Mary Jane Clark has 27 books to go before she ties Trixie Belden. Trixie Belden, the intrepid girl detective and Nancy Drew-wannabe, was the heroine of 39 books between 1948 and 1986. Clark, who grew up reading the Belden series (“I still have my complete set”), has written 12 best-selling “media-thrillers” since 1998. Her latest, “Dying for Mercy,” was published in July, and the Associated Press praised it as “one of Clark’s — and the genre’s — best.”
Clark will be the guest speaker on Saturday, October 3, at the Fall Festival 2009, an event kicking off Blindness Awareness Month, at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book & Braille Center in Trenton. As one of New Jersey’s most popular crime writers, Clark, an alumnus of Immaculate Heart Academy in Bergen County, says she is delighted by the honor. Her involvement with a foundation seeking a cure for Fragile X Syndrome, which causes inherited mental impairment, has given her valuable insight into the world of disabilities.
Despite her love of girl sleuths, and a childhood spent with a father in the FBI, Clark had never imagined herself as a writer. “My father worked on Soviet spy cases during the Cold War and later on he worked on a lot of high profile extortion and kidnapping cases,” Clark says. “So I was kind of interested in crime — I think most people are — but I wasn’t one of those people who wanted to write. What I wanted to do was work in television news. After the (President) Kennedy assassination, and that whole following week of TV coverage, that’s all I wanted to do.” Clark graduated from the University of Rhode Island with degrees in journalism and political science in 1976 and got a job right away at CBS News in New York, working the midnight shift as a desk assistant. She worked there for the better part of 30 years, ending up as a producer.
Clark left the job two years ago, long after startling her colleagues by becoming a best-selling novelist. “They were surprised because, when the first book came out, I had told very few people that I was working on it. But they were supportive and interested. When you work in broadcast journalism, you have a deep respect for people in print. In television, you have pictures and sound bites to help you with the stories, and it’s a whole different skill. But you can get a whole lot more depth in print.”
All of Clark’s books, starting with “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” in 1998, take place in the world of TV news. Several novels center on Eliza Blake, anchorwoman at KEY News, and her partners in sleuthing. Eliza is fierce, loyal, and determined, and carefully steps her way around the sometimes cesspool-like, competitive world of broadcast journalism.
“Do I make the news people sound cynical?” wonders Clark, somewhat surprised. “I do have stinkers here and there, but I think most of the characters in my books are men and women who are trying to do the best they can.”
“Dying for Mercy” centers around a death in Tuxedo Park, the gated community for the well-to-do in Orange County, New York, in the Ramapo Mountains. It’s a place that has always fascinated Clark. “We used to drive past there when I was a kid, and I was always intrigued by the gates on the outside, the cars lined up to go in. A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a luncheon there, and once I went inside I knew it would be the most terrific place to set a story. It’s its own fiefdom, with its own police force, and the topography is such that cell phone service is spotty, perfect for a murder mystery.”
An avid traveler, Clark admits that any place she goes to, and is intrigued by, has a fighting chance of being in her books. Her daughter’s days as a theater apprentice in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a trip to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, have led to both places becoming settings for fictional gore. A recent trip to Assisi in Italy resulted in the life of St. Francis figuring in the plot of “Dying for Mercy.”
Her investigative news background helps out, too. “I love historical things, I love research, and I love architecture, so often I go somewhere, and I fall in love with a location. There are so many unique places in America, and you can just happen upon them.”
That same skill at research came in handy when she wanted to know more about Fragile X Syndrome. Fragile X covers a host of genetic conditions, all caused by gene changes in the FMR1 gene. “It’s the most common genetically transferred form of mental impairment,” says Clark. “I carried the Fragile X gene and didn’t even know about it, and passed it on to my son, the way hemophilia goes from mother to son, although Fragile X can go to females, but it’s much more prevalent in males. It is more common than cystic fibrosis, but people don’t know about it. It often manifests itself as autistic-like symptoms, and treatments are similar: early intervention and special education.
“One in fewer than 300 women will carry it,” says Clark. “There is a simple blood test that women can take to see if they are a carrier, but there are so many stories about it not being diagnosed.” For further information visit the FRAXA Foundation at www.frxa.org, a group focusing on treatment and a cure for the syndrome.
At the October 3 event the New Jersey State Talking Book and Braille Center will celebrate its name change from the State Library for the Blind & Handicapped. The center has a host of services available for the visually and physically impaired. Staying abreast of modern technology, the center has 68,000 books in audio cassette being converted into downloadable form.
Utilizing volunteer readers, the center also broadcasts many newspapers, including seven based in New Jersey, and various magazines through its radio service, and streams much of its information on the Internet as well. It has the largest Braille collection in the state — 12,000 volumes.
“There are so many disabled people in New Jersey who don’t know about us,” says Adam Sczepaniak, director of the center, “although we do get in the neighborhood of 25,000 calls per year. We really think that in the future, our focus will be the kids. Because technology has made it easier for anyone with a disability to read, kids will be the first ones with these downloads. These are like iPods for them.”
The event will showcase more than 30 vendors as well as the Garden State Story Teller’s League, animals from the Philadelphia Zoo’s Travelling Naturalist Show, and a prototype NASCAR designed specifically for the physically and/or visually impaired driver, courtesy of Accessible Racing.
Clark will be there to talk about her books, and take questions. Perhaps the setting will lead her to another idea for a novel. A mystery set at a Talking Book and Braille Center? “You don’t know where the inspiration comes from, and that’s kind of magical. And even if something not so great happens, you say to yourself, ‘I can use this.’ That’s what’s so great about fiction.”
Fall Festival, New Jersey Library for the Blind and Handicapped, 2300 Stuyvesant Avenue, Trenton. Saturday, October 3, 9 a.m. Information and products for people who have visual, hearing or physical impairments. Meet “media-thriller” author Mary Jane Clark at 1 p.m. Registration optional. 609-530-6131 or www.njlbh.org.