Patricia Cornwell: 'I grew up with fear, now it's fuel'
Her crime novels are based on obsessive detail and gory research. Yet, as Patricia Cornwell tells our reporter, her own back story, which includes abuse and abandonment, is one of the most frightening of all
Published 07/12/2015 | 02:30
Bad things happen to good people. That's what I learn from Patricia Cornwell's latest novel, Depraved Heart, the 23rd she has written featuring Dr Kay Scarpetta, the cool-headed, genre-busting forensic pathologist Cornwell invented back in 1990, before forensic pathology - and CSI - had colonised all TV schedules. Sometimes really bad things. That's what else I learn: that when psychopaths are involved, you start thinking in italics. A lot.
But then, it would be easy to treat Patricia Cornwell with a certain amount of italicised irony. The website Gawker, in describing her, suggested: "The world needs more out lesbian true-crime authors who pilot helicopters, are obsessed with Jack the Ripper and maintained a warm friendship with Billy Graham's wife for many years."
She is all those things. A 59-year-old blonde-coiffed action woman with a strong southern accent and a rapid-fire delivery who does our entire interview in a wetsuit - a clone of one that Scarpetta wore in the books. She is that rare mythical beast: a writer who makes money from books. Lots of money. So much money from the equally gung-ho Scarpetta, that she failed to notice for a long time that her accountants were in breach of fiduciary duty, resulting in the 2013 federal jury verdict in Cornwell's favour of many millions of dollars.
"I'm the first to point out that I'm not thrifty," she says, though it hasn't made much of a dent in her lifestyle. She still drives a Ferrari and pilots a helicopter and lives comfortably in Boston with her wife, Staci Gruber, a Harvard neuroscientist. Think of her as an older, feistier American version of JK Rowling with a set of motorbike leathers.
I come to understand the italics. Because if her work majors in imagining creative new ways bad people will try and get you, it's because bad people really have tried to come and get her. The latest Scarpetta stretches the envelope of credibility - not least because of the Byzantine backstory that has to account for the plots of the last 22 novels - but Cornwell's own story is far more compelling and terrifying, not least because it's true.
Why the interest in psychopaths, I want to know. Is it as a narrative device?
"No, it's fear," says Cornwell. "It's because I grew up with terrible fear. I grew up in such a frightening way." She was just five when her father walked out of the family home in Florida on Christmas Day. But that was only the start. "You find you are wandering the streets by yourself in Miami because no one is looking after you. And then you get molested by a patrolman.
"He started with the kissing and the touching and putting his hand in my pocket. He found a hole and he was just putting his finger through the hole when my brother rolled around on his bicycle. He was about to pull me into his car. We found out later that he was a convicted paedophile. I would probably have ended up in one of the canals down there. I would probably be dead."
Cornwell testified before a grand jury. Her mother, worrying about the safety of her children and having discovered the teachings of evangelist Billy Graham, moved Cornwell and her brothers to Graham's hometown in rural North Carolina.
It was there that Cornwell says her mother started unravelling. She suffered a psychotic episode and was detained in a psychiatric hospital. "It was just terrifying seeing somebody destabilise in front of you when you're nine years old." During her mother's illness, Cornwell was fostered by a woman who bullied and terrified her. Later, as a teenager, she suffered from severe anorexia.
"A select few of us come into this world not bothered by gruesomeness," says Scarpetta in the opening pages of Depraved Heart. "In fact, we're drawn to it."
It's not clear that Patricia Cornwell came into the world that way but she's certainly learned it as she's gone along. In her fiction, she invented a new genre: she revelled in the gory details, but through Scarpetta she expounded them in a cool, precise, scientific way. She respected the victims. And strove to bring them justice.
In person, Cornwell has a similar openness and forthright demeanour. Maybe it's the haircut, but I can't help thinking there's a touch of the Jane Fonda about her.
"I will not be governed by fear," she says. It's her personal motto. And in book after book, she's had Dr Kay Scarpetta - a blonde, blue-eyed alter ego - confront wrongdoers and expose abuses of power.
A lot of novelists shy away from autobiographical interpretations of their work and while Cornwell will point out all the ways in which they're different (Scarpetta is a scientist, Cornwell adds up on her fingers), when I point out that she seems to be rewriting the past in her novels - only this time, making sure everything turns out all right - she agrees immediately.
What might seem like paranoia in someone else, is probably fairly sensible avoidance in her case. Even after she became successful and had put her past behind her, Cornwell seems to have been dogged by the kind of incidents that, if they turned up in a novel, would be frankly unbelievable. She had an affair with the wife of an FBI undercover agent who, when he found out, kidnapped his wife's priest, strapped a fake bomb belt to him, and threatened to blow him up. He was found with a map of Cornwell's house on him when he was arrested.
Within minutes of us meeting in an airy Boston apartment overlooking the waterfront, she's demonstrating how she tested which knives Jack the Ripper might have used.
Jack the Ripper has been a long-time obsession of Cornwell's. A decade ago, she wrote a book in which she points the finger at Walter Sickert, a painter of the period.
The apartment, next to the home she and Staci share, is her "crime library", filled with objects she's gathered in the course of her search. There are all sorts of Ripper-related material and framed Sickerts and decades' worth of original Times newspapers in bound volumes, as well as modern forensic kits and a human skeleton.
Knives, daggers and great curving swords are laid out across a table and Cornwell picks them up in turn to show them to me.
"There are only a few pages of one autopsy report," she says about the Ripper's victims. "The big question is what inflicted the kind of injuries they had. So I went and bought all the different kinds of knives you'd have been able to buy in the period and I would experiment to see what would be the most likely weapon that could cut through so many layers of clothing, the throat, disembowelling. I'm sorry," she says and demonstrates by stabbing a dagger into the air. "But you have to think of these things. I experimented. I'd buy a big old piece of rump roast and wrap it in wool.
"A big side of beef that you get in the grocery store. I would wrap it with fabric of the period and then try all this stuff, cutting into it," she says.
"Nobody was writing about that sort of stuff back then. I kept being told that nobody wants to read about laboratories or morgues. And a woman who does it? No, thank you! Wow. Well, I guess that turned out not to be true."
She sold her first Scarpetta book, Postmortem, and the rest is history - or at least CSI. Scarpetta was a pioneer. Now, in a neat turn of metafiction, the character grumbles that her job has become harder because juries have watched too many TV shows.
"I know," says Cornwell. "I'm literally chasing my own tail. But Scarpetta just turned 25 and I can't write the same thing now that I wrote in 1990. We don't live in the same world. It's not even similar."
Cornwell is never short of real life experience to draw on. Recently, after she launched the lawsuit against her accountants, she found herself targeted by the FBI for political campaign finance fraud. The charges were eventually dropped, but not until she'd been investigated for a year.
"It was a harrowing experience. I lived an entire year pretty certain that I was going to go to prison because once the FBI sink their teeth into something, they don't let go." Her revenge in Depraved Heart is to never pass up an opportunity to say how useless the FBI are. "I saw such an ugly side of them. It didn't matter that you hadn't done anything, they just want to nail you for something."
It was evangelist Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, who Cornwell credits with turning her life around. She took her under her wing when she was released from psychiatric hospital after being treated for anorexia and encouraged her to try her hand at writing. "I don't know that I would be alive today if it wasn't for her."
Through the Grahams, Cornwell came to know George Bush Sr, but since Ruth's death, she's become estranged from the family and politically she's a supporter of Obama these days. But it was quite a journey, she says, coming from where she did to coming to terms with her sexuality.
"It was such a puritanical place and very ignorant. You never heard anything about women being gay. It didn't exist. It was only men. And they were paedophiles, of course. That was the mindset."
But her strategy with this, as with everything else, has been to turn all setbacks to advantages. "I am a survivor. I was just lucky that I can take things that have been traumatic and use them as rocket fuel."
And while Cornwell has the confidence of someone with money and staff, there's an unusual and winning degree of humility to her.
"I really do try to give people the very best that I can," she says.
Gawker may have got it right. The world perhaps does need more lesbian true-crime authors who pilot helicopters, are obsessed with Jack the Ripper and maintained a friendship with Billy Graham's wife for many years.
Depraved Heart is out now and is published by HarperCollins.
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