The perennial New York Times bestselling author discusses her latest crime thriller Depraved Heart.
Author Patricia Cornwell
Tavis: Patricia Cornwell is a perennial bestselling crime writer whose authored 29–that’s right, 29–New York Times bestsellers and sold some 100 million copies in over 120 countries. Her latest novel is part of her massively successful Kay Scarpetta franchise centered around a character that Cornwell created 25 years ago. The book is an intensely psychological odyssey called “Depraved Heart”, and I am honored to have on this program, Patricia Cornwell. Congratulations.
Patricia Cornwell: Well, thank you. I’m honored to be here.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you. They say time flies when you’re having fun. Does it seem like 25 years?
Cornwell: It seems like it was yesterday and it seems like it was 100 years ago because, when I think of getting started in all this and the very first time I set foot in a medical examiner’s office which was 1984, I go, “How did all this happen?” I never would have imagined any of it.
Tavis: For those who don’t know the story or it’s been so long they’ve forgotten the story, this all started for you how? Were you fancying the idea, the notion, of being a writer?
Cornwell: Well, when I was a little kid, I was a writer. I just was always writing stories and drawing pictures and sewing books together. It was the way I entertained myself and it was also a way I dealt with being really, really lonely. I created fantasy characters. Then when I got in college, it seems like writing was the only thing I seemed to do halfway decently.
So I graduated an English major, of course, after fleeing from chemistry and setting the lab practically on fire and dropping computer science. I would not go to funerals. I was scared of dead bodies. So how I ended up being a computer programmer in a morgue, I don’t know, but I did because I became a journalist.
And what journalism teaches you is go to the source and answer the question. No matter what it is, explore it so that you can be the firsthand witness to tell people what this was like. So that was my approach when I decided to write crime fiction. I went at it as the journalist that I’d been. I started out in newspapers and I started doing research.
Tavis: What fascinates you about these various story lines? I know what fascinates your readers. What fascinates you about writing this stuff, the research to pull this together?
Cornwell: I think it all goes back to that, when I was a little kid, I had a fantasy of being an archeologist. I wanted to find buried treasure and dig up dinosaur bones and all these things. So a crime scene is like an archeology site. You take little pieces and parts or maybe some staining on soil, and you go, hmm, wait a minute. That’s going to tell me something.
I find out what I’m looking for and you begin to excavate. And through a piece of a broken pipe or a shard of pottery or a human bone, you begin to reconstruct a life that passed before you and who were these people and how did they die, how did they live?
That’s really what crime investigation is all about. You take witnesses that can no longer speak, a language that everyone understands, and we interpret it and we reconstruct what happened. I think it’s fascinating to do that.
Tavis: It’s clear, Patricia, that you have a love of writing. You’ve had that since you were a kid, as you mentioned a moment ago. I assume, then, that what goes hand in hand with that is a love of reading. So if you have a love of reading, how did you develop that and what did you love to read?
Cornwell: You know, that’s a great question because you hit on something really important when you say where did you learn to develop that? And that really is the key. I learned that you’re supposed to like reading when I was in school, and I was influenced by people that this was a habit that you develop because, you know, even beer doesn’t taste good the first time. So I didn’t necessarily like reading right at first, but I said, hell, I’m gonna learn how to do it.
Of course, it becomes, again, a tremendous sense of a secret wealth that you don’t even have to have money to enjoy, where you can go on trips without leaving your chair or you can scuba dive or fly a helicopter without being able to afford those things, which is what I try to offer my fans. I’m going to show you my world up close and personal.
Tavis: I’m fascinated now by this point you made a moment ago about what it is that you intend to offer your readers. For lack of a better word, the word I would use is escapism, and that might not do justice to what you want us to take away from these books 25 years in. But what is it that you set out to provide the reader with every one of these novels?
Cornwell: I want to give them an adventure. I don’t even call myself an author. I’m a storyteller and we can tell stories in lots of different ways. We’re telling a story right now on this set. So I want that, when you open this book, I say first of all, thank you for spending even a penny on this if you did, or thank you for borrowing it from somebody, and now you’re going to give me your time? So I think, in exchange, I’d better give you something. I’d better make it worth it.
So I take it very seriously that people are investing their time and money in whatever I’m creating, and I want to give them an adventure when they close those pages and they go, “Wow, that was worth it. I not only had fun, I learned something.” Because you will learn something from my books. I tell you the truth.
Tavis: The learning is more forensic, it’s more–what do you hope the learnings are?
Cornwell: I think it can be anything. I mean, Scarpetta occupies the same universe we do, so even her view on social issues, you can learn things. I filter all sorts of information through the eyes of characters who are very knowledgeable on these subjects.
Like anything that you want to talk about that’s going on in the news right now, my characters are in some way involved in the same reality. They have opinions about it and they have insights that are well-grounded and a lot of experience and information that’s valuable to people.
So I think you can learn all sorts of things from my books, but you won’t feel like you’re learning something because that would be boring. We want you to feel like you’re totally wasting your time, but you’re not.
Tavis: What are the things, the takeaways, the lessons of these 25 years from your fans, from your readers about your work?
Cornwell: Well, I think one big lesson–and that’s an excellent question–is no matter how much you might want to be bold and break out and try new things, remember who you’re dancing with and don’t bust a move that they don’t like [laugh]. And I busted a move…
Tavis: Did Patricia Cornwell just say bust a move [laugh]?
Cornwell: And I busted a move by switching to the third person point of view about 10 years after the fact and my fans did not like it. So I’ve just gone back to my old dance steps and I get along better. They want the stories told from her point of view.
Tavis: How did she, Scarpetta, become your muse? I mean, let’s assume that, when you started writing this stuff 25 years ago, these stories, the character could have been anyone. I mean, you create the character, but how did Scarpetta end up becoming the character?
Cornwell: The thing that’s so weird about it is I don’t know where she really came from. She’s not based on anybody I’ve ever met, including myself. But what I will say about her, as a little kid I developed, I think, a rather amazing ability to create fantasy characters because they populated my rather desolate world.
They were my friends and I had a fantasy best friend when I was a little kid and I think Scarpetta is my fantasy best friend as an adult. I created an alter ego, you might say, a character who I really love to spend time with, and this will sound weird to say. I think she’s made me a better person.
Tavis: What difference has it made all these years that she’s a woman?
Cornwell: I think it makes a big difference because you have to try a little harder. I mean, I have to try harder as a woman. I think as any minority, however you want to define that word, the one who’s not instantly given the power when you’re born, you have to try harder.
Billy Jean King always said, you know, she could never get away with being mediocre. If you’re going to be the tennis champion of the world, she’s going to have to be even better than some of her male counterparts is the way she felt.
So the advantage to it is, I think Scarpetta tries harder. She never takes no for an answer. She always prevails and it’s a life lesson for me too is don’t give up. I think starting at some disadvantages in life can actually make you stronger and better and become a huge gift. A no becomes a yes.
Tavis: I didn’t believe that 30 years ago, but I’ve come to accept that. I have absolutely come to agree with you 100% on that point, that starting with some disadvantages is a life, I think, better lived.
Cornwell: I had more than my share of them and I have always said, if I didn’t have them, I probably would be such a jerk. Nobody would like me and I wouldn’t like myself, but I have a certain amount of humility because I didn’t come at things the easy way.
Tavis: How, then, does one stay grounded when one has this kind of phenomenal off-the-charts international success?
Cornwell: Because I live with a bunch of people who do not care whether I show up at work and sometimes they’re not there. Do you know what it’s like working for these characters? I get my coffee, sit down at my desk, and I turn on my computer. It’s like where is everybody? So talk about humbling.
When you have fantasy characters that you can’t control–and I always say I believe in them, but maybe they don’t even know I exist. Is that what it’s like to be God? I don’t know [laugh]. No respect, in other words. No respect at all.
Tavis: Yeah. You and Rodney Dangerfield, yeah.
Cornwell: I think the creative experience should take away any kind of pride you have because, if you’re really doing something well, you don’t really control it. I mean, you can’t force a story and some days the writing speaks to you and other days it’s not there. And that is really hard for me. It keeps me humble and it keeps me insecure with every single book. I never know if this is going to work out well or not this time. I sure hope so.
Tavis: You’ve said a few profound things tonight, but I’m writing that one down. The creative experience should take away pride.
Cornwell: It should.
Tavis: It should. I totally agree with that.
Cornwell: Yeah. The better you are, the more you don’t know where it comes from and you don’t take credit for it yourself. I didn’t ask to be able to write poetry. I was born being able to rhyme things and do stuff and have cadences and rhythms for reasons I don’t even understand. So that should just make you grateful. It shouldn’t make you proud.
Tavis: I concur. Two things–I could talk to you for hours. My time is just about up, believe it or not. One, what do you make of the fact that you were so ahead of the curve, so ahead of all these television procedurals 25 years later?
Cornwell: You know, it goes back to a simple thing I advocate for absolutely everybody. If you’re curious about something, like maybe I should go inside that pyramid and then you discover King Tut’s tomb. If something’s beckoning to you like the morgue did to me because I wondered what goes on in there, I have to know. Go. Go take that road less traveled because you may discover a whole kingdom, another universe, a Star Wars. You never know what’s out there until you dare to look.
Tavis: And the last question, which I saved deliberately for last because it’s always hard to talk to you about your books because you know where the landmines are. You don’t want to give too much away as the interviewer, so tell me about “Depraved Heart”.
Cornwell: Well, “Depraved Heart” is interesting in terms of how it’s different from the other Scarpetta novels because I deliberately made a decision to make an old, almost haunted type house a main character in this book. You can see it sort of on the cover.
I wanted to put Scarpetta in a scenario that almost seems paranormal, like there’s things going on in there and, as the reader, you’re going, “For God’s sake, get out of there. Why does she not hear that banging around? Get out of there while you can.”
Tavis: The white characters never do. That’s an old Black comedian’s joke. The white characters never do. The Black folk are like gone.
Cornwell: Because you’re smarter than us.
Tavis: Only white people are like, “Who’s in there?” Black folk are just gone [laugh].
Cornwell: That’s right, because you’re smarter than us.
Tavis: I don’t know about all that, but anyway…
Cornwell: Damn right. So anyway, I wanted to do something that was spookier and more suspenseful. I mean, she wears the forensics like a pair of old shoes. She knows everything and we know that. But this book, I think, is going to scare people more than the usual one. It’s perfect for Halloween.
Tavis: Well, get ready to be scared. It’s out now. It’s called “Depraved Heart”. It is the latest Scarpetta novel by perennial New York Times bestselling author–excuse me, storyteller–Patricia Cornwell, who I’m honored to have had on this program tonight. Patricia, congratulations on a long and successful run, and many, many more to come.
Cornwell: Well, I’m so happy to be here. Great to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you, Patricia.
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