Monday, 16 November 2009

The Hard Life of Patricia Cornwell

I have to admit to enjoying the first five novels of Patricia Cornwell, especially 1990’s Post Mortem which came out under the shadow’s of Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs stampede. Publishers were looking for anything that could match the success of Harris’ work – so it was little surprise that Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta debut work was grabbed and found itself in print. Due to the sheer volume of books and dissapointment in her 6th novel, I have not returned to her work since those post-Silence of the Lambs days.

Today The Guardian has an excellent feature length interview with Ms. Cornwell by Nigel Farndale.

Reading the article made me realize how sad a life she has led despite her wealth, and even that seems to have halved –

Well, it’s a stressful business being the biggest-selling crime writer in the world (and the second biggest-selling female writer in any genre, after J K Rowling). It is estimated that Cornwell is worth just over £60 million although, as I am to discover, she has just launched a legal action against her financial management company in New York, suing them for alleged negligence. Since 2005, according to one source, they may have lost her as much as £25 million, almost half her fortune. The case is ongoing and she is not sure of the exact figures yet.
We shall come to that. For now it is worth reminding ourselves of her USP as a crime writer: that she knows whereof she writes, having spent six years working in a chief medical examiner’s office in Virginia, one that dealt with murder cases, usually ones involving sexual assault. There she watched many an autopsy being performed. And this is another reason why her readers often confuse her with her heroine, Dr Scarpetta.

But Cornwell’s back-story is more interesting than Scarpetta’s. More Gothic. And one she wouldn’t get away with in fiction.

She was five when her father, a lawyer, walked out on the family, on Christmas morning. She clung on to his leg as he left, pleading with him not to go. Soon after this she was molested by a security guard, a case that ended with her giving evidence in court.

Her mother by now was spiralling into chronic depression. This meant that Cornwell had to be sent to live with foster parents. Sadistic foster parents. She became anorexic in her teens and recovered only to succumb to depression herself, in her twenties. This has come and gone over the years.

When I ask how her own depression compares with her mother’s she answers in an accent that combines briskness with a Southern drawl, like someone driving with her foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

'Hers was much worse than mine because she was admitted to hospital. Mine has never been that dark or debilitating. I think mine has got better as I’ve got older. And it is the only good thing about getting older, by the way. I’m bipolar but my moods are more stable. I don’t take medication for it,’ Cornwell says.

In her twenties she married her professor (male) who was 17 years older than her. Now, as of three years ago, she is married to a professor (female) who is 10 years younger. Her name is Staci Gruber and she is associate director of Harvard’s McLean psychiatric hospital. They met when Cornwell was researching sociopaths for a novel. Cornwell says with a laugh that Gruber’s first impression of her was that she was a narcissist.

Read the complete piece here

I think I should read one of her newer books to see if the promise of her early work has held up.

1 comment:

Caro Ramsay said...

I too was a huge Cornwell fan in the early days, until Benton died and then came back to life - did he step out the shower or was that Dallas?? Any how, I lost faith in her to be honest with me as a reader. I did try Predator but it reads like an American text book for my Forensic Medicine Diploma without the pictures.
As to Scarpetta?? How big is her handbag... no matter what she needs or where she is, she always has 'it' with her-- scuba, hair sampling kit, travel scrabble... maybe it's a TARDIS.