Patricia Cornwell is a best-selling author whose books have sold over one hundred million copies. A recipient of multiple literary accolades, including the prestigious Gold Dagger Award––Patricia is the only American author to be awarded the British Book Award. She is recognized as one of the world’s finest crime writers of the twenty-first century. Cornwell speaks below about her life and her popular Kay Scarpetta novels plus the latest installment, Livid, in the long-running series.
What is your writing process like?
My writing process is that I literally live with what I do. It is not a job for me. I think about it all the time. I rise early and get to my desk to write and do it until pretty much dinner time.
Interruptions must be kept at a minimum. When my attention gets diverted, it makes it difficult to concentrate. I feel that the creative process is fragile like a soap bubble—it does not take much to pop it. When there are too many interruptions during the writing process, I might go back to the work to discover it is not talking to me anymore.
My research is continuous while I am writing a book. Sometimes this requires me to go on trips. I am obsessive about what I do. I am probably at my desk seven days a week. Writing is not hard because of writing; writing is hard because storytelling is difficult. You must have something to say. Good stories are few and far between, and you must go look for one until it finds you.
I tell writers—go follow something that you are curious about. You never know where a story might lead. The Scarpetta series idea came to me when I met a woman medical examiner, and prior to that while working as a crime reporter.
Do you ever get stuck when writing a novel and what do you do at that point?
I get stuck like everybody else. It helps when you love what you do. Really, if one does not have a passion for writing, then one should not do it. Writing is like having a relationship, or like having children—writing takes everything I have. It changes you. When I say it changes you, when you create characters, they are also creating you.
I have an in-built kill switch that automatically gets turned on without me even trying. When this occurs, I go back to when the writing was last working well. If I do this faithfully, I always get past what is wrong with the writing. Sometimes, it is a matter of not knowing something—it is engineering—if you do not build up the writing correctly, it collapses on you. I go back to where it was working.
A writer must not only have discipline but possess passion. It is too difficult if one only has discipline. You must believe story telling matters. Without it, we do not know who we are or what we are here for, or how to act.
Which writers have inspired you?
There have been many. I enjoy T.S. Eliot, Hemingway—his descriptions and his dialogues. Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood is one of the finest true crime books ever written. Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs is the best crime thriller I have ever read, I think. People say to write what you know, but I say write what you learn. I have learned much from other writers.
Livid is book twenty-six in the Scarpetta series—has it gotten easier or harder to write about Dr. Kay Scarpetta?
I would say yes to both questions <laughs>. There are easier things because I know these people. I certainly know Kay, and I can find her voice—I know how she thinks. In any situation I put her into, I know what she will do.
What gets hard is coming up with something new. I cannot keep writing the same stories. It is important to write similar but make it different. I keep my work current by knowing what is going on in the world in real-time. I try to write about the real and present dangers that we all hear about on the news.
When is the Scarpetta TV series coming out and why has this project taken so long to come to fruition?
It is coming along and is in deep development. These things do not happen overnight. My friend, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, and I have been working on this new development for under one year. If you want to get good people involved, one of the big issues is schedules. People who are good at what they do are in demand. Sometimes, you must wait for the right people to become free.
The series is well along, and I would not be surprised if there is not more in the news about it in the not-too-distant future. Currently, I do not have anything I am allowed to announce. When the show is ready, it will be Jamie and her associates that announce it. The Scarpetta series has a good chance of happening this time. I would love it for the fans. My fingers are crossed.
Jason Waddle | Contributing Writer