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For The Higgins Clarks, Suspense Is A Family Affair

Best-selling mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark (left) published her first story when she was pregnant with daughter Carol (right). She later named Carol for a character in that story.
Best-selling mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark (left) published her first story when she was pregnant with daughter Carol (right). She later named Carol for a character in that story.

For Mary and Carol Higgins Clark, the family business is suspense — of the fictional order. The mother and daughter write suspense novels separately, and also team up to write a series of holiday mysteries, most recently Dashing Through the Snow.

Mary Higgins Clark says she has always been a fan of suspense. As a child, she always had a book under her arm or under the pillow — and she was always the one who solved the mystery first.

"I didn't realize it," she tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, "but I was teaching myself to become a mystery writer."

Mary Higgins Clark's road to the best-seller list was an indirect one. One of her first jobs was as a telephone operator in a hotel in New York, where she sometimes listened in on the residents' conversations — including those of the writer Tennessee Williams.

It wasn't until 1956 when Mary Higgins Clark, then a mother of three, published her first short story.

"I had 11 short stories in the mail by the time that one sold," she remembers. "The one that sold had been out 40 times until I found a little magazine in Chicago ... and that was the beginning of my writing career."

Mary Higgins Clark named her next child Carol for one of the characters in the story, and her daughter jokes that she felt her mother's excitement in the womb when the acceptance letter came.

Growing up, Carol Higgins Clark says writing was always a part of the household. When she was in college, she helped her mother retype her second suspense novel.

"That's really what got me into [writing], because I'd talk to her about the characters and the plot," says Carol Higgins Clark. "It was great for me to learn about how to write."

So do the mother and daughter share plot ideas, or keep them to themselves?

"Oh, we wouldn't steal from each other," says Carol Higgins Clark. "We actually fax each other pages as we're working on our separate books, just to get feedback."

"You know, when you're writing and rewriting, you can get so close to it that it suddenly seems dull," says Mary Higgins Clark. "You need fresh eyes you can count on to say, 'That's fine. What are you worried about?' "

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