With five novels to her name, Patricia D. Cornwell has become one of the most successful authors of crime fiction. The protagonist in her books, Doctor Kay Scarpetta, is the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Virginia. Doctor Scarpetta made her first appearance in Postmortem where, together with Police Sergeant Pete Marino, she solves a number of serial killings. With this debut, Cornwell became the first author ever to win all four major awards for crime fiction in a single year: the Edgar, the John Creasey, the Anthony and the MacAvity. From Potter’s Field, the sixth in the Scarpetta series, will be published by Little, Brown and Company in August.
“What people generally like me to do is to read from my books until they find out what a bad reader I am.” This is how Patricia Daniels Cornwell introduces herself to the large crowd gathered in the Books, Etc. bookshop in London’s Oxford Street one early evening in October ‘94. They have come for the only scheduled reading the author will give during a brief visit to Britain.
“I really don’t like doing readings, and it may surprise you to know that I can’t pronounce many of the words in my books.” The latter statement is met with polite, but sceptical laughter. “I really am not kidding” the writer says with a smile, “I was on some television show in America not so long ago, talking about the Cyanoacrylate Blowing Contraption and that really is not a good phrase to get into first thing in the morning. I have since realised I should keep things simple and stay away from words like that. I can be reading along and hit a phrase like that and it would not be very pleasant for any of us. So, since we don’t get to spend much time together, I thought would be more fun if you asked some of the questions that have been on your mind since reading my books. Let’s have a casual conversation. Anything you can think of, I’m not shy.” Confidently the thirty-eight-year-old Cornwell looks into the audience, waiting to see who will ask the first question. Sporting a trendy haircut and wearing casually smart clothes from Gap and Armani, the author spends an hour answering questions in a relaxed manner. However, after the talk, the crowd descends on the author for signed copies of her books, and the situation threatens to get out of control. It explains the future reduction of, as well as the increased security at public appearances.
Six months later, and with a lot of help from her Dutch publishers, I managed to arrange a telephone interview with Cornwell. The contact in New York connects me to “Patsy”, who is finishing her latest Scarpetta novel. What compelled her to write crime fiction?
“That was an accident. When I graduated from college I went straight into journalism. After about six months working at the newspaper of Charlotte North Carolina, the editors decided to give me the police beat; they made my assignment reporting on crime. I had never been exposed to it at all, but I got thrown into the white water you might say. It was pretty shocking at first because I would find myself at crime scenes, interviewing people who had been victimized, but I became very successful at it and was really completely taken by it. I was fascinated.”
Patricia Cornwell had been working at the Charlotte Observer for two years, winning an investigative reporting award in the process, when her husband decided he wanted to go back to school and chose to do so at a Presbyterian seminary in Richmond, Virginia.
“I was just devastated because I was either going to have to get divorced, and I hadn’t even been married a year, or I was going to have to leave the newspaper.”
Cornwell chose to stay with her husband. Deciding to make the most of the move she approached Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, asking permission to write her biography. “She has been a very dear friend of mine since I was a child and is a fascinating woman. After a lot of discussion, and a big feature piece for the newspaper as a sampling of what it would be like, we came to an agreement. So that is what I did next when I moved to Richmond with my husband. I began work on her biography, A Time for Remembering, which was published by Harper & Row in 1983, two years later.”
The experience of working on her first book aroused a passion for writing in Patricia Cornwell, and she decided to combine future efforts with her earlier profession: writing about crime.
“That’s how I ended up at the Medical Examiner’s Office. I decided that, if I was going to write crime fiction, I needed to do research just like I had always done as a non-fiction writer. It seemed fairly obvious that I would go and interview a Medical Examiner. Next thing I knew I was educating myself in laboratories and even taking a job in a Medical Examiner’s Office just so I could be there. Eventually I needed to stay there because it took me so long to get published again.”
So she had intended to situate the books in a medical examiner’s office from the outset?
“It wasn’t quite like that because in the first three books that I wrote, I was still trying to do what seemed to be the ‘traditional thing’. A male detective was the main character; Doctor Scarpetta was a minor character. Yet, with each book that I wrote—they all got turned down by the way—the medical and forensic aspects of the world I was creating became more overwhelming. That was because I was spending all my time there, it had become a full-time job. Pretty soon I was helping out on autopsies, going to murder scenes, etc. The details became comfortable for me. I got to the point that I could write about Doctor Scarpetta and not be intimidated by the tremendous amount of technical details and medical details.”
According to Cornwell, her background in journalism and experience in the medical examiner’s office are not the only differences between her and other writers. She believes that most authors of crime fiction start writing out of love for the genre. She prefers not to read crime novels.
“My interest has been reporting on crime and, in a way, I have never stopped doing that.
If I were to read a novel to relax, I would read something by Pat Conroy, he’s one of my favourites. If I am going to read something to learn how to be a better writer, I would read someone like Ayn Rand or Marc Helprin who are magnificent writers. Crime fiction for either of those purposes… Since I write it myself, I just don’t want to read it.”
Cornwell’s remark that she never completely stopped reporting on crime might lead to the suspicion that the murders in her books are based on real incidents. This is not so. The author admits that the cases she writes about are inspired by real situations, but adds that she does not adhere to the facts of specific events.
“I tend to write about something that moves me. For example, in All That Remains, there really were couples that were murdered after disappearing from the interstate. They just seemed to vanish from their cars and then we would find their bodies in the woods. Usually they were skeletonised or very badly decomposed. I remember the first one when it happened. It was two women who were in a car and their throats had been cut and the car had been set on fire. I knew at that time, and this is way back, probably in 1987, that I would do something with that incident because it upset me so much.”
In All That Remains, the third Scarpetta mystery, it is possible for the first time to guess who the murderer is. The earlier books, with their emphasis on forensic details and police investigation, are more procedural. Was this development in the series a conscious decision?
“Well, I am trying very hard with each book to show a different facet of Scarpetta’s world. Scarpetta sees many different types of crime, just as I did when I worked in the Medical Examiner’s Office. With most of the crimes, if they are serial type killings, we obviously have no idea who did it. It’s a ‘stranger’ situation, as you have in Postmortem and Body of Evidence for example. But there are many, many cases where the bodies come in and the police have a suspicion as to who may have done it. Sometimes they are right and sometimes it is a big surprise. I try to explore those many different types of cases. For The Body Farm I decided I was going to have a killer that was on the scene for most of the book, so I wanted to use a type of crime where that was appropriate. Instead of a serial killer it became someone with a mental disorder. That was deliberate because I didn’t want to keep on doing the same thing. Each time I do something different it is a big challenge, and it’s very difficult. If I succeed, I feel that I have accomplished something.”
In The Body Farm there is a scene where Kay Scarpetta helps some people in a shanty town. The episode in not essential to the plot, but adds depth to the characters. What inspires Cornwell to write such scenes?
“I didn’t actually experience that scene myself but it is definitely from my background because I grew up in that very same area. The Black Mountains and the people who lived there are very much like the ones I remember from when I was a little kid. I would catch the school bus right where Scarpetta is sitting in the car, looking across the road. The reason I wrote that scene was…. Well, there were a couple of reasons. Again you have to remember I don’t write traditional mysteries. In traditional mysteries generally every scene is to advance the plot, or to give you a red herring, a clue or something. I don’t do that because that is not the way cases happen in real life. They are not that structured and neat. More importantly, for her to have dealt with them the way she did, to have been so courageous, so capable, and also so kind, is a very meaningful moment of revelation about her as human being. In my mind the whole character of Scarpetta, actually of my characters in general, is what matters most in my books. That is what keeps people reading from book to book—it’s the characters.
I also think that when you are dealing with such hideous evil, such hideous crime, that it is very important to emphasize the decency, the strength and the morality of your protagonists. The only way you can do that is by having scenes now and then like the one of her in the mountains. To remind everybody that this is the lady who is in charge, and this is the lady who is pitted against these very dark forces.”
Scarpetta might be in charge but, contrary to many of her colleagues, Cornwell has not allowed her protagonists to take an outspoken stand on political and social issues. She does not want the characters to preach for her because she is afraid that if they do, the books won’t ring true anymore but instead they might become forced.
“There could come a time where Scarpetta has to take a very powerful stand on something and it will be fun when I get to that book, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.”
Cornwell is glad that she now has seven books to build on. She knows what Scarpetta looks like and no longer has to establish an extensive biography for the doctor – she is pretty familiar with Kay’s background. Her main focus of concentration is to continue the Scarpetta series.
“The way it consistently plays out is that every year I spend a good four- or five-months doing research, and I do a lot of it. I make a lot of trips. For example, for the book I am working on now it was obvious to me that I was going to have to learn to scuba dive because there is an underwater crime scene that Scarpetta deals with. That required my going to California, getting certified as a scuba diver and then doing about eighteen dives before I felt I was up to doing the dive I needed for the scene that I was going to write. That’s the sort of thing that I do and it takes a lot of time. After that is over with, and I feel satisfied that I am ready to play with it so to speak, from that point forward it will take me approximately five to six months to produce a very finished draft, a very polished draft. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some interruptions in all of that, because obviously there are some now and then. Like when I get sent away on book tours and things like that, but it is a year per book pretty much.”
When I ask Cornwell what she does in her spare time she cannot help but laugh.
“Well—my agent would love to hear me say this—I am never between books. I have already set into motion research for my eighth book, and I haven’t even finished the seventh yet. The minute I do, I will immediately begin research on number nine. I don’t have time to just go run away for a month and do nothing, and I don’t think I’d be happy doing that anyway.”
On an average day Patricia Cornwell will get up and write until she needs some fresh air. Then she will go out and walk for an hour, come back and continue writing again. If everything is going well, she will go for another walk before dinner.
She enjoys sports but, since a skiing accident in January, she has been limited in her activities. She intends to learn how to play golf this summer, will play tennis again, and looks forward to doing some more diving because it helps her to relax. Even then she combines any spare time she does have with work. She only gets to ski if she has to make a research trip to Aspen for example.
This continuous urge to work seems to be an addiction that Patricia Cornwell shares with Kay Scarpetta. Are there further similarities?
“When people ask that question, I usually answer that Scarpetta’s philosophy and morality, her spirit so to speak, are pretty similar to mine.” Laughing she adds “Unfortunately, unlike Kay, I am not having an affair right now. Other similarities are…. I will kinda give you a little list. We were both born in Miami. She grew up there, I just spent some of my childhood there and then I moved to the Black Mountain area. I also know what it is like to lose a father at a young age, because I lost mine. Not through death, but through divorce, though it may as well have been death by the way it felt. So I can understand a lot of the deprivation Scarpetta felt when she was a child. I am not Catholic, and I am not Italian. I am also divorced, I also have no children. I don’t have a surrogate childlike Kay’s niece Lucy, except maybe the surrogate child is myself because I always try and keep myself out of trouble. Clearly, the biggest thing of course is that I am not a forensic pathologist or a lawyer. I was an English major from college and now I am a professional writer. When I worked in a medical examiner’s office it was mostly with computers.”
Cornwell’s family is also very different to Scarpetta’s. The author has two brothers, not a sister like Kay (“but I have known people like her, so she is easy to write about.”). Fortunately the relationship with her mother is also very different. “You write about what you know, but not to the extent that you are trying to be autobiographical. Why not use something that I know well? I tapped into my own memories and I think you can feel those emotions in my novels.”
The manner in which the author talks and writes about Doctor Scarpetta could give the impression that Kay really exists for Cornwell. Does she feel this is the case?
“Of course I know my protagonists are not literally real, but they are very firmly alive in my imagination. I think about them, even when I’m not writing the books. I absolutely have to because when I am not writing I am doing research, and am always thinking about how I am going to apply something to a story. Beyond that it usually happens that I just begin to write. These things take care of themselves and it may sound odd to say, but the characters really tell me what is going on with them. Whenever I get stuck, I have to remind myself: ‘don’t worry about it, they will tell you what they want to do, they will show you what is going on.’ As strange as that may sound it always works that way for me. I kind of relax and give myself up to it.”
When it comes to the aging process of Kay, Marino and Lucy, the author remains firmly in charge. “Scarpetta is still around forty, she’s been that way since Postmortem. The absolute only thing where I am not factual is about her age and it is deliberate because she had to start out that age. She could not be a forensic pathologist with a law degree and her level of experience, and be twenty-five years old. So I had to start her out at forty because that’s about the minimum age she would be to be in that position. That puts a writer at a disadvantage when doing a series. If I had aged Scarpetta naturally when I began the books, she would be well into her fifties by now and that was not what I wanted to do. I don’t want her to die of old age on me. I am almost thirty-nine and when I begin to get older, then very slowly she will probably begin to get older too. I am waiting for myself to catch up with her and sadly it is getting mighty close. The odd thing is I have never had anybody complain about it. I think everybody loves thinking of her as they first met her. Marino remains unchanged for the same reason. He would have been retired by know if I had aged him. Lucy is the only one I have really aged because it would be no fun if she stayed ten years old. Now she is becoming really interesting because she is about to be an adult who is going to have a career that could add another dimension to Scarpetta’s life. Readers will see Lucy in a big way in From Potter’s Field and they will see her in an important way in the one I am working on now. I expect that she will be a main character from here on.”
And what about Marino? In The Body Farm the police detective had a personal crisis when he was finally confronted with two overpowering issues that he had refused to deal with previously. The first was his wife leaving him, which he really had not come to terms with, the second was his long-term crush on Scarpetta. He became very jealous when she began her affair and it triggered an emotional break down. Cornwell promises he will be back in From Potter’s Field, “He’s just his same old hard drinking, hard smoking self again.”
From the few articles written about Patricia Cornwell, her care for personal safety comes across as a main concern. Could this possibly be due to her past experience as a crime reporter and the research her work requires?
“‘I don’t know. I think it could be in the sense that I know very well what happens out there. I do not have an unrealistic view of our society, especially in the United States. I think that is the difference between me and a lot of other people who have become very visible. I know what things do happen, I’ve seen too many dead bodies and I have too many friends who are in law enforcement who won’t let me get away with being careless. Beyond that I think there is always the risk that, when you write the sort of books that I do, you can get some weirdo who fixes on something about that particular genre which causes him to have an undue interest in you. It is hard to say what sets somebody off, but I believe in being preventive because when somebody begins to give you a problem it is very difficult to stop them. The other thing that my people help me with, the people who provide security, is nuisance control. It is unlikely that you are going to have a violent incident at a book signing where two-thousand people show up, but it is absolutely certain that, if you do not have people for crowd control, you will be bothered seriously, to the point that you will never want to do it again. That’s the main reason that I have people with me. Especially in the United States people can be very aggressive. Even though they may not mean any harm, they can bother you to a point where you are exhausted and irritated all the time. I don’t appreciate that. I don’t want strangers coming up and talking to me when I am trying to eat dinner in a restaurant.”
In London the author announced that Kay Scarpetta would be making her film debut in the near future. With this in mind Cornwell has started up her own production company, hoping that this will avoid anyone bastardizing her work. She also mentioned that Scarpetta will make her first screen appearance in From Potter’s Field, not Postmortem. Cornwell does not think it is necessary to film the books in sequence, adding that From Potter’s Field is perfect for the big screen because of its dramatic content. There is always the possibility of ‘prequels’ if success requires them.
“The situation is that I have a deal with Peter Guber (producer of Flashdance and Rainman). I will write the screenplay and be the executive producer. I will be very involved in the choices that we will make in terms of the director, the actors and so on. I realise that, unlike publishing where you turn in a finished product, in Hollywood you turn in a finished product and they do whatever they want to with it, as though you never wrote it at all. I can’t allow that. I won’t allow it.”
The project still is at an early stage and no one has been cast in the role of Kay Scarpetta yet. The author will not say if she has a personal preference. “There are a number of obvious people who would be on the list, the top or A-level actresses, but not a single person seems to be set on any one individual and I think that is probably good. I know the type of person it ought to be but I don’t know who. It may be someone that is not very well known yet, that could happen, but all the characters from the books will be in the film. Marino, Lucy…” And Scarpetta? “You will see them all in living colour.”
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1995/2020.