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9 Quick Questions for Patricia Cornwell

Best-selling author pens latest crime novel, ‘Unnatural Death’

spinner image patricia cornwell wearing black shirt and jacket against yellow ombre background
Photo Illustration: MOA; (Source: Patrick Ecclesine)

Best-selling author Patricia Cornwell, 67, first introduced readers to chief medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta more than 30 years ago. Her latest thriller, Unnatural Death, is the 27th book in the series, and finds Scarpetta tasked with helping solve the grisly murder of two people wanted by federal law enforcement. Cornwell shares how she and her characters have evolved over the years, what she’s doing to keep in shape and whether or not she’s a fan of true crime shows.

How have you evolved since you first introduced Scarpetta more than three decades ago?

spinner image book cover with words patricia cornwell, a scarpetta novel, unnatural death
In Cornwell’s latest book, Dr. Kay Scarpetta is tasked with helping solve a brutal double murder.
Grand Central Publishing

Well, I think everything is different for me. You hear this all the time — I would like physically to be as young as I used to be, but I wouldn't trade what I know at this stage of my life. I would never go back to the things that I thought when I was in my 30s and 40s. In fact, I would say, Gosh, you were kind of a dodo bird back then. How come you didn’t know any better? Why’d you do that stupid thing? … I actually feel that my writing about this character, about Scarpetta and all of the characters and crime in general, that I have more of a depth than I used to. More — I hate to use the word “wisdom” because it sounds arrogant — but I have a better sense of things than I ever did when I was younger, and I think my work is better as a result. I think this new book, Unnatural Death — and I’m not just saying this because I want people to buy it — I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. And here I am, 67, and I’m going, I might still be able to figure out how to do this. You never know.

What comes to mind when you say, “I am 67”?

I don’t know where the time went. I don’t feel differently than I used to. I don’t feel that age at all. When I look in the mirror, I go, Who just broke into my apartment? I don’t even look like me to me, because I still think of myself as I always was, because I still feel that way inside. And age — it’s not relevant unless you want to make it an issue. It doesn’t have to be one if you take care of yourself and stay healthy.

What are you doing to take care of yourself?

If you walk into my office right now, you’ll see that one of the things I have in the room is weights, because I lift weights throughout the day. I do exercises. I do things to stay physically vital because I spend so much time sitting and because I’m just not going to take it sitting down.

Do you enjoy watching forensic crime shows on TV?

I don’t really watch much of the forensic stuff. Staci [wife Staci Gruber] and I, we’ve always been huge fans of Greys Anatomy. But you’ll be surprised at this: The house rule is we don’t watch that while we’re eating dinner. It doesn’t bother Staci, but it does me. She says, “If your fans knew how squeamish you are, they would be shocked and mortified.” We watch anything from Station 19 to Billions. We just finished watching The Morning Show, which is absolutely fabulous. Succession, that was amazing. We get into a lot of these miniseries, but I don’t really watch much in the way of forensic stuff. I have my own perspective on things, and I hate to say it, [but] it probably seems too much like work to me.

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What’s the status of the TV series based on Scarpetta?

Well, the [actor’s] strike, of course, put a stop to everything. But where we stand right now is that I have a deal with Amazon [Prime Video] … Nicole Kidman [is] signed to play Scarpetta. And Jamie Lee Curtis, who’s also the producer, is signed to play Dorothy, the sister. They’re getting back into business … I’m still kind of stunned it’s all happening. I’d kind of given up on it after all these years. There were so many attempts at it, and every one of them failed, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

You’ve also written two cookbooks. What’s your favorite thing to cook?

I like to make pizza. Pizza’s just fun. You can do so much with it, and you can make it to suit anybody who is there eating with you, whether it’s a vegan pizza or a double meat pizza or white sauce, red sauce, thin crust, thick crust, lots of vegetables, not so much. Pizza makes people happy.

If you could invite three people over, living or dead, to join you for a pizza dinner, who would you invite?

I definitely would want Agatha Christie to come over, and I would want Charles Dickens to come over to see how the two of them get along. And then I would want [Leonardo] da Vinci to drop by and hope that he could speak English enough that we could all have a lovely chat. I would want to know the secrets of some of his paintings that I look at even today and wonder what he was trying to tell us, because I think he was trying to tell us a lot of mysterious things about who and what we are.

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What kind of books do you like to read?

One thing that might surprise people is that I can’t spend a lot of time reading books for pleasure when I’m so busy writing them. I write almost every day. But if something’s really good, I’ll look at it in bits and pieces. I savor it like candy. I love really good biographies. It could be anything. It could be Elvis Presley. It could be Cleopatra. It could be Dickens. It could be Queen Victoria. I’m fascinated by these big figures and what their lives were actually like. And also inspirational things. There’s this music producer named Rick Rubin who has written a book called The Creative Act: A Way of Being. It’s on my desk right now. And he talks about the creative process. I find it’s like a palette cleanser. I’ll take a look at some of what he’s saying to remind myself of what it is I’m doing when I open up that page.

You’re heading out on another book tour. Any favorite book tour memories?

This was a long time ago. I was at a book signing, and I’d given a little talk, and people were asking questions. … This was after I’d killed off [the character] Benton Wesley in Point of Origin, which was way back in the 1990s, and it seemed like a good thing to do at the time, and then it turned out it was a very bad thing to have done. This fan says, “Are you sure Ben Wesley’s really dead?” And I looked at this person and I said, “You know, I’m not sure. I didn’t see it, did you?” And the answer is, I didn’t see it because Scarpetta didn’t see it. And if she didn’t see it, I didn’t see it. And then I happened to be at the medical examiner’s office soon after that, and there was some question about a death certificate that the medical examiner had to redo, and I thought, You could [write that the] paperwork was falsified and maybe hes in a protected witness program. And then the next thing you know, I’ve written Blowfly, and Benton’s back. And Scarpetta is very grateful, by the way. … But that’s all because a fan brought it up. I always thank my readers because they give me some really good ideas.

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