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A persistent Patricia Cornwell publishes 22nd Scarpetta novel

Patricia Cornwell cut her journalistic teeth as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer.
Patricia Cornwell cut her journalistic teeth as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer. PATRICK ECCLESINE

Patricia Cornwell is taking calls from one reporter after the other – bam-bam-bam – 15 minutes apart – from her penthouse apartment in Boston, which overlooks Boston Harbor.

The occasion is her 22nd Kay Scarpetta novel, “Flesh and Blood” (William Morrow, $28.99), in bookstores on Nov. 11. I’m slotted for an 11:15 a.m. interview. But I call a couple of minutes early, hoping to sneak in an extra question or two.

Bad idea.

I interrupt a call-in-progress, and I hear Cornwell saying there’s great scuba diving off the coast of Egypt and how the caller must visit Cleopatra’s underwater palace.

That’s the Patricia Cornwell I remember – upbeat, full of ideas, a go-getter. Way back when, she was Patsy Daniels, a recent Davidson College grad with a B.A. in English who signed on at the Observer in 1979 to help put out the TV guide. Within six months, she’d advanced to police reporter.

The Observer is where she learned not to take “no” for an answer. “You can’t get that story,” she says editors used to tell her. “No one will talk to you.”

Cornwell’s attitude: “Who says I’m not getting that story.”

When news came over the wire in 1980 that John Lennon had been shot in New York, Cornwell wanted to report the story. Editors told her she wouldn’t be able to find anyone to talk to.

“But I called every police precinct in New York until I found a cop who’d been at the scene,” she says. “I had the satisfaction of trying and trying and trying and making it work.”

That same persistence paid off in the 1980s, when she worked in the medical examiner’s office in Richmond, Va. She begged to watch autopsies and to work as a volunteer cop, both of which gave her invaluable material for her first prize-sweeping novel, “Postmortem.” That 1990 novel, starring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, launched her career as a crime writer.

Now 58, Cornwell has deep ties to North Carolina. Born June 9, 1956, in Miami, Fla., she grew up in Montreat, where a neighbor, Ruth Bell Graham, befriended the child who’d been placed in foster care. Cornwell would go on to write the 1983 biography “Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham.”

“I still maintain she was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing,” she says. “She was wonderfully generous and decent.”

When Ruth Graham was on her deathbed in 2006, Cornwell flew to Montreat to help the Graham family understand the matriarch’s wish to be buried in a “quiet, leafy spot” near the Cove at the Billy Graham Training Center, 18 miles from Montreat.

Cornwell believed Ruth Graham did not want to be buried at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. The site had “horrified” Cornwell when she saw it, according to The Washington Post.

In 2007, Graham was buried in Charlotte at the Billy Graham Library.

“I don’t have any relationship at all with the Graham family,” Cornwell tells me. “When she died, I never saw any of them again. I don’t have anything to do with Franklin or his ministry, and I doubt he would want much to do with my life either.”

Cornwell came out as a lesbian in 1996, and in 2005, she took a wife: Harvard neuropsychologist Dr. Staci Gruber. She dedicates her latest novel to Gruber, and earlier this month Cornwell donated $500,000 to a marijuana research study that Gruber will head up.

Cornwell told me that her greatest enjoyment these days is her “home life with Staci.”

In 1980, Cornwell, then Patricia Daniels, married her former Davidson College English professor, Charles Cornwell, 17 years her senior. They divorced in 1989 but remain friends.

Charles Cornwell edits all Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels, including this latest, “Flesh and Blood.”

“I pay my ex-husband to tell me what to do,” she says. “In the old days, he told me what to do for nothing.”

Cornwell says she’s “very happy” about the same-sex marriage law passing in North Carolina. “If only people can stop being so hateful toward each other. I’m for anything that causes people to be inclusive and not divisive.”

“Issues with my moods” is how Cornwell describes what’s been characterized as a bi-polar disorder. “It’s like having a thinner skin than other people,” she says. “I tend to get down in the dumps, and I’m sort of hyper at other times. I’ve learned to control that through environment and lifestyle. I know the things to do that are good for me and make me feel better, and I know there are other things that will bring on a depression.”

As she approaches her 60s, Cornwell says she is looking forward to continuing the novels and getting involved in a second career.

And what is that?

She’s working on a new pilot for CBS that will follow a “brilliant, unorthodox detective” named Angie Steele, Cornwell says. “She’s the kind of woman who would be great friends with Lucy (Kay Scarpetta’s lesbian niece) and Scarpetta.”

There’s also the hope of a movie based on the Scarpetta novels, possibly next year, possibly starring Angelina Jolie.

In the immediate future – like this week – Cornwell says she’s looking forward to “a few quiet days when I can watch the boats go by in Boston Harbor and work on my new novel.”

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