To say that Patricia Cornwell is a force to be reckoned with—whether at a crime scene, in a forensics lab, at her keyboard or on your bookshelf—is a grotesque understatement. Not only is the novelist touted as the world’s No. 1 bestselling crime writer, she’s become a forensics consultant in her own right through the course of researching what she calls her “nonfiction fiction” series featuring medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. A founding member of the National Forensic Academy and founder of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine, in addition to influential roles at other respected institutions, Cornwell is arguably as well known today for her books—a staple of bestseller lists (and airport kiosks) everywhere since her series began with 1990’s Postmortem—as she is for her advocacy of psychiatric research, criminal justice, literacy and animal rights. She’s also been credited with whetting the American public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the forensic genre, the popularity of her series spurring shows like “CSI” and “Cold Case Files.”
Some attribute her success to a determination that took root during her childhood years in foster care. Others say her steadfast persona is a reflection of her start as a journalist, her hands-on approach to research, and her adult life lived in the public eye—she’s drawn notice from the start, with her debut book, a biography of longtime family friend (and wife of the prominent preacher) Ruth Bell Graham; her self-financed investigation into the identity of Jack the Ripper, culminating in the controversial book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed; her relationship with FBI agent Margo Bennett, whose husband was convicted of his wife’s attempted murder after allegedly discovering her affair with Cornwell; her marriage first to Charles Cornwell, a professor 17 years her senior, and presently to Harvard psychiatry instructor Staci Ann Gruber; and her successful defamation suit against a writer who accused her of plagiarism and waged an Internet war against her character.
One thing is certain: Cornwell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And neither is Scarpetta. A film is in development at Fox, with Angelina Jolie attached to the project. And Cornwell says she’s still got plenty of inspiration for continuing the series.
In an exclusive interview in the October 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, Cornwell discusses how she was drawn to the forensics genre—and how it’s become a constant challenge to stay ahead of the competition—her “inextricably connected” writing and researching processes as she develops each story, her experimentations with style and other story elements, and much more. (Read the full interview here.) In these bonus online-exclusive outtakes, she talks more about the evolution of gay characters in mainstream fiction, what drives her to keep writing today, and more.
You’re asked both about having a gay character in your books and about being a lesbian writer remarkably often. Do you think you’d have gotten pushback on your earlier novels if they’d featured a gay character from the start? And do you have any advice for writers on not being pigeonholed into the GLBT genre?
I haven’t been pigeonholed into that genre. I think the most important thing is to tell the truth—which seems a strange thing for a fiction writer to say, but I tell the truth more than anybody who makes things up on the planet, really. Even when you’re making things up, you should be telling the truth. I don’t try to turn the characters into anything they don’t want to be. And when Lucy walked into a scene in The Body Farm … the minute I laid eyes on her in my imagination, I thought, Oh my God, she’s gay. And then I thought, How could you not have known that before? I discovered it the way Scarpetta would have discovered it: She laid eyes on her and thought, Huh. OK. Well, we’ll deal with this.
And I thought, Oh boy, this is not going to be good to explain to my publisher. This was the mid-’90s, this was not something that was popular to do. But I thought: I am not changing her. She is what she is. And actually, this should be very interesting—I’d love to see how Scarpetta deals with this. If she’s the enlightened woman I believe she is, she’s going to handle it better than anybody, and actually, she’s going to handle it rather effortlessly, because it means nothing to her. She cares about it with Lucy just because it makes her life harder. …
Do you think that would be a different conversation with your publisher if it were happening today?
It probably would be—I don’t think it would be a conversation. I think it’s much riskier if you make the main character gay, and I didn’t do that because as far as I know Scarpetta isn’t gay—but she might do a lot of things behind my back that I don’t know about! [Laughs.] …
Writers need to tell their truth, and I didn’t make Lucy gay because I was thinking about myself being gay. I mean, I was still kind of in between at that time. I was still seeing some men, seeing some women, trying to figure it out. I didn’t want to be gay, I didn’t. I was brought up thinking you’re going to go to hell for that. But one thing I certainly learned is you are what you are, and you better learn to live with it and be honest about it. You don’t live a lie. But I just don’t think a lot of people who discover what their sexuality is go, “Oh, guess what, I’m so thrilled, I just realized I’m gay. Isn’t that the best news ever?” I don’t know anyone who does that, even today. The ones who are really honest are brave. There may be some who love to be flamboyant about things, but a lot of people are just simply brave, that’s it. …
Along similar lines, you’ve been referred to as a woman who writes like a man. How can writers sidestep labels like those and connect with readers on their own terms?
You can’tworry about labels. If you worry about labels, if you worry about what a publisher’s going to think about a character being one thing or another, you’re worrying about the wrong things. You should be telling your truth and pulling it out of your soul. You should go out and see something and interpret in a way that nobody ever has before. … That’s what you should be worried about. You should be worried that you can’t describe a full moon in a way that somebody hasn’t done 100 times before you. You should not be worried about labels. And so I usually carry a little notebook with me so if I see an image that’s just remarkable and a metaphor springs to mind, I’m going to write it down and use it somewhere, because that’s so exciting that this just reminded you of that. The poetry of what you do, the imagination of it, and the startling enlightenment of what you might present to an audience, that should be what you’re worried about.
You had three books rejected before Postmortem, which was also rejected repeatedly before finding a publisher. What can you say to writers struggling to get published?
Quitting can’t be an option. You don’t become a writer, you are one. And if you really are a writer, it’s like telling a songbird to shut up—you can’t. You keep making the same noise, and it still irritates everybody. I remember one day I was in the morgue and there was this cricket just making the biggest racket, and somebody was looking for it to kill it, and I said, “Leave it alone. That’s the only thing it knows how to do. Why should you get mad at that?” And that’s my attitude about writing, is that first of all, you have to be willing to be bad at something to be good at it.
You will never be good at writing the first time you try, any more than Nadal hit a tennis ball the way he does now the first time he picked up a racket. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to trip over your own feet, you’re going to have awkward sentences and terrible dialogue, and the only way you get better at it is to just do it all the time, and if this is the inevitability of how you express yourself, you’re still going to get up after failures. Some people are remarkably lucky, and their first book gets published and is really well received. For me it took a lot of warm-ups, and those books should have been rejected, they were a learning process, I would never try to publish them today, they’re in my archives where they belong. And Postmortem did not deserve to be rejected by practically every major publishing house before it was accepted, but it was because it was so different people didn’t know what to do with it. And I think something that’s really unique is going to get passed over a lot of times. And then it gets published by some little offbeat press and takes the world by storm.
So, I would say that if you’ve had repeated failures, do something to keep bread on the table. I worked in the morgue for six years because I had so many failures. And if there really is a Scarpetta out there watching over me, she knew I needed to do that to be qualified to write about her. She says, “I hate to do this to you, but I’m going to whack you in the leg so you can’t go anywhere, because you don’t have a clue, girl. You need to be down here every day going to the labs, going to the morgue, going to crime scenes, riding with the detectives, going to court. And then, maybe, you can begin to have a concept of what it’s like to be me, and then I’ll let you tell my story.” And she still does that to me.
You’ve already achieved so much in your career—what drives you to keep writing?
I just want to get better. And I think The Bone Bed is one of my best—it includes some things I dare say you’ve never seen in a crime novel, and that’s what I want to be able to say about each one I do: This one’s special. I think you should always want to get better. If you feel you’ve gotten as good as you’re ever going to get, that’s sort of a depressing thought. There’s always something new to learn. You don’t ever want to lose that sense of wonder, or curiosity, to flatline, or you won’t produce the music anymore. So I just keep wanting to be inspired.
To read the complete Writer’s Digest magazine interview with this talented bestselling author, don’t miss the October 2012 issue.