Patricia Cornwell Interview: Part I

Yeah, live broadcasting is always interesting. You plan for things to go in a certain direction … and then they don’t!  You have to be quick on your feet, switch from first to fifth gear in a moment, follow up with this, scratch that, speed up, slow down, go with the flow, and turn things around on a dime. All while being precise and concise. Watching the clock ‘to the second’, observing signals from your producer, making sure that what you’re talking about – and makes perfect sense to you because you’ve read the book, seen the film, done your research – also makes sense to listeners and viewers who may know nothing of the subject you’re talking about.Vicki-on-air-1_June-2014-1

On top of that, you have to coexist with the nuances of the Live Air Studio’s state-of-the-art technology (which, trust me, can be just as temperamental as down-home tape-your-wires-together technology). Add to the mix human beings, human states, human events,  human’s changing schedules … and you get the picture. Be prepared for anything.

Last week, I was engrossed in conversation with author Patricia Cornwell and realized my next scheduled guest, literary journalist Gail Sheehy, was due on air in four minutes.

12:26:28 p.m  and counting down. I’m about to announce Patricia’s upcoming Seattle visit bringing the interview to a smooth close, when my producer burst in from the auxiliary booth, and thrust a piece of paper under my nose.

“GAIL SHEEHY HELD UP. URGENT ISSUE. RESCHEDULE. PATRICIA CONTINUE?”

I cut to break.

PatriciaCornwell“Um … Patricia, I know we didn’t plan for this but … I have a favor to ask. Is there any way you can stay with us a little longer?”

Since Cornwell’s in the heat of pre-launch madness for her latest book, I expected she’d have to jump on another call, leave for a meeting, get on the road.

But this is what she said:

“Hell, yes. I’m all yours darling, for as long as you need!”

Granted, on a different day this might not have worked out, but she still could have said no instead of “Hell, yes!”. And this is one of the factors that makes the difference between the wanna-be’s and the pros. Between those who talk about making things happen, and those who make things happen. Between those who want to write, and do write. Between those who give up when, who knows, maybe the next draft could be “the one”.  (Patricia shares her own experience around this, below.)

We talked for the whole hour and I could have continued for another. We laughed, got serious, and Patricia shared some great insights into life, writing, and success. I’d like to share a little of that interview with you today.


Vicki: My first guest today knows plenty about guts, resilience, and smarts. She has one of the most familiar names in contemporary fiction, as does her prime character, Dr. Kay Scarpetta. I’m talking of #1 New York Times bestselling author, Patricia Cornwell.

She’s celebrating her 25th year in publishing this year and is known as the leading pioneer in what was a little known genre that has now become a multi-million dollar industry. Today, Cornwell’s novels and characters are known the world over. More than 100 million copies of her books have been sold in 36 languages and 120 countries.

Beyond the Scarpetta series, Patricia Cornwell has authored a book on Jack the Ripper, a biography, and two more fiction series, among others. She’s often featured as a forensics expert on shows like CNN and Good Morning America. Patricia Cornwell, welcome to the show.PatriciaCornwellBook

Patricia: Thank you. It’s great to be with you today.

Vicki: I should say your new book, due for release November the 11th, is called Flesh and Blood. It is the 22nd in the Kay Scarpetta series.

Patricia: That’s exactly right. I think people are going to have a lot of fun in this book.

Vicki: There’s a nemesis that revisits.

Patricia: Well, it’s going to be a bit of a shock. The ending is without a doubt the most startling of any of the books I’ve done so far. It’s going to be interesting to see how people react.

Vicki: I still have that to come. I’m about four-fifths of the way through. I didn’t quite make it to the end yet.

Patricia: I won’t tell you.

Vicki: No, don’t. Do not do that. Let’s talk about the first novel you sold. It was Postmortem, published way back in 1990. I remember reading that and being thrilled I’d found a “new author” … can’t believe it’s almost 25 years since your first book came out. That book went on to win the Edgar, Creasy, Anthony, Macavity Awards, the French Prix, it was the first book ever to achieve all those distinctions in a single year. When I read that I thought, “Way to put yourself under pressure there!” Did you feel that?

Patricia: I’m so grateful I won them when I did. Postmortem really needed all those awards. I don’t think any book has done it since, either. It’s really kind of bizarre … and it started so humbly in that, Scribner’s (now Scribner), accepted Postmortem literally by a thread.

The message on my answering machine back in those days was, “Scribner’s might publish your book.”

This was my fourth novel. I’m on the cusp of having four rejected novels at that point. So, that “might” was supposed to be good news. At least it wasn’t a flat out “no” this time … eight other publishing houses had turned it down.

When Postmortem came out with the whopping big first printing of 6,000 books and a $6,000 advance with no publicity, no marketing, no nothing, it needed to win five awards for people to pay attention to it.

Back then nobody knew what to do with forensic labs or autopsies; or a woman who worked in that world. They weren’t sure the public was going to like it.

Vicki: Tell me where your fascination with forensics came from … you started out at the Charlotte Observer, helping to put TV Guide lists together. You then went on to become a police reporter and a volunteer cop. At what point did you become interested in forensics?

Patricia: I think it goes back to two very important facts about my own life. The first, when I was a kid … I had this pipe dream that I was going to be an archaeologist. I wanted to do archaeological excavations and I read everything about it that I possibly could. When you think about it, a forensic investigation is like an archaeological excavation where you are taking pieces and parts and flecks of paint, even human bones, human remains, and you’re trying to reconstruct death … the life that preceded it … and an entire civilization, to figure out who these people were and why they ended this way. That’s really what we do with a homicide scene. My mind kind of works that way anyway.

Then the second thing is my favorite holiday was Halloween. You put those two together and you end up with a monster like me.

Literally, when I was starting out as a police reporter at the Charlotte Observer, I remember my first homicide scene and the police would not let me go in. They were carrying the body out and taking it away and there was broken glass and blood everywhere. I was so frustrated because I wanted to know, where are they taking that body? What are they doing with it? This was 1979, 1980. Nobody really knew the answers to that back then. All you ever knew is that you’d run into a detective who carried with him the stench of the morgue because he had just been with the medical examiner. That was about as much as I could ever find out, the odor that went along with it.

People did not know back in those days what we know today. I became insatiably curious. The body, really, truly is the most important piece of evidence. What are they doing? What are these injuries? What did this person do to this individual? What can we tell from it? That led me to doing that sort of research later on in the mid-1980s when I decided I wanted to write crime novels.

Vicki: Since your prime character, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, performs these autopsies, one might think you have a fascination in being there yourself … but I read that you actually find it difficult to attend autopsies.

Patricia: I do. I’ve seen thousands of them. It never gets any easier. In fact, I think it gets harder.

When I used to work in the medical examiner’s office, and I was there six years, I could deal with anything after a while. I would go down there every morning and help in any way I could. The most horrible things … it’s not even so much what you see … smells are really hard for me. It’s horrible.

Let’s be honest, to subject yourself to that is not an easy thing to do. In order to write about this character I had to wear her shoes. I know what it feels like to pick up a brain and put it on a scale, to look at bloody clothing and try to figure out what it’s telling us in terms of the stab wounds or the cuts in the cloth, bullet holes, all these different things. None of it is necessarily pleasant.

To be my character when I’m writing these books, I have to get way beyond that. These things don’t phase her. They shouldn’t phase her.

I’m always mindful when I go to a medical examiner’s office, that these are real people who died. I might be doing research, but it’s a very harsh reality. It’s depressing. I’m usually in a horrible mood when I leave. I’m usually very fatigued and sometimes kind of down in the dumps, because even the energy in this place is tragic, awful, and I wouldn’t wish that anybody see a lot of this. I save people the pain of it and give them the pleasure of being curious when they read my books … but they don’t have to go through what I did to get there.

Vicki: Many have said the reason your books are so successful is because you are so dedicated to realism. For example, you have a character who is Dr. Scarpetta’s niece, Lucy. She flies a helicopter. You didn’t just go to a helicopter pilot and say, “Hey, tell me what it’s like to fly a helicopter.” You learned to fly the helicopter yourself.

PatriciaCornwellDanAckroydPatricia: Yes, I did. The funny thing is, I can say after a quarter of a century with Kay Scarpetta, I may have created these characters, but they turned around and created me. I’m a totally different person. I’m a helicopter pilot. I scuba dive. I learned how to ride motorcycles (with Dan Ackroyd, apparently). I know a lot about firearms and other kinds of weapons. There are so many things I have done because I need to feel what these characters feel when they’re doing it.

Sometimes I turn that the other way. For example, when I got the chance to go on a dinosaur dig a few years ago, I said, “Okay. I’ve got to do something with this because I know what this feels like now.” What’s Scarpetta going to do with this?

It’s not just about reading something. I want to give readers an experience. I want them to know what it feels like to have those instruments in their hands. The cyclic, the stick as they call it, the collective, flying the helicopter. I want them to know what it feels like when you’re 100 feet down on the bottom of the sea looking at a shipwreck. What is Scarpetta feeling? What is she thinking? What is she mindful of? How does she handle her equipment? Does she know what to do in this case or that case? What if there’s an emergency? … the writing experience would be so bleak for me if I could not be tactile and physical about it.

I think some of this goes back to being a journalist. Journalists go to the scene. If you’re going to write a great story about something you’ve got to show up. You don’t just ask somebody what it looked and felt like. If you can be there, you’re going to be there. That is the same thing I’ve always tried to do with my books. If I can be there, I’ve got to go.

Vicki: You mentioned you’d already written three novels that were rejected.

Patricia: I did. I wrote three crime novels and Scarpetta was a character in those first three. She wasn’t the main character, but she was a character. Postmortem was my fourth attempt. When that started being rejected, making the rounds in New York City – this was in 1988 – I started looking for jobs to go back into journalism.

I was thinking three strikes and you’re out. Four, you’re a joke. You’re really just laughable now! You need to go do something you can make a living at because clearly you’re not meant to write books. I was at the cusp … the very edge of hanging it up and quitting, when my book finally got accepted.  It went on to win those five awards … and things turned around after that.

Vicki: 100 million copies later… it’s definitely a testament to sticking in there if you really believe in something.

Patricia: I do believe. I say that to everybody. I always say … if acceptance and success is not a measure of who and what you are, then rejection is not a measure of you either.

If that were true I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I’ve had tons of failures in life. Many things I’ve tried didn’t work out so well, but I learned something from it. I think that’s very valuable. I think particularly in this day and age where everybody feels entitled to their 15 minutes of fame, you can be successful without really doing anything, because of reality TV for example. We are much more sensitive to thinking that rejection and failure are statements of who and what we are. We are not as resilient as we used to be.

Listen … don’t quit! If you believe in something, do not give it up. I always say if you really love something you should listen to that. It might just love you back.


Excerpted from transcript of live radio show, edited for length, clarity, readability.  Patricia Cornwell went on to discuss how to develop resilience and make it through tough times, the gutsiest things she done, the smartest thing she’s done, and more – November 2014.  Full transcript available from Conversations LIVE with Vicki St. Clair. 

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