Lady of letters

Lesbian mystery writer Patricia Cornwell strives to live her life openly and honestly— and lets her characters do the same

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PAT AND KAY | Cornwell has spent 21 years with one woman in her life — her crime-solving medical examiner alter ego, Kay Scarpetta. (Photo courtesy Gina Crozier)

TAMMYE NASH  | Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

When you have been with someone for more than 20 years, the relationship can sometimes get stale. You get in a rut, following a routine and doing the same things over and over again. Sometimes, things can get boring.

But Patricia Cornwell knows how to avoid that pitfall; the woman in her life for so long, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, never gets boring — not to Cornwell, and not to the millions of readers who follow Scarpetta’s life through Cornwell’s popular series.

Scarpetta is the forensic scientist first introduced in Cornwell’s 1990 debut novel, Post-Mortem, as chief medical examiner for the state of Virginia. In their 21 years together — January will make it 22 —  Cornwell has written 18 more Scarpetta novels, following the career of the brilliant crime-solving doctor and a supporting cast that includes her husband, FBI agent Benton Wesley, her genius lesbian niece Lucy Farinelli and her longtime associate and investigator Pete Marino.

The latest installment in the series, Red Mist, takes them into yet another of Cornwell’s intricately tangled plots in which Scarpetta and her family face constant danger while trying to weave together disparate clues to solve a mystery and catch the killer.

It may sound formulaic, but Cornwell’s own knowledge of forensic science and the author’s willingness to let her characters, in effect, create themselves and explore the world keep the formula constantly updated.

“The most important thing [in keeping such a long-running series fresh] is when you know what made something work in the first place,” says Cornwell, who will be in Dallas Tuesday for a book-signing. An author has to retain that successful element while at the same time allowing the characters to change along with the rest of the world.

To do that, Cornwell says, “I live very much in the real world. I am always going out and exploring to see what new ideas I can find. … These characters, they live in the same world I live in. In our post-9-11 world in 2011, there’s no similarity now to what was going on in 1988 and ’89 when I was writing Post-mortem. I try to reflect through my characters the same things I am experiencing.”

One constant throughout the Scarpetta series, however, is Cornwell’s attention to detailed (and accurate) science. That’s another “adventure” that Cornwell lives, as well.

Cornwell, 55, started her career as a crime reporter with the Charlotte Observer. She became so fascinated with the science of solving crimes that she left journalism to work as a computer analyst and technical writer in the office of Virginia’s chief medical examiner.

“The first time I stepped foot in a medical examiner’s office, I knew, this is where I want to be,” Cornwell says. She remains “an ongoing student of everything that goes on in forensic science, in medicine and in crime.”

Cornwell’s books have never wanted for LGBT fans, and Cornwell acknowledges that there has always been a segment of her fan base that wanted to see Scarpetta come out as lesbian.

“I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I think by now, she’s pretty settled in her marriage to Wesley,” Cornwell laughs.

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TWO DECADES OF CRIME | Patricia Cornwell has been with her heroine, Kay Scarpetta, from ‘Post-Mortem’ to the current ‘Red Mist’ with titles like ‘Predator’ in between.

But Lucy is one major out character, a step Cornwell says happened as organically as all of the rest of the character development through the years.

“When I was writing Body Farm, there was this scene where Lucy walks into her aunt’s living room, a teen full of angst who just got a driver’s license.

When I saw her in my mind, I thought, ‘Oh my god, she’s gay,’” Cornwell says. “It was not premeditated. I never try to change any of my characters into something they’re not. I just knew at the time that was who Lucy was. I do that with all my characters, let them be who they are, and it doesn’t matter whether people like it or not.”

Cornwell acknowledges that the gay angle probably cost her some readers but likely gained her some, too, for the same reason.

Lucy Farinelli is fully fleshed out, with good traits and flaws. She is never a villain, but she’s not perfect, either. Cornwell has never tried to turn Lucy into some kind of symbolic representation to promote LGBT rights. Because that’s not who Lucy is. And it’s not who Cornwell is, either.
Cornwell married her partner, Dr. Staci Gruber, in 2006 in Massachusetts, but didn’t really talk publicly about her marriage until about a year later.

“Our relationship was never really secret, and it wasn’t that we just weren’t talking about it [the marriage]. It’s just that people didn’t think to ask about it,” Cornwell says. “But when there became a reason to talk about it, that came easily.”

That reason, she continues, came in 2007 when she started thinking about the thousands of committed same-sex couples who aren’t able to legally marry.

“When you have a committed relationship and live where that relationship is legally recognized, you start to feel very badly that there are so many places where people are not honored that way,” Cornwell says. “You can’t legislate that people should think and feel the same way you do, and I don’t campaign about it. But when I am asked, I speak openly and honestly about it. First and foremost, you have to be honest.

“I think it’s shocking that at a time when we are facing the kind of problems this country has, that people are focusing on issues like this, on who can and can’t get married. It’s just phobic and silly,” Cornwell says. “You can be an example without being on a soapbox. I am not a preacher. I am not a politician, and I wouldn’t be any good at trying to present any kind of message that way. I just live my life very honestly and let that be my example.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Beach reads

Looking for good summer books with a gay twist? We’ve got you covered

Miguel’s Secret Journal by A.V. Zeppa
In this debut novel by recently out author A.V. Zeppa, a teacher of English and music at Hostos-Lincoln Academy in New York, the title character Miguel is a 15-year-old gay Latino living in a poor and violent section of the South Bronx. A gifted artist who is emotionally, physically and sexually abused, Miguel meets and falls in love with Gabriel, another gay student at school. As the boys’ relationship deepens, Gabriel lets Miguel in on a not-so-little secret that will change his life — and perhaps the course of humanity — forever. Miguel’s Secret Journal is the first in a planned series.

Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender by Nick Krieger
Author Nick Krieger’s eye-opening transgender memoir isn’t just about making the transition from woman to man, but about dismissing a binary way of life and blurring the lines between gender and identity. This story of self-discovery starts when lesbian travel writer Nina moves to San Francisco’s Castro District and meets a group of queer friends who modify their bodies and debunk traditional ideas of gender. Soon Nina begins masculinizing her own appearance — first by refusing to shave her legs and eventually opting for surgery to reduce and reform her chest. During this empowering journey, Nina transforms into Nick, a self-aware entity who’s content existing somewhere in the middle.

Rounding Third by Walter G. Meyer
In the eyes of his father, 17-year-old Rob Wardell is a failure. He doesn’t fit in at home, at school or on the baseball field where he warms the bench in a vain effort to appease his dad. But Rob’s outlook changes when he befriends the team’s new star pitcher, Josh Schlagel, and engages in an off-field relationship that leads to an outcome neither boy anticipates. Popular jock Josh has a secret ­(and the bruises to prove it)  and when all is revealed, Rob must step up to the plate to save his friend from a harrowing truth that he’s kept hidden for so long.

Games Frat Boys Play by Todd Gregory
In this sizzling follow-up to Every Frat Boy Wants It, Todd Gregory returns to California State University-Polk where boarding-school brat Jordy Valentine is starting his first semester. Immediately intrigued by Beta Kappa fraternity and enamored by its rush chair, Chad York, Valentine pursues the handsome Greek god only to be rejected. Scorned, the freshman devises a plan to physically transform himself in order to catch the eye of York and in the process is thrust into a world of illicit locker-room trysts and late-night encounters with other brothers.

The Road Home by Michael Thomas Ford
After a car accident incapacitates 40-year-old photographer Burke Crenshaw, he returns to his widowed father’s house to recuperate and receive temporary full-time care. As his dad embarks on a new relationship, the ailing Burke begins a quest of his own – to uncover a 125-year-old mystery hidden in a series of letters from a Civil War soldier to his fiancé. With the help of local librarian Sam Guffrey, Burke unexpectedly unlocks a past that forces him to confront his own — the choices he made, coming to terms with his mother’s death, repairing the relationship with his estranged father and ultimately how to live as a successful and confident gay man.

Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight by Loren A. Olson
Between 3 and 8 percent of the U.S. male population is gay, and prominent Midwestern psychiatrist Loren A. Olsen is among them. But the first 40 years of his life was built on a lie: After two decades of marriage to a loving and devoted wife, Olsen, a father and grandfather, accepted that he was romantically and sexually attracted to men. The result of his experience is this powerful tell-all that explores human sexuality — particularly that of mature men — and how to cope with coming out later in life.

Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke
A sort of handbook for LGBT teens everywhere, authors Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke offer this comprehensive guide that includes sections on how to come out (and handle the repercussions), ways to deal with bigotry and homophobia, how to find likeminded friends, dating, sex and more. Often interjected with humor and personal anecdotes, this must-read also includes fascinating sidebars on queer history and a wealth of health, community, safety, political and reading resources that send a message more along the lines of “the best is yet to come” rather than just “it gets better.”

Mogul by Terrance Dean
Hot on the heels of the latest same-sex hip-hop scandal (NYC DJ Mister Cee was recently arrested for public lewdness: Receiving oral sex in a car from another man), Terrance Dean’s compelling page-turner follows Big A.T., who climbs the rungs of the music industry ladder with the help of powerful Larry “Pop” Singleton. Identifying A.T.’s potential to become a powerhouse producer, Pop introduces the rising star to Tickman, a Brooklyn lyricist with whom he begins a secret affair. But when scandalous photos of A.T. surface on the desk of a national news program — and land in the hands of his girlfriend, Jasmine — A.T. must decide whether to come clean or keep quiet for the sake of his career.

Hidden by Tomas Mournian
After enduring 11 months of abuse at Serenity Ridge, a gay-to-straight boot camp for “troubled” teens, Ahmed escapes to San Francisco where he finds an underground safehouse inhabited by seven other runaways. Now known as Ben, Ahmed find solace in his new life with these misfit strangers, who struggle to survive omnipresent angst, infighting and desires that threaten their secret society, while also struggling to remain below the radar of would-be captors until they’re legal adults. Publishers Weekly proclaimed that Tomas Mournian’s fiction debut will have readers “almost suffocating on the palpable sense of fear and claustrophobia that permeates this heartbreaking story.”

— Mikey Rox

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Opening ‘Closets’

Patrick Moseley’s debut novel also begins a new chapter in his (gay) life

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer lopez@dallasvoice.com

Patrick Moseley
ADVENTURE OUTING | North Texas teacher and first-time novelist Patrick Moseley comes (further) out of the close with his new book. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

When closets become a recurring theme in a gay novel, let’s just say it’s fair to think the author is working through some issues. With Locked in Closets and Other Fairy Tales, Dallas author Patrick Moseley has not only written his first book, but also takes a leap of faith as a gay man.

“I think we create culture that forces people into the closet and forces them into the recklessness,” he says. “Society still drives or keeps people into those places.”

This is an issue he’s dealt with all of his 36 years — until recently. He has been slowly coming out for a while, but Closets could be his rainbow moment. If only it were that easy.
“It’s one of those complicated things,” he says. “I know I can’t get fired for my orientation and if I’m out, there isn’t so much that can be done about it. But it does complicate things. So I just don’t make those issues at school.”

Moseley is a high school teacher, so his outness has to be, well, different. As an educator, the gay thing can demand a delicate balance. Moseley knows he’s a good teacher and has found success as a coach, but even a slight misstep could affect his career. He experienced a kind of quiet discrimination at his last school, so he remains on guard.

“Because I teach and coach, I tend to be more discreet than others,” he says. “I worked in a very conservative district. I was moved out of my head coaching position with the intention that I’d leave. There are things I don’t talk about but I don’t want to feel like I’m hiding. And I wouldn’t discuss [being gay] with a student at school anyway.”

In Closets, the reader follows Roger, a 70-something gay man who has so locked himself away from life that he crashes into other people’s lives. But how does a 30-something come close to relating a septugenarian’s gay life story and drag queen adventures?

“Roger and I have experienced a lot of the same things,” Moseley says. “All the characters interweave with what I’ve dealt with, especially that fear of taking the next step. I feel like the book exposed me and I lost some things that were important to me. The sadness of the characters and their fear is by far mine.”

Funny, since the original intention was for the book to comedic. Conjuring Monty Python, he based his title on the notion that locking yourself away was prevalent. As he proceeded, Roger’s tale went into darker territories.

“I liked that idea of someone being locked in a tower and that fairy tale rescue kinda deal,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to lock ourselves in situations, but then closets become a theme in the book and not just dealing with the usual homosexual issue.”

Moseley’s personal experiences of growing up strongly religious, being outed at 24 and having to ask people to stop trying to fix him naturally found their way into his novel. He says that although it’s not Christian fiction, God becomes a dominant character as the characters do battle, trying to figure life out.

“One thing I struggled with along the way is figuring out how God plays into our sexuality,” he says. “I believe and always have that sexuality is created. How can He create you and tell you you’re no good?”

Questions like these seem to strike the author. Moseley has a fun-loving sense of self, but when he delves just a bit to deep, his eyes shift for a moment. He searches for an answer and in his eloquent way, finds one.

“Roger is learning to embrace himself. I guess at times, we hide and shy away from things that could have been great.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens