Small talk: Patricia Cornwell

Born in Miami in 1956, Patricia Cornwell grew up in North Carolina. An English graduate, she worked as a journalist and then a computer analyst for the chief medical examiner of Virginia before publishing her first crime novel, Post-Mortem, in 1990. Her series featuring Dr Kay Scarpetta has been translated into 36 languages. Cornwell is a founder of the Virginia Institute of Science and Medicine and a founding member of the National Forensic Academy. She lives in Boston.

Who is your perfect reader?

Someone imaginative enough to take what I’ve done, embellish it and make it their own.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

Pete Dexter’s Spooner. I always have a Hemingway lying around.

What book changed your life?

Probably Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a magnificent example of the abuse of power and it has fed into all my books.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I was already writing books, and sewing little book jackets when I was a kid.

Where do you write best?

I have an office on the harbour in Boston and sometimes I rent somewhere on the ocean in south Florida or South Carolina. I always go to the water; it is the most soothing place to work.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

I once studied bite marks by biting very hard into a raw chicken fillet. I had to wash my mouth afterwards.

Can you remember the first novel you read?

Lord of the Flies stands out mightily in my memory of my early years. It is such a strong statement about the human heart.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

[US comedienne] Gilda Radner. She was extremely gifted and a very nice person.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

If you do what you love, it will love you back.

What book do you wish you’d written?

The Silence of the Lambs. It’s a remarkable thriller.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

I’d probably go back to journalism. I need to write.

What are you scared of?

Existentialism. Not having a purpose. Waking up on a given day and not knowing what I should do with myself any more.

Patricia Cornwell’s latest novel is ‘Port Mortuary’ (Little, Brown)

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