Most people might have slowed down by now. But Mary Higgins Clark is decidedly not most people. With more than 50 best-selling books to her credit (100 million copies of her thrillers are in print in the United States alone) and a new novel, I’VE GOT MY EYES ON YOU, just released, the “Queen of Suspense” is still on the move. In fact, this Bronx-born denizen of Saddle River, N.J., produces two books a year.
Clark, who celebrated her 90th birthday on Christmas Eve, always makes time for her many (many) fans and will put her pen down long enough to be recognized by her fellow writers. For her “distinguished service to the literary community,” the Authors Guild Foundation on May 16, 2018 will honor Clark, along Fulcrum Publishing’s Charlotte and Robert C. Baron, and Vida: Women in Literary Arts.
Beyond her prodigious and well-received work, Clark has been an indefatigable supporter of the FRAXA Research Foundation, a Massachusetts-based non-profit leading the way into research of Fragile X, the most common inherited form of autism.
Clark indulged our own (resident Clark fan) Carol Beggy in a few questions about her work, her fans, and her philanthropy.
CB: Mary, if I can be so bold as to call a literary hero by her first name, how do you do it? Specifically, you’ve continued to write books that resonate with readers when other authors would have taken their winnings and retired to the beach or the mountains.
MHC: Yes, call me Mary. It’s very flattering that readers have enjoyed my books over the last 43 years. I am at heart a storyteller. That’s what I do. I’m not much of a cook, although my five children did not starve to death. I can’t sew a stitch. Nothing I planted in the garden grew properly. So, what would I do all day if I didn’t write? I hope I never find out!
CB: Are your fans really as loyal as they seem? I overheard two people waiting at the airport, one was reading one of your books, and the conversation involved them first trying to not ruin any plot lines and then debating various stories you told. Do they engage you about your stories? How do you keep it all straight?
MHC: I have been blessed with many readers who say, and they mean it, “I’ve read every one of your books.” We’ve had a relationship that’s lasted over 40 years. I love it when readers tell me my book kept them up until 2:00 in the morning. It’s also great when they tell me which of my books is their favorite. It’s gratifying that their answers are many different titles.
CB: Even within the industry, you have a large following of fans. I have been at Book Expo, the annual publishing industry trade show, and when you are doing a signing the editors, librarians, other authors in attendance “fight” for a spot in your line. (You and James Patterson get that same treatment.) Does it ever surprise you or make you pause that you’ve achieved a kind of rock star status?
MHC: I can honestly say I am living my dream. I know so many people who are wonderful writers who can’t make a living doing it, who get very modest contracts if they can get published at all. I must share a story from the old days. The first book I wrote was a historical novel on George Washington. Its title was ASPIRE TO THE HEAVENS. This was 1968. I would go around to the few bookstores that carried it and volunteer to autograph the copies. In those days the stores could not return a signed book for credit, so every signed book meant a sale. I made a pact with God. If I ever become famous, I’ll never refuse a request to sign a book. I’ll always remember that a signed book meant a sale.
CB: I have a Little Free Library (one of those take a book, leave a book, swapping stations) in front of my house. Your books, any time or format, are among the fastest moving. I put one in the Library’s shelf and it is gone. I even saw an older man take one telling me that he loves to read your books, but people give him a hard time. Has it ever surprised you to learn that someone was a fan?
MHC: My publisher tells me that about three quarters of the people who buy my books are women. But I’ve been delighted to hear from so many men who became readers when their wife, girlfriend or mother insisted that they give my books a try.
CB: As new audiences find you, do you ever want to go back and re-tell a story or re-do a book?
MHC: Not really. Whenever I finish a book, I say, okay, I’ve told the best story I can possibly tell. The only time I have regret, and maybe that’s too strong a word, is when a lot of readers tell me they figured out early on who the killer was, and they were right. I remember in one of my early books I introduced a character who was expert at imitating other people’s voices. That skill makes people very uncomfortable, and they immediately suspected him. I try to keep readers guessing, but when the killer is revealed, I want the reader to agree that there were clues along the way that built a case for this person to be the killer. Nobody likes an ending that comes out of left field.
CB: I understand your son Dave plays an important role in your writing. Can you tell me about that?
MHC: Dave started working with me about five years ago. In the beginning he was doing research and handling my email correspondence with my editor. I developed arthritis in my hands and typing became difficult. I started dictating to Dave. He would bring back what I wrote with some suggestions on how things might be said differently. They were good. It quickly evolved into talking plots and characters with him and the results have been very good. Dave came up with idea for my current book, I’VE GOT MY EYES ON YOU.
CB: Now to the non-writing work that you and your family have dedicated yourselves to: advancing research toward improved treatments and a cure for Fragile X, which affects your grandson. What’s the most important thing people who have not been directly affected by this genetic condition should know about it?
MHC: It’s not always obvious that a child has Fragile X, so if you see a child who is having a hard time – anxious, afraid. having a meltdown – it’s quite possible that they are doing the very best they can. But despite challenges, most people with Fragile X are very friendly and love humor.
CB: Fragile X has been a cause close to your heart. Tell us why it’s so important to you?
MHC: There are so many worthy causes and diseases to be cured, but the impact is greatest when it hits close to home. When my grandson was born, his parents quickly became aware of a relatively new organization called FRAXA Research Foundation. Almost 30 years ago, shortly after my grandson was diagnosed, Katie Clapp and Mike Tranfaglia came to my house, shared the story of their son Andy and how they were devoting their lives to finding treatments and a cure. I was so moved that I pledged $1 million to FRAXA and I hosted a fundraising gala in New York City.
CB: You and now so many members of your family are big supporters of FRAXA Research Foundation. Could you tell us a little bit about FRAXA?
MHC: FRAXA is a national 501c3 nonprofit founded in 1994 in Newburyport, MA. FRAXA’s mission is to find effective treatments and a cure for Fragile X, the most common inherited cause of intellectual disabilities and autism. To date, FRAXA has invested over $27 million into cutting edge biomedical research, yielding discoveries that are changing the lives of families coping with fragile X.
CB: Of the many FRAXA fundraising parties/events you’ve attended, tell me about the one when your granddaughter Elizabeth gave a remarkable speech, “This is my brother”, about her brother David who has Fragile X.
MHC: I thought it was remarkable. Elizabeth has always been so wonderful in how she has gone out of way include her brother in every facet of her life. I’ll never forget her line, “I judge people by the way they treat my brother.”
CB: How can people help?
MHC: There are two ways people can help. Research is expensive. FRAXA is such a worthy cause. And the research they are doing is making a difference in the lives of those affected by Fragile X. There’s another way the relatives and friends can help a family with a child who has Fragile X. Many of them are so good about minding the kids so the parents can have a break. What they should also consider is the sacrifice that siblings of Fragile X kids make. If you can take care of the child with Fragile X while the family and the non-affected siblings have a chance to do an activity together, that is so helpful. We should remember that the siblings of kids with Fragile X are really special, too.
The most striking element of opening night at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre for the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was the diversity of the audience and the connection that was made by people of all colors that evening.
In a world where the media seem to barrage people everyday with negativity around race relations in this country, the congeniality and shared excitement for the evening was the prevailing sentiment among the crowd. The performances by the cast of “The Color Purple” were filled with raw emotion, and the audience responded enthusiastically. Strong and natural yet controlled, the actors spun a powerful version of Walker’s story that was more upbeat and positive and less focused on the horrific treatment suffered by these southern African-American women during the 1920s and 30s because of their race and culture.
Moving quickly through the story, the vocal capabilities of the lead actresses, Adrianna Hicks in the starring role of Cecie, and Carla Stewart as Shug Avery, were worth the trip alone. The arts play an ever more important role in bringing people together and encouraging them to find common ground in the things they love. This is the message that Americans need to hear and for a few hours that magical evening all agendas were checked at the door, making opening night’s achievement truly worth the standing ovation it received.
Tickets are on sale now at the Boch Center Box Office, bochcenter.org, or by calling (866) 348-9738.
Breakfast at The Betsy with literary minds from Miami and Boston—not something you normally associate with South Beach, a sprawling beach community that has become the go to place for everyone from basketballers, rap stars, and winter snowbirds.
How did we end up here?
In December, we had a lovely dinner at the BLT Steak restaurant because my father in law is obsessed with steak, and thought it would be a great kid friendly place to bring the whole family. It was in fact, all of the above. On my way to the ladies room, I noticed a sign on the door which said “Writer’s Room”. A lightbulb went off in my head, my husband was a writer, could he use this writer’s room? I needed to learn more. I headed to the front desk to inquire about more information. The gentleman was very excited to tell me that the owner’s grandfather was a famous poet and because of this, literature and writing were always an important part of his life. He felt that it was important to support other writers-so on April 1st 2012, he developed the Writers in Residence Program at The Betsy, an opportunity for emerging and established writers alike to stay on the premises in a room designed for writing to occur. I toured the room, to see what it was all about, and discovered a well appointed cozy room, with a couch bed, antique desk (that had belonged to the grandfather of the owner), and a brightly lit bathroom with a TV embedded in the mirror. Who knew, maybe TV while you showered was a way to get inspired.
Fast forward two months, the present:
As part of the program, we set up a Literary Breakfast Salon with Ben. The Betsy sent out invitations to their community and within minutes of going live, the breakfast was filled, and they had to close the guest list—something that made us feel proud, because we were told that this has never occurred in the past!
The salon was held in BLT Steak around a long “L” shaped table. Deborah Plutzik-Briggs, sister of The Betsy owner Jonathan Plutzik, and VP of Marketing, Philanthropy and Programs, moderated the Salon, having the over 30 guests in attendance, introduce themselves. We had quite a diverse Salon, from heads of Florida International University, to restauranteurs Seth Greenberg and wife Sasha with the youngest attendee, their 5 month old son; club owner Sharrokh Reza and wife Dianna, to Margaret McNeill of Boston/Fisher Island, who brought Real Housewife friend Adriana DeMoura, and PR agent Olivia Wolff, and of course close Boston friends Adriana Hassan of The Tannery, and Alex Winston and his wife Dr. Daniela.
Everyone had interesting comments and questions for Ben, but the bulk of the conversation centered around Ben’s new book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder, which is scheduled to be released June 2nd, 2015. For the first time, Ben discussed the process of writing this book, and how book writing is transitioning from a process where the movie idea comes first and then the book follows. This is a stark difference from the past where books were always developed first then movie options were taken, then eventually movies were made (if you were lucky). Sorry, but I have to brag a little about my hubby, because having had two number one box office smash hit feature films made from two of Ben’s books is a feat that no other non-fiction author has accomplished.
Seeing his books transformed into movies was a topic that attendees of the Salon were interested in, as one asked Ben if he was satisfied with how the movies turned out. Ben talked about working with Aaron Sorkin, in Boston at the Four Seasons Hotel, and how a daunting but finally fortuitous leak on gawker.com lead to David Fincher and Sorkin both discovering the project.
Ben also discussed meeting Eduardo Saverin and how at the time he had only known of Facebook because of me. He told the story about how Eduardo eventually signed a contract with Facebook that said he would never speak to him, which lead to his subsequent breakup with my friend, de-friending of us on facebook, and how he subsequently got billions of dollars. He touched on the Winklevi, Sean Parker, and Justin Timberlake.
Guests of the Salon were also intrigued by the way that Ben has always seemed to be able to predict what is going to be “hot”, as in the case of his bestsellers Bringing Down The House, Rigged, and The Social Network. Ben explained that the process of writing a book starts about 2 years before a book is actually published, so a large part of deciphering what is going to be relevant is about picking a subject matter that appeals to him, and also having his pulse on what is going to be hot.
I personally think that the key to being a good writer comes from Ben’s innate ability to observe, decipher and make excellent judgement calls. He describes his ability to write as stemming from his view of the writing as equivalent to what a terminator is in James Cameron’s The Terminator: This is what he does , this is all he does, and he absolutely will not stop.
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