Q&A: At age 90, Mary Higgins Clark is still the queen of literary suspense

WASHINGTON — Alfred Hitchcock will always be the master of suspense at the movies.

But in contemporary literature, the reigning queen remains author Mary Higgins Clark.

At 90, she continues to pen page-turners, including her new book “Every Breath You Take.”

The story follows TV producer Laurie Moran, whose latest hit show “Under Suspicion” has built quite the reputation for solving cold cases. After taking a romantic break from former host Alex Buckley, an annoying new on-air host, Ryan Nichols, suggests a new case to cover.

It involves Virginia Wakeling, a board member at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was found dead in the snow after being thrown from the roof during the Met Gala fundraiser.

“[She’s] just about turning 50 and is extremely attractive, and she had chosen the dress that [former first lady] Barbara Bush wore all those years ago,” Clark said. “Now, in that beautiful gown, four hours into the affair, she vanishes and is found next door to the museum.”

The leading suspect is Wakeling’s much-younger boyfriend Ivan Gray, a personal trainer at a trendy boutique gym, which just happens to be the same gym that Ryan frequents.

“The question is: Who did it?” Clark said. “She was planning to leave all of her money to charity, which upsets her three children and also a nephew. Which one of them has stopped her from doing it? Or, is it someone else, like her younger boyfriend? So, that’s where we go.”

She once again co-writes with Alafair Burke for the fourth in their “Under Suspicion” series.

“The first book I wrote in that series, the publishers liked the people in it so much that they said, ‘We want to continue those characters in other books, but we know you don’t want to write four yourself in one year, so why don’t we go with a co-author?'” Clark said.

How did she ultimately choose Burke?

“They gave me books by four other authors, but the minute I read Alafair, I said, ‘We could write seamlessly together’ and we’ve been doing it [ever since],” Clark said.

For such a renowned suspense novelist, Clark surprisingly started off in a different genre.

“I was writing a radio series called ‘Portraits of a Patriot’ that starts off with something like this: ‘At age 14, she was given the family tree and said that I am nearer to the throne than I realize.’ … It was fun. I liked doing those historical shows, but they said, ‘You’ve never done George Washington. … We need George Washington.’ So, I started doing some research.”

Thus, her debut novel, “Aspire to the Heavens,” was a fictionalized account of Washington.

“I found that we don’t know this man,” Clark said. “I thought he married Martha for her money and she was much older; she was [actually just] eight months older. It was a great love story between the two of them. She went through the British lines to join him in Boston and also went through Valley Forge. She was there with him! So, I thought there’s a great story there.”

Despite good reviews, she didn’t sell very many copies. So, she decided to shift genres.

“I had two kids in law school, two in expensive colleges, one in an expensive girl’s school, so I looked at my bookshelves [to see] Agatha Christie, Rosalie King, Daphne du Maurier. … I’ve always tried to analyze and be the first one to know who the guilty party is. I didn’t realize I was training myself to write suspense fiction. So, ‘Where Are The Children?’ became the first.”

The 1957 novel launched a career of best-sellers, including “A Stranger Is Watching” (1977), “A Cry in the Night” (1982), “Loves Music, Loves to Dance” (1991), “All Around the Town” (1992), “Remember Me” (1994),  “Pretend You Don’t See Her” (1997), “On the Street Where You Live” (2001) and “Where Are You Now?” (2008). Today, she has 100 million copies in circulation.

When writing, she doesn’t start with clues or red herrings, but focuses on the characters.

“When I get an idea for a book, I have to find who are the characters, I do profiles on them, I know how they dress, what their hobbies are,” Clark said. “I rewrite the first 50 pages over and over. At that point, I’m telling my husband, ‘There is no book here. I might as well throw it out the window!’ We’re married 21 years, widow-widower. He said to my son, ‘Your mother is so upset this book isn’t working,’ and he said, ‘For god’s sake, we’ve heard this with every book.'”

Suddenly, the characters will take on a life of their own and guide her to the finish.

“When I get my people and know who they are, they start doing things I didn’t expect them to do,” Clark said. “That’s when I know I have a story and keep going.”

Click here more on her latest book. Listen to our full conversation with Mary Higgins Clark below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Mary Higgins Clark (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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