Miami Book Fair

Interview: Authors Patricia Cornwell and Anne Rice

Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell

The stories Patricia Cornwell and Anne Rice tell have little in common. One writes about seeking justice for the dead; the other prefers exhuming the secrets of the undead.

But the best-selling authors, who appear separately Monday at Miami Book Fair International, have done groundbreaking work in their respective genres (suspense and horror). They’ve each built a tremendously successful series (or two or three), drawn scores of devoted followers and become the standards to which writers of the genre are compared.

Cornwell was one of the first novelists to incorporate in-depth forensic science into crime fiction. Turn on the TV these days, and you see discussions of blood spatter and DNA everywhere, but that wasn’t true in 1990, when she published Postmortem. The book introduced medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, about whom Cornwell has written 22 novels. Her new book Flesh and Blood — which, like all her other novels, required vast amounts of intricate research, this time on a firing range — finds Scarpetta in Boston tracking a serial killer who may be targeting her family.

Writing about vampires long before any Twilight fan was born, Rice published her first Lestat novel, Interview With the Vampire, in 1976, continuing his story in The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. After numerous books about devils, angels, werewolves and Jesus Christ — “You’re always walking a tightrope writing about the son of God,” she says, — Rice has brought back the beloved bloodsucker to face his greatest challenge in Prince Lestat.

Both writers say being a trailblazer didn’t come easily.

“There was no eagerness for it,” Cornwell says of Postmortem, which was published to so little fanfare she considered leaving the job she had taken at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond and accepting a reporting job at the Miami Herald. “It was so different, no one was sure what to make of it. I heard, ‘Nobody is interested in morgues and labs, and they certainly don’t want to read about a woman in a place like that.’ There was so little invested in that book. ... but they began to realize quickly, in a year or so, that was not the way the public viewed it. They were fascinated.”

Rice faced similar skepticism with Interview With the Vampire.

“I don’t think the publishers had any idea what a vampire novel was,” she says. “I got turned down. I remember one letter from an agent who said, ‘I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t seem to be black comedy or satire. What is it?’ There was no genre then of vampire literature. Mainstream horror was just starting with Stephen King. There weren’t even terms for where our books should go in the bookstores. My serious novel with a cast of vampires was just too weird.”

The writers got the last laugh, of course. Both have sold more than 100 million copies of their books worldwide. You might think they grow weary of the characters they’re most identified with but instead the bonds between creator and creation seem unbreakable.

“I’m closer to him than any character I’ve created,” says Rice, who won’t rule out writing more about Lestat. “I think all the characters I’ve created are variations of him. ... Basically, I just love him completely. When I write as him, I’m able to see the world through his eyes, and I love it. That’s the reason I brought him back — I missed the intensity I get with him.”

From Cornwell: “I don’t get sick of her, though we do get in squabbles now and then,” she says of Scarpetta, who seems to be growing slightly less prickly over the course of the series. “I mutter to myself, ‘For God’s sake, Kay, just work the crime scene.’ ... Scarpetta occupies a different part of my mind and landscape of my life more than any other character. I’m writing a new main character for a CBS show who I’ve grown to love already, and I don’t know how to explain it without sounding crazy, but I think: ‘Just because I got a new character doesn’t mean you’re not the most important to me.’”

Because these characters have become iconic, fans have grown possessive. When Cornwell killed off FBI Special Agent Benton Wesley, Scarpetta’s love interest, many books ago, readers were crushed. (Spoiler alert: Wesley’s death was faked and he has been back for several books now). “I still get people who tweak me with, “I haven’t read your books since Benton died,” Cornwell says. “I say, ‘You might want to.’”).

“I thought he was gone for good,” she admits. “I’ll never forget, at a book signing during the Q&A, someone asked, ‘How do you know he’s really dead?’ I stopped for a minute and said, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t see it happen.’ ... They’re pro forma now, those kinds of lies and deceptions by the government, but back then it was a shock that someone would falsify autopsy records. ... I did think, ‘She really misses him.’”

Rice, who relishes living in what she calls “the golden age of fantasy and horror,” admits that keeping fans happy can be tricky, especially in the Internet age, when readers can respond swiftly and savagely to developments they don’t like.

“Readers today are ready to fight with you over a character,” she says. “They’re vocal. If an author has betrayed a character they love, they get mad. I can post that Lestat is a fan of Honey Boo Boo, and it sets off a firestorm. They’ll wrestle you to the ground over it. It’s wonderful, but it can go bad for some authors. In the end you’re obligated to write the best book you can write. You can’t deliver what groups of people want you to write.”

Rice’s fans are encouraged to come to Monday night’s appearance in vampire costume. Cornwell’s fans are likely to be a bit more sedately attired — but you never know, Cornwell says.

“They do show up in scrubs,” she says, laughing. “Maybe it’s just their job, and they just go ahead and wear them to the book signings. Anyway, it’s really sweet.”

Patricia Cornwell appears at 6 p.m. and Anne Rice appears at 8 p.m. Monday in the Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College; $15;; fans in costume at Rice’s event can tweet out a photo of themselves with #MBFILestat to win a prize and a photo with the author.

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