HOW do you persuade people to read whopping great doorstop books in these distracting days of 24/7 social media and entire weekends lost to TV series marathons and box sets?
It can’t be easy for any new author trying to gain a toehold by second-guessing what will grab the public’s attention and, more crucially, hold it, for 400 pages.
Patricia Cornwell, second only to JK Rowling in the global league table of woman writers, has a rock-solid fan base after 25 years of her Dr Kay Scarpetta series, and sales of 100 million-plus.
Despite her success in 120 countries, where each new (reliably annual) novel is (equally reliably) greeted with jubilation, the latest being Flesh and Blood, Cornwell works inordinately hard to keep her readers engaged and immersed in the fast-moving world of the medical examiner.
“I find that people now have such short attention spans that I have to try really hard to keep the suspense going, so they don’t have a reason to put down my book and read 20000 tweets instead,” Cornwell says.
“I constantly think about how people are reading and how they are managing their time, so I tailor my books to fit.
“Each chapter used to be 20 pages but now it’s 10 pages; the books are still as long, just presented in shorter increments like scenes in a movie, so you have an obvious little stopping point.”
The physical and personal similarities between creator and creation (they are both blonde and petite and clever and ride Harley-Davidsons) go beyond the merely striking, although Cornwell point-blank rejects close comparisons.
She famously doesn’t suffer fools, owns a home bristling with firearms and security sensors and is the sort of stickler who installed a forensic lab in her own house so she could carry out much of her fastidious research in-house. Pro-gun ownership but also pro-civil rights and anti-capital punishment, it’s impossible to pigeonhole her politically.
A former journalist, Cornwell’s own life story is beset with almost as many twists as one of her plotlines.
Her father walked out on the family when she was five. She held his leg and begged him not to go, but even many years later, on his death bed, he rejected her; as his children stood round his bed, he mouthed “I love you” to her brother but wrote a single question to his daughter: “How’s work going?”
After her mother fell ill with clinical depression, the siblings were taken into care and placed with what turned out to be abusive foster parents.
Cornwell suffered from anorexia in adolescence and, later, mental health issues of her own. She married in her twenties but, after she divorced her husband, discovered (belatedly) that she was a lesbian; at one point an FBI agent instigated a shootout, claiming Cornwell had stolen his wife.
Now married for the past three years to female Harvard neuroscientist Staci Gruber, Cornwell lives in Boston.
The identity of her heroine was forged during the six years she spent working in a chief medical examiner’s office in Virginia, when she saw innumerable autopsies being carried out.
“I’m still a journalist at heart,” she says. “I need to see, hear, smell and feel something so I can convey the sensations to my reader. If I want to write about a dangerous new firearm as I do in Flesh and Blood, I go see an expert who shows me how to use it and shows me the damage it can do.
“I’ve never had any interest in scuba diving, but because in this book Scarpetta dives off a boat and has a scene 100ft [30m] under water, I had to do it, too.”
- Flesh and Blood, by Patricia Cornwell is published by HarperCollins. – The Telegraph