Sunday, November 29, 2009

A forensic mind (Patricia Cornwell)

From The Irish Times --

A forensic mind --

Saturday, November 14, 2009 --

INTERVIEW: Patricia Cornwell, who has just released the 17th novel in her massively popular Kay Scarpetta series, had a circuitous route to success, rising from poverty to practically invent the forensic fiction genre via crime journalism and a medical examiner’s office. HILARY FANNIN met her in London

LONDON’S SOHO HOTEL, a bit like its celebrity clientele, who hide themselves behind obliterating designer sunglasses, disguises itself behind a dull brick facade. A former car park, the building itself is yawningly mundane, but as you approach the entrance and pick your way to the door, past shiny black jeeps with heavily tinted glass windows and florists’ delivery trucks disgorging archly minimalist bouquets, you begin to sense the true nature of this achingly hip hostelry crouched in the capital’s burbling media hub.

On the instructions of the deadly serious PR company, I wait in the lobby, on a zebra-print chair next to a fuchsia lamp and some hostile-looking paper sculptures, and observe the glittering action. Young men in drainpipe trousers and suede bootees glide past, exuding urgency, with cameras and boom mikes slung over their slender backs, hair gel glistening in the modular lighting. Grouped around on mushrooming sofas, other young men pitch ideas to one another with casual intensity, the word “budget” rising out of the ether around them like the vapour of their expensive perfumes.

I’m thinking about the woman I’m here to meet, novelist Patricia Cornwell, who has just released her 17th Kay Scarpetta novel, The Scarpetta Factor. Scarpetta, for those of you who refuse to be drawn into the bowels of murder fiction and have never read Cornwell, is a forensic pathologist and chief medical officer in the state of Virginia, who has been eviscerating a heady variety of dead bodies on steel morgue tables since first appearing in the early 1990s in the novels Postmortem and Body of Evidence, the forerunners of the now scarily popular forensic fiction genre.

My thoughts on Cornwell, a woman whose meticulous research and spectacular output have earned her a worldwide fan base and a bank balance to make Nama weep, are interrupted by a pleasantly ordinary middle-aged woman seated nearby. Looking as incongruous as a goldfish in a toaster, she leans across the expensive air that surrounds us. “I just saw David Tennant getting into the lift,” she whispers, with as much joyous astonishment as if she’d seen Dr Who disappear into his Tardis.

“Are you staying here?” she asks me, doubtfully.

“No,” I reply. “Are you?”

“No, I’m just waiting for my friend. She’s on the fourth floor with Gok Wan. She’s got a tumour. He’s doing a special.”

I’m intrigued, but suddenly the PR woman is hovering with a clipboard. It is time to go and meet my author.

Patricia Cornwell is 53, but the slight, taut woman who stands in the middle of the airy hotel suite, poised like a sinewy calf on a starting block, could pass for 30. She is beautiful in the elaborately constructed way of the very rich: well-cut blonde hair, porcelain skin that shows no sign of its half-century, humourless but luminous turquoise eyes, shirt lapels so sharp they could inflict serious damage, and a belt buckle embossed with the face of a snarling tiger. I want to ask her if she has gone under the knife to achieve such startling flawlessness, or if she too has nipped up a couple of flights to parley with Gok, but there is something about her slightly frosty calm that seals my lips.

We begin our conversation with Cornwell’s recollections of being an English major at Davidson College, North Carolina, a private liberal arts college that she worked hard to get into. “I didn’t have it come easy,” she says, her southern inflection momentarily catapulting our chat in the direction of a country and western ballad.

Despite her background of poverty and an indifferent public school education, Cornwell earned her place in the prestigious institution because of her prowess at tennis. “I couldn’t even afford the tennis balls when I was growing up. I used to fish them outta the creek behind the courts,” she says. “I taught myself to play by watching people. I’d hit on the back board, wait for someone to ask me to play, ended up on the boys’ team in high school.”

At Davidson, where Cornwell survived on state financial aid and a waitressing job, she realised she wasn’t good enough to be a tennis pro. Instead she threw herself into her academic work. She was writing poetry and “neurotic autobiographical” fiction when, in her senior year, one of her professors advised her to try and get work on the Charlotte Observer. The newspaper hired her in a clerical position to update the TV listings.

“I’d leave the house at 3am, get into the office at 4am, do my eight-hour shift, finish at noon, then go around every single news desk and pick up work,” she recalls. She wrote about all those things that the loftier journos rejected, from the launch of an air compressor to the opening of a stamp-collection display. Soon, and with overtime mounting, the paper promoted her to general assignments and she was given the police beat. She graduated to riding around with the police, “becoming part of their world”. There was violence, she recalls, and corruption, and there were stories – and a story, she says, fixing me with her cool, marble eye, “becomes interesting because of the person who tells it.”

She must have had extraordinary drive and tenacity to work 16-hour days and hang around police stations all night until someone offered her a ride in the panda car? “I was desperately afraid of amounting to nothing,” she says. “I was afraid I would just be poor and have no life for myself.”

Later, with reluctance, she talks a little about her mother, who, after an acrimonious divorce, brought up Cornwell and her two brothers alone. “She had her setbacks, but she did a remarkable job of raising us, keeping us all together, an absent husband in Florida doing everything to be unhelpful, banks calling, $1.50 in her checking account.”

Cornwell’s mother, who now lives in a retirement home, had two major episodes of depression when her daughter was aged nine and 13, periods when she was unable to care for her children. When pressed, Cornwell reiterates her admiration for her mother’s tenacity in keeping the family afloat during the times she was clinically capable of doing so.

It was during the periods of her mother’s depression that Cornwell became close to Ruth Graham, wife of the evangelist Billy Graham. And years later, she decided to write Ruth Graham’s biography, as a way of alleviating the penury of life in a seminarian’s apartment (the young Patricia had married Charlie Cornwell, her English professor, who had decided to leave his university post and train instead as a Presbyterian minister). Despite her enduring toughness, the biography proved a bruising task for Cornwell, with the Graham family taking umbrage at the book. “Ruth was a product, a property,” says Cornwell, and a legal battle ensued in which the young writer found herself facing down Billy Graham’s gargantuan organisation.

Truth then took on a fiction-like quality when a powerful lawyer and friend of her husband’s took on Cornwell’s case, pro bono, and won. The book, Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham, was published and Cornwell’s career was saved. Her marriage, however, was over, and she had a slew of rejections under her tiny belt for the detective fiction she was also writing. She says that this phase of her life taught her two things: that she wanted to write books, and that she wasn’t through with crime.

There followed six years working in the medical examiner’s office in Richmond, Virginia, “taking notes for the rubber-gloved pathologists, weighing the organs, hanging up the bloodied coats”, initially on a voluntary basis in order to carry out research. “This was the world I wanted to know, how the dead can speak.”

Cornwell, with the unfaltering professionalism of a woman whose autobiographical details trip easily from her tongue, then talks about the acceptance of the first Scarpetta novel, albeit with a limited print run of 6,000. And one day, as Cornwell sat at her desk by the cinder-block wall of the morgue, with smells coming up from the basement, her agent rang to say that she’d been invited to London to meet Princess Margaret and pick up a British crime fiction award. Cornwell’s subsequent curtsey to the blighted royal marked the turning point in her extraordinarily successful writing career. Now, with the 17 Scarpetta novels, three further crime novels (featuring Andy Brazil), a children’s book, a couple of cookbooks and a tome called Portrait of a Killer – Jack the Ripper: Case Closed (explaining why she believes the painter Walter Sickert was the Ripper, a thesis pretty universally panned by other Ripperologists), Cornwell is immovably established as a major international best-selling author.

“I don’t have her pedigree or her pristine way of thinking,” Cornwell replies when I ask her if she identifies with her most famous fictional heroine, the ice-blonde Kay Scarpetta.

Lucy, the other major character in the series, is Scarpetta’s niece, young, angry, gay, technologically super-literate, with a penchant for putting her pedal to the metal in her Ferrari and an uncanny ability to land her helicopter in the teeth of a gale. She is a character possibly closer to Cornwell’s personality, given that the writer, too, is the owner of numerous Harley Davidsons and the aforementioned Ferrari and helicopter.

“It’s hard to know who creates whom,” Cornwell says, and indeed she is at her most animated when she discusses the cast of characters who recur in the books with the same regularity as decomposing corpses. “Lucy has a special vintage of anger, an insatiable quest for feeling powerful – but she wouldn’t tell you that if she was sitting here.”

Cornwell’s own sexuality is almost as well-known as her oeuvre. She was outed after a brief affair with an FBI agent she met while researching a novel, and there followed sensational reports of the trial in 1997 of Eugene Bennett, the woman’s husband, a former FBI man, who attempted to murder his wife after her affair with Cornwell. Since those difficult days, she appears to have overcome her reluctance to speak about her sexual orientation, and in 2005, in the state of Massachusetts, a long way from her Bible-belt childhood home, Cornwell married Dr Staci Gruber, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“Most people who are gay would say that there is a discomfort factor,” she says. “It’s not like the whole world celebrates you. Some people hate you, some people tolerate you, some embrace you, most say we will let you do this – why should there be a ‘let’? Gee, I didn’t realise that I was so second-class that I didn’t deserve the same liberties and civil rights as everyone else.”

Cornwell’s entire persona exudes control, or a battle for control. Steely, diminutive, clinically intelligent, terse, 17 best-sellers and God knows how many hotel suites later, she appears poised on the tip of exhaustion, but her professionalism and some inextinguishable desire to keep communicating to her readership holds her steady.

The anxious PR consultant is popping in and out of an anteroom like a confused figure on a weather vane – she has been signalling five minutes to the end of the interview for a good 10 minutes now. Before I leave to shimmy down the exotically wallpapered corridors past Cornwell’s bevy of security personnel, I ask her if her sexual orientation informs her fiction. “Anything that makes you stop and think, to become introspective and aware of your existence, that’s got to be good, something that drags against the surface – it can make you a better writer,” she says. “I’ve always had something along the way that made me go, ‘Now, that didn’t feel good’.”

As I stand to go, her expression seems pinned, a fixed coolness on her delicate face. “Is this a good time for you?” I ask.

“We are dealing with tremendous change, economically, politically, technologically,” she says. “I’m facing a world that is rapidly shifting. We are all trying to find our place in it right now.”

The Scarpetta Factor ends, after 36 hours of high-tech sleuthing, tender evisceration and a spot of necrophilia, with Kay Scarpetta at peace with her marriage, her colleagues and herself, and happy to go home. Cornwell, too, is heading home, away from drizzly Blighty and these funky Soho chambers. Very soon, she says, she will start to research Scarpetta number 18, making use of the privileges of her success to write it: “Discipline, focus and silence . . . I won’t quit till it quits me.”

The security entourage view my progress away from Patricia Cornwell with indifference. On the ground floor, the lift doors ping open to reveal the smiling woman still sitting sentry, waiting for her friend to be released from Gok’s makeover.

Outside in the damp street, a fleet of darkened cars rev up.

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