Friday, January 22, 2010

Interview with Mary Higgins Clark

From The Financial Times --

Continuity, chaos and clan --

By Margaret O’Connor --
January 15 2010 --

Mary Higgins Clark has sold more than 100m copies of 28 novels in the past three decades. The elegant 82-year-old Irish-American splits her time between a mansion in Saddle River, New Jersey, a Victorian property in the seaside town of Spring Lake, New Jersey, a pied-à-terre on Central Park South in Manhattan and a beach bungalow in Dennis, Massachusetts. She is working on her next suspense novel, ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’, about the beatification of a saint.

How does where you live influence the stories you choose to tell?
At least five of my books have been inspired by things I discovered in and around my homes. But the stories in my head tend to overpower my physical surroundings. As long as I’m in a space with natural light, I can buckle down anywhere.

Where did you start writing?

I’ve been inventing narratives since I could string together a sentence. I wrote my first novel on the kitchen table in our house on Walnut Street in Washington Township, New Jersey, where I raised five children. I stored my typewriter and manuscript on the kitchen floor. When I hit the keyboard at five o’clock in the morning I travelled to some scary and wonderful places in my imagination.

What are your most vivid memories of the Bronx from your childhood?

My first memory is looking down at my new baby brother sleeping in my doll carriage because his crib had not been delivered in time. Being a responsible three-year-old “mother”, I was distressed that my favourite doll had to adjust her naptime around my brother’s sleep schedule. The memory of waking to the clipclop of the horse-drawn cart delivering milk and bread to 1913 Tenbroeck Avenue reminds me how much the world has changed during my lifetime. I slept in the little room over the front door and had to vacate it for a boarder when my mother let out rooms during the Depression. We weren’t able to afford the upkeep of that grand home after my father died.

You lived out of a suitcase the year before you married your neighbour, Warren Clark. How did you adapt to travelling the globe as a Pan American stewardess?

Back then, working for Pan Am was the pinnacle of glamour and adventure. It was amazing to see Europe, Africa and Asia in 1949 as the world was on the brink of wide-scale change. The flight crew grew close during our long expeditions; it took three weeks to travel to and from India or a month to do South Africa.

Your first husband died from heart disease early in his life, like your father. Did you leave the home you shared with Warren to escape your shared memories?

I decided continuity would ease the pain of this great loss. One of the superficial things I did several months after the funeral was to buy a new bedspread and paint the bedroom to change it from “ours” to “mine”. I believe it helped the children to finish school where they had started and to remain close to friends.

What drew you to the Saddle River property that is now your primary home?

When I had five children, a husband and mother under the same roof I didn’t know I had a small house. When I was living alone, I decided I needed more room. I wanted to be close to my five grown children and six grandchildren. It’s on a wonderful two-acre plot. The kids enjoy having tennis and pool parties here.

Do your two guest bedrooms see much action?

My son Dave and his two children were guests for five years following his divorce. My family knows I’m serious about my open-door policy. Sharing the joys and sorrows of everyday life keeps me going.

How did you integrate John Conheeney into your home when you remarried 13 years ago?

John needed a sanctuary from the madness of my fiction enterprise. As the former chairman and CEO of Merrill-Lynch Futures, he needed a place to monitor the markets and world news. I created a quiet, second-floor office for him. We also installed a catering kitchen in the basement to minimise the madness in our home. Our combined clan of 30 creates chaos when we’re celebrating birthdays and other special occasions.

You’ve battled with arthritis and broken bones in recent years. How do you navigate a three-storey home?

I installed an elevator. It was the smartest $40,000 investment I’ve ever made.

Do you observe a seasonal or functional migration between your homes?

I enjoy keeping one foot on either side of the Hudson. Central Park South serves as my dressing room for the philanthropic functions I attend in the city. I’ve been a director of the Irish American Society, Catholic charities and the Mystery Writers of America – all of which give me ample reasons to be in town. Summers at our two beach homes recharge me in different ways. Sitting on the porch in Spring Lake with a pot of tea or a glass of wine, I enjoy great craic with friends stopping on their way to and from the beach. Our place on Cape Cod is much more isolated. Seeing the sun set on our deck is like watching the arms of God embrace the end of the day.

Have you ever returned to your Tenbroeck Avenue home in the Bronx? You render the property in great detail in your memoir Kitchen Privileges.

My brother and I stopped at the front door after a funeral but decided not to ask for a peek inside. Other happy lives are being shaped there now.



Paintings, photos, figurines

My Edgar. Being chosen Grand Master of the 2000 Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America was one of my proudest professional achievements.

The painting over my fireplace I picked up during a special vacation along the Seine. In Normandy a cardinal who was travelling with us insisted we climb the 900 steps to the abbey at Mont Saint-Michel, where he robed up with the monks and said mass.

The photo of my mother Nora which is hanging behind my writing desk, encourages me to persevere. On seeing it, one of my bishop friends remarked: “If she’s not in heaven, then who is?”

The Royal Doulton figurines in my living room evoke the prosperity my mother enjoyed – and lost – in her lifetime. I especially like the one of a woman drinking tea. My mother always had a cup and saucer at hand.

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