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Mary Higgins Clark active as ever at age 85

Thursday - 4/11/2013, 2:26pm  ET

In this Wednesday, April 3 2013 photo, author Mary Higgins Clark sign copies of her latest book "Daddy's Gone A Hunting" at the Simon & Schuster office in New York. Her current book is a vintage Clark thriller featuring women in distress, mysterious pasts and secret identities. It's about a deadly explosion that destroys a family furniture business in Long Island City. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

HILLEL ITALIE
AP National Writer

SADDLE RIVER, N.J. (AP) -- The desk of Mary Higgins Clark looks remarkably ordered for one of the world's most popular novelists. But the upkeep can be explained by spring cleaning and by a pause between projects as Clark promotes a new novel, and plans her next.

"It's a total mess when I'm working, because I have research books here," she says. "And last year, it was getting all dusty from all the books, so we had to take them out. I get allergies easily and it was getting too dusty."

The long-reigning "Queen of Suspense" works out of the top floor of this three-story converted ranch house, logging on to a Dell computer that is foreign to her in many ways, but just familiar enough for Clark to have mastered how to store a day's material.

She is 85, could have retired long ago, but worries more when she's not writing ("I was never a gardener. If I plant something, it dies.") She's completed more than 40 books, not just mysteries, but children's stories, Christmas novels, an historical novel and a memoir, "Kitchen Privileges." She has co-written a few books with daughter Carol Higgins Clark and has so many ideas that she's thinking of bringing in collaborators for other projects.

Her current book, "Daddy's Gone a Hunting," is a vintage Clark thriller featuring women in distress, tragic pasts and secret identities. It's about a deadly explosion that destroys a family furniture business in Long Island City and about one of the founder's granddaughters -- injured in the blast, suspected of being in on the crime -- who lies in a coma.

Explaining how she thought of the story, Clark talks about an old acquaintance who ran an unprofitable restaurant on Long Island, one that was ruined in a fire. He opened another restaurant, only to have another fire burn it down. "So the FBI said to him, 'Jimmy, next time have a flood,'" she says with a laugh.

She is also fascinated by memory, what happens to it after a traumatic event and what we're capable of understanding while supposedly unconscious. She discusses an incident from a few years ago, when she was recovering from surgery and was accidentally given too much medication.

"My blood pressure was dropping and so was my heart rate, and I actually had that out of body experience where I was floating above," she says. "And John (her husband, former Merrill Lynch Futures CEO John J. Conheeney) and the kids were all standing around the bed and it was a cathedral-like room. And I thought, 'I have a choice. If I turn right, I will not come back. If I go down, I will come back and I'm not ready yet.' And I came down."

She is a well-spoken woman with a good-natured, staccato laugh and a confident, but informal manner. Dressed stylishly in a red and white Escada jacket and dark slacks, she looks born to live well, to have a tennis court and swimming pool and an assistant who brings her tea. But commercial fortune did not come until middle age and her affinity for women who struggle, and prevail, is clearly personal.

Mary Higgins was born in New York City in 1927, an Irish-American whose immigrant father owned a popular pub. But when she was 11, her father died and the family lost their home. One of her brothers died of meningitis when she was a teenager. While still in high school, she worked as a switchboard operator to help support her family.

As an adult, Clark relived her mother's tragedy. She married Warren Clark, a regional manager of Capital Airways, in 1949 and had five children. But in 1964, Warren Clark died of a heart attack; his wife became a widow and single mother, with a mortgage and a modest inheritance.

Clark is still amazed by the energy she had. On weekday mornings, she would give her kids breakfast and share a ride into Manhattan for her job as a radio script writer. She would dress for work in the back of the car, her friends joking that it was indecent to look at the back seat until they had reached the George Washington Bridge into the city.

Clark always was a story teller ("I'll let others decide if I'm a good writer, but I AM a good story teller and will claim that for myself") and in her 20s and 30s, she wrote fiction for Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, including "Beauty Contest at Buckingham Palace," a sketch about an imagined competition featuring Jacqueline Kennedy and Grace Kelly.

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