Not My Job: Author Mary Higgins Clark Gets Quizzed On Writer's Block

Jun 13, 2014
Originally published on June 14, 2014 11:42 am

Suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark is an enormously prolific author, so we've invited her to come play a game called "I got nothin'." Three questions about authors who suffer from the dreaded curse of Writer's Block, inspired by "Blocked: Why Do Writers Stop Writing?" a New Yorker article by Joan Acocella.

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And now the game where we reward years of hard work with a few moments of discomfort. It's called Not My Job.

Mary Higgins Clark is a very nice, sophisticated woman who writes novels about not very nice people who do terrible things. She's one of the most widely published and read authors in the world with millions of books in print. Mary Higgins Clark, welcome to WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME.

HIGGINS CLARK: Oh I am delighted to be with you. Simply delighted.


SAGAL: Mary, we were reading about your early life and it's fascinating. We thought one way of getting into it would just be to ask you your full legal name?

CLARK: Mary Theresa Eleanor Higgins Clark Conheeney. Will that do?

SAGAL: That will do. And so you've travelled quite a fair distance acquiring those name?

CLARK: Oh, yes, well, of course, I was born Mary Higgins. I married Warren Clark 60 years ago and he was widowed after 14 years. And then after years of virtuous widowhood, I married John Conheeney.

SAGAL: And were you a virtuous widow?

CLARK: Of course I was, I'm a nice Irish Catholic girl from the Bronx.

SAGAL: I understand. You write though about very unpleasant people who do various murderous and criminal things.

CLARK: Well I always liked to read suspense. I liked to tell scary stories when I was 6 years old, so I was just sort of drawn into it. You know, I had a checkered career. After school when I was age 15, I was a switchboard operator at the hotel Shelton and our most famous guest - only he wasn't famous then - he had the cheapest room in the hotel, and it was Tennessee Williams.

SAGAL: Really?

CLARK: And he was writing "The Glass Menagerie."

SAGAL: "The Glass Menagerie."

CLARK: Yeah, he was writing it. And funnily enough all those years later when I wrote "Where Are The Children" and I had sold it, he used to live at the Elysee Hotel right around from the office where I was working and we'd pop in there for drink after work. And the bartender said, you know, Mary, why don't I show Tennessee Williams your manuscript? Maybe he'd get you a plug? And he did. He said, I know a lot of writers who can write better than that.

SAGAL: Really?


CLARK: Totally true.

SAGAL: So your first novel - first big novel was "Where Are The Children." It was a big bestseller.

CLARK: That's right.

SAGAL: And you've written many, many novels since then.

CLARK: Right.

SAGAL: And I was reading your latest, "I've Got You Under My Skin" and it's filled...

CLARK: Isn't it good?

SAGAL: Oh, it's wonderful. I was just about to say, I don't know any writers better than you. Anyway, and...

CLARK: I love you. I'll buy you a drink.

SAGAL: But what's interesting - thank you - is you seem like a very nice person, and yet you're writing about - everybody in this book is on some level either a terrible or tormented person or both. Do you ever - I would do this if I had your job and certainly had your skill and talent, which is that I would use the opportunity of writing murder mysteries to kill people I don't like.

CLARK: Oh, of course.

SAGAL: Really? So you've done that?


CLARK: No, don't get mad, get even.

SAGAL: Right. So you have, for example, met someone or had an encounter with someone professionally - personally, they just rub you the wrong way and you say, you're my next victim.

CLARK: Well, you know, when I was beginning to send out short stories, before books, of course, and I had a stack of them. And redbook was a magazine - one said - scribbles on the bottom of the rejection slip, Mrs. Clark, your stories are light, slight, and trite. I thought, I'll get you, baby. I'll get you.


SAGAL: Did you?

CLARK: No, I don't kill people, I just maim them.


SAGAL: You maim them. You're a gentle person. I've noticed - how do you - do you have a method 'cause you write so many books and have so many characters - how do you come up with the names for them?

CLARK: Well, you know what I do?

SAGAL: What do you do?

CLARK: I keep dinner invitations, 'cause we go out a lot. You know, there are a lot of affairs and it's fun, we have a lot of friends. But I look at the guest list and I never use the same name, but I wrote one book where I got the newspaper from 1890 and I picked out some names from then. And one day at church this girl asked - said to me - oh thank you for using my name in your book. It was third generation of that family name. And I said, oh did I? Yes, but she said, why did you strangle me on the baordwalk?

SAGAL: Did you have a good answer?

CLARK: I said, nothing personal.

SAGAL: Well, Mary Higgins Clark, what a pleasure to talk to you. We've invited you here today to play a game that that we're calling...


CLARK: Oh, good, sounds good.

SAGAL: You're such a cheerful person with such a high body count, it's amazing. You are and have always been incredibly prolific as a writer, so we thought we'd ask you about those writers who are not so prolific - those who suffer from the dreaded curse of writer's block. Answer two of these three questions correctly, taken from an article in the New Yorker by Joan acocella, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kassell's voice on their voicemail. Bill, who...

CLARK: Well, don't let them count on it yet.

SAGAL: It's a mystery what may happen. Bill, who Mary Higgins Clark playing for?

KURTIS: Kirsten Roehler of Soquel, California.

SAGAL: All right, here we go. Ready to do this?

CLARK: Sure.

SAGAL: Here we go. Now the term writer's block was invented in the 1940s by a psychologist named Edmund Bergler. What did he think caused writer's block? A - possession by very lazy demons, B - a mental association of black printer's ink with human waste, or C - the vestigial anger over the lack of breast-feeding?

CLARK: Oh, that's a good one.


CLARK: Well, there's no right answer so I'll take the first one.

SAGAL: You're going to pick the - there is a right answer in that he actually thought writer's block was caused by one of these three things.

CLARK: Well, they're all wrong but I'll take A.

SAGAL: Oh, I see. You're disagreeing with him, so whatever he might've said, you don't care, it's wrong. So you're just going to pick A - possession by very lazy demons?

CLARK: Yeah, I am.


SAGAL: Well, good for you. That's a good theory, but it's not his theory. His theory was actually C - the breast-feeding. He was a disciple of Freud, of course. He felt that writer's block was caused by quote, "oral masochism" in which the writer becomes enraged at the mother for denying him - or I guess her - milk.

CLARK: Oh dear god, how wonderful of him.


SAGAL: Yeah. You have two more...

CLARK: Tell the poor soul who was going to get a free something or other that I'm sorry.

SAGAL: Well, it's not over yet. It's not over yet. You still have two more chances, you see? Now various people including scientists have tried to cure writer's block. Which of these is a cure proposed by a neuroscientist at Harvard? A - putting your outstanding bills on the keyboard every night, so the writer must clear them away before getting to work - a little reminder of what they need to do. B - taking a daily dose of Neapolitan ice cream, or C - waving a magnetic wand over certain parts of the head?

CLARK: I think looking at the bills is a good scientific thing - works for me.

SAGAL: You think so? Oh yeah. You think that's the - I want to say though, this is a neuroscientist, someone who's concerned with the chemistry and biophysiology of the brain.

CLARK: OK, what's my alternative?

SAGAL: Your alternative to the looking at the bills is having a daily dose of Neapolitan ice cream - has to be Neapolitan, though, OK, or C - waving a magnetic wand over certain parts of the head.

CLARK: Then I think have to go to for the ice cream if the bills were wrong.


SAGAL: I - I'm just not going to argue with you anymore.


SAGAL: No, it was C - the magnetic wand. This neurologist actually believes that writer's block and depression might be alleviated by magnetic fields. You have one more chance here. Let's see if you can get this one right. One of the worst ever cases of writer's block is which of these? A - Donald Lau, who writes fortunes for a global fortune cookie company. He says he has been unable to come up with anything since 1995. B - songwriter, Ric Carey, the man behind "Who Let The Dogs Out," he says every time he tries to write a song, he ends up with a chorus that goes, who, who, who, who, who? Or C - Novelist Dan Brown who says his last two books are just "The Da Vinci code" with all the words rearranged.


CLARK: I got to go for that one, frankly.

SAGAL: Really? You want to go for Dan Brown?

CLARK: I think it could be.

SAGAL: I think you're right, it could be, but it isn't. It's the fortune cookie guy.


SAGAL: He told the New Yorker, quote, "I've written thousands of fortunes, but the inspiration is gone." Bill, how did Mary Higgins Clark do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Mary was perfectly consistent.


KURTIS: And misses out on...

CLARK: Sounds like one of my rejection slips.


KURTIS: Mary, we would never reject you, but I'm sorry to say you missed out on the Hope diamond.

SAGAL: There you are.

CLARK: I'm a failure.

SAGAL: I think you were the opposite of a failure. And I think actually going for zero for three on this show is actually a shine of your genius and better priorities.


SAGAL: Mary Higgins Clark is the author of many, many best-selling books. Her latest "I've Got You Under My Skin" is out now. I can't wait to find out who did it myself. Mary Higgins Clark, thank you so much for joining us.


CLARK: A great character.

SAGAL: Thanks for joining us. What a pleasure to talk you. Bye-bye.

In just a minute, a hungry Bill Kurtis says hubba hubba in our listener Limerick challenge. Call 1-888-Wait-Wait to join us on the air. Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and Carmax, offering more than 35,000 used cars and trucks online and in stores from coast to coast. Learn more at Arizona State University with more than 60 campus degrees now available 100 percent online at Lumber Liquidators, offering a variety of sustainably harvested flooring, including prefinished and stained at 1-800-hardwood. And the Carnegie Corporation, supporting the New Americans Campaign and all their partners promoting citizenship. More at Great We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT ...DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.