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Patricia Cornwell on the Thrill of Writing Crime Novels as a Woman

We talked with the best-selling crime novelist about what it's like to be a millionaire, her theories on Jack the Ripper and Princess Diana, and writing your own role models as a woman.
All images courtesy of Patricia Cornwell

If you haven't read her books, you've at least seen her name: Patricia Cornwell is everywhere, from the morgue to the airport bookstore, and to use a phrase I imagine her southern upbringing would merit, she's something else. In 1990, after a six-year publishing battle, she debuted her first crime novel, Postmortem, starring a then-unheard-of protagonist: Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a female medical examiner. After that, the series quickly took off, with exponentially hefty book deals, selling over 100 million copies worldwide. (The 23rd Kay Scarpetta book, Depraved Heart, came out this week.)


For more than 25 years Cornwell, who turns 60 next year, has focused on the Scarpetta series, except for a couple of brief forays into more humorous crime novels and a nonfiction book called Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. The latter, which was published in 2002, just a year after she began to dig into the case during a spontaneous visit to Scotland Yard, created significant controversy—both because of Cornwell's strong conviction that definitely, no question, the painter Walter Sickert had been Jack the Ripper, and because of the sense that this brash American lady had waltzed into decades worth of research and speculation, acting like she owned the place.

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Never playing the role of the hermit literary author, Cornwell has also attracted attention in her personal life—she had an affair with a female FBI agent in 1996, an experience the seventh Kay Scarpetta novel is thought to draw on, though with a guy—and she later came out as gay and married her partner in 2005. Her wealth—which she uses most ostentatiously to buy helicopters, though she doesn't own one now—is also no secret. Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that I sat down to talk with Cornwell at the offices of the Howard Stern radio show. She was wearing skull rings—not just because Halloween is coming up, though she says she enjoys the holiday—and sturdy Prada boots with a metallic silver tongue.


BROADLY: You've written so many books. Where do you get your ideas?
Patricia Cornwell: I do a lot of research. I started out as a journalist, so I go out and meet people and do things. Whatever it is I want to write about, almost like a method actor, I try to get into it, whether it's flying a helicopter, riding a motorcycle, driving a really fast car, firearms research, going in the labs, witnessing autopsies, or riding with the police. All of this creates the colors on my palette for painting this picture, so when you see it, hopefully you feel like you were there.

How long does it take you to write one? Do you have hard deadlines?
I work on one a year. My publisher would like a book a year, but I kind of do it anyway because I like to have something in the works. I don't take an entire year to do it—some of the time is spent on the research. It actually keeps me company. I'm not waiting for someone to call me about something—I sit at my desk, and I have something to do. It's always my friend that's waiting for me, but it's also a taskmaster because it makes me work.

You've talked a little bit about how people didn't want women writing crime novels. How have you seen your reception change since the 90s?
When I was getting started, there were very few women forensic pathologists in the country. My first time I ever went into a morgue was 1984, and I did meet one female forensic pathologist, and I thought, Wow, there could be such a thing. Then I thought, Maybe I should create a character that's a woman medical examiner, that would be interesting. And I started doing that. When [Postmortem] was getting rejected, I heard people say things like, "Nobody's interested in laboratories, nobody's interested in the morgue, especially a woman that works in a place like that." Can you imagine today, how silly that seems? Now, the forensic field is predominantly female. There are more women medical examiners, more women forensic scientists than men.


But when Postmortem first came out in 1990, a bookseller who was carrying it in his little bookshop in Richmond, Virginia, said to me, "Your book disturbed me so much, I went through it and changed all the female pronouns to he and him to see if I could handle this book better if the medical examiner was a man and not a woman." He said, "It didn't work very well, but I tried." And I said, "Well, why?" He said, "I just don't feel a woman should be in this place doing these things." I said, "Why? Most of the victims are women. Why wouldn't it be women taking care of women?" It's women and children, so it really does make sense.

If you write crime stories and you're a man, they're usually called thrillers or crime novels, or even legal thrillers depending on if there's a lot of legal stuff in it. If you're a woman, you immediately get pegged as a 'mystery writer.'

It's different if you're a woman author [too]. Women writers get treated differently than some of the men. If you write crime stories and you're a man, they're usually called thrillers or crime novels, or even legal thrillers depending on if there's a lot of legal stuff in it. If you're a woman, you immediately get pegged as a "mystery writer." Why? Tell me a man writing today called a "mystery writer." I get called it all the time, and I am not writing genre stuff that adheres to conventions like buried clues, and red herrings, and puzzle clues, and the butler did it. I write on morgues, crime scenes. I've held organs in my hands and put them on the scales, and gone through the clothing of victims, and done all sorts of things—it's not a mystery.


I feel like I know a lot of ambitious women and not as many ambitious men anymore.
Well, we have to work harder to get where we want to go, but my attitude about that has always been, well I don't really want to complain about it. Because if I sit around and complain, it doesn't do any good. When I was growing up, your ambition in life [was to] get married and have children. Your brothers could have mini-bikes, but not you. You were not supposed to be out climbing trees and being with the boys, but I did it anyway. But I always knew I was a girl, and girls had a different set of rules than boys, and a different set of privileges. I've just always tried to push that envelope, and the way I do it is, if you won't let me ride your mini-bike when I'm a little kid, then I will someday own a bunch of Harley Davidsons and my own helicopter, and I'll fly it. That's my revenge.

Did it take you a long time to accept that as your revenge instead of maybe dwelling on it or being upset?
No, I'm not resentful or any of that.

I've held organs in my hands.

Were you when you were younger?
No, I don't think I knew any better to be resentful. I just figured life was what it was. I had two brothers and literally there were no girls in my town, and I did play with the boys and I was always mindful things were different for them than they were for me, but I think that what it made me do was try harder. Do not live a fear-driven life, and do not live the sort of life where you're driven by unfairness. Try to do something about it, take action. Because even if it's something small, just the act of doing something starts moving things forward.


Do you think that's why you write so many books, and turn them over quickly?
I always try to stay in motion. I'm always doing something because it keeps a forward momentum going. You keep moving forward. When you look at anything, try to pretend it's something you don't know anything about. Take Jack the Ripper. When I started doing research, I just put myself in the mindset that nobody has really ever dug into this before. I'm going to jump into this case as if it's never been investigated.

Is that why you didn't mention the other theories claimed Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper in the book?
I'm getting ready to publish the whole remake of that book that I've been working on since 2002. The intention of that book was to show the story of Walter Sickert—that he was Jack the Ripper—as opposed to being some kind of "Ripperologist," where I'm pointing out every theory that's ever been done and what I think of it. In the new book, I will address some of those because I have some pretty good empirical evidence that would show, in some cases, it's not really possible that this person could have been Jack the Ripper. I go to primary source materials, the original letters, documents, archival sources, the original police reports.

But it just depends. I mean, the Jack the Ripper book has caused a lot of controversy and has been criticized—even though I completely hold my ground on what I say and still believe a hundred percent what I've said about it and continue to say about it.


Why does that story in particular fascinate you? There are so many horrible things that have happened throughout history—why that one?
I happened to be in London in the spring of 2001, and somebody said, "While you're here, would you like to take a tour of Scotland Yard?" One of their senior investigators, who knew a lot about the Ripper crimes, started telling me about the case. I had never read anything on it; I wasn't interested. That was 18—eh, whatever, who cares. But he kept talking, and then he started rattling off who the suspects were, and I said, "Based on what?" He said, "Based on nothing. It's just theories. Most of these theories are rather recent." I said, "Is there any evidence in this case?" He said, "Well, yes. The evidence that's left are the letters that Jack the Ripper wrote to the police and the media."

He was a compulsive writer. I said, "Well, you know, documents can be extremely interesting. Maybe I can look at the originals." So, I did. Then I brought scientists in to look, because we began to discover lots of remarkable things about these documents. While I was doing that, this investigator had said, "By the way, there's this one guy, Walter Sickert, who was an artist back in the day. He did a lot of murder paintings." His name had come up before, and I'd always been curious about him, so I really started looking into it, thinking I might weave a novel out of it or something—maybe have Scarpetta doing something. But then, lo and behold, I went, "Oh. My. God. I think this guy might've done it." And I just kept digging. I think I had 22 trips to England and France. Millions of dollars in rare documents and books and travel and everything that I had to do—the scientists. I had to pay for all that.


You funded it all out of pocket?
Oh, sure. I had to fund hiring bona fide, forensic DNA people from the crime labs to go over, to swab envelopes and behind stamps looking for DNA. We did about everything you could possibly do as long as it wasn't destructive to truly a national treasure in the UK. But that's what I do. Jack the Ripper really plugged right into my journalism streak.

Are you ever tempted to try your hand at actual crime solving?
I do a little bit of that already. I do it in the sense that I spend a lot of time with police, you know, friends in law enforcement. We talk about cases, and we bounce ideas around, because I have a lot of experience and I've been studying criminalistics, forensics, for over 30 years now because I started out as a police reporter in 1979.

How often do you fly the helicopter? And it's your helicopter?
I sold mine about two years ago. I don't know that I'm going to buy another one. I had been flying one on the West Coast that I would charter, but until our federal government finds out a better way to regulate drones, I'm not eager to be flying a helicopter right now. I've seen too many close calls with people who are putting drones up and trying to film helicopters and planes. We had a situation in LA not too long ago, where a medflight helicopter looked out its window, there's a drone like 50 feet from it. It was a thousand feet up. These drones are equipped with cameras, and they're just hobbies. If that drone gets ingested in an engine, or in our case, if it hits our tail rotor, we're probably dead. I've flown drones. They could kill you if you flew one into someone's head.


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Do you approach the world with a sense of possible danger?
Unfortunately. I mean, I've seen so many different ways people get killed. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I would say I'm a hypervigilant person. It's not so much being paranoid; it's what I call situational awareness. I'm constantly nagging people about putting seatbelts on. [Princess Diana] didn't have hers on, and she'd probably be alive if she did.

Do you have thoughts on that?
Oh, yeah. I did a big piece on that for [ABC] Prime Time several years ago. I investigated that case pretty diligently and came up with some pretty interesting things about it. For example—this is typical of what I do in my books, which is why I wouldn't call them mysteries—in her case, there was a very strange thing that Henri Paul, who was the driver of the car, had a relatively high carbon monoxide level [in his blood]. It didn't make sense with a car wreck. So I went out and I bought a duplicate of the car of theirs that had crashed in Paris, and we got an airbag that was exactly for that model [of] car, that would've been the same type of airbag that was in the actual car. We went into a forensic vehicle bay in Richmond, Virginia, with experts, and we set off an airbag in that car with a carbon monoxide instrument to measure—zero, zero—so right there I can say that is not why he has that carbon monoxide. That ruled out something. Just go through the trouble. That was a lot of trouble right there.


Very expensive trouble.
Reconstructions can tell you a lot. That's where you get your ideas sometimes. In that case I said, I don't know why he has this carbon monoxide level. It may very well be that when the car hit the pillar and smashed head on, that maybe for just a nano-second he inhaled fumes from the engine. Or, is it really his blood sample? I don't know. But it was a fascinating and very disturbing investigation.

It seems like you use your money to sort of do whatever you want. What is it like to be that wealthy? When you were growing up you had no money at all, right?
When I came to New York for the first time in 1981 to meet my very first literary agent and he took me to lunch, the biggest news when I got home [was that] I had a salad that cost $18. So, no, I would've never believed I would grow up to have these things, and I do try to invest a lot of it back into my own work. To me that makes more sense than spending it on things that are ball and chain. You're not likely to find me investing in mansions all over the place or wearing lots of diamond jewelry. I don't want to spend my money on those types of things. I mean I have nice places to live, but I'd rather spend some of my money on buying more books and primary source material, and maybe working the Jack the Ripper case, because I have learned something and I've given the world something.

At what point did you have money? Was it gradual, or was it sudden?
It wasn't really gradual. When I got published with Postmortem, I got $6,000 for that book, and I spent a third of it on marketing because there was no marketing or advertising budget. It won like five book awards and it got good reviews and this sort of thing, so I went from getting $6,000 for that one to $120,000 for the second one. Within another year I was practically a millionaire, and I was moved into a wealthy neighborhood, driving a Mercedes. Frankly, if I had a whole lot of sense, I might have slowed down on all that, but I had a little fun with being a little wild for a while. I do try to be charitable; I've done a lot with philanthropy with scholarships and education and animals. I do try to be worthy of my good fortune.

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I like that you're very open that you've spent money on things. A lot of wealthy people act ashamed to be wealthy, or they're like, "I'm a normal person!" And I don't get that sense from your interviews.
Oh, I'm not, no. It's fun to take someone out for a wonderful dinner that they wouldn't normally be doing, or to help someone's kid with college when they're about to amass a horrible debt that they'll never get rid of. I always say, dear God, please just let me always be able to do this because—

It would be hard to go back.
I could give up a lot of stuff that I have, but it would really kill me if someone had a problem that I couldn't help. That probably goes back to me not feeling like I had any power when I was a kid, so it's a pleasure to help somebody—I can come to their rescue when I wish somebody could've come to mine.

I read an interview with you in which you talked about your plastic surgery, and you said Scarpetta would never have it done.
She would never tell anybody. Including me! She keeps secrets from me. But you know, she's also one of those lucky people that, since she lives in the world of fiction, she doesn't look any older. And I go, Hey, wait a minute, how come that's not working for me? That's not fair.

I'm wondering if you use her to be a better version of yourself.
Yes, I think so. I think I created my own role model because I didn't really have one. Not for a powerful woman. I think I created somebody that I could look up to and emulate. And this will sound strange to say, but creating that character has made me a better person, has made me a stronger person, a bolder person. I have learned things I would have never known. My characters have created me as much as I created them. I wouldn't be a pilot, I would never have ridden a motorcycle, I would not scuba dive, I would not have been to labs, morgues. When I was in college I fled from chemistry class after setting my Bunsen burner on fire—I didn't think I could do science, and I'd never been to a funeral because I was afraid of dead bodies. And then what? Not so much later, I'm a computer programmer in a morgue, and I'm watching autopsies everyday, and actually helping with them in certain ways.

So, why? Because I decided I wanted to do something. I think I did create my best friend. It's a weird thing—now and then I even catch myself asking, "What would she do here?"