Lesbian mystery writer Patricia Cornwell strives to live her life openly and honestly— and lets her characters do the same
TAMMYE NASH | Senior Editor
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.”
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.
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.