20 Questions: Patricia Cornwell

Copyright 2009 CEI, photograph (partial) by Debra Gingrich

20 Questions caught up with award-winning, international best-selling author Patricia Cornwell in a rare moment when her feet were on the ground.

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.

Book: The Scarpetta Factor (Kay Scarpetta Series #17)

Author: Patricia Cornwell

Publisher: Putnam

Publication date: 2009-10

Length: 512 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $27.95

Image: 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.

Book: Scarpetta (Kay Scarpetta Series #16)

Author: Patricia Cornwell

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2008-12

Length: 512 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $27.95

Image: 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.

Book: Book of the Dead (Kay Scarpetta Series #15)

Author: Patricia Cornwell

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2007-10

Length: 416 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $26.95

Image: 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).

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.