It’s unnerving stuff interviewing a consummate interviewer — a woman who turned an English degree and an earnest fascination with the totality of human existence into a writing career that spans 17 bestsellers, enormous wealth and international acclaim.
And this is no pulp fiction maven, mind you. I’m awaiting a self-described “broad” who for the past 25-plus years has immersed herself in a world where bad people do bad things to acquaintances and strangers, and where a few unique individuals devote their lives to a strange universe in which highly trained minds and the most advanced forensic science merge to make sense of murder and murderers.
But when Patricia Cornwell calls on a snowy Boston day, I find myself chatting with a delightful woman who is nothing at all like her most famous character (and rumored alter ego), ice queen forensic scientist Kay Scarpetta, and more like a trusted girlfriend who happily discusses our mutual affection for the good old days of newsrooms when you smoked inside the building and left it to meet your sources rather than dashing off an email.
Then we get down to business — that is, getting to the bottom of how, after years of false starts and near misses, a pair of Cornwell’s novels will finally make it to TV. On consecutive Saturdays beginning April 10, Lifetime (HD) will premiere two original films, At Risk and The Front, based on Cornwell’s Win Garano series and starring Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Daniel Sunjata (Rescue Me) and a personal Cornwell favorite, Diahann Carroll.
“I’ve been at this for so long that at one time I had an office in the Directors Guild building in L.A.,” explains Cornwell, who had her first work optioned for film nearly two decades ago. “I was so involved in filmmaking on renditions of Scarpetta stuff that never happened [Angelina Jolie will star in an upcoming feature now in production]. But I certainly was involved with the process and met with directors and worked with all kinds of people. … I mean, it’s amazing how much stuff I’ve done and nothing has ever been shown.”
Still, Cornwell admits, when her agent Esther told her that executive producers Jim Head and Stan Brooks wanted to see her about bringing the Garano novels to Lifetime, she wasn’t too excited. “I remember the first time I met Stan — in fact, he met with me here in Boston and I flew him back to New York on the helicopter — and I told Esther, ‘I guess if I really don’t like him, I’ll just dump him out of the helicopter!’ But he was wonderful. I’ve had such a wonderful experience with them.”
Not only did Head and Brooks understand her work like no one previously, they involved Cornwell from the get-go, assigning her a co-executive producing credit and putting her to work on casting with the rest of the team — something that utterly delighted the author known for being so meticulous that she worked for a medical examiner for six years and learned to pilot a helicopter and a motorcycle because her characters did.
“We had very meaningful discussions in a way that colleagues would do. … And it’s got nothing to do with whether or not somebody was a great actor. It had to do with, ‘Mmmmm, that doesn’t feel quite right for this person.’ Particularly the [sultry and sinister District Attorney] Monique Lamont candidates — that was really important because she’s got to be that devil, you know? But at the same time, there’s got to be something vulnerable about her so she’s not just a total harridan. Andie MacDowell just has that nailed.”
“Same with Win [the tough but tender state investigator called upon to straighten out Lamont's troubles in both books]. Daniel is perfect. He is very, very good looking and very charming and a big presence. But he plays this character who has — and no pun intended –a winsomeness about him. He’s not threatening in a way that some big detective might be.”
When filming wrapped, Cornwell says she got the chills about how big and rich and complex the finished products rendered her “little novellas.”
“At this stage of my life, it’s like winning a tournament after playing for 20 years and people not realizing that you’ve made it to the first round of Wimbledon every single time –it’s just that you haven’t made it through the first two sets!” she muses. “They not only captured the things I portrayed in the books, but they actually went beyond that and did it even better. There are some twists and things that John Pielmeier [Agnes of God, The Memory Keeper's Daughter] put in to make it better for film, and when I was watching the things, I said to my partner, ‘Is that in my book? And if it’s not, damn it, I sure wish it was!’”