Art and life blend in curious ways in the work of Patricia Cornwell, bestselling mystery fiction and historic true crime author. Whether she's boldly claiming to tear the veil from Jack the Ripper (stop it! I liked that book!) or penning another bestseller about a werewolf slash serial killer, she's managed to keep us mesmerized with her stories for the better part of two decades.
A new book by fellow mystery & true crime author Caitlin Rother about Patricia Cornwell now promises to reveal the non-fiction chapters from Cornwell's remarkably exciting real life. The book is Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband's Violent Revenge, which just about says it all. Something tells me a lot of true crime and mystery fans will get around to reading this one, and they won't be disappointed; a sneak peek at the first chapter shows off terse, tense prose from an obviously experienced writer who knows a thing or two about how to induce readers to flip pages.
This is the third book by author Caitlin Rother, who has several years of journalism experience - and a Pulitzer nomination to go with it. Her first book was suspense fiction, Naked Addiction; her first true crime title was Poisoned Love, which chronicled the case of black widow Kristin Rossum. The author also shares a literary agent with me - Rick Broadhead, bless his heart.
With Twisted Triangle hitting the bookstores now, CLEWS had a chance to ask the author a few questions about her books and literary tastes. Here's our Q&A.
Q. So you've read and enjoyed Patricia Cornwell's thrillers (so have I, despite an uneven quality - but when she's good, etc.). How did it inform your writing of this curious chapter of her life?
I read and enjoyed Cornwell's early books back in the 1990s. At the time, I was working my way up the ladder at a series of newspapers in Southern California and was also writing (and rewriting) my first novel, Naked Addiction. But I didn't know Cornwell was a lesbian until I read the Vanity Fair story in 1997, where she talked in some depth for the first time about her affair with Margo Bennett.
By then, I was in San Diego and was still working on the novel. I realized how much of themselves writers end up weaving into their characters and how much they need to know what they're writing about to create verisimilitude. Sometimes I would do things and tell myself, "If this goes sideways, I can always use it in my novel." I have to wonder if Cornwell did the same thing, given that there are parallels between her life and her characters' -- the most obvious being Dr. Kay Scarpetta's affair with a married FBI agent and Scarpetta's niece Lucy being a lesbian -- but there were others I didn't learn about until I started interviewing Margo in 2005. I learned more by interviewing Ed Sulzbach, a mutual friend of Cornwell's and Margo's, a former FBI profiler I quote in Twisted Triangle. Ed told me Cornwell drew from him to create two of her primary male characters, Benton Wesley and Pete Marino. It sent a chill up my spine to hear Marino in Ed's voice as he talked.
Q. Did Ms. Cornwell or anyone close to her have anything to say about your book? And how is it that you managed to convince Margo Bennett to share the story with the wider world?
We made a series of requests to interview Cornwell made through the office of Esther Newberg, Cornwell's agent in New York -- first by my collaborator, John Hess, then by Margo, and then by me -- but all were declined.
I just read an article in the London Times in which the writer paraphrased Cornwell's sentiment that my book was a "last ditch money-making venture," (these are the writer's words). I assume Cornwell was referring to a venture by Margo.
So, this is a good time to point out that Margo has never been the one pushing this project. It started with her good friend John Hess, and then I took over from there. Margo is not a party to the contract with Wiley, her name isn't on the cover of the book, and Wiley isn't paying her a dime. She simply agreed with John and me that this was a story that needed to be told.
Twisted Triangle is the story of a kidnapping, an attempted murder, and a lesbian love triangle involving Cornwell and two married FBI agents, Margo and her husband Gene. It is also a tale of Margo's struggle, survival and triumph over her husband's abuse and an inner battle over her own sexuality. As such, she is hoping that it will help inspire others who are in abusive relationships and are living in denial about their sexuality.
Her participation has nothing to do with her interactions with Cornwell and she's never said a bad word about her. John Hess is the one who persuaded Margo to tell her story, and after I got hooked up with the project, she and I developed a relationship of our own. As I earned more of her trust, she opened up and told me things she said she'd never even told members of her family or friends. I admire her and feel she was very brave in telling me all of this, especially now that it's in a book for anyone to read. But she thinks there is a greater good to be served and that's what gave her the strength to tell it. I feel honored that she has said I got to know her so well that I could anticipate what she was going to say and could articulate what her feelings were going to be in a given situation.
Q. After writing the Kristin Rossum - Gregory De Villers story (Poisoned Love), your well-reviewed fiction work Naked Addiction, and now Twisted Triangle, what will your next book be about?
I have just finished my next book, which is called BODY PARTS, and is set to be released by Kensington/Pinnacle in March 2009. It chronicles the story of serial killer Wayne Adam Ford, a long-haul trucker who killed four women and dismembered two of them. This is a much darker story than any of my previous books. I was able to get exclusive interviews with his brother and father, and access to all kinds of investigative documents and interview transcripts of Ford and witnesses that weren't available to the public until now. I chose this case because it fit my usual fare of psychologically-based stories and I saw Ford as a very complex character whose evolution into a serial killer would be fascinating to follow. I was intrigued by the fact that he turned himself in with a woman's breast in his pocket, cried throughout his interviews and said he was sorry. He confessed that he must have killed these women during sex and erotic asphyxia, but he claimed their deaths were accidental and he couldn't or wouldn't talk about the specific details, claiming amnesia. He is now on Death Row.
My next project will be the sequel to my first thriller, Naked Addiction. I need a little levity after spending a very dark year in the head of a serial killer. I've been following a number of other true crime cases, but I'll stay mum on that until I pick one.
Q. How old were you when you read your first true crime book, and what was it?
Strictly true crime, I'd say I was 30 when I read my first book: Murderer With A Badge by Edward Humes. But before that, I was more a fan of true crime stories in magazines like New York and Vanity Fair. And because I tend to choose to tell true crime stories with a strong psychological angle, I feel I should also mention Sybil, which I think it fits into this category because of the horrible things her mother did to her and how that trauma manifested itself. I read that in my late twenties, when I was just a young reporter.
I sort of backed into writing for this genre because my original goal was to write crime fiction, which I finally was able to publish last year -- my thriller Naked Addiction. So for years, I was reading forensic, medical and legal thrillers by Patricia Cornwell, Michael Palmer, Michael Crichton and John Grisham and detective novels by Michael Connelly, and I believe that helped me when I started write true crime later on. I believe the storytelling, suspense and character-building are just as important as the facts of the story, so in addition to thrillers, I have always read quite a bit of literary fiction. I don't have one favorite author of all time, but here are a few of my current favorites: Vladimir Nabokov, John Irving, Ann Patchett and Michael Connelly.
What is the most memorable true crime book you ever read?
Most memorable true crime books: And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi and Bruce Henderson, Mind Hunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker and Always In Our Hearts by Doug Most.