Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture


Mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark on her successful career and teaming with her famed mom to bring their popular characters to TV

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Murder, She Wrote. Talking with Carol Higgins Clark you’d never think that she quite likely was in the process of plotting a murder. She really is as pleasant a person as I’ve ever interviewed. She has a lighthearted, even joyful, demeanor that no doubt comes, at least partly, from her mother — and sometimes co-conspirator — Mary Higgins Clark. After all, she clearly inherited her famous mother’s talent for writing — particularly, of course, murder mysteries.

She has been a regular on the bestseller lists since her first book, Decked, was published in 1992 and her P.I. character Regan Reilly has joined the annals of the great literary sleuths. Her own success has given her the confidence team up with her mother for a series of mystery novels, all set during the Christmas season.

One of those books, The Santa Cruise, is the basis of a new Hallmark Movie Channel film debuting this Saturday night (10/5) at 9:00 PM ET. Retitled The Mystery Cruise (and set outside the Christmas season) the backdoor TV series pilot pairs Regan Reilly (Michelle Harrison) with Alvirah Meehan (Gail O’Grady), the lottery-winning crime solver created by Mary.

I recently had the opportunity to chat separately with both authors about the film, their relationship and their thoughts on the art of writing. I’ll post my interview with Mary tomorrow. First up, Carol:

JWK: So, tell me about The Mystery Cruise.

CHC: It’s based on Regan Reilly and Alvirah Meehan, who is my mother’s character, who (first) appeared in a book she wrote that came out in 1987. She was a cleaning woman who won $40 million in a lottery. I had retyped that book for my mother. It was before computers (and) I used to do that for her. It helped me a lot in learning how to write. She had killed off Alvirah in that book and I said “Alvirah’s too funny! Please let her live!” She ended up using her in short stories and then when we started writing together we said let’s put Regan and Alvirah together. So, that was fun. I never knew that saving her life would lead to me co-authoring a book with (her character) years later.

JWK: So that’s actually how you began you career — by transcribing your mother’s books?

CHC: Actually, it was retyping them so she could send them to her agent. It was one piece of paper at a time in the typewriter — unlike now where you make your corrections on the computer and press the print button. In those days it took a while.

It started when I was about 19 — after my freshman year of college. My mother had her first book coming out and she had to get her second book into her agent but she still had a full-time job and said “Oh, I don’t know how I’m going to get this done.”  And I said “Mom, I’ll do it for you.”  So, I sat at the kitchen table retyping. She had these squiggles in the margins — you know, all that stuff. So, I did that for a number of her books. I talked to her about the plot, what she was doing.

JWK: So is that what planted the seed for you to become a writer?

CHC: It actually wasn’t. I went LA to be an actress. (I) met a man who had a books-on-tape business. This was before the publishers did it. He bought the rights to a few of my mother’s books and had me record them. (He) got to know me and said “You know, you should try writing. Write a part you could possibly play.” So, I wrote Regan Reilly but that was 20 years ago so I’m too old to play her now — but I do have a part in this.

JWK: I did want to ask you about that. I didn’t realize you were an aspiring actress to begin with but what was it like to actually play a character in a story you co-wrote?

CHC: It was really fun. A couple of years ago when they did Deck the Halls – not for Hallmark but for TNT — I was in that. So, that was great. Now, this time it was just really fun and it was fun because  I get to interact with…Regan, the character I created.

JWK: If this goes to series will it be based on both the Regan Reilly and Alvirah Meehan characters? How will that work?

CHC: What we would like to do is have Regan and Alvirah working together.

JWK: So, the episodes wouldn’t necessarily be based on the Regan Reilly books?

CHC: The character and maybe they’d adapt some of them because I have 15 books.

JWK: How much of you is in Regan Reilly?

CHC: I think a lot. I think my outlook on life, the type of humor that I have. I think a lot of the character is certainly close to me.

JWK: How much of Alvirah is in your mother?

CHC: My mother laughs. She says she had actually based (the character) on a neighbor in the Bronx, way back, (though) the neighbor hadn’t won the lottery. My mother loves Alvirah. I mean they’re very different in a lot of ways but — at heart — in some ways they’re alike.

JWK: You and your mother have written several Christmas-themed mysteries together. What’s it like to work with her?

CHC: It’s good. Doing a book together is great. We sit and we decide basically what the books going to be about. Because we have written those books during the summer, I’m usually at her house. Summer isn’t as busy as the rest of the year. I have a laptop and we can move around in different rooms. I’m the one who actually puts it down but we talk about what the lines are gonna be and I put it down and then we print out each chapter and go over it. It’s fun.

JWK: Why have you settled in on collaborating on Christmas-themed mysteries?

CHC: That’s just kind of the way it worked out because we both had books coming out in the spring…My mother had written some Christmas books on her own and so they said “Why don’t you try doing one for Christmas? Because there are people who like to buy them as gifts. It’s just a little different. That’s just been the way it’s worked.

JWK: The one you’re basing this pilot on takes place aboard a cruise ship. Have you ever been on a cruise yourself?

CHC: Oh, yes!

JWK: Have your experiences made it into this story?

CHC: Oh, sure! Definitely!  My mother and I even went on a cruise for six days when we started writing The Santa Cruise. We had both been on cruises before but  (we wanted to) immerse ourselves and remind ourselves (of the details). They had a rock-climbing wall. Not that either of us did that but just being there allowed us to immerse ourselves in (the experience). And, of course, cruise ships get updated. The first time I ever went on a cruise there wasn’t any rock-climbing wall. Things change.

JWK: Your new Regan Reilly book is called Gypped. The plot involves a game show appearance by the character. I know that you were on To Tell the Truth. Did that experience find its way into the novel?

CHC: I was on To Tell the Truth. I and two women came out and said “My Name is Carol Higgins Clark” (and) “No, my name is Carol Higgins Clark” and the panel had to guess which one was the real me. This was in the year 2000. But (the book was more inspired from ) when I was out in LA pursuing an acting career. Many actors try to get on game shows to make money. I was on Super Password. I won five days in a row. They had to retire me. But I never won the big money. I thought “Let me use that in a book.”

Many times you’ll meet someone — whether it’s on jury duty or a game show — and spend a few days with them and then you plan to get together but (with) life being busy you don’t. So what I thought was Regan runs into (someone she met on a game show).

JWK: Do you draw from personal experiences a lot in your stories?

CHC: A writer is always observant, of course…You can take the kernel of something — part of it — and use it in a book.

JWK: You have four siblings but you’re the only writer. Why do you think that is?

CHC: Well, I think I was the only one who went into the arts and I also was retyping the books. My brother is a lawyer and a municipal court judge. My sister is a judge. My brother’s been in business and my sister, as well. So, I think it was me pursuing the acting. The acting background helped a lot when I started writing. I was training for it. In acting class they teach you about the stakes in a scene (and) what motivates characters. When you bring a scene to class — as an actor with your scene partner — you have to do everything. There’s no producer, set decorator or anything like that. You and you partner have to do everything and that’s kind of like facing the blank page as a writer.

Oh, I just want to tell you quickly before I forget. We were a clue on Jeopardy! the other day.

JWK: Oh, really?

CHC: Yes! I always have Jeopardy! on if I’m home and I was home but I had to send something via FedEx. So, I was putting something together and I was meeting someone for dinner, so I didn’t turn it on. My nephew texted me and said “You and Minnie” — that’s what they call my mother — “were a clue on Jeopardy!” I wrote back and (asked) “What was the clue?” He was able to send me the video. I’m not good at that kind of thing the way younger kids are.

JWK: Wow! That’s like being in a crossword puzzle!

CHC: Exactly!

JWK: Have you ever been in a crossword puzzle?

CHC: Not that I know of. I have been on Jeopardy! once before, years ago.

JWK: As a celebrity?

CHC: No, no. As a clue.  So, this was the second time. But now I have a little video. So, that’s kind of fun.

JWK: Getting back to the Hallmark Movie Channel movie, what would you compare it to in terms of tone? Would it be like Murder, She Wrote? Or maybe The Rockford Files? What kind of show would it be?

CHC: There’s humor in it. It certainly isn’t a hard-boiled type of thing. Regan and Alvirah together solving crimes. They end up having an office. Maybe a little bit of that style of Murder, She Wrote.

JWK: I think people miss those kinds of shows. I think people are tired of the CSI/SVU style of  lurid and gory crime dramas. I believe there’s a craving for lighter shows featuring detective characters who are fun to watch. I think people would welcome that kind of show.

CHC: Thank you! That’s what we’re hoping! So, that would be great because there are a lot of shows on that cast the harder edge. They can be enjoyable but it’s nice to have this one as well.

JWK: So, you and your mother have been on Imus quite a bit.

CHC: Yes! That started because I made a joke about Bernadette Castro — not about her but do you know the Castro Convertibles?

JWK: Yeah.

CHC: Well, actually my first book (20 years ago) was set on a cruise ship…Regan returned from England with this woman and when she got to the suite there was just one bed. Regan looked at it and thought “I hope it’s a Bernadette Castro special.” So, Bernadette’s friend read it…and my publisher called and said “Bernadette Castro wants to talk to you.” I thought “My God!” (But) she thought it was great…She said “I want to send it to Imus.” She knew him pretty well and so he talked about my book and made fun of me. He said “If this book becomes a bestseller (I’ll) eat a Castro Convertible.” So, the next summer it came out in paperback and it hit the bestseller list. So, I called Bernadette and Imus said “Alright, I’ll have her on.” And I’ve been going on ever since. I had asked years ago (if they) would ever want to have my mother on. They said “Yeah! Great!” So, that’s how it all started. I actually just went to the Imus Golf Outing last night to benefit his ranch for kids with cancer. I went to the dinner for it which was fun.

JWK: So, you and Imus are good friends?

CHC: I don’t see him off the air — but we have such fun going on his show.

JWK: You, of course, have a role in The Mystery Cruise and have been an aspiring actress. Would you like to develop an acting career now?

CHC: Well, if it goes to series, I would be the one running Regan and Alvirah’s office. So, that would really be fun!

JWK: That would be an interesting situation — to actually have a role in a series you co-created.

CHC: (I’d) still write, of course. The nice thing about writing is you can do it wherever you are.

JWK: Regarding your writing, do you have any desire to break out into other genres, besides mysteries?

CHC: I don’t know. Would I like having a comedy, basically?…I might want to write a play or something but, for now, mystery is what I enjoy.

JWK: Your mother has clearly been an inspiration to you. What other authors have inspired you?

CHC: Obviously, my mother has been an inspiration but I’ve always enjoyed reading and, actually, right now we have a writers’ group that meets once a month for dinner in New York and just talks about what we’re working on. It’s a bunch of mystery writers — Susan Isaacs, Harlan Coben, Nelson DeMille, Lawrence Block. In any one month nine of us might be there, ten of us might be there, however many can make it. It’s always fun.

JWK: Is your mother part of that group?

CHC: Yes.

JWK: Where do you see yourself in five years?

CHC: Hopefully, we have a series going. That would be great. I would still want to be writing, of course. Hopefully, Regan and Alvirah have been on the air for a while.

JWK: Maybe you’ll be planning your big series finale in, like, eight years.

CHC: Right! How long is the longest a shot like this has lasted?

JWK: Well, I know way too much about this sort of thing but I can tell you Murder, She Wrote lasted 12 seasons.

CHC: 12 years?! Omigosh!

JWK: Anything else you’d like to say before we wrap this up?

CHC: Just that I enjoyed doing (the pilot) so much. It’s great to see your characters come to life on the screen. I hope (the film) will be something that people will enjoy on a Saturday night.

JWK: I think you’re going to find a strong audience for this. I believe that people miss character-driven mystery shows along the lines of a Murder, She Wrote, Rockford Files or Columbo.

CHC: I agree! (It’s nice) to have those characters you look forward to seeing again.

JWK: What TV shows do you like?

CHC: I love Modern Family. It’s funny. Do you ever watch that show?

JWK: I enjoy it — though I don’t watch it that often. I watch very little prime-time network television these days.

CHC: I don’t either because I work all day at home. Sometimes, I’ll just go meet someone for dinner. What shows do you like?

JWK: I used to like Lost and NYPD Blue.

CHC: Gail O’Grady was on that!

JWK: That’s right! She ‘s in your pilot!

CHC: Yeah!  Michelle Harrison  plays Regan Reilly and Gail plays Alvirah Meehan.  They’re both lovely people. I think that comes through in their acting.

JWK: It was very nice talking with you.

CHC: You too.

JWK: Good luck with the series. I hope you have a Murder, She Wrote-like 12-year run with it.

CHC: Thank you!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11



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