Queer crime queen Patricia Cornwell, on Scarpetta and embracing ‘Chaos’
“What I wanna know is, where is the best chicken fried steak and white gravy? Cuz I’m gonna need some,” she exclaims.
You have to pity Cornwell, trapped in the chicken-fried-steak desert of Cambridge, Mass., where she lives with her partner, a neuroscientist on the staff at Harvard. Boston has many cultural advantages, but this particular food craving isn’t one of them.
“I come [to Dallas] for the food!” Cornwell says. “I can get stuff in your part of the world I can’t get hardly anywhere else.”
Back when she was in helicopter school in Fort Worth, she says, she started every morning of the grueling training schedule filling up in the hotel restaurant on steak and gravy. “I knew I was gonna have hell to pay when I got to the flight school, but I was loading up on chicken fried steak anyway. We have to have our priorities…. Oh, and I passed the course.” (She also kept down every meal, to her surprise.)
Fans of Cornwell’s writing — she’s the creator of the series of detective novels featuring investigative medical examiner Kay Scarpetta — will recognize that she like to include a sense of culinary curiosity in her characters.
“My readers love it when I put food in the books,” she says. “Scarpetta will cook up some Italian meal because someone in such a dark, rigid, cold, horrible world [as examining dead bodies] has to come home to the opposite — a bottle of wine and music and homemade pasta.”
Cornwell won’t have to wait too long to track down the food she wants — she’s the featured guest at the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live on Thursday. It will be a familiar homecoming of sorts for Cornwell, who speaks glowingly of Texas.
“I’m looking forward to coming out to your part of the world — everyone has always been so nice to me,” she says. “At least one place in Texas has a body farm [which she wrote about in her 1994 book The Body Farm]. I do a lot of my firearms research in Texas — my firearms expert lives in Austin, so I always come there to go to a firing range to see if I can shoot [someone] from a mile away.” (Research only, she emphasizes. She carries no grudges.) She even jokes that she should set a Scarpetta tale in the sweltering heat of a Texas summer. That’s unlikely to happen, though, as long as Cornwell remains in Boston.
“She has to live where I live and I have to live where she lives,” Cornwell says. “When I moved up to New England, which I did about 12 years ago, so did she.” For the first half of Scarpetta’s existence, however, she was firmly entrenched in the city of Richmond, Va., and its environs. Scarpetta became a nomad for a while, which coincided with Cornwell’s own wanderlust.
“I needed to leave Virginia. I felt I was running out of things to explore. I felt it was time for me to move. Now I’ve build a sense of place for her. Place becomes a character — the environment is really important to make it detailed and believable,” Cornwell says. And she has to live in that city to create a sense of verisimilitude, especially in Chaos, the latest (24th!) Scarpetta novel, which drops this week. “There are scenes where she is literally walking across from Harvard Yard or a crime scene or such, and I have to choreography my scenes. You do have to fudge a little bit; that’s part of the fun. I think Cambridge is a great area for Scarpetta. It’s a microcosm of every major international city.”
The big challenge for Cornwell, though, isn’t timing the scenes or doing the research — it is literally finding the time to hunker down and write. “Writing, as you know, is not something you can do while doing other things,” she says. “I really have to be sequestered so I can sit and do what I have to do. People think I must be really fast [because I have written more than 30 books], and I’m not. When you’ve sat at your desk the better part of a day and you look down say, ‘That’s all there is? It should be 20 more pages!’ … Well, it requires you have to be the handmaiden to the book.” Git er done, as someone once said. And the hardest part might be losing yourself in the story.
“If you’re writing a crime thriller, it’s a little bit like a plane ride — they don’t mention it unless it wasn’t very good,” she says. “I try to get out of my own way and create a way of storytelling where you are not conscious of the journey. If I do a good job, it should not call attention to itself. If you get too caught up in the process, you’re not focusing and you’ll start making mistakes.”
And the idea of making mistakes is something neither Patricia Cornwell nor Kay Scarpetta can abide.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2016.