Writer’s Digest interview with Patricia Cornwell

Hey, peeps!

If you’re a US writer (heck, a writer anywhere!) and not a subscriber to Writer’s Digest, try it. At least for a year to see how you like it. And if you’re a reader but not necessarily a writer, there are some FAB interviews with authors in WD.

For example! The October 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest has this super-cool interview with international supah-star crime writer Patricia Cornwell, by Jessica Strawser. As those of you who are familiar with Cornwell are aware, her premier character is medical examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

If you’re not a subscriber, find someone who is so you can read it or buy the issue. It’s available in print, but it’s not available to non-subscribers online. If you purchase the digital issue online, I believe it gives you access to online content relevant to that issue not available in the print. Like the extended version of the interview, in which Cornwell briefly discusses gay characters and mainstream fiction in the online outtakes.

I’ve been reading Cornwell off and on since Postmortem (1990) was released, and I’ve followed her career peripherally. One of the things that I really appreciate about her books is the extensive research she does for each one. It shows. And for crime writing, that is, I think, ultra-important.

In the interview, she discusses her writing process, the boundaries she keeps, and how she approaches writing and forensics. One of the things I appreciated about the intro to the interview is the matter-of-fact way her marriage to psychiatrist Staci Ann Gruber is treated. It’s mentioned, and. . .that’s it. No OMG THE GAY CRIME WRITER freakout. A mention of her marriage to her, and on to a couple other pertinent details about her successful defamation suit against a writer who accused her of plagiarism then waged an online war against her character.

So let’s have some more tidbits from the interview!

On her writing process, and whether she uses an outline:
“No, I’m a very organic writer. I started out doing poetry when I was young, and I think I have a little bit of a poetic approach to writing a book, where I start with an image. . . .Sometimes it goes really smoothly, and sometimes I get stuck. But I can’t imagine outlining a book and then just sitting down and writing it. I think it would lose its emotional being — the effervescence, the sparkle. It would get flat, I’m afraid, if I tried to do it that way. But I know that works for some people. Everybody has to do what works for them.”
(Jessica Strawser, “Patricia Cornwell: A Life of Crime,” Writer’s Digest 92:7 (October 2012), p. 42)

In case you were wondering, I, too, have an organic process like this. I don’t outline, and I often start with images or series of images and things go from there. It’s interesting to me that Cornwell has a poetry background in addition to her journalism experience. It shows, in her writing style and how her narratives and plotlines flow. So try different writing styles and genres to expand your repertoire. Cornwell says in the interview that she’s “a strange mix. I started out as a poet and an artist, but I also have this other side where I absorb. . .information.” (p. 43)

On writing routines:
“One thing I’d like to advise is: Treat your writing like a relationships and not a job. Because if it’s a relationship, even if you only have one hour in a day, you might just sit down and open up your last chapter because it’s like visiting your friend. What do you do when you miss somebody? You pick up the phone. You keep that connection established.”
(Strawser, “Cornwell,” p. 42)

I like this, and it’s something I try to do with my own writing. If I start treating it like a job, I find I don’t really like to do it. Oh, I will. I’ll sit my ass down and work, but I find that the “relationship” approach works better for me.

On research:
“One of the things that inspired The Bone Bed [her latest, forthcoming October 2012] is that I was invited to go on a dinosaur dig, and I went. So what I would say to writers is: Go out and do something. Don’t just read other people’s books. Go have adventures! When you read Hemingway, you know he’s had that beer, he’s eaten that food, he shot that elephant. Now, I’m not recommending people go around shooting elephants, but go out and do something. Get real-life experiences you can describe.” [NOTE: Cornwell is an animal rights advocate in addition to all the other stuff she does]

Friends, I am a proponent of this viewpoint. It’s good advice for everyone, not just writers. Go out and LIVE. SEE. DO. Adventures expand your horizons, broaden your mind, and help you see new perspectives. It’s invaluable for writers, but I also consider it invaluable for living.

Cornwell had three books rejected before Postmortem, and even that book was rejected several times before finding a publisher. So here’s what Cornwell tells struggling writers today:
“Quitting can’t be an option. . . .You have to be willing to be bad at something to be good at it. You will never be good at writing the first time you try, any more than Nadal hit a tennis ball the way he does now the first time he picked up a racket. . .the only way you get better is to just do it all the time. And if this is the inevitability of how you express yourself, you’re still going to get up after failures. Some peole are lucky, and their first book gets published and is well received. For me it took a lot of warm-ups, and those books should have been rejected. They were a learning process; I would never try to publish them today. . . .I worked in the morgue for six years, because I had so many failures. And Scarpetta knew I needed to do that to be qualified to write about her.”
(Strawser, p. 44).

Juicy, no? SRSLY. I recommend you get a copy of this issue, especially if you’re a Cornwell fan or you write crime fiction.

Happy reading, happy writing!

7 thoughts on “Writer’s Digest interview with Patricia Cornwell

  1. Ohhh, thanks for the post! I’ll purchase the hardcopy of the interview, because (as you know) I’m a P.C. fan too. You gave me Postmortem for my birthday about 9 years ago! 😀 Anyway, I wouldn’t have known about the interview if it weren’t for your post. I hope other fans see it.

    I totally agree, by the way, that the best way to write about something is to experience it — and I’m not even a fiction writer. With nonfiction, it ends up being B.S. if you write about, say, fly fishing, when you’ve never done it.

    And if Ms. Cornwell is reading this, howdy from Colorado, and thanks for many years of amazing reading.

  2. Thanks for the heads up about this interview and sharing some highlights! I first started reading Cornwell in the late 90s and have also been an on-and-off reader, but the last few years have def been ON years. Will track this down for sure.

  3. Oh gosh, the writing as a relationship comment is so spot on. I had to interrupt my novel for a few days in favor of a needed freelance re-write. I kept repeating this over in my mind to help me get back on track today.

  4. Pingback: Novel, (slightly) interrupted | Beyond The Ghosts…The cemeteries and the novel

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