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Mary Higgins Clark on Failure

Mary Higgins Clark on failure.

This post is in response to
The Failure Interview Series

Mary Higgins Clark knows something about getting through tough times. She lost her father when she 11, her brother when she was 16, and her husband when she was 36—after which she was left to raise five children on her own. That didn't stop her from becoming one of the most successful suspense novelists of all time, with 28 books that have sold 100 million copies in the U.S. alone. At age 81 she's still going strong. Her new book, Just Take My Heart, is on sale now.

What are your greatest successes? What are you most proud of?

Of course I'm delighted. You'd be an idiot if you weren't delighted to be successful. It is such a pleasure to succeed at what I love doing. There's a wonderful saying, "If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery; if you want to be happy for life, love what you do." Since I was six years old I've been writing. So to be one of the blessed ones who becomes successful is obviously terrific.

It's very nice when someone says, "I was having a lot of problems. My husband was sick, and when I could pick up your book and get away from it all, it was so helpful. I'd be sitting in a hospital room, worried sick about a husband or a child. If I picked up your book, it just got me away from it." That's very nice to hear. Or if you're not feeling well—I know that myself, I love to read—when you don't feel well or can't sleep, it's pure heaven to lose yourself in a book.

When did you feel most discouraged or most hopeless and how did you get through those times?

There is the profound grief of losing someone close to you. My father when I was 11, my brother when I was 16—he was only 18, he died in the service—then my husband when I was 36. These are profound times in your life.

It's very sad to see children raised without one parent. No matter how good the other one was. My mother was terrific. And I think I was a very good mother—I am a good mother. But you can't replace the fact that other kids have a father. I think that's always a continuing sadness for people who lose someone. The one thing is, my mother had enormous faith. We're Catholic, and she always felt there was a reason for it. Unless you have a feeling that there's a greater reason, it would be very hard to come out of sadness or hopelessness.

I remember what she said. My brother was the firstborn—she was 40 when he was born. When my brother died at 18, she said, "God wanted him even more than I do." That kind of deep faith is what gets people through. No matter what religion they are, that sense that there is a greater purpose. Without it, it must be pretty awful.

What went through your mind in those times? What did you tell yourself that allowed you to pull through?

When my husband died, there were five little children. They were 5, 8, 10, 12, and 13. I said, "The one thing I'm not going to do is let them lose their mother as well." There was great laughter in our home. Martin was a very funny man. The kids were raised with laughter. I thought, "As much as possible, I'm going to keep it that way." It's necessary, kids don't deserve to lose both.

Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever feel like there was no reason in going on?

I never felt like there was no reason for going on. Basically I'm an optimist, and that's a big help.

I took a course at the New School when I wanted to try my hand writing a suspense novel. I read a chapter I was working on and somebody said, "I consider mysteries bubblegum for brains." And he had written a long poem about a wet dream! I said, "I'm gonna tell you something. What I just read is not good, I can see that. But my novels will be published long before that dribble you wrote will see the light of day."

The point is, I think I have always, if things are bad, considered it a challenge. I have an "I'll show you" attitude, which is very helpful.

I left that story. Instead I started writing a book that became Where Are the Children? That was my first suspense novel. It became a bestseller and that's nearly 40 books ago.

What gave you that confidence? You had written something that you realized wasn't very good. Yet you didn't give up.

I was always sure I was going to make it. It's very helpful. My mother thought everything I wrote was wonderful and she'd make me recite it for all the relatives, and she'd lead the applause. I tell parents and teachers, "For the love of God, if a child is showing you something creative, don't tell them ‘You misspelled six words,' or ‘The handwriting is sloppy.'" Praise the creative effort! Because you can crush the creative spirit if you say that's silly, doesn't make sense, or doesn't rhyme, or that's a stupid picture. You can crush it. I knew because my mother said I was going to grow up to be a successful writer. She said it so much that I knew. When my first short story was out, it was six years and 40 rejections before it sold.

I was absolutely sure I was going to make it. I think a great deal of the sense of "I can do it" comes from parents and teachers who encourage. Look at Obama—that's what he's saying. His mother and grandmother: "You can do anything." I think that's very true. If they're given a positive sense of "I can, I can," it's a great help. It certainly was for me.

Did you become a writer because she encouraged you, or did she encourage you because you already knew you wanted to be a writer?

I was a writer. From the minute I could write, I was writing a poem, skits and making my brothers perform in them. I was writing from the time I could put words together. The fairy godmothers give us a gift at the cradle. I can't sing and I can't dance and I can't sculpt, but the one who said, "You'll be a storyteller," she showed up, thank God. We've all get a gift when we're born. The trick is to find it.

How did you figure out you had this gift?

Because I had to write. I kept a journal from the time I was seven. The first entry was, "Nothing much happened today." That was it. I kept a journal for years. I don't anymore, I'm just too busy. But the need to put it down was always there. I was writing a short story in math class in high school. I went back to the academy—I graduated from Villa Maria academy. The 90-year-old math/science teacher never forgot a single one of us. I had 15 bestsellers under my belt, and she looked at me and said, "Miss Higgins, you were a dreadful math student." I curtsied to her as we did in the old days and I said, "God bless your memory, Reverend Mother."

I was just always doing it. But then when I was married, I said, "Now I have to learn to be a professional writer, I've got to learn how to tell a story." I was just 22. So I walked down to NYU and took a writing course.

At that point, the demands of being a wife made you realize you had to approach it in a more disciplined way?

You have to learn how to tell the story. I had not gone to college, I'd gone to secretarial school for three years, and then I got married. I knew I had to be a professional writer. I knew I had to learn how to hone the talent. Everything I learned about writing, I learned in that short story course. What the guy said was, "Take a true incident and turn it into fiction." I've been doing it ever since. Something you read in the paper, something in the family. Ask yourself two questions, "suppose" and "what if," and turn that true incident into fiction. My first novel was based on the Alice Crimmons case in the 1970s, a gorgeous 26-year-old was accused of murdering her two children. I wrote a totally fictionalized version about a young mother who was innocent. And ever since then, I've been basing novels on something I've read in the papers, taking the DNA of the case and writing fiction. I learned in that first class.

Where do your own life experiences come in?

You're part of every story. You think of someone you went to the eighth grade with, and you think well that's the kind of kid this is. You delve into your own memory and incidents. But then part of being a creative writer is when you get to know the people in the book, they take on their own personality and they say things you didn't think they were going to say. That's when creative writing becomes great fun. That's when creative writing is so exciting. Everything is based on memory and experience, or something you heard.

Was there ever a character in one of your books who had a difficult moment? And what enabled the character to bounce back?

In each case, in my books, the main character has a problem that has to be solved. You want it to be believable. Naturally you want the story to be believable. I want my readers to identify with my characters, to walk in their footsteps and say, "I want it to work out for her." That is part of storytelling, that you give the characters a difficult time. If I write about a young widow, I know what I'm talking about. In this book, I have a young widow whose husband died in Iraq. Everything is grist for the mill.

Any last words of wisdom?

Optimism and a sense of humor will get your through an awful lot. And realizing that this too shall pass, no matter how dark the day. If you look to what's good in the world around you and you're aware of the needs of others, I think you sleep well at night.