December 24, 2008 / 11:03 AM / 10 years ago

Book Talk: Cornwell celebrates 20 years with Kay Scarpetta

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - After 20 years of creating forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, crime writer Patricia Cornwell has nothing but respect for the character who has also changed and shaped her.

Pictured is best-selling crime writer Patricia Cornwell, the creator of the popular forensic pathologist character Kay Scarpetta, in this undated handout. REUTERS/CEI/Handout

Her latest novel, “Scarpetta,” is Cornwell’s 16th novel featuring the popular character and her 27th book with her list of works including a controversial expose on the identity of Jack the Ripper.

Cornwell, 52, began her career as a police reporter on a local U.S. newspaper but learned about forensics and morgues while working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia from 1984 to 1990.

Her first Scarpetta novel, “Postmortem,” came out in 1990.

She spoke to Reuters about writing and Scarpetta:

Q: The title “Scarpetta” sounds very final. Is it?

A: “Actually it is the opposite of that. When I was in the early stages of the book and struggling with it, it dawned on me that in 1988 I wrote “Postmortem” — it has been 20 years since I created this character. That led me to take everything into perspective and I realized that the best thing I do is her, this character, so this should be a celebration of this lady.

Q: So we can expect more Scarpetta books?

A: “Yes. I decided to call this one “Scarpetta” to acknowledge her and put her whole life and character in perspective, like an anniversary edition. I hope to start the series again now and take it into a new space, with new adventures and new relationships.”

Q: You talk as if she’s real. Do you see her like that?

A: “I feel that she has a very separate existence from me and I am a fan. I really like this lady, whoever she is, after all these years of spending so much time with her and exploring her life.”

Q: But she is not you?

A: “No, she is not me. We have lot of things in common and I overlay my own experiences on her but she is very different from me and I don’t think of myself when I am having her do something. If I did it would be extremely awkward. With all these characters we may have things in common but they are identifiable from me so that I can be an observer. I think that is very important. If they were projections of myself it would be very boring for me and a tremendously self-conscious process.”

Q: You are known to thoroughly research all of your books. is that important to you?

A: “Yes, as it can be where I get my ideas. For example with the idea I had for starting the book I was able to get a tour of Bellevue Hospitals’ psychiatric prison and as I was walking through it I could imagine Scarpetta going there. I learnt to fly helicopters for the character Lucy and 10 years later I am a helicopter pilot with my own helicopter.”

Q: “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper - Case Closed” in 2002 caused great controversy, in Britain by claiming he was actually German-born English impressionist painter Walter Sickert. Are you still on this case?

A: “Yes. This really took on a life of its own and you can’t free yourself from it as it is a real case. You can’t decide you are tired of it and quit. When I finally get to the updated edition in the next two years there will be lots of refinements and fact checking and addressing the accusations that people have disagreed with. Hopefully that will be the end of it for me and I can leave it alone.”

Q: Will the update change your theory?

A: “I don’t think it will dramatically change what I have done or refute what I have found. I still believe what I have written about that. It makes the most sense to me. I can understand why other people may differ as you can never absolutely prove this case as so much evidence has been lost over the years. I would never have believed this would drag on this many years but for me it has become a responsibility.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney

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