Stories from the storyteller: Mary Higgins Clark enchants her audience

Whether she is talking to an audience in person or on the page, author Mary Higgins Clark knows how to tell a story.

The best-selling novelist — often referred to as the Queen of Suspense — visited Wilton Library Friday evening and was not at a loss for words, taking the microphone a few minutes after 7 and regaling her audience with stories for more than an hour.

From the peculiar way her Irish father proposed to her mother — “Norah, would you care to be buried with my people? — to recounting a school reunion when, with 15 best-selling novels to her credit, Sister Mary Thomas of Canterbury reminded her, “Miss Higgins, you were a terrible math student,” she recalled her life, enjoying the stories as much as those listening to her.

She recalled when, as a Pan Am flight attendant on her first-ever trip to London, she was standing on a street corner in awe of the city and a woman in a ratty fur coat said to her, “Beg your pardon, love, but this is my corner.”

Ms. Higgins Clark, who is on tour to promote her newest book, Daddy’s Gone A Hunting, is a favorite among patrons at Wilton Library. According to Karen Danvers, program manager at the library, 306 people attended the talk and 90 books were sold.

“We all agreed we had no idea she would be so witty,” Ms. Danvers said. “She stayed and signed every single book, and talked with everyone” who waited on line. “It was a very successful event for the library.”

Aimee McDonald of Wilton came to hear Ms. Clark with her mother and aunt. Ms. McDonald said as a student she was not a big reader until her mother introduced her to Ms. Higgins Clark’s books while she was in high school.

“She re-introduced the fun in reading,” Ms. McDonald said. “Now I’m an avid reader.”

Joyce Filip of Rowayton, Ms. McDonald’s mother, came at her daughter’s invitation. “I’ve always enjoyed her books,” she said of Ms. Higgins Clark.

The two brought along Ms. Filip’s sister, Joan Dixey, visiting from Chicago. “I’ve read a lot of her books,” she said, “eight or 10 of them.”

“I really like the suspense,” Ms. McDonald said. “I like to try and figure it out. The characters are very relatable.” She especially enjoyed the fact that many are set in New England or nearby.

Judy Hendrickson came over from New Canaan. “I’m interested in what she thinks, her writing process,” she said. “She’s had a long and storied career. I want to hear her stories.”

She was with a friend, Debbie McGrath of Wilton, who said the opportunity to meet the writer was one she “couldn’t pass up.”

Growing up in an Irish household, Ms. Higgins Clark said, telling stories was her destiny.

“My mother was one of nine,” she said. “There were five girls and they were very close. Over endless cups of tea they’d talk about everyone. … I was always writing poems, short stories.”

After high school she worked at an advertising agency and then became a flight attendant for Pan Am, “back when it was very glamorous.”

She did not know it then, but her career started taking a turn when she took a college course  in short story writing.

“I never dreamt I could write a novel,” she said. When the class was assigned their first short story — 15 pages — she didn’t know what to write about. Her teacher suggested she read the newspaper, find an article that intrigued her, that made her want to find out more.

Her teacher told them to “take a true story and ask, Suppose and What if.” She said she adds the question Why?

“One person’s motive has to be the strongest,” she said. “It’s the DNA of a true case and then you go on.”

She based her first story on an incident that happened to her when she was a flight attendant. She was on a plane that landed in Prague to pick up seven Americans. At the same time, a Soviet air show was taking place. One of the Americans commented how anyone in the air show audience would give their life to be on that plane with them, heading home to the United States.

The story Ms. Higgins Clark created from that incident was called Stowaway. It was about a young man who seeks to escape the Soviet Union on an American plane.

Her teacher was effusive with praise and told her it would surely sell, “and it did, six years and 40 rejection slips later,” Ms. Higgins Clark said with a hearty laugh.

She chose the suspense genre because that is what she likes to read. “From the time I was little I wanted to be the first one who knew who did it,” she said.

“Each time I turn a book in I feel I’ve given birth again and you count the fingers and toes and hope you’ve told a good story,” she said.

One member of the audience asked if she ever gets writer’s block.

“The first 50 pages are hard,” she said. “You’re staring at the page and you just don’t know what’s wrong with this book. I just say to myself, ‘Royalty check,’” she said jokingly.

Eventually, she said, trouble usually arises from “forcing a character to do something.”

She continued on that theme when asked about the characters that populate her book and if she knows the ending in advance.

“I know who did it and why because you have to know the motivation,” she said. “You’re working toward this end, the suspense has to be tight. The characters have to be different.

“When you know the characters, they will do things that surprise you … and that’s what makes writing exciting.”

When asked if she has a recurring character, Ms. Higgins Clark said a character named Alvirah is in several books. Alvirah is a lottery winner who does her own detective work on behalf of friends. “She moves the plot forward,” Ms. Higgins Clarks said of her. “I think she’s my alter ego.”