Patricia Cornwell: I celebrated turning 60 by getting busier

As forensic favourite Kay Scarpetta returns for a 24th instalment, bestselling thriller writer Patricia Cornwell talks to Hannah Stephenson about plastic surgery, how the dramas in her own life have given her a thicker skin, and why she was happy to ignore her 60th birthday

I've spent more on my research and the materials that go with it than I've ever spent on clothing and jewellery, but that doesn't mean I don't have really nice clothing and jewellery
Hannah Stephenson

BLONDE, blue-eyed and toned, thanks to a strict exercise regime, Patricia Cornwell looks much younger than her 60 years.

As one of the world's bestselling crime writers, with novels translated into 36 languages in more than 120 countries, staying fit has helped her master the skills she writes about in her novels featuring forensic sleuth Dr Kay Scarpetta.

Cornwell learned how to fly helicopters because Lucy, Scarpetta's tech-savvy niece, is a qualified helicopter pilot. The author is also a competent scuba diver, has been on firing ranges to try out the latest weaponry used by her imaginary killers, and has learned more skills – but I'm not going to give the game away – for her latest novel, Chaos.

It's the 24th book in the series and revolves around the death of a 26-year-old cyclist. At first, it looks like she was killed after being struck by lightning – but, of course, things are not what they seem and the investigation becomes more complex when Scarpetta receives a flurry of bizarre poems from an anonymous cyber bully.

Readers who love forensic thrillers should be familiar with Cornwell's work – fast-paced, sometimes gory, always enlightening, and frequently featuring cutting-edge technologies enabling her fictional killers – and crime-busters – to do what they do.

"My stock in trade has always been to show the technical side of how you can work very unusual crimes," says the writer. "The fun part for me as I go into my third decade of the series is, what can we do with technology?

"Just as good guys can be innovative with the use of technology in solving crimes, bad people are going to be just as innovative in what they can do with technology to cause bad things to happen."

Cornwell's spent millions of dollars on meticulous research for both her fiction and fact-based work. She wrote a book on Jack the Ripper – Portrait Of A Killer – pointing the finger at renowned British Victorian painter Walter Sickert, spending millions of dollars buying his writing desk and 32 of his paintings to have them tested for DNA.

She has a team of consultants – experts in different aspects of crime – on her payroll and has amassed an extensive array of lab equipment and weaponry.

"I've spent more on my research and the materials that go with it than I've ever spent on clothing and jewellery, but that doesn't mean I don't have really nice clothing and jewellery," she says wryly.

"But I'm not going to spend a million dollars on a ring. I'd rather have a helicopter. I've owned four helicopters but they were used in my research, to write with authority about that particular subject, as opposed to having a $60 million beach hut somewhere. But we all know I'm not thrifty."

The Miami-born author's own life has seen almost as much drama as her books. Accounts of her miserable childhood, struggles with anorexia and alcohol and her outing as a lesbian, as well as legal battles and public fights with ex-lovers, have been well-documented.

Her father, a lawyer, walked out on Christmas Day, ignoring five-year-old Cornwell's attempts to cling to his leg. Her mother, who moved to an evangelical community in North Carolina, down the road from famous preacher Billy Graham and his wife, later suffered from depression and spent time in a psychiatric hospital, and Cornwell was fostered by an abusive woman who bullied and terrified her.

While studying English at college, she fell in love with her male professor, Charlie Cornwell. They married, but divorced after 10 years.

Cornwell did have gay encounters subsequently, but kept her lesbianism a secret – until she was outed by several so-called friends who informed the media.

"I had a lot of really difficult publicity early on, with pretty awful articles that outed me in lots of different ways," she says now. "That wasn't fun and it wasn't right. But it gave me a much thicker skin and I got much better at just being OK about it.

"When it all first happened, I didn't leave my house for a month. I was afraid to go out of my door. I was so horrified and humiliated. My mother was upset. She didn't know about the gay stuff. I was in a very conservative city. I was forced to deal with it when I wasn't even in a relationship at the time. It was probably one of the hardest things I've ever been through."

Today, Cornwell – who's now been married to Harvard neuroscientist Staci Gruber for 10 years and lives in Boston – is philosophical about it all. As a former reporter, she understands the nature of news.

"I have always courted publicity and the media because it's a way of selling what you want people to read. You have to take the bumps with that. Sometimes people report stuff about me that I wish they hadn't, or that's embarrassing, misleading or unfortunate. But you don't get to decide what you publicise if you are going to stand out there and be a public figure.

"I had exposure in the media when my first book Postmortem was published in 1990. The reason it became well-known was because a very prominent bookstore in Richmond [Virginia] banned it because they thought it was so violent.

"This whole series has been born in controversy and my life, weirdly, seems to follow that. But my experiences made it very attractive for me to retreat into my imagination from an early age, and I wouldn't be the person I am today if I'd had a very different upbringing. Sometimes people become artists because of pain."

She recently turned 60, but didn't want to celebrate.

"I forbade anyone to throw me a secret party. I wanted to have a normal day because I wanted to feel that my life is going on as usual. I had a quiet dinner with family, and that was more because they wanted to; I probably would have just pretended it didn't happen."

She's come around to the idea, however. "Once you get out of your 50s, you know what's ahead. Now there are new challenges. I've been around a long time and I have a right to say and do pretty much what I want. I don't worry about stuff as much as I used to. I feel a certain freedom that I never felt before."

She still worries about looking older though, and has invested in Botox and cosmetic surgery.

"I've had plenty – trust me. I'm a very expensive person. By the time I die, I probably won't decompose, honey, I'll just lie on top of the earth."

Cornwell is now in the early stages of the next Scarpetta novel, and has a new revised Jack the Ripper book out in January.

"There's also a movie in the works and I've got a couple of television shows I'm trying to make happen. That's how I celebrate being 60 – I get busier."

:: Chaos by Patricia Cornwell is published by HarperCollins.

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