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Interview: July 29, 2005

July 29, 2005 Co-Founder Carol Fitzgerald and contributing writer Shannon McKenna interviewed Mary Jane Clark, author of DANCING IN THE DARK. Clark explains the significance of the title, how her background in television news has impacted her fiction writing, the benefits of short chapters in suspense novels, and why she chose Ocean Grove, New Jersey as the setting for this eighth book in the KEY News series. All of your books feature main characters who work for the fictional KEY News. Why have you chosen to make KEY News a common element? Will you continue to do this?

Mary Jane Clark: As the saying goes, "write what you know." I've worked in television news for a long time, currently as a producer/writer at CBS News in New York City. It's been great fun to create a fictional television news network and populate it with a motley crew of characters. By having my characters go out and cover the news, where they go and what they get involved in pretty well knows no bounds.

Yes, I intend to keep writing this series for quite a long time.

BRC: This isn't the first time you've chosen a picturesque seaside location --- HIDE YOURSELF AWAY is set in Newport, RI, and NOBODY KNOWS is set in Sarasota, FL. What appealed to you about using the Jersey Shore town of Ocean Grove as the setting for this book?

MJC: From the minute I first saw those unique summer tents in the shore town of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, I knew I wanted to write a story that took place in this charming place. I was intrigued by the idea of evil lurking in such an idyllic vacation spot.

BRC: Is there an actual Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Area? Did you have the opportunity to visit one of the tent homes?

MJC: Yes, there is an Ocean Grove Camp Meeting area. At one time 660 tents were leased or owned in Ocean Grove. Last count I heard, there were now only 114 remaining. The tents stand in a semi-circle around the Great Auditorium, the center of life in Ocean Grove.

I had the pleasure of being given a tour by longtime summer residents of Ocean Grove. They invited me inside their canvas tent, which was erected over a wooden platform, transforming it into a living room furnished with a couch and chairs and lamps and carpeting. At the back of the tent, there was a small bedroom, a separate eating area and a teeny, tiny kitchen and bathroom. Meanwhile, outside along the walks, flowers and flowers and more flowers are planted by the tenters, many times to complement the gaily striped awnings that shade the miniature front porches. It is all incredibly colorful and charming and from another era.

BRC: Was it difficult to write about the subjects of anorexia and cutting? When researching the book, did you find any correlation between these behaviors and "crying wolf?" How do they work together in the book's narrative?

MJC: As a mother, it was distressing to learn that cutting is becoming more and more common. I had, of course, heard of anorexia, but I hadn't heard much about cutting. Both are destructive behaviors that troubled young women say make them feel they have more control.

In the story, Leslie Patterson, the young woman who "cries wolf" has a history of starving and cutting herself. Diane Mayfield, the KEY News correspondent who is covering the story of Leslie's questionable abduction, starts to suspect that her own daughter may be headed down the same destructive path.

BRC: The short chapters keep the pace moving swiftly and contribute to making DANCING IN THE DARK a page-turner. Is writing short chapters something you plan when constructing the book?

MJC: It isn't so much something I plan as it is something that happens. Perhaps because I've written so long for television news, where time is very limited, my aim is to tell the reader what is important to the story, not to pad things out with extraneous material. I think the relatively short chapters ratchet up the suspense.

BRC: Because of your professional background --- and the media hook in your books --- do you look to the news for story ideas?

MJC: Absolutely. Just watch the news on television or pick up a newspaper. On any given day, you'll find something that could lead to an idea for a fictional story. In fact, sometimes the things that happen in real life are wilder than anything I could dream up. Truth IS stranger than fiction.

BRC: Who do you turn to for insight on the more technical aspects of your books, particularly the police procedural and forensic details?

MJC: My father was an FBI agent and some of his colleagues have been very helpful. Honestly, too, the Internet is a huge help. You can find out just about anything there.

BRC: Tell us about the title, DANCING IN THE DARK, which is also the name of a song by Bruce Springsteen. Is it a coincidence that Springsteen's hometown, Asbury Park, is featured in the book? Did the title come before or after you wrote the book?

MJC: Everything just came together in this case. I knew the book was going to have aspects that took place in Asbury Park, the neighboring town to Ocean Grove. It was a natural to select a Bruce Springsteen title. Then, the title itself sparked a creepy aspect to the story.

BRC: DANCING IN THE DARK is your eighth novel. Does it get harder to come up with ideas with each subsequent book?

MJC: No, not really. That's what's great about having my characters act under the umbrella of KEY News. Their job assignments can lead to mystery and suspense. As long as there is news, I think the book ideas will keep coming.

BRC: Booklist has said about your writing, "Clark has perfected the suspense novel, where in classic Christie fashion everyone is a potential suspect." Is Agatha Christie one of the writers who inspires you?

MJC: Of course. She is the master and trailblazer for today's female mystery and suspense writers. I admire that she did what she did, at that time in history, so prolifically and so well.

BRC: What's on your reading list, both in and out of the mystery/suspense category?

MJC: I recently finished THE KITE RUNNER and THE MERMAID CHAIR and enjoyed both of them immensely.

On my table are: READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi DREAMS FROM MY FATHER by Barack Obama THE DRESS LODGER by Sheri Holman

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

MJC: Haven't settled on a title yet, but the ninth book in the KEY News series will be out in the summer of 2006. I don't want to say too much, but next time KEY News is going to the Berkshires to investigate a headline-grabbing murder at a summer theatre festival.