Arts & Culture

There’s Something About Mary Claire

Towson author is the unassuming bestseller next door.

In March of 2009, when Mary Claire Helldorfer first learned that her book Kissed by an Angel had hit USA Today’s Top 150 Books, she was working as a 10th-grade English teacher at Friends School of Baltimore.

“An editor from another company had called to talk to me about an idea I had submitted for an adult book,” recalls the 56-year-old Helldorfer, who uses the nom de plume Elizabeth Chandler for her young adult fiction. “And he commented that Kissed by an Angel was doing really well. I said, ‘I guess so, if you add up all the copies that have been sold since 1995.’ And he said, ‘Don’t you know it was reissued?’ I knew it had never gone out of print,” she says, “but it hadn’t exactly taken the world by storm.”

The book’s rise up the charts is a story in itself. First published in 1995, two sequels followed, and the entire trilogy was reprinted as a single, “bind-up” book in the late ’90s. Then, in the wake of Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster Twilight series, Helldorfer’s own series on teen love from beyond the grave was re-released in December 2008 with a new cover.

The re-release not only made USA Today’s list, but it also found a spot on The New York Times Bestseller Children’s Series list. “Because of the way they mix all the categories, one week, on USA Today’s list, I was next to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby,” says Helldorfer with a laugh. “It was such a shock.”

Sitting on the daybed in her second-floor office, the publicity-shy Helldorfer is one of Baltimore’s best-kept literary secrets. As the author of 30 books, including the Dark Secrets series, Helldorfer, who retired from teaching last year to focus on writing, turns out teen fiction in the charming Towson row home she shares with her husband, Bob, and their brown tabby, Puck. Her newest entry in the Dark Secrets series, The Back Door of Midnight (in which a young girl attempts to solve her uncle’s murder on Maryland’s Eastern Shore), was released in November, and she is at work on the March release of Evercrossed, the first book in the second set of Kissed by an Angel trilogies. There’s also talk of a Kissed by an Angel movie, though nothing is official.

The unpretentious author, who dresses in jeans and sneakers, might have kept plugging away in obscurity, too, if not for the Twilight phenomenon. And though the Twilight books have been derided in some literary circles, Helldorfer will have none of it.

“I’m delighted when books like those in the Twilight series or Harry Potter prove once again that a book can cast a spell on readers,” she says pragmatically. “I’m a believer in popular fiction. If it wasn’t for Nancy Drew . . . I might not have continued to read my way to Milton and Shakespeare.”

Indeed, growing up in Rodgers Forge, she was more interested in playing with the neighborhood kids than literature. “I was not a reader,” she says. “My mother was constantly giving me the Newbery prize winners—I just didn’t want to read them. I’d start the books we picked out together at the library, then I’d imagine the rest.”

At Mercy High School, a young English teacher helped harness Helldorfer’s imagination. “Before that, I’d only written organized paragraphs on serious subjects, but she encouraged me to write poems or stories I was daydreaming about—I couldn’t believe anyone would like what was in my head.”

After earning her doctorate in literature from the University of Rochester in 1984, Helldorfer set her sights on becoming a writer in the Big Apple. After a few lean years, she moved back to more affordable Baltimore to continue to write and work part time at the University of Baltimore. In the mid-’90s, she got her first big break—a contract with a book packaging company (which produces books, then sells them to publishing companies) to write Kissed by an Angel.

As is often the case with mass-market books, the packager provided the premise.

“They told me, ‘Girl believes in angels, girl’s boyfriend does not, boyfriend dies and comes back as her guardian angel,’” she deadpans.

Still, the story was hers to shape. And though she chose to set the Kissed by an Angel books in Connecticut, she often inserts Maryland references in her other stories. Friends and family even make veiled appearances. For instance, her cold-blooded villain in the Kissed by an Angel books is named Gregory after one of her favorite cousins. “I had to feel positive about my murderer to make him convincing through three books,” she says, smiling.

Stay tuned for more stories. “I have always carried stories in my head,” says Helldorfer. “I began to think of myself as a writer when I realized that no matter what happened, I would write—when I realized that for better or worse, I couldn’t not write.”