Killer Queen: Patricia Cornwell Interview --
By Nigel Farndale --
Published: 10:52AM GMT 16 Nov 2009 --
The world’s best-selling, most controversial crime author has spent much of her life surrounded by corpses, guns and the Bush family. Is it any wonder she’s paranoid?
To sit opposite Patricia Cornwell is to sit opposite a character she created 20 years ago, Dr Kay Scarpetta, the forensic pathologist.
The resemblance is only partly physical. Cornwell is a petite and sinewy 53 year-old from North Carolina who, with her tightened features, has been compared to 'a freeze-dried Meg Ryan’ (though come to think of it, even Meg Ryan looks freeze-dried these days).
She is poised at one end of an enormous sofa in an enormous hotel room, as alert and watchful as a terrier. Her hair is blonde and her eyes are cold blue. Because of contact lenses, presumably, they look cloudy and robotic. Her stare is intense. When she laughs it is neatly, without amusement.
She is wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots and a cowboy buckle on her belt – frivolous accessories that only emphasise her lack of frivolity.
Well, it’s a stressful business being the biggest-selling crime writer in the world (and the second biggest-selling female writer in any genre, after J K Rowling). It is estimated that Cornwell is worth just over £60 million although, as I am to discover, she has just launched a legal action against her financial management company in New York, suing them for alleged negligence. Since 2005, according to one source, they may have lost her as much as £25 million, almost half her fortune. The case is ongoing and she is not sure of the exact figures yet.
We shall come to that. For now it is worth reminding ourselves of her USP as a crime writer: that she knows whereof she writes, having spent six years working in a chief medical examiner’s office in Virginia, one that dealt with murder cases, usually ones involving sexual assault. There she watched many an autopsy being performed. And this is another reason why her readers often confuse her with her heroine, Dr Scarpetta.
But Cornwell’s back-story is more interesting than Scarpetta’s. More Gothic. And one she wouldn’t get away with in fiction.
She was five when her father, a lawyer, walked out on the family, on Christmas morning. She clung on to his leg as he left, pleading with him not to go. Soon after this she was molested by a security guard, a case that ended with her giving evidence in court.
Her mother by now was spiralling into chronic depression. This meant that Cornwell had to be sent to live with foster parents. Sadistic foster parents. She became anorexic in her teens and recovered only to succumb to depression herself, in her twenties. This has come and gone over the years.
When I ask how her own depression compares with her mother’s she answers in an accent that combines briskness with a Southern drawl, like someone driving with her foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.
'Hers was much worse than mine because she was admitted to hospital. Mine has never been that dark or debilitating. I think mine has got better as I’ve got older. And it is the only good thing about getting older, by the way. I’m bipolar but my moods are more stable. I don’t take medication for it,’ Cornwell says.
In her twenties she married her professor (male) who was 17 years older than her. Now, as of three years ago, she is married to a professor (female) who is 10 years younger. Her name is Staci Gruber and she is associate director of Harvard’s McLean psychiatric hospital. They met when Cornwell was researching sociopaths for a novel. Cornwell says with a laugh that Gruber’s first impression of her was that she was a narcissist.
Whatever the truth of that, she cannot be accused of being boring. She flies her own helicopter, rides a Harley-Davidson and drives a Ferrari. She also collects guns. And when the press outed her as gay it was because she had had an affair with a married FBI agent whose husband became so angry there was a shoot out.
Cornwell stirs up controversy in the same casual manner other people stir their tea. She is also highly litigious, not long ago taking a cyberstalker to court. The liberal left in America, meanwhile, suspect she is the devil wearing Prada – not least because she donated huge sums to the Republican party and was so chummy with the Bushes, especially Bush senior, she would be invited to their family retreat in Kennebunkport.
On my way in to see her I pass her bodyguard, an ex-marine. It is a reminder of another reputation she has: for being a worrier. When it comes to her personal security you could say she was a little paranoid.
'The thing is,’ she says, 'I do know what can happen out there, that is why I am always trying to prevent a situation by doing A, B or C. I think knowing it is a good thing. Like fastening your seat belt. Maybe I can avoid that one thing that might kill me and not even know how close I came. It’s like when I’m flying someone somewhere in my helicopter, even before the thing has started I never let them walk around the back because it’s the tail rotor that will get you – you can’t see it and it’s at head level,’ she says.
Cornwell’s insecurities extend to her writing. 'Even if you are a best-seller you feel insecure because it is all so unpredictable. You think, are people still going to go out and buy this?’
But isn’t it a forgone conclusion that her new book will be an international best-seller like all the others? 'I am just as insecure for my new book as I was for my first one. Even with all the research I do, I don’t really know where the ideas come from, so I feel nervous about the ideas not being there one day.
'I’m always surprised when large numbers of people buy my books. I think: “Who are all these people?”’ she says.
In her new Scarpetta thriller, the 17th in the series, she seems to merge identities with her heroine even more than usual. Scarpetta appears as a crime scene expert on CNN, the news channel on which Cornwell herself is a regular guest.
So what is it with her and Scarpetta? Is it a form of narcissism? 'I don’t even remember why I decided to make her blue-eyed and blonde-haired. I don’t think it came from me. When I envision Scarpetta, she doesn’t look like me. She is not a projection of me. That means I can continue to explore her and not get bored with her.’
Cornwell also has a fair amount in common with Lucy, Scarpetta’s niece. 'In some ways, yes, but Lucy is much more accomplished than me. I am a good helicopter pilot but not as good as she is,’ she says.
I was thinking more of the mood swings. 'Yes, I am more volatile and emotional, like Lucy. Scarpetta filters things better. She is more logical and organised.’
And also the lesbianism. Cornwell discovered she was gay at the same time as her character Lucy did, in The Body Farm. What was that about? The timing, I mean.
'Actually, it was earlier than that for me. Lucy came out in 1994 when I was writing that book. She walked into the room and in my mind I suddenly realised she is gay. Holy smoke! What am I going to do with that? That was at a time when it was not a cool thing to do. It was risky for a series that had already become popular,’ Cornwell admits.
And she must have wondered how her own change of sexual direction would play with her readers? 'I don’t know how it played, because unless you take a poll and find out how many readers stop buying books because of it, you can never know. Some may have started buying them because of it.
'I know my sexuality will have had an impact on certain religious groups who would find it offensive. But I try very hard to be honest and I don’t want people having perceptions of me that are false just for the sake of a few book sales.’
In the new book, The Scarpetta Factor, there is the usual serial killer tracked down by a forensic investigation, and if this seems formulaic, it has to be pointed out that Cornwell did more or less invent this genre and spawn dozens of imitators – many of them on television, such as Silent Witness, CSI and so on.
But the way Cornwell sees it, it is more a matter of her having created a character who has taken on a life of her own. 'I have learnt to give people what they want and they want Scarpetta,’ she says. 'But she does put a road block up for me as a writer, because I’m not sure whether people would be as interested in anything else I wrote.’
One of her few attempts at writing non-fiction was not well received by the critics. It was a book about Jack the Ripper, whom she became convinced was the artist Walter Sickert. So she began buying up his paintings. About 30 of them. When it emerged that she had cut one of them up looking for DNA evidence, the art world was appalled. Like she cared.
Cornwell’s interest in the gory details of the Ripper case were consistent with the concerns in her fiction. Her novels usually begin with the discovery of a woman’s semi-naked body. In one, the corpse is decapitated, in another peeled, and in another the eyes balls have been removed and the sockets filled with sand.
Can she talk me through her thought processes? Does she start with a single visual image in her head – the dead body – and then work out why it is there? 'I do, and then what happens is that the image never ends up being the one with which I start the book. The image I had of Scarpetta for this one was of her sitting on this dark television set. I tried it but realised the book needed to open in the morgue, so I went back to the New York Medical Examiner’s Office to do my research.’
The image she finds most powerful in that office is the elevator that brings the bodies up from the lower level. 'It is very restricted access, even now when I am friends with a lot of the people who work there,’ Cornwell says.
'As I was waiting for my appointment, I realised I was the only person who ever walked into that office who was happy to be there. Everyone else there was having the worst day of their life. They are taken back to the family room and the doors part and then they have to identify the body of a loved one.
'I can’t imagine what it would be like if that were someone I cared about on the other side of the Plexiglas. I thought, that’s the image I want Scarpetta to deal with in the first chapter. The body should be someone she knows and cares about.’
Does that make Cornwell cold, observing other people’s worst days like that?
A firm shake of the head. 'No, and do you know why? I don’t observe that much. And I wouldn’t do it unless the family member was OK with me observing. Even then I would never write down the names of real people. It may sound cold to you but for me it’s about keeping up to date with the morgue process. There have been various changes since I worked in one, rules about biohazards, litigation and so on.’
Although the dead person doesn’t know anything about it, the prospect of one day being laid out naked on a slab while a stranger dissects your body is truly terrifying. Such intimacy, such violation – it’s the stuff of nightmares.
'It is a chilling thought that someone might do that to you,’ Cornwell says with a nod. 'I hope it’s not how I go out. I wouldn’t want to donate my body for scientific study. I don’t want to lie up there and decompose in front of everyone, thank you. I look bad enough as it is when I get up in the morning.’
Not a bad joke that. Evidence of a sense of humour. When Cornwell worked in a morgue, she adds, she and her colleagues would often reflect upon the fact that the only thing the dead people had in common was that none of them imagined they would end up there.
'Except maybe people who commit suicide and know that an autopsy will be inevitable,’ she says.
Cornwell recalls that there was some black humour in the morgue. A defence mechanism. 'But the strangest things are the most mundane, like when people start talking about where they should go for lunch. You are talking about your favourite barbecue place while you are standing over an open body.
'I find it difficult to attend autopsies. Especially the smells. People don’t know that about me, they assume I find it easy or entertaining. I don’t get used to it. It’s the little things that get you, like what someone had in their pocket, the photograph of a loved one or a good luck trinket. The clothing, the way someone held something together with a safety pin, the way someone had shaved their legs when they got up that morning not thinking for a moment they would die that day.’
What I am getting at is that it might be morally wrong to entertain people with what she saw at the morgue. 'Possibly, but I made a conscious effort to be as honest about it as I could, to convey the ugliness and pain of it. I won’t entertain by trivialising or celebrating or glamourising it.’
Does she contemplate her own mortality?
'When I reached my fifties I became very conscious of my age. I could see more clearly that the lifeline would one day stop. You know that road isn’t going to last forever. You become more reflective, stuff becomes harder to look at because you think: “Wow, that person was my age and he dropped dead of a heart attack out jogging.” Anything where biology starts having its way with you makes you think.
'No matter what I do [she points to her face], biology will always have the last word.’
The conversation turns to materialism. Cornwell reckons she isn’t motivated by it, for all her wealth: 'I don’t really want to know what is going on in my businesses, unless I’m made to face it. I’d rather be getting on with my writing and stuff.’
So could she be suckered by a Bernard Madoff? 'Well, seeing as I’m in a big lawsuit at the moment, the answer is yes. The difference is, I try and trust people. I’m not a businesswoman. I didn’t start out as one. I never even thought I would make money. I didn’t intend to. If I had to, I think I could go back to living a very simple life.’
Does she know how much she is worth?
'Right now? That is a dubious question because you have to add up contracts, things that haven’t been paid out yet, so over a long period it is a lot of money, but it is not as much as it was because of…’ she shakes her head.
'Things we’re not yet sure about. Certainly not what it was and what I should be worth at this stage of the game. But I’m not going to whine about it, I am more comfortable than the average person. But that doesn’t make it right for someone to take something from you, or exploit another person without their permission. Don’t worry, I will get to the bottom of what happened to my money.’
Bad investments and mismanaged rental properties and construction work appear to be some of the reasons for the haemorrhaging of her fortune. But one of the more brazen ways in which the blue chip, financial management firm Anchin, Block & Anchin mishandled her money, it is alleged, is that Cornwell found herself paying out $5,000 for a bar mitzvah for a girl she hadn’t even met, a company director’s daughter.
The firm specialises in 'privately held businesses and high net-worth individuals’, and other famous clients include Robert De Niro. Their pitch is that they 'do everything for their clients including buying and delivering their toilet paper’.
'If you are a writer,’ Cornwell says, 'you want to get away from the day-to-day financial stuff. You don’t want to hear about a duplicate bill because that is going to distract you. You have to block out a lot or you can’t focus. That does get selfish at times.’
Was not having children part of that being selfish with her time?
'I think it would be incredibly difficult if you had a child running into the room wanting your attention when you are in the middle of a paragraph. But that’s not necessarily why I took the decision not to have kids. It just didn’t seem to be on the cards for me. I think some people feel they will be better parents than others. I didn’t feel it and I didn’t have a whole lot of role modelling. Maybe it was fear.’
Her own childhood having been unhappy? 'Yeah. I don’t think I could have lived with the idea of a child of mine having an unhappy childhood as well,’ Cornwell says.
There is something quite masculine about her writing; the style is taut and economic. Not Hemingwayesque exactly, but not flowery. Was writing about manly things in a manly way to do with her wanting to win, belatedly, the approval of the father who abandoned her?
'I don’t think so. I have never been accused of having a feminine prose style, it’s true. And as a girl I always wore shorts rather than skirts. I was a tomboy. To me, cruelty was a petticoat because I couldn’t climb trees in it. You have to remember I grew up with two brothers in a town without girls. I grew up playing with boys and as an adult my first job was working as a crime reporter, and for that I would be riding with policemen in a patrol car. I learnt to become very comfortable in the company of men.’
She levels her blue eyes at me. 'I guess it’s about the appropriation of power. You have to adapt or die.’ As she says this, the temperature in the room seems to drop.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Killer Queen: Patricia Cornwell Interview
From TELEGRAPH.CO.UK --