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Interview: July 31, 2009

July 31, 2009

Mary Jane Clark is the New York Times bestselling author of 12 thrillers, including IT ONLY TAKES A MOMENT, WHEN DAY BREAKS and DANCING IN THE DARK. In this interview with's Christine Irvin, Clark discusses her inspiration behind her latest novel, DYING FOR MERCY, and talks about how her career as a writer and producer at CBS News helped shape many of her previous media-based works. She also explains the reason behind setting the book in the historic New York community of Tuxedo Park, gives insight into her daily writing process, and names some of the writers who have influenced her over the years. It’s common knowledge that you use real-life news items as ideas for your books. What inspired the storyline of DYING FOR MERCY?

Mary Jane Clark: Yes, I have gotten many ideas from things that appear in the headlines, stories that I worked on for CBS News. But sometimes the inspiration comes from a less glaring source. In the case of DYING FOR MERCY, I read an article about a couple who had extensive restoration work done on their New York City apartment. Unbeknownst to them, their architect designed and built a puzzle, incorporating it into the renovations. It wasn’t until years after the family moved in that they found the first clue. That story intrigued me.

BRC: Your book takes place in a gated community called Tuxedo Park in New York State. What made you choose this historic setting as the centerpiece for your latest thriller?

MJC: I grew up not far from Tuxedo Park. As kids, we would drive by the entrance and I wondered what was behind the security walls. I knew there was wealth involved, but I didn’t know much else. Then, a few years ago, I was invited to speak at a luncheon at the Tuxedo Club. What I saw inside the park gates took my breath away.

This is a place that is so incredibly beautiful, so lush, so exquisitely developed. It’s a privileged and protected world, rich in tradition and history. It has its own police force, and many residents don’t lock their doors or take their keys out of their ignitions. They feel totally secure. The idea of evil invading this rare and wonderful place fascinated me. Cell phone reception is spotty over the acres of mountains, rolling hills and lakes. The thought that it could be impossible to call for help if one were attacked or run off a winding road was one of the factors that made me excited about writing a suspense story that took place there.

BRC: The novel’s main character, Eliza Blake, is the co-host of the morning television show “KEY to America.” Has she been based, in whole or in any part, on any of your real-life experiences as a writer and producer at CBS News?

MJC: Of course, they always say “write what you know.” After spending almost three decades working at CBS News, I’ve written and produced countless stories and I understand the roles people play in television network news. There’s always a deadline to make and the pressure to get the story right is constant.

The men and women you see delivering the news from the studio or on location at a breaking story all have personal lives as well as their professional ones. Eliza Blake hosts “KEY to America” every morning, but she is also a working mother trying to juggle the demands of her career while raising a young daughter as a single parent. I know what that is like from personal experience.

As far as my books ago, all of the ideas come from things that I’ve experienced or stories that I’ve worked on or researched. Some of the things that we read about or see on television are more bizarre than anything that I could possibly make up. Pretty much every day I see something on the news that I think I could spin into a media thriller, taking the germ of an idea and developing it into a unique, fictional story.

BRC: DYING FOR MERCY is the third book in your Sunrise Suspense Society series. How is this novel similar to and different from the previous two installments, WHEN DAY BREAKS and IT ONLY TAKES A MOMENT? Should readers be familiar with books one and two in order to get a better feel for Eliza’s character?

MJC: Well, all three novels follow anchorwoman Eliza Blake and her KEY News colleagues as they cover interesting stories that turn into dangerous investigative situations. Eliza, along with producer Annabelle Murphy, whose outstanding journalistic instincts lead her to clues the police can’t find; cameraman B. J. D’Elia, who routinely goes beyond the call of duty to get the shots that break the story; and Margo Gonzalez, a psychiatrist and KEY News contributor who is able to get into the mind of the criminal, band together to solve each case.

In WHEN DAY BREAKS, the Sunrise Suspense Society tries to figure out who killed Constance Young. Constance has also been hosting the “KEY to America” morning show before deciding to leave the network for another. She ends up murdered on the day of her going-away party. In IT ONLY TAKES A MOMENT, Eliza’s young daughter is abducted from summer camp and Eliza has to depend more than ever on her friends for help in finding the kidnappers and saving her child.

You don’t have to read the books in order. They all stand on their own. Still, people seem to like reading them in the order in which they were written. The same holds true for the other nine KEY News novels written before the Sunrise Suspense Society series. Those books also take place in the world of KEY News and can be read in order or as stand-alones.

BRC: The plot of DYING FOR MERCY incorporates a number of puzzles, as Eliza is invited to the historic estate of Pentimento. How did you come up with these puzzle ideas?

MJC: I don’t want to say too much or give too much away here. Let’s just say a lot of brainstorming, research and imagination went into it.

BRC: What kind of research did you do for the book? Considering the extraordinary amount of details regarding stigmata and Franciscan history, I assume your research was extensive and quite time-consuming.

MJC: Extensive, time-consuming, FUN and INSPIRATIONAL. A trip to Italy brought me to Assisi, the home of St. Francis. It, too, is a stunning place with a remarkable history. Walking the streets that St. Francis walked and imagining what his life was like 800 years ago was such a privilege. I had learned about St. Francis in grammar school yet, honestly, hadn’t paid all that much attention. But in Assisi, his story came alive.

The frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis in the Basilica di San Francesco were especially inspiring. The paintings illustrated major events, telling Francis’s story, the artist Giotto doing with paints what the best writers do with words.

I decided that Innis Wheelock, the permeating character in DYING FOR MERCY, would have walked the street of Assisi, studied the life of St. Francis and, when examining his own life, realized that he had come up terribly short. Innis wants to repent and make himself over in the image of St. Francis. Inflicting stigmata upon himself is the ultimate attempt to become one with the saint.

BRC: Because you are the author of so many successful bestselling thrillers, I have to ask: What is your daily writing routine?

MJC: When I am in the writing mode, I get up in the morning, hopefully get a little exercise, eat something, shower and dress. Then I get to the computer and work all day, breaking for lunch and stopping to stretch from time to time. This isn’t done all year round, just for the five or six months it takes me to actually write the book. The rest of the year is spent researching and thinking of the next story, attending to publishing details and spending time promoting the book.

I know some writers say they write 365 days a year, maybe taking off Christmas and their birthday. For me, that wouldn’t work. I need down time to recharge, like a field that needs to lie fallow for a season before a new crop is planted and grown.

BRC: What authors have influenced you through the years?

MJC: As a kid, I read lots of Nancy Drew stories, but my real favorites were the Trixie Belden Mysteries. I had the entire set. In fact, they still sit on a shelf in my bookcase.

Since seventh grade when I read it, Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND is my favorite book. There are so many authors I read in the high school years that influenced me: Herman Wouk, Irwin Shaw, Leon Uris. I don’t write like those men but I sure do admire their work. They transported me to worlds I never knew existed.

The scariest book I ever read was THE RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris. There are so many wonderful writers out there, I can’t list them all. But I do think whatever you read influences you in some way.

In the category of women’s suspense, without a doubt, I would say I’ve been influenced by Mary Higgins Clark. When I was growing up, she lived in the adjoining town, her daughters and I attended the same high school. I married her son. Though the marriage ended, there are two wonderful children who came from the union.

Over the years, I think I’ve read every one of her books. I saw how hard Mary worked and, somehow, seeing that demystified the process for me. I came to realize that while you had to have imagination and the ability to string words together to tell a story, perhaps the hardest and most important component is discipline. You have to make yourself sit down in that chair and write.

BRC: What have you read recently that you think is worthy of recommendation?

MJC: CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff and AMERICAN WIFE by Curtis Sittenfeld.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

MJC: I’m working on two things…another KEY News book, taking place in Washington DC, as well as something completely different: still mystery/suspense, but with a new heroine, set in a new world. As soon as I’m certain when they’ll be out, I’ll post the information on my website:

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