Why no one knows drama quite like Patricia Cornwell

Patricia Cornwell.
Patricia Cornwell.
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She has struggled with anorexia, alcohol and depression. But like her heroine Dr Kay Scarpetta, novelist Patricia Cornwell has mellowed she tells Hannah Stephenson.

Patricia Cornwell is no stranger to guns. She’s big on personal security and never wants to leave herself vulnerable.

“I wouldn’t call myself a gun expert but I am very familiar with firearms,” the bestselling forensic thriller writer explains. “I’ve owned a number of them throughout my life, particularly when I lived in places where I needed that form of protection, but more importantly, it’s part of my research.”

The author, who began her career as a reporter and then worked at the office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia, still subscribes to a lot of different services to keep up with what’s going on in the field, and has many professional contacts who will fill her in on the latest technologies, she explains.

The last time we met, three years ago, a bodyguard stood outside her London hotel suite throughout our interview and the security-conscious author - whose forensic mysteries, have sold more than 100 million copies and made her millions of dollars - admitted her fears are greater because she’s seen so many crime scenes, and knows what one human being can do to another.

Truth is, her own life has seen almost as much drama as her books, and 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.

Born in Miami, Cornwell’s father, a lawyer, walked out on Christmas Day and her mother moved to an evangelical community in North Carolina. For years, Cornwell had no idea that she could be gay. While studying English at college, she fell in love with her male professor, Charlie Cornwell.

They married but ended up divorcing after 10 years and while she subsequently kept her sexuality a secret - she was outed by several so-called friends who informed the media.

“They were not happy about the huge success I was having and decided they wanted to be damaging,” she has said. “Jealousy is a terrible thing.”

However, like her forensic sleuth Scarpetta, Cornwell, 58, has mellowed, she reflects. It’s almost 25 years since the character first appeared in Postmortem, and they have matured together, it seems.

“She has changed a lot, as you would hope any human being would after so many experiences. She’s become much more thoughtful and reflective. She doesn’t just barge on through to try to solve something. She’s much more philosophical and less judgmental. She was pretty hard-headed in the earlier books and she’s mellowed.”

Scarpetta is now happily married to FBI profiler Benton Wesley, and still playing guardian angel to her switched-on gay niece Lucy, while Cornwell has been happily married to Staci Gruber, a Harvard academic, for nearly 10 years. She dedicates the latest book to her.

“Scarpetta reflects my history a lot, which is inevitable when you spend so much time with a character. I think her point of view is the right one.

“I’m more mellow. You get some wisdom with time. Looking back to my 40s, when my career hit the high zone of success, I think I’m very different now to how I was then.

Cornwell says she’ll never kill off Scarpetta - that would upset too many fans, and still hopes that her forensic sleuth will one day appear on screen.Meanwhile she has just signed a deal with CBS for an original television drama, featuring an unorthodox detective who works for San Diego’s major crimes unit. She’s also started the next Scarpetta, although distractions are ever present.

“I’d much rather tweet, Facebook, email, get on the phone or go for a walk. There’s a million things I’d rather do than write. It’s the best thing I ever do, but it’s also the hardest.”

Flesh And Blood by Patricia Cornwell is out now priced £20.