Weary from just completing a midterm exam in Genre Fiction: Theory and Practice, a group of Fordham students perked up on March 7 when the day’s guest speaker stepped into the classroom.
Escorted by Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, Robert Grimes, S.J., dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), and John Kehoe, FCRH ’60, FCLC ’85, a member of Fordham’s Board of Trustees, author Mary Higgins Clark walked in with an entourage befitting her renown as the “Queen of Suspense” and one of Fordham’s most distinguished alumni. (story continues below)
Clark, the international bestselling author of 31 suspense novels and a 1979 summa cum laude graduate of FCLC, returned to her alma mater to speak with students in a course taught by Mary Bly, Ph.D., professor of English, and a bestselling novelist in her own right. (Under the pen name Eloisa James, Bly is the author of more than 20 romance novels and novellas. Her memoir, Paris in Love, is scheduled for publication in April.)
Each week, Bly and her students examine a different genre—horror, young adult, romance, science fiction, etc.—and a special guest, typically a published author or publishing industry professional with expertise in the genre, is invited to speak.
Clark, who grew up in the Bronx, a child of Irish immigrants, revealed her natural storytelling abilities through tales of her turbulent early working days and her struggles to publish.
“I can’t sing or dance, but I can tell a story,” she said. “It’s my one gift.”
She said that she drew upon her experiences as a Pan American flight attendant in 1949 to craft her first published short story, “Stowaway,” which she finally sold—after six years and 40 rejection letters—to Extension Magazine in 1956 for $100. Even in the face of numerous brush-offs, Clark was confident and resolute. “You don’t just say [to yourself]it’s no good,” Clark said.
In 1964, tragedy struck, when her husband, the father of her five children, suffered a fatal heart attack. Money became tight and she went to work as a scriptwriter for radio and tried her hand at writing books. Her debut novel, Aspire to the Heavens (later reissued as Mount Vernon Love Story), a fictionalized account of the relationship between George and Martha Washington, was published to a lukewarm reception.
She continued writing, finding inspiration in the classic suspense stories she loved as a child. In a writing class Clark took years earlier, she had learned to take a true situation—something personally interesting—and ask two questions: Suppose … ? And what if … ?
“I added ‘why?’” Clark said, “because there needs to be a reason.”
Clark told students that she found the inspiration for what became her first bestseller, Where Are the Children? (Simon & Schuster, 1975) when she heard the shocking true case of Alice Crimmins, a Queens mother charged in 1965 with murdering her two children.
Her novels’ cast of characters usually includes a female protagonist with a strong personality, who encounters unsolicited trouble, and has an Irish background—“because I know what her grandma would say.”
Around the time of her first bestseller, Clark’s eldest children entered college; she, too, felt drawn to higher education. She enrolled at FCLC in the early 1970s. Like her oldest child, Marilyn, she majored in philosophy.
“It tells you how to think,” she said, “and I wanted to have an overall picture.”
Asked where she continues to find new ideas for her novels, Clark answered that courtrooms stimulate her imagination.
“Go to trials,” she said, “for wonderful observations.” She recalled watching a defendant wring his hands under the table, in simultaneous (maybe subconscious) imitation of the prosecutor describing the victim’s strangulation. “It’s those tiny human details that help build up a story.”
One of Clark’s writing methods, she told students, is to shift viewpoints among the characters with each new chapter: The sudden change in perspective moves the story quickly and enhances the suspense.
“When you’re reading suspense, it’s meant to be like an express train,” she said. “You don’t want to get off.”
Clark said she developed the subject of her next novel, about the discovery of rare parchment possibly written by Jesus Christ, based on a suggestion from her longtime editor, Michael Korda.
“He thought it was time for me to write something biblical—a biblical mystery,” said Clark, who is active in the Catholic Church. The Lost Years is scheduled for publication in April.
Clark was asked if she were to write Where Are the Children? today, would she write it differently?
“Well, yes,” replied Clark. “Cellphones.”
Mobile technology has changed both the plots of her novels, she said, and how people read her books. Her publisher is selling as many e-books as printed editions of her novels.
“There’ll always be books, but the Internet is nibbling at the way we read,” Clark said. “I’m glad I was there in the heyday.”