Interview with Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell

Internationally acclaimed bestselling author Patricia Cornwell comes to Atlanta’s Carter Center this Friday to promote her 25th novel, “The Bone Bed” (Putnam).

In “The Bone Bed,” Cornwell’s hero, forensic investigator Kay Scarpetta, her cranky macho partner Marino, helicopter-flying hacker-genius lesbian niece Lucy, and her festive personal assistant Bryce are on the trail of a killer who e-mails Scarpetta a chilling video clip featuring a woman’s severed ear.

Cornwell spoke at length with GA Voice about gay marriage, the presidential election, writing, and tolerance. No spoilers, mystery fans — so read and enjoy!

How did the killer in “The Bone Bed” come to you?

Cornwell: When I develop characters in my books, I don’t always — in fact, I never know who the killer is. I sort of am keeping up pace with my characters as they’re working these cases, and I find out things as they’re finding them out, and then sometimes, I get this really, this like, chill, when somebody appears, and I realize, “Oh, my God, I think I know who I’m looking at right now and this is really bad.”

And of course, it’s even worse if I’m just a little bit ahead of Scarpetta and she doesn’t know what she’s walking into. But I don’t know where these characters come from. They just sort of appear. They’re not based on anybody I know.

That’s really the fiction writer’s gift, isn’t it? To have characters who appear and walk around in your head and talk to you?

Well, it really is. I mean, it would be easier if I were one of these people who could do outlines and index cards and have the whole thing mapped out and then just write it, but I absolutely can’t do it that way. I just start with images, like in “The Bone Bed,” iit began when I was seeing what Scarpetta was seeing when she was looking at this weird e-mail she’d gotten, and she’s walking, she’s watching a jet boat going down a river, in what looks like a forgotten part of the world, or an early civilization.

You’re actually seeing it as she’s seeing it, and then you sort of pull back, and you realize why she’s looking at this, because there’s an attachment that’s really gory and awful, and that indicates something violent’s been done to somebody, and that’s obviously going to come home to roost for her.

Lucy and Brice are ongoing characters — obviously they’re gay characters. Tell me little bit how they play against other characters in this universe you’ve created.

Well, what I love about having Lucy, and I especially love that Scarpetta’s chief of staff [Bryce] is like he stepped off the set of “Glee,” is how I put it. She’s taken care of by this man who even helps her with her wardrobe now. She’s got this office husband who takes care of her, which is exactly what she needs.

But what’s fun about it is, in my universe, my characters, they’re not focused on what someone’s sexual orientation is, or their gender, or their race — people are people. And so, while Scarpetta knows that her niece is not going to bring home a boyfriend, and that Bryce is not going to bring home a girlfriend, it’s just not an issue with her. And it shouldn’t be.

So without being preachy, I like to show how normal everything is. It’s just people being people. Even Marino is not the bigot that he used to be. He goes over and has dinner with Bryce and his boyfriend. Or husband. And if everybody would act that way, the world would be such a better place.

This is kind of a chestnut of a question, but I’m going to ask it. Some people get this notion that you have to “be one” to write authentically about some character or about some topic. Obviously, I assume you disagree with this, but to what extent might that be true or not, in your opinion?

I would say, ‘That’s not true.” I mean, I think if you’ve never met a gay person, you might be a little hard-pressed to write about one if you weren’t gay, just because the biggest assumption you would make is that there’s a stereotype when in fact there’s not.

I mean, if you were over at our house having dinner with Stacy and me, you wouldn’t even be thinking about that. You’d be thinking about what kind of pizza you want. We’re just people.

And so, I think that what confuses a lot of people, especially people who don’t understand gay issues, is that love is love, caretaking is caretaking, a same-sex couple has all the concerns as a heterosexual couple. We are so united as human beings; we’re far more the same than we’re different.

When did you come out publicly?

What came out publicly in 2007 was that Stacy and I had gotten married. But the gay question has been out there since the mid ‘90s. It’s been in the media for a long time. So I’ve never hidden the fact; I’ve never lied about it; I’ve never made pretenses to the contrary. I have not exactly been an activist, either.

I’ve just tried to live my life and the message that I try to get across to people is that things are far more normal than they think they are, and that there’s just no room for this sort of hatefulness and what I call fear-driven attitudes.

People are so afraid — and I’m sorry the politicians perpetuate this, they beat the drums so loudly — that they have straight people thinking, if they sanction what we do, that somehow that’s going to take away something from them, which is absurd. It’s ridiculous.

Nobody’s trying to take anything away from—I mean, we have couple friends of all descriptions. My hope is that eventually, people will just stop dwelling on some of these social issues that are trying to roll us back a hundred years in time. If not longer.

I’m very troubled by the current public discourse, let me tell you, being down in the South. You lived in Atlanta for a while, did you not, or you had some sort of connection?

I haven’t lived in Atlanta, but I’ve certainly been to Atlanta quite a lot, and I certainly have spent many, many years in places like Virginia and North Carolina, so I’m very aware of the political climate in a lot of these states, which, due to fear that is riled up by religious people, particularly religious people who are politically motivated and who are seeking power, you know, you have people very agitated.

They fear that somehow if same-sex marriage is legalized, it will be the ruination of America, which is absolutely stupid. As it really stands, what is really dreadfully unfair about it is that I’m married, and I pay my share of taxes, but my tax money doesn’t buy me the same rights as it buys other married couples. That’s wrong. I hope it gets addressed at some point, because that’s not a democracy. That’s not what America should be like.

Here’s the good news: I think sometimes things have to get really bad before they get better, and we seem to be in an really dark spot right now with people who want to cancel an anti-bullying day because they think it promotes homosexuality. This is madness talking.

It’s very much like children on the playground. It can eat you alive if you go to that place and stay there all the time, but sometimes you have to step back and just say, ‘This is children working it out on the playground.” I’m not saying that it isn’t dangerous sometimes, that it isn’t horrifically bad in a large sense, but it seems that this kind of behavior — the pettiness, the anti-anti-bullying day reaction — is really on about a fifth-grade level.

Yes, and I think what needs to happen in American again is that we need to be freedom-driven again and not fear-driven. This country’s gotten way too fear-driven. And it’s just very destructive, and it sets everything in backward motion.
That’s why I certainly hope this election goes the way I want it to — it’s not even about party, it’s about person, and I want Obama to have a chance to continue moving forward because that’s a path to being freedom-driven.

We want to be productive, freedom-driven people and not always reactionary and angry and bullying and judging everybody. This is not the country that we want. It’s not what it should be when people behave that way.

We just had Pride in Atlanta this weekend. If people in, especially young people in Atlanta, were to pick up one of your books, or if they were to read this article, what would you want them to know?

I would want them to look at their neighbor with an open heart and open eyes and not with prejudice, for whatever reason. And I mean even in the reverse. You know, if you have a conservative religious family living next to you and that’s not your ilk, don’t judge them — this country was founded on freedom of religion, and we should allow people to live and let live, as long as they’re not being destructive and harmful to each other.

I just think that I would want these kids to realize that not everybody has to be exactly alike, and that doesn’t have to be scary. It can create a wondrous symphony, something really quite beautiful, if you’re able to adapt to all different types of people, and try to learn who they are, and not make such snap judgments about who they are, and then immediately reject them.

If the kids read my book “The Bone Bed,” they’ll see that attitude’s quite pervasive in there. Scarpetta’s a humanitarian; she doesn’t judge people. She knows all types of people and is really, I think, the embodiment of an enlightened human being, what we should all sort of aspire to be.

Specifically, what would you say to the homeless gay kids in Atlanta — kids who are going to read an interview with another famous “role model” — what is it you would like to say to them?

I would say, “Be brave and be true to yourself because there’s nothing worse than living a lie.” If you’re forced to live a lie, you’ve lost everything. And I think we all know people who have done that, and that they have this façade that’s acceptable, but they’re poisoning themselves inside because they’re not being true to themselves.

And truth is what these kids should seek after. They need to be careful, they need to try to be safe, but they need to be themselves and to feel they have a right to be what they are, and that they can still be successful in life.

That doesn’t doom them to some sort of tragedy or failure if they decide to walk a path — or if biology has chosen to put them on a path — that’s slightly different from maybe the kid next to them at school. Be brave.

Explain your characters’ fascination with brand names.

Well, actually, there’s not quite as much of that in “The Bone Bed,” but when I use a brand name, it’s because it helps define the character or it defines something that I’m trying to make a point about — it has nothing to do with promoting anything.

For example, Lucy flies a Bell helicopter; I used the name of that because my helicopter is a Bell and that’s what I know. Obviously the type of motorcycle that Marino would ride says something about him, you know, some big old Harley. Lucy loving really intricate timepieces — you would expect that from such a techno-wizard like Lucy, who wants to know how everything works. And you would expect her to have supercars because she likes power, like Ferraris.

So it’s necessary to have some of the brand names in there, just for points of definition, but just for the record, it’s not any promoting I’m doing. I’m not a sponsor of any of these things.

What’s the difference between your social media use and Kay Scarpetta’s?

Scarpetta would never do what I’m doing. She works in an environment that is very confidential, and the last thing that she would want is to have her real name on Twitter so that anybody could write her about anything. That’s not what she’s here to do; she’s not an author selling books. She uses Twitter only for newsfeeds.

Now Marino, of course, gets in hot water with Twitter because he decides to do something else with it and he finds himself in a world of trouble!

Now for me, I use the social networks so I can be in touch with my fans. I want to have a way that I can communicate with my fans all around the world, and I want them to have a way to communicate with me, so I’m very active on social media.


Patricia Cornwell (@1pcornwell) whirlybirds into Atlanta to talk about “The Bone Bed” this Friday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Carter Center Day Chapel.

Robin Kemp (@KempWrites) tweets compulsively as a quasi-social outlet between teaching, doctoral research, and writing, but has never hit on Marino.