Between the Lines: Mary Higgins Clark still reigns

“When I was 15, I was picking out the clothes I would wear when I became a successful writer,” Mary Higgins Clark once told an interviewer. “I was sure I’d make it, but you first have to learn how to tell the story.”

Obviously, she did. The reigning Queen of Suspense, 84, has published 33 novels, three collections of short stories, a memoir, a historical novel and two children’s books, and has co-written five holiday-themed suspense novels with her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark. Her books have sold 100 million copies in the United States alone, and her 1975 debut title, “Where Are the Children?”, is in its 75th printing.

Her new novel, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Simon & Schuster, $27, 303 pages), opens with a murder, but justice is served in the end, a Higgins Clark trademark. She’s working on her next book and is planning a collaboration with crime novelist Alafair Burke, daughter of crime novelist James Lee Burke. In June, she will be inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Visit her at I chatted with her by phone from her New Jersey home.

Would you say you write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances?

I’ve always written about very nice people whose lives are invaded. Something happens they have no control over, and it’s by their own smarts and courage that they get through it and find the answers to solve the problem.

Many of your books are based on real events, springboards for your imagination.

I take the DNA of a case – the suspenseful and emotional background and circumstances – and build on it. I take the real people who were involved and make them into my own characters, but I don’t write about them (per se).

Your books are rare in the genre, in that they’re free of sex, bloody violence and bad language.

I have instinctively written in the same way, never going into sex and violence. Unlike my (late) friend Mickey Spillane, whose classic line was, “I shot him in one eye to see the expression in the other.” That’s great writing in a different time, but involving the mind is much better. The most intriguing romantic words were written in “Gone With the Wind,” when Rhett Butler says to Scarlett O’Hara, “You’ll not shut me out of your bedroom tonight, my dear.” We all know what’s going to go on, but imagining it is better than all the writhing around.

What do you see as your legacy?

My books offer entertainment and suspense involving the mind. Many people have written to me, saying, “I never enjoyed reading until I discovered your books. Thank you.”

SummerWords at ARC

Writers and poets of all skill levels often gather to inspire and support each other at workshops, conferences and retreats, joined by literary-minded members of the public. To that end, the third annual SummerWords colloquium will be at American River College, May 29 through June 1, organized by ARC’s creative-writing staff.

The seminar will offer panel discussions and hands-on workshops in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplay writing and memoirs; conversations with authors and editors; readings by published writers and poets; expert advice, and more. Twenty-eight presenters will participate.

“ARC’s creative-writing program is the very best in the region,” said poet-writer Christian Kiefer, one of SummerWords’ key organizers and author of the novel “The Infinite Tides.” “Our goal is to share what we have here with the community at large.”

The keynote presenter will be Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove, America’s poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. She is the only poet to hold both the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts.

Tickets to SummerWords are $95 and available at, where you can also fine a schedule of events. They include a special reading and book signing by Dove at 7:30 p.m. May 30 at the ARC main theater. A separate ticket just for that event is $25.

The $95 admission includes a package of three books published by ARC’s Ad Lumen press: “Tiny Giants: 101 Stories Under 101 Words” by Jason Sinclair Long; “Circus Girl and Other Stories” by Lois Ann Abraham; and “Some Distant Lateral Presence” by poet Daniel Rounds. Last year, Ad Lumen published “Let the Water Hold Me Down” by ARC creative-writing professor Michael Spurgeon.

All SummerWords sessions will be held on campus in the Student Center, the Library Building and the ARC Theater, 4700 College Oak Drive, Sacramento.

What’s your favorite book?

We all have our favorite books, but what about the nation’s top choices? To compile this list, the Harris Poll asked the question, “What is your favorite book of all time?” of 2,234 adults of both genders and of various ethnicities. Dropping off the list since the Harris Poll last asked the question in 2008 are “The Stand” by Stephen King (previously No. 5), “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown (No. 6), “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown (No. 8) and “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand (No. 9).

1. The Bible

2. “Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell

3. The “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling

4. “The Lord of the Rings” series by J.R.R. Tolkien

5. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

6. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

7. “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

8. “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott

9. “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck

10. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Three to choose from

Your next good read could be among this disparate trio:

• “Cheap Shot” by Ace Atkins (Putnam, $27, 320 pages): In 2011, a year after mystery writer Robert B. Parker died of a heart attack while writing at his desk, it was announced that his estate had made a deal with Penguin-Putnam. The publisher would continue with Parker’s popular Spenser and Jesse Stone series, naming veteran novelist Ace Atkins to write the adventures of Boston private eye Spenser. The Stone books would be written by producer-screenwriter Michael Brandman.

Atkins continues with this sharply drawn thriller that brings the familiar gang together: Spenser, longtime love interest Susan, best friend Hawk, new “associate” Zubulon Sixkill and other characters from Parker’s world. The object: rescue the kidnapped son of an NFL superstar.

• “Sweat” by Tom Meschery (University of Nevada Black Rock Press, $15, 95 pages): The concept of a book of poems about sports could be an oxymoronic, but not in the clever hands of the former NBA player (San Francisco Warriors and Seattle SuperSonics). This is Meschery’s fourth book of verse, and he keeps getting better.

• “The Body in Bodega Bay” by Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden (University of Wisconsin Press, $27, 232 pages): Though the co-authors teach at the University of Wisconsin, they’ve nailed the vibe and history of Bodega “The Birds” Bay on the Sonoma County coast. Antiques dealer Toby Sandler teams with his art historian wife, Nora Barnes, to help solve a murder and art theft.

‘Stevenson’s Treasure’

Upcoming author event:

In the historical novel “Stevenson’s Treasure,” author Mark Wiederanders re-imagines Robert Louis Stevenson’s great love affair and marriage in 1880 to the iconoclastic Fanny Osbourne (Fireship, $18.50, 360 pages). The author will speak and sign books at 6:30 p.m. May 23 at Face In a Book, 4359 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills, (916) 941-9401; and at 2 p.m. June 7 at Avid Reader at the Tower, 1600 Broadway, Sacramento, (916) 441-4400. Scottish author Stevenson wrote the classic “Treasure Island,” so it follows that there will be “treasure hunt giveaways” at the events.