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Interview With Mary Higgins Clark, Author of New Novel 'I'll Walk Alone'

At 83 she shares her wisdom with aspiring writers

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AP Photo/Mike Derer

Author Mary Higgins Clark.

Mary Higgins Clark is warm. She's gracious. She's friendly. And she genuinely enjoys meeting her legions of fans across the country, when she's not busy serving as grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York, as she did last month, or spending time with her big and bustling family, which includes her husband, John Conheeney, her five grown children and the couple's 16 grandchildren. Somewhere in there, of course, she writes.

But something else helps explain this author's remarkable success as one of America's best-selling writers with more than 100 million books in print in the United States alone: She has great respect for her readers.

"Readers are very smart," she says. "They're counting on something, which they have every right to do. Any time I ever thought 'I'm not telling a good story,' or 'This is not up to snuff,' I would not try to publish it. And they wouldn't want me to."

Her new novel (read an excerpt from I'll Walk Alone) weaves a tale involving identity theft and a missing child. It's her 30th mystery novel, but she has 12 other books to her credit as well. She's written five Christmas mysteries with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark; a personal memoir, Kitchen Privileges, which tells of growing up in Depression-era New York; a biographical novel about George and Martha Washington, Mount Vernon Love Story; several short story collections; a children's book; and more.

In a recent interview with the AARP Bulletin, Higgins Clark, now 83, not only shared details about how she works, but also advice for those who aspire to write their own stories. And she couldn't help herself: She shared her Irish wit as well.

Q. You've been writing since at least 1956 or so. How have you been able to maintain your discipline and energy all these years?

A. So far, so good! (Laughs.) Really, writing is my sole talent. I can't sing, can't sew, never had a sense of rhythm, could never throw a ball except when it went off the field. The one talent that the legendary godmother left in my cradle was to be an Irish storyteller. And it's never been hard for me to come up with ideas.

Q. But anyone walking down the street can have a good idea for a book. You've made it a reality. How?

A. I have a need to write. There are people who would like to write, there are people who have a genuine talent for writing, and there are the rest of us — those of us who become known, who truly need to write. And it is a need, like eating or brushing your teeth. We write in the morning, we write in the afternoon, we write on the back of a piece of paper, we get up early, we stay up late, because we simply are compelled to write.

Next: How did 'I'll Walk Alone' come to be? >>

Q. You also do a great deal of research and preparation for each book — you don't just sit down and let it spill. Tell us how I'll Walk Alone came to be.

A. For this new book, Michael Korda, my editor for all these years, said to me, "Mary, I was thinking. Identity theft is prevalent. Wouldn't it be good to have a book that focused on identity theft?" And I said, "That really does sound interesting." So I went to the computer and found reams of material about identity theft. But I quickly realized that as frustrating, agonizing and infuriating as the problem is — someone's bought a house in your name, or someone's cleaned out your bank account, and you know nothing about any of it — identity theft is a personal obstacle that's not really enthralling to a general audience.

Q. So how did you make it work?

A. I thought, what if someone exploded the bank account of a young divorcée in New York whose son is kidnapped out of a stroller in Central Park while the babysitter is asleep on a blanket? And what if a video camera just happened to record the entire kidnapping? There is a lot more to it, of course. But I've found that if you have a missing child, everyone cares. Localize this story to one person, and everybody wants to know what happens.

Q. Remind us about your beginnings as a writer.

A. I was widowed young [in 1964, when her husband, Warren, died of a heart attack; the couple had five children]. And every morning I would get up and write from 5 a.m. until a quarter of 7. I would slam the windows — I like a cold bedroom; my kids used to call it my igloo — and I'd flip up the heat. I would go downstairs with a nice bundly robe and make a pot of coffee. And for one hour and 45 minutes every day, I would write. It was better than any other writing during the day, when the phone's ringing every two minutes. Then I would put the manuscript and the typewriter aside and get the kids up. I'd feed them breakfast, not waffles in the toaster — I would really feed them! And I dealt with all of the questions in the morning: "Where is my homework?" "Where is my school uniform?" "Where is this?" "Where is that?" The children were out of the house by 20 minutes to 8, and by a quarter of 8, I was getting into the commuter car and heading into New York City.

Q. You had a full-time job [as a radio-script writer]. With everything else going on, did you ever miss a day of writing?

A. If I ever let that alarm go off early in the morning and said, "Just today, I'll sleep," I hated myself. I felt as though I'd wasted my day. With that uninterrupted time in the morning, I could just sink into my writing.

Q. If you hadn't become a writer, what would you have become?

A. Actually I was very good at advertising and at the radio programs I wrote. And honestly, if I ever went into politics, I would have had fun.

Next: Advice for those who aspire to write. >>

Q. Really?

A My mother was a diehard Democrat, and she would go trotting around to get the vote out. She would help all the older ladies get to the polls. She loved politics, and that's something I think I would have enjoyed very much. But I wouldn't have been the person I am today. I am a writer. And I've always said, let others decide whether I'm a good writer. I know I'm a good Irish storyteller.

Q. What else don't we know about you?

A. I love a good party. I'm the one who would climb out of my casket to go to my wake! And when I die, put a nice big spiral notebook, a couple of pens, and a glass of wine in the casket, and I'll be perfectly content.

Q. Is there a question you've never been asked all these years and always wished someone would ask you?

A. I don't think so, though you could fool me. Somebody did ask me once, "Do you remember your first kiss?" And I thought, oh, sweet Jesus. Whoever kissed me good night after a dance was so utterly insignificant, I have no idea! (Laughs.) I came from that era where no guy would dare to get fresh with you, including when you were engaged. My contemporary gals and I just look at these kids today — all of these Page Six people who say things like "See my baby bump?" — and we say, "Holy mother of God." I'm not judgmental. I just shake my head.

Q. For those who aspire to write something, what advice would you offer?

A. If you need to write, you will write. If you say, "I don't have time," or "I'll write it as soon as I retire," or "as soon as the children are grown," "as soon as I have a nice quiet room," "as soon as the dog dies" — you're playing games with yourself. There will always be a new set of excuses. You will find the time to write if you're compelled to write.

Q. What about seeking practical help or instruction?

A. If people tell me, "I know I can write," I tell them, "Go to the local community college and take a course." It's awfully hard to just sit down at the computer and say, "Now I'm going to write." But if you're in a writing course, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, you'll get assignments and you'll have to complete them, whether they're short stories or anything else.

Q. Perseverance — your trademark — must be another tip to share.

A. Of course. Keep at it. You can't just finish something, send it out, and if it's rejected, say, "I guess I'm not a writer." I wrote 11 short stories before the first one sold, and that was after 40 rejections. And it sold for $100, incidentally! You don't stop writing just because you don't sell something.

Next: It's the stories that matter. >>

Q. What about for those who would like to leave some memories for others in their family?

A. Write your own story. Your children and grandchildren would be delighted if you told them where you grew up, what happened when you were young, how you met your husband on a snowy afternoon. People love the early stories. My grandchildren love my memoir, Kitchen Privileges, more than anything I've written.

Q. It's their chance to learn about your early life.

A. Yes, and it's about connection. Look at all this search for ancestry today. If you can just put the memories down for others — not just the memories of your parents, but the memories of the aunt who was a pain in the neck, too, that's a gift.

It takes people back to another era, another time, and tells them how things were. People can't believe that I heard the milk delivery in the morning on a horse and wagon — that clip-clop, clip-clop. Today when I hear carriages go by near Central Park, I'm back in my little room when I was 8 or 9.

Q. So it's the details, the atmosphere, the stories that matter.

A. It lets people know how things were and where they came from. I still remember how my mother and her sisters would sit around the table with the endless cups of tea and tell stories: "Oh, remember Kitty? Poor darling. She could have anyone and married that one." Wonderful stories! If people can capture some of that for their children and grandchildren, attach an old photo to it, and use a line from an old family joke as a title, it will be cherished for generations.

Maureen Mackey is a writer and editor in New York.