, Clark relived her mother's tragedy. She married Warren Clark, a regional manager of Capital Airways, in 1949 and had five children. But in 1964, Warren Clark died of a heart attack; his wife became a widow and single mother, with a mortgage and a modest inheritance.
Clark is still amazed by the energy she had. On weekday mornings, she would give her kids breakfast and share a ride into Manhattan for her job as a radio script writer. She would dress for work in the back of the car, her friends joking that it was indecent to look at the back seat until they had reached the George Washington Bridge into the city.
Clark always was a story teller ("I'll let others decide if I'm a good writer, but I AM a good story teller and will claim that for myself") and in her 20s and 30s, she wrote fiction for Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, including "Beauty Contest at Buckingham Palace," a sketch about an imagined competition featuring Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly.
After her husband's death, she managed enough spare time to work on a novel about George and Martha Washington. She spent three years researching "Aspire to the Heavens," was proud of the story, proud of the scholarship, but hated the title and wasn't crazy about the sales. (It was reissued in 2002, far more profitably, as "Mount Vernon Love Story.")
Her life changed with her second book, "Where Are the Children?", published in 1975. Anxious to better support herself and her children, she looked to a place she advises other writers to consult — her bookshelf. She found volumes by Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and Daphne du Maurier. She would follow a formula that has worked so well in many genres — write the kind of books you like to read.
A recent murder trial in New York involving a young mother accused of killing her kids gave her an idea for a story of a young mother convicted of killing her own children. She set it in Cape Cod, Mass., where Clark still spends part of her summers. When she finished, she dressed in a black and white suit and dropped off the manuscript with her agent. One of the industry's sharpest executives, Phyllis Grann, then an editor at Simon & Schuster and later the publisher of Penguin Putnam, snapped up the book for $3,000.
"I was allowed to buy anything for $3,000 or under without going through contortions," says Grann, who was impressed by Higgins' ability to "tell a good story" and by Higgins herself, "probably the nicest person I ever met.
"She is strong, she is a survivor, but always with a smile. She had recently been widowed and she had five children. I had had my first child and I kept asking, 'How do you deal with this? How do you do that?' I think I called her much more, with my childrearing problems, than she ever called me. I wanted to know how my kids could turn out as well as hers did."
Higgins has since become one of the industry's most dependable and loyal writers, regularly turning out bestsellers for Simon & Schuster, virtually always with editor Michael Korda, who soon took over from Grann. Her U.S. sales alone top 100 million copies and, according to her publisher, she continues to sell some 3 million books a year worldwide.
"You want to turn the page," she says, explaining the appeal of suspense novels. "There are wonderful sagas you can thoroughly enjoy a section and put it down. But if you're reading my book, I want you stuck with reading the next paragraph. The greatest compliment I can receive is, 'I read your darned book 'til 4 in the morning, and now I'm tired.' I say, 'Then you got your money's worth.'"