Interview with Patricia Cornwell

AE: She is a great character to struggle with that storyline.
PC: No kidding, because she’s not going to be a good sport about it. Lucy is never a good sport about anything. She’s not going to take it sitting down. She’s angry and, as usual, it prompts her to do the very thing that she struggles with, which is to cross boundaries.

Lucy is a vigilante in her own way, which is part of what’s fun about her because I can let her do things that I’m not allowed to do. You know that this is going to promote bad behavior and she is going to have a little bit of a regression.

She was behaving so well in the last book and that can’t last forever. She is going to be prompted to become secretive again because her nature is to be secretive. She becomes secretive with her partner, Jamie Berger, and that creates a world of trouble. She is even secretive with her aunt, Kay Scarpetta, so we have a lot of problems on our hands.

AE: Your characters all have rich interior struggles that thread through the investigations.  When you’re writing your books, how do these two elements influence each other?
PC: I really have two intricate plots going with these books. One is, of course, the cases being worked, which have the intricacies of a spider web. But I’m also doing that with the lives and relationships of five main characters. A very big part of this tapestry is who they are with each other, both good and bad, what’s happening next, who’s getting along and who isn’t, who’s having sex and who’s not, who’s angry and who’s forgiving and who isn’t.

They’ve become an extended family, which is really fun because I call it a crime soap opera — hopefully on a sophisticated level. But what happens is that when I start writing the story I have to say, Okay, what’s going on with you guys?  I really don’t know until I put them together in scenes and then I notice their body language and their dialogue. I know that sounds odd to say. I let them be what they want to be. 

I’ll tell you a funny story about that. In 1997, when I was finishing Point of Origin, which is the book where Benton seems to die and then we end up with a surprise many years later, in that particular book, the last night Scarpetta and Benton were together they did not have sex.

My publisher called me and said, “Benton and Kay really need to have sex because it’s the last time they’re ever going to see each other.” And I said, “They don’t want to have sex. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t make them. I already thought about it, I tried it. They would not walk across the room, they would not touch each other. There’s just something else going on there.”

I don’t make my characters do anything they don’t want and I don’t stop them from doing things we sometimes wish they wouldn’t do. 

AE:  That must go back to that idea that if you’re surprised the reader will be too.
PC: It’s true. It’s a funny thing about creativity. Even though you think you’re making things up, it demands that you’re honest with it.

AE: You don’t want to force the evidence to fit the crime.
PC: You’re right. It’s the same thing as the evidence and crime. Even though I’m making it up, I don’t show you things I know couldn’t happen. I try to keep things within certain limits of credibility.

Because if I’m lying, even if I’m clever about it, at some level, you’re going to detect it. You don’t ever want people to come out of the story and go, “Why is it right now my attention is dragging and I’m not concentrating enough?” That happens when you no longer willingly suspend your disbelief because somebody’s pulled a fast one on you.

AE: At one point in the book, Marino thinks about Scarpetta’s portrayal in the media and wonders if all the attention and hype is affecting her work negatively: “He’d seen it happen time and again, people believe their own press and quit doing real work, and then they f— up and make fools of themselves.”

You are the world’s number one bestselling crime writer, known for both your accuracy and attention to story, but do you feel more pressure to get it right in each book? To make sure you stay focused on the work.
PC: I sort of don’t let the external things influence me. I have my own set of standards and I never deter from those. I suppose where I could get in trouble, and I don’t allow this, is if I got a little too smug and decided, I know this is close enough to being right and I don’t need to check it out, I’ll just look on the Internet and make sure that this particular aspect of forensic pathology is correct or law enforcement of whatever. But I still do the same thing I’ve always done.

When I finish a book I have a very small handful of experts who review the manuscript and look for mistakes. I give them a chance to let me know if I messed up. Sure enough they’ll find something. Nobody knows it as well as they do. Certainly I don’t.

It may be an error that nobody else would notice but internally it will cause problems in their department because it’s a sore spot. I’m as careful as I can be about those things because I don’t want to make errors. These are all flights of fantasy that are built from the blocks of fact that I get from my research.

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