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Faith, Media & Culture

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

Mystery Mom. Yesterday, I posted my conversation with mystery writer Carol Higgins Clark about her collaboration with her mother — and literary inspiration — the Mary Higgins Clark on The Mystery Cruise, a backdoor pilot for Hallmark Movie Channel airing Saturday night (10/5) at 9:00 PM ET. As I wrote yesterday, Carol’s somewhat incongruously joyful demeanor (for someone who plots murder for a living) probably stems, at least in part, from her mother. After reading my interview with Mary, I think you’ll agree.

JWK: How did the idea of combining Carol’s Regan Reilly P.I. character with your lottery-winning sleuth Alvirah Meehan come about?

MARY HIGGINS CLARK: I’ve been with Simon & Schuster forever — since my first book was bought in ’74 and published in ’75. Then Carol went with Scribner which is a sister (company) of Simon & Schuster. At that time, I had already written one Christmas book (called) Silent Night but the publisher said “Wouldn’t it be great for the two of you to get together and do a Christmas book? I loved the idea because…Alvirah is funny. In fact, I had to cut her down in my book because my editor Michael called and said “Mary, that woman is taking over this entire book.” But then I could be funny with Carol because her character is Regan Reilly and (her genre) is humorous suspense.  So, they made a great combination. We’ve done now four books with the two of them together.

JWK: So, the two fictional characters have a great rapport.

MHC: Yeah. Alvirah, of course, is 64-years-old and always struggling to get out of size 14 and into a size 12. I think they (the producers) very wisely — to reach a younger audience — decided have her more as Regan’s contemporary and put her in a detective agency so that they can go on from there. In our books, they’re friends but it’s happenstance that they get involved in mysteries.

JWK: And The Mystery Cruise is, of course, a backdoor pilot for a TV series.

MHC: Yes — and that’s wonderful! I mean we’d be delighted, of course, if the series went on…We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that the world will watch (the pilot).

JWK: As I was saying to Carol, I think your show would a refreshing change from the dark and gruesome crime dramas that rule TV now. It recalls the light, humorous and character-driven shows like Murder, She Wrote, The Rockford Files and Columbo.

MHC: Well, you see, that’s what we want…I think we could use a new series that offers that kind of entertainment. It’s been my brand in my books that never will I use explicit sex or violence or nudity or the usual four-letter words. It certainly has worked for me for nearly 40 years.

JWK: Why did you make the decision to avoid those things?

MHC: Because it’s the way I naturally (am). I believe in the Alfred Hitchcock way of telling a story. You never saw violence and yet those 14 or 17 seconds in Psycho where you see the hand with the knife and you see the shower curtain and the silhouette behind it and then you see (her) trying to duck the knife and then the blood on the floor (are terrifying). But you never see the knife touch her.

JWK: How many of your books have been adapted into movies?

MHC: I’ve had about 16 books made into television movies and two feature films. Of course, you always hope they’ll be a great success. The feature films certainly were not.  In fact, the New York Times asked me last spring “Which of the movie made of your books is your favorite? I said “I’m still waiting.”

JWK: Were any of those TV movies series pilots?

MHC: This is my first pilot.

JWK: How do you feel about the prospect of these characters continuing on in perhaps 100 stories?

MHC: Oh, I love the idea of it continuing on! I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It will be delightful! You know, seeing your people come to life on the screen is fun.

JWK: Of course, you don’t really know where they’re going once you turn them loose into a TV series. They could take on directions that you don’t anticipate.

MHC: We have agreed that my brand (does not include) violence on camera, that it’s gonna be humorous suspense and then I leave it up to them. I don’t intend to mini-produce the (show).

JWK: Carol actually has a role in the movie that, I understand, will continue should a series result. I believe her character will be the P.I. firm’s office manager.

MHC: Carol started as an actress, as she probably told you, and she’s a very good comedienne. She’s a very good speaker…She could do a lot more (speaking engagements) if she wanted. She’s funny, she’s entertaining, she makes you laugh (and) she’s informative. I know that she’ll do very well as an actress if the show goes on.

JWK: Any chance that you’ll be turning up acting in an episode?

MHC: In the first (adaptation of) a book we did together, not for Hallmark, I was sitting at a bar with grape juice which was supposed to be wine. (I was) in the background. I did my Alfred Hitchcock. I couldn’t do it in Vancouver this summer (when The Mystery Cruise was filming) because I wasn’t quite well at the time. I had a bad reaction to a medicine so I couldn’t, unfortunately, travel to Vancouver. I’m fine now.

In fact, there are three movies (in development) right now…and I’ll be doing cameos in them…from other novels, not the ones I do with Carol.

JWK: How’s it feel to see Carol follow in your footsteps and become a successful writer herself.

MHC: I love it! You know what was crazy? She started — I guess it was 20 years ago — and people said “Do you mind that your daughter is a writer? I said “Mind?! It’s Such at crazy question! I’m delighted!” When you think about it, if a doctor’s son or daughter becomes a doctor people say “Isn’t that wonderful?!” Why would a writer not be thrilled that her daughter is following in her footsteps?

JWK: Do people think there might be jealousy or something?

MHC: It’s so silly. When a scientist’s son or daughter becomes a scientist they’ll say “Wonderful! Wonderful!” So, why, in the name of God, would a mother be jealous to see her daughter become a successful writer? We have been on the bestseller list at the same time — you know, with her book and with mine. Gee, it’s great. We have it all framed.

JWK: You have five children. Why, of all of them, do you think Carol is the one who became a writer?

MHC: They are all capable of writing. They are all good storytellers but my two oldest are judges and, of course, that keeps them pretty busy. (One) son had a public relations firm. He retired from it but he was doing that. My other daughter was on Wall Street. So, they all had careers but I tell them all you could write if you sat down and did it. Because they all have a good sense of humor. They all have the gift of timing. But, you know, unless you want to do it (you won’t). My daughter is head of Criminal Court in Paterson, New Jersey. She’s busier than God knows who because it’s a busy, busy job. So, she certainly isn’t going to sit and write fiction.

JWK: It sounds like you could actually base some books on their experiences.

MHC: I use to go to trials all the time. Now I don’t because I’m recognized…But I used to go and I got more ideas just from the reaction of people. You know, a 16-year-old was on the stand and (the lawyer) said “You have a sister.” And he said “No, I had a sister.”  There’s poignancy that comes (through) when you see the family of the victim.

(At) another one someone said of a woman (victim) of about 50 (whose) dress they had crumpled in a plastic bag….”Is that the one she was wearing?” (The female witness) said “Yes.”

“Are you sure it’s the dress?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know it’s the dress?”

“Because it was the first time she wore it. She looked so pretty in it…and Four hours later she was dead in this dress.”

You know, that’s the kind of poignancy that a writer (tries to capture). I don’t write about those (specific) people but that kind episode.

JWK: Carol told me that, in preparation for the book that would become the movie The Mystery Cruise, the two of you actually took a cruise together.

MHC: It was heaven!…You know, we’ve been on the QE2, all of the Holland Line. (They’re) very upscale and we’ve lectured on them. It’s fun because you go first class. I like to lecture. I enjoy it but this (time) we were just going to soak up atmosphere. We got things like the rock-climbing wall which we did not have on the QE2…We did it just to absorb and write. We had connecting rooms. We were just working. It was great!

JWK: It hasn’t all been fun for you though. You’ve actually experienced a lot of difficult financial times in your life. First when you father died and then when your first husband died and you had to raise five kids on your own. What was that moment like when you made that first big sale and you knew that didn’t have to worry so much about the bills anymore?

MHC: Where Are the Children? was the first one  and that took the choke collar off because I had two in law school and two in college. It sold for $3,000 to Simon & Schuster but it (got) $100,000 for the paperback of which I got half. The publisher got the other half. That time it didn’t make it to a movie but it was optioned for a movie. So, the choke collar was off and I started going to college at night. I had never gone…While I was at the job — doing radio shows, writing them — I was going to Fordham Lincoln Center at night.

During those five years I wrote the second book,  A Stranger is Watching. One night I was going to class and my agent phoned. She said “Are you sitting down?” I said “Yes.” She said Simon & Schuster has offered $500,000 for first rights and Dell has offered a million dollars for the paperback rights. Think about it.” I said “Think about it?!”
It was a million dollars to me because Simon & Schuster got half of the paperback. I went to three classes that night at Fordham. I heard nothing. I was doing one-million dollars in…Roman numerals (and) one-million dollars up and down like a crossword puzzle. I just couldn’t believe it!

JWK: It must have been amazing because you really did go through years of struggle.

MHC: I lived from paycheck to paycheck. I remember once when…I was hearing some noise in the car. (Somehow a screw had gotten into the carburetor.) I chugged-chugged home and then found out I had $700 worth of damage. I thought I will never ever be able to figure out how to pay $700 in damages. I’ve never forgotten those years. I’m very, very grateful for the success I have enjoyed. I certainly understand very much what it’s (like when) an expense comes up and you’re trying to figure out how to pay for it. You just don’t forget those years. I was never depressed about them. I am a natural optimist but there were times when (it seemed like) I was doing nothing but adding up on the back of envelope what I had to pay this month.

JWK: I know that faith has played an important role in your life. One story in this regard concerns your brother.

MHC: He was 13. Six months after my father died — he died in May of 1939 — my older brother was in the hospital (with severe osteomyelitis). They said they’d have to amputate his leg. My mother said…”I will not make him a cripple! I can’t do that and I’m not supposed to do that!” And then the doctor said…”There is something that seems to help wounds. Something called sulfur.” And my mother said “Put it on him.” That was a week before Christmas and her gift to him when we went to the hospital was  a hockey stick. She said “You’ll play next year.”  And he did. And then he died at 18 in the service.  It was terribly difficult. He and I were very close. We were only 19 months apart.  But my mother’s reaction was “God wanted him even more than I do.” She had deep, deep, deep faith.

JWK: When your husband died years later did you draw on that same kind of faith?

MHC: I knew for five years that Warren had a terrible heart. The doctor had said “Every day is a gift to him.” He continued to work. (I’d tell him)…”Don’t pick up a suitcase. Don’t run for the bus.” You just never knew. He did have two heart attacks that he survived. The third one took him.

JWK: What kind of work did he do?

MHC: Warren was district manager of an airline. It’s not in business now but it was the first of the charter airlines where groups would travel and get a discount.

JWK: It must have been difficult for you when he died.

MHC: You have no right to collapse when you have five little children – 5, 8, 10, 12 and 13.  We only had $25,000 in insurance because he wasn’t insurable….and he didn’t have a pension.

JWK: You are remarried now though.

MHC: Yes, I married 17 years ago in November. It’s been a wonderful marriage. I said “God blessed me at the beginning and He blessed me at the end.”

JWK: I found it interesting to learn that you found yourself in Washington, D.C. in 1981 — on the day that President Reagan was shot. You actually showed up at the emergency press conference and asked a question.

MHC: Yes, that’s absolutely true. I had just had lunch with a friend and went back to the hotel and she (called and) said “Mary, for God’s sake turn on the television! The president has been shot!”  And, of course, they were showing those scattered kind of pictures of the president coming out and being shoved into the car and Jim Brady down on the ground. I thought “This is happening five blocks away and I might as well be in Nome, Alaska!”  I thought “I’m going to walk over to the hospital.” I had a press pass from a journalists and authors (group). (It had) “PRESS” (written with) big red print on it.

It was funny. There was an eerie silence as everyone walked over to the hospital. There was no hubbub. Just silence. The reporters were pouring into the auditorium of the hospital. I went up with them and I shoved my press pass under the guard’s nose and said “Press! Where’s the briefing!” He said “Right in there, lady! Right in there!” So, I was there for the next four or five hours. You know, it’s crazy. The first that that happens when you have something like that is they call in the caterer  — if you could believe it — because they know that there is going to be a long siege going on. They were setting up a long table at the back and all the press was saying “Have you heard anything?” They were all trying to get the news and getting no news. Then finally some guy said a doctor will be in to give a report. Finally, a guy in a white coat came and everybody went rushing to him. There was one gal — she had elbows like scissors — and her camera man was behind her and she stuck her mic in front of this guy’s nose and she said “How is the president?!” He says “Lady, lady, I’m bringing in the baloney!”

But then a doctor finally came (and said) “The president is laughing. The president is joking. The president is in great health.” I was the one who asked “Is the president aware that two people in his party have been shot and are seriously wounded?”  He said “Oh, no, no, no. We didn’t tell him that.” My son, he was listening in New Jersey and said to his wife “For all the world wouldn’t you think that (voice) was Mary?”

JWK: The Catholic Church has honored you as  a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

MHC: Yes, that is a singular honor for which…I feel blessed.

JWK: Was it given to you by the pope?

MHC: It’s a papal honor that is given by the bishop.

JWK: You’re also a Dame of Malta and a Dame of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

MHC: That’s right.

JWK: You obviously take your Catholic faith very seriously. How does it feel to be bestowed these honors?

JWK: I’ve been very active in a lot of charities because I firmly believe that much is expected of those to whom much has been given. I’m considered a good speaker. So, I’ve done a great deal of speaking. A little less now , of course, because I’ll be 86 in December so I’m not doing quite as much traveling. I can’t support every charity but if my name will raise (awareness for a good cause) I do (what I can).

JWK: So, what’s next?

MHC: Right now, when we’re finished speaking, I will be in my chair…I’m writing by hand my new book and then my secretary types it which works out fine because when I went on cruise I never bothered with a computer. I wrote by hand.

(This Saturday) I assure you I will be sitting watching the movie surrounded by the family with a glass of wine in my hand.

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

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