Award-winning, major international best-selling author Patricia Cornwell has seen her meticulously researched crime novels translated into 36 languages across more than 50 countries. The former police beat reporter scuba dives, rides motorcycles and flies helicopters—just like her characters do. “It is important to me to live in the world I write about,” she said. Her energy seems as boundless as her interests (read more about her on her website Patricia Cornwell: bio). Her most recent Scarpetta series, The Scarpetta Factor (Penguin), publishes this month.
PopMatters 20 Questions caught up with this engaging, enthusiastic author in a rare moment when her feet were on the ground.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Off the top of my head, Fried Green Tomatoes. I happened to catch it on TV the other night, and it always makes me cry. Although I saw Atonement recently and cried.
And oh, well, you’d be amazed by how many movies make me cry. Including extremely happy or hilariously funny ones (Pretty Woman, Blades of Glory)… Maybe it’s because I have to be so stoical most of the time.
2. The fictional character most like you?
There isn’t one that seems obvious, not even in my own work, although there are pieces and parts of me in many of my characters. For example, Pete Marino is a slob and often makes snap judgments that he regrets. Hate to say it, but I can relate.
In contrast, Scarpetta is thoughtful, deliberate, impeccable, which is my fantasy. However, both of us have a visceral aversion to cruelty and abuse of power, and we can be much more volatile behind the scenes than the public might imagine. (You’ll see that in The Scarpetta Factor, when she has a bit of a meltdown with Benton inside their New York apartment.)
Lucy loves all things powerful, in part because she is so afraid of being powerless. I confess that I can understand how she feels. But the obvious difference between the two of us (besides her youthfulness and sculpted beauty) is she’s better at everything than I am. However, I don’t pick up strangers in bars (at least not in recent memory, not that anybody would be interested), kill people, or in general think it’s all right to break the law as long as there’s a good reason.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Rumours. Fleetwood Mac is astonishingly talented. Mick Fleetwood playing the drums—what a rush.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek. I hero-worshipped Captain Kirk and would have left my childhood hometown of Montreat, North Carolina, without regrets or looking back, had he offered to beam me up. I wouldn’t have even asked for a background check of his crew or worried about going to college.
For one thing, it was the uniforms. I probably shouldn’t let this out, but I love uniforms and think it’s unfair that writers not only don’t get to wear them but are expected to dress poorly. I also wanted a phaser. And still do. And I can relate to being harassed and fired at rather chronically by Klingons.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Research is what feeds my brain and gives me my best ideas. In fact, it’s as if the story is waiting for me if only I will go looking for it, whether the journey takes me to a morgue or a rare-documents archive or… as you’ll see in The Scarpetta Factor, a bowling alley.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Being a helicopter pilot. Because very little I’ve ever tried to learn made me feel so insecure and scared. And I adore helicopters. And dragonflies and hummingbirds.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Inspiring people and kindness. And, yes, creating Scarpetta, whom I wish I knew. What a cool person to have as a friend and adviser—if she existed, I mean. (She doesn’t, does she?)
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Those who have had the courage to be truthful and humane, despite the cost, and have passion. Billie Jean King comes to mind.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Anything by Dr. Seuss.
10. Your hidden talents…?
Cartoons, tennis, but I’m more than a little rusty now and couldn’t have made a living doing either. When I was a kid, I was the first person picked to create any sort of poster needed for a school function, whether it was a bulletin board or campaign banner or something for a pep rally. I was especially good at drawing Snoopy and Snuffy Smith.
This blossomed into my illustrious career as the cartoonist for the Davidson College newspaper. Those cartoons were original, but so forgettable I can’t give an example. I do remember drawing a number of caricatures of professors and various other important people, and these, too, were published and probably resulted in a tarnishing of my popularity with faculty and those who might have advanced my opportunities in life.
As for tennis, I learned in Montreat by hitting dead balls I fished out of the creek on a backboard built on the side of a machine shop. I taught myself, and it showed. I got ranked as high as ten in North Carolina, and also played on my high-school boys team and never lost a match—or developed a net game, because if I crept beyond the service line I was likely to get smacked rather hard with the ball.
My dream was to be a pro and get to play with Billie Jean King. Now Billie Jean is a wonderful friend, and she has let me play doubles with her on occasion (out of pity).
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
“Write. You do that better than anything else.” A high-school English teacher.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
My first word processor in 1981 (I bought it), so I didn’t have to use a typewriter to write my first published book (a biography).
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
What I call my “work clothes”, which are basically tactical-type cargo pants and shirts with the Scarpetta crest and lots of pockets.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Allen Ginsberg, although we’d go to some great Italian restaurant—well, let’s be specific: Il Cantinori in New York or Davide in Boston. I like wonderful food and service and quiet—am not into the “see and be seen” deal.
I am such a fan of poets, and he’s special to me because when I was in college I did a term paper on Black Mountain College, and I was naive enough to write letters to all sorts of famous artists associated with that place, such as Ginsberg, and darn if some of them didn’t write me back. His letter in particular was outrageous, profane, and long, and I couldn’t believe he would take the time to write a little nothing college student like me. I wish I could take him to dinner and thank him, and explain that his various uses of the f-word wouldn’t shock me now the way they did back then.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Any place where I could have met Lincoln, especially if I could have somehow kept him from going to the theater on Good Friday in 1865.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
None of the above. Solitude with a gorgeous water view, where I can write. And exercise. I love to walk and listen to music.
Copyright 2008 CEI, photograph by Debra Gingrich
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
City on the water. I love the Boston Harbor. I also love Hilton Head.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Thank you for sacrificing every aspect of your personal life for the rest of us. And I hope I meet you someday.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Something I wasn’t planning on, but I had such a fantastic experience with the Lifetime filming of At Risk and The Front, I’ve decided to write a third Win Garano story. I am doing that even as we speak (partly set in Salem, Massachusetts).
In addition, I have begun research on the next Scarpetta (don’t mean to tease, but in it I will reveal a secret about her past that might just stun you).