The crime writer tells us about helicopters, tattoos and Jack the Ripper.
One of the best-selling crime writers of all time, Patricia Cornwell, 55, was born in Miami and raised in North Carolina. After covering the police beat at The Charlotte Observer, she worked in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Va., during which time she published her first novel, Postmortem, which won a slew of accolades. She has written a series of best sellers starring her heroine, Kay Scarpetta, in addition to other novels, a biography, two cookbooks, a children’s book and a nonfiction work about the identity of Jack the Ripper. Her numerous awards include the French Legion of Honor. Cornwell cofounded the National Forensic Academy and created a chair in inorganic science at Harvard. Her newest book, Red Mist, will be released Dec. 6. She lives with her wife in Boston.
Grossest thing you ever saw at the coroner’s office?
I remember being taken to a barbeque restaurant after a visit to the body farm, and I was served rice. I had to tell people I was allergic to it because there was no way I was going touch it.
It’s kind of quirky. My ex-husband, Charlie, used to tell me really zany stories about a landlady he had when he was in grad school, and her last name was Scarpetta. I just thought it was such a cool name, so I used it.
We tend to have the same politics, sensibilities and philosophies. She’s got a very strong belief in human and civil rights. I couldn’t actually live with a main character who was tremendously different from me.
No, and I wouldn’t. I’ve seen thousands of these things, and there are parts of it that I understand and could do, but first of all, I’m not a doctor so I’ll never know everything a forensic pathologist does, and more importantly, it’s disrespectful. That’s a person, and somebody’s loved one.
In one of my earlier books, I wanted to test something about tattoos, so I bought a roaster turkey and took it to a tattoo parlor. We spent two days there, and the turkey wasn’t in very good shape by the time we were done.
I was in London with a top investigator at Scotland Yard who knew as much as anyone about the case. He told me there were hundreds of letters that Jack the Ripper had written to the police and the media, and so I went and looked at the originals.
The first 10 years were from a first-person point of view, and by that point I felt very confined being in her skull. I wanted to be able to explore the characters better, and broaden my own range. The switch to an omniscient point of view might’ve had something to do with writing the Jack the Ripper book. But now that I’ve been in all the other characters’ heads, I’ve gone back to Kay’s. It feels like going home.
Oh, yeah. When I was writing Book of the Dead, it had some really gross scenes of the bad guy cooking certain types of meat on his grill. I looked down at my roast beef sandwich, and I’ve never eaten rare roast beef again.
They’re a part of life. Everyone is fascinated by it. Just look how slow traffic goes past a bad car wreck, or how many people line up to look at the big, bad shark in the aquarium. We’re fascinated by violence and death, and we want to get a good look at them without getting hurt. It’s just human nature.
CSI Law & Order
Not really. A lot of these forensic shows have nothing to do with the way these things are really done. The one show I do watch that might surprise people to know is Dexter.
It is. Taking something that’s really irrational, random and ugly, and turning it into something organized and a form of art. I may have created Scarpetta and her world, but in a way, Scarpetta and those characters created me.
One of them is Goodfellas. It’s such an incredibly well-done movie. I think I’ve seen it about eight times.
I’d probably say Arthur Conan Doyle because he changed crime writing forever. Agatha Christie is a great puzzle creator. She’s almost like a mathematician. She probably would’ve invented the Rubik’s Cube if she didn’t write books. But Arthur Conan Doyle changed the whole game.
The biggest change is going from fiction to non-fiction, and it really drove me nuts with the Jack the Ripper book, I really want the reader to feel like they’re there. With fiction, I can just describe the weather, but with the non-fiction book, I had to go look up the weather report in the London Times from the exact date over a period of five years. You can’t make anything up. The lighting, the temperature, the direction the wind is coming from. What’s happening in the theaters. They all had to be precise.
No. This may shock you, but when I started to write crime novels, I’d never read a single murder mystery in my life. I approached it as a journalist. I was a nonfiction writer, and I took a nonfiction approach. I did go to a bookstore and buy three murder mysteries—Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and I think P.D. James. That wasn’t so helpful, because the conventions of the genre didn’t work, so it took me a number of books before I created my own thing, which I guess you’d call “forensic thriller.”
Absolutely. Things have happened to me that if I wrote, nobody would believe. Just think of the names people have. A guy gets arrested for cattle rustling and the name of the judge is Bovine? And how many Detective Slaughters have we seen? Or Detective Gore?
It’s grueling, but I don’t hate them. I really like the readers and honestly enjoy my fans. I appreciate them, so interacting with them is fun but tiring.
Always the crime. I never know how they’re going to end. It’s the body first, actually, because you don’t even know if it’s a crime. Then you don’t know what kind of crime, and sure as heck not why or who. So I work it pretty much the way you’d work a case. It can actually cause a lot of anxiety.
Cruel and Unusual. I was literally at the end of it and had no idea who was doing all this bad stuff. Literally what happens is that Scarpetta goes to see this prison warden, who opens the door, and Scarpetta sees a pair of eyes looking over her head. And I went, “A-ha!” The hair was standing up on my arms and the back of my neck. And then I broke a cardinal rule by letting him escape. The bad guy got away, but he didn’t fare so well in a later book.
I don’t know exactly, but they’re in at least 50 other countries. And they’ve sold at least a hundred million copies worldwide.
English, cause then I can be sure of the translation [Laughs]. But I love Italian. It’s so beautiful. Or one of the languages where the alphabet is different. It’s weird to see it in Greek. And I have to remember when I sign a Japanese or Hebrew copy that you open it from the back.
I have to be really efficient with my time, so often flying commercially isn’t feasible, and I also pilot my own helicopter, which is useful for doing research. I can fly into places, find out what I need and get back. I guess having your own helicopter’s a big extravagance.
I very much believe that when I get up from my work, it’s really important not to talk about it with other people and not to think about it. You need to leave it alone.
All the time. Everyone does, if they’re honest about it. I think it’s a fear response to some part of the process.
I really don’t consider myself a friend of Billy Graham’s, but his wife was one of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever known. The warmest, most amazing, magical person. I never really knew Billy Graham, and my friendship with his wife had nothing to do with religion. She was just this wonderful lady who lived up the street. As for Don Imus, our personal politics and beliefs may be different, but there’s no reason we can’t talk respectfully to one another, and I think it’s good that we do.
Absolutely! I just can’t promise where we’ll end up.