Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 28, 2000





I'm sitting in the catbird seat next to Patricia Cornwell as she begins an autographing session for several hundred people lined up to buy her latest book, "The Last Precinct."

They're part of the audience of a thousand or so who've just attended an onstage conversation between Cornwell and me for City Arts & Lectures in San Francisco.

While they don't number anything near the 3000 people who turn up for autographs in Cornwell's home town of Richmond, Virginia, these readers are just as anxious to meet Patricia Cornwell as any unabashed fan can be.

Cornwell, too, is anxious to get started. She has mentioned earlier that you can always tell the age of one of her autographed books by its drawn-out signature. If the name is Patricia Daniels Cornwell, chances are the book is "Postmortem," her first novel featuring chief medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, for which the first printing was 6,000 copies.

"In those days I would very slowly and deliberately draw out the signature because usually there were only a few people there, and I hoped by the time I finished writing, somebody new might come in," she says.

As the books got popular and the autographing sessions better attended, Cornwell's signature got faster and zippier. Now she comes with an arsenal of fat wide-tipped pens, and her signature is limited to two words that look like P------ C-----. Who can blame her? The first printing of "The Last Precinct," her 11th Scarpetta book (not that she'll sign them all), is one million copies.

The line of autograph seekers, already perked up, snaps to, Cornwell leans forward with her giant pen ready, and about six helpers move into place. A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, the nearby independent bookseller that supplies all the books for City Arts & Lectures, has brought hundreds of "The Last Precinct" as well as stacks of all Cornwell's past books. People buy them by the handful in the lobby and get in a line that winds all the way past the stage door.

It's the kind of event I've always approached with skepticism (see #103, 10/29/99). Book critics want to see things from the reader's point of view, and I'm as much an admirer of Cornwell as anybody, but I still haven't figured out the dynamics of autograph lines.

Why do we as readers ask authors, of all people, to sit for hours signing their names as though they were movie stars (who would never agree to such arduous, down-to-earth contact with the public) or pro athletes (who often do it for the money)?

I'm not asking why authors end up doing this -- it's their job to get the book out to as many people as possible, and if this is one way to start or keep the ball rolling, so be it.

Rather, I want to know what readers gain from it, why they don't think it's unseemly to demand a prayer-meeting atmosphere from the authors they've turned into celebrities. As I look at the faces waiting expectantly as far as the eye can see, Cornwell fans gaze back with that look of radiant awe I remember on the faces of Dorothy and her pals as they danced their way to the Emerald City.

Now the line is moving, briskly but unhurriedly, as Cornwell shares a hello with each person, somehow squeezing in a personal word. Her expected phrases -- "How are you tonight?" "Thank you for coming," "Who is this one for?" -- are the grease with which this incredibly efficient machine keeps the gears working without pause or problem.

Books are opened and readied at Cornwell's right side as she welcomes each new visitor, slid under her arms as she's given each new name to inscribe ("To Margery? How do you spell that?"), held in place as she signs her own name in big bold strokes that seem to come from the shoulder and whisked off to the new owner's hands just in time for the next the next and the next visitor to step forward.

Several people tell Cornwell they have flown in from Los Angeles and San Diego just to see her in person and get a book autographed. "How far away is San Diego?" Cornwell asks, reaching to her left, where an assistant plops a "Last Precinct" baseball cap in her hand.

"You get a cap and my thanks for coming all this way," she says in her slight Southern twang, switching pens so she can scroll her autograph across the bill. Her long-distance travelers hold the cap gingerly as the great prize it is and place it atop the stack of autographed books they'll take home for holiday presents.

The gazes, the love, the starry eyes, the respect, the cheerfulness, the pride and the discovery on the faces of these readers are all a big surprise to me.

I thought if people are going to stand in line for so long to experience maybe 5 seconds with Patricia Cornwell, they would feel other things, like gratitude, adoration and need. These emotions are indeed apparent, but overall, a decorum has spread over the proceeding that affords every gesture, every word and every glance a dignity that is memorable to anyone who witnesses it - even the craggy book reviewer soaking it all up like an old sponge.

Perhaps most unexpected are the personal messages that people somehow slip in at the last possible second before tearing themselves away. They tell Cornwell about their children, their beliefs, their midlife changes. They say they're going into forensic medicine because of Cornwell's books. They're taking self-defense courses. They're feeling differently about law enforcement, about doctors, about life and death.

And in the last possible nanosecond as Cornwell hands them the autographed book or books, she asks the quick but searching question. You are? What kind of forensic medicine, what school, which doctors, what courses? The departing visitors keep their answers short and direct in what they consider an incredible exchange, and it is.

Cornwell has surprised us, too, earlier in the event during the question-and-answer period, when she was asked how it feels to be an author who's in so much demand to sign books for star-struck fans.

"I feel sad, actually," she said. "It's such a brief moment when you've become such a big part of people's lives. I only have that second to look them in the eye. I'm always overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who come, and I feel inadequate in terms of giving something back.

"The second thing that's hard is to know what to tell people who've been through real courtroom cases. A mother will say, 'My daughter was murdered. The case wasn't handled right. Please review the autopsy report, please help.'

"It's difficult, but sometimes I do look at the case and if appropriate send it to the proper authorities, such as the chief medical examiner of Virginia. People sometimes have the wrong expectations. I don't sit there examining the report and comment on the phone, 'Say, I notice we're lookin' at a liver that's not in the normal limits. Did you take that into account? How much did she drink, anyway?' I let the real people do these things."

The audience laughs at such remarks, but mention of the medical examiner of Virginia causes more than a little stir. Cornwell's protagonist, Kay Scarpetta, is not only the fictional chief medical examiner of Virginia but a consultant to the FBI, an expert deep-sea diver, an attorney in her own right, a crime expert, master detective and world-class chef.

I've thought for some time that Kay Scarpetta is the first female hero in commercial fiction (see #82, 8/6/99). She certainly is as powerful and enduring as Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Superman or James Bond, and her larger-than-life quality seems to eclipse that of, say, Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawski, Wonder Woman and more recently Dana Scully of "The X-Files."

The great joy of "The Last Precinct" is that Kay Scarpetta, perhaps the strongest, most articulate, most courageous and mythical hero of the modern period, finds herself vulnerable and attacked -- especially by her own fears -- in so many ways that we get to see inside her mind and psyche for the first time.

Meanwhile, something seems to have changed in Cornwell, too. Readers often ask how much Cornwell is like Scarpetta, but this time a questioner in the audience asks how much Cornwell thinks she resembles Lucy, the brilliant but confused niece of Kay Scarpetta who's gotten into trouble in her jobs at the FBI and ATF.

"Lucy has always represented the side of me I've been trying to outgrow," Cornwell answers. "Coming from a lot of dysfunction in childhood and growing up angry, Lucy is always having to prove something, whether it's the way she works out with weights, runs or shoots her gun. As she's getting older you'll see less and less of that. 'The Last Precinct' is a turning point in terms of moving on so she can be the great crimefighting partner for her aunt I intend for her to be in subsequent books.

"Like Lucy, I do a lot of impulsive things, but I don't feel I have to prove anything anymore. My problem is I just don't have any common sense." Cornwell describes the time she took a group of archeologists to London to find the exact spot where the Jamestown pilgrims set sail many centuries ago. Behind a corporate building on the Thames they spotted a remnant of an old pier, and without thinking, Cornwell grabbed a rope and slid down to the pier to take a splinter for carbon-dating back to a Richmond lab.

"This was not a great idea," she added. The rope grew increasingly slimy and almost impossible to climb back up. "Years ago I might have climbed down that rope to prove something. This time I did it because I'm just kind of stupid. I knew I wanted that splinter and didn't know when I could come back and get it. I have a helicopter license like Lucy, but I'm not going to fly Black Hawks for the National Guard that conveniently have an AR 15 in case I need to pop a Schweitzer out of the air that gets on my nerves.

"Right now, Lucy is probably a more immature version of me, but you have to realize I'm fast catching up on her aunt. Lucy's about 20 years younger than I am right now. That will probably change quickly - we all have to get old together so I can remember what it felt like to be 20 and understand menopause at the same time."

Of course Scarpetta's "legitimate paranoia" - she really is stalked by the monsters of society - so mirrors the legitimate fears of American women that Cornwell has been considered overprotective of herself and staff at public gatherings and is often accompanied by private body guards. One questioner in the audience asks how she feels about personal security these days.

"I'm very concerned about security and take measures to ensure it without being neurotic. I feel I'm just being realistic. There are a lot of strange people out there. When you do a booksigning with 20 people or 3000 people standing in line, if you have a gentle presence of officers, not only for crowd control, really the biggest thing happening is that you don't know what you've prevented."

Does writing help relieve stress or add to it?

> the time I was a little kid, I didn't like the world I lived in so I had to make up one of my own. I have retreated into my imagination ever since I can remember. I would say writing chose me; I didn't choose it. I couldn't live without it. It's my way of dealing with what I feel about the world -- tragedy, sadness, happiness, abuse of power. I need to do this, and when I'm not doing it, I start feeling unplugged."

Later I make the mistake of peeking past Cornwell's shoulder to see if there's an end to the line yet, but no -- happily expectant faces gaze back as far as the eye can see. It's as if Cornwell is the bus and they're the passengers, but instead of looking at their watches or stepping out of line to peer down the hall with impatience, they inch along as if waiting for Cornwell were part of the show.

Ta da. Cornwell, her shoulders ramrod straight, her big loopy signature saving her wrist from RSI, has known this all along. "You give this to your daughter from me," she says, handing a baseball cap to a man who's said his daughter thinks Kay Scarpetta is the greatest hero of all time.

"Thanks," he says, pausing for a split second to look her in the eye. Cornwell invites the man and his daughter to visit her website, www.patriciacornwell.com (one of the most detailed and enthusiastic author sites I've seen, by the way), where they'll find her e-mail address. Then she turns to the next reader in line.



Well, I certainly hope Barnes &Noble's talks with Gemstar-TV Guide work out as handsomely as the chain bookstore's relationship with iUniverse.

You remember the fanfare that accompanied B&N's purchase of 49% of iUniverse, one of the biggest print-on-demand publishers. The promises to authors were -- well, hugely promising at the time, ranging from Barnes and Noble carrying physical inventory of iUniverse books to Barnes & Noble listing all iUniverse titles electronically to Barnes & Noble proclaiming itself the POD and ebook king of the universe.

Then came those pesky disagreements between iUniverse and Barnes & Noble over discounts, physical inventory and electronic listings. After that the horror stories of iUniverse backlogs, sloppy (if any) editing, cover screw-ups and incessant delays took up so much space in the Letters section of this column that I had to edit my own writing.

So now that B&N and Gemstar have coyly "confirmed" that they're having talks -- "the major question being talks about what," as Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch commented yesterday -- new promises are surely in the works.

We can expect that the two companies will keep the same high standards with which they have conducted business in the past: B&N's sterling behavior with iUniverse will never be forgotten, and Gemstar's acquisition of the makers of Rocket eBooks and Softbooks resulted not in a better and more affordable ebook reader but the dumbed-down and expensive REB1100 ($300) and REB 1200 ($700). The fact that Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation owns 43% of Gemstar assures us that everything will be handled with tabloid flair.

Then, too, remember how Barnes & Noble boasted about selling Rocket eBooks through its powerful chain of hundreds of bookstores to thousands of consumers only a year or so ago? I think the chain sold a phenomenal number - was it something like 24 or 25? Let's hope the talk/deal/relationship/ between B&N and Gemstar is just as successful.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re: 11/14 Amazon at it again (using "blue box" announcements on web pages listing new titles to offer cheaper used copies of the same title). Alas, it seems that Amazon isn't budging on this "blue-box" special that undercuts new editions. It's still there, though for some reason, you can't post an item. If you go through the process, you get a message, "Maintenance Under Way; Please retry shortly." It's been like that for the past 10 days, so maybe they are re-thinking...

Reason I wanted to post was a curious notion that an author/small publisher might reap some benefit from this. There is an option to post a "Collectible -- Like New" offer. You get a 200-character description line... I figure why not post in this category with note, e.g. "New and signed by the author." It's got to be listed at 1c more than the non-discounted price...But Amazon picks up the postage and you get a chance to autograph a copy for a potential reader. A silver lining on their little blue box!

Errol Lincoln Uys
Author of Brazil


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just a thought: "Exclusives" in the ebook world (for example with Amazon) is one reason the mega-corps involved in the ebook business will never really get it together and come up with common platforms, universal distribution, etc. This appears to be a case where their unlimited "Wall Street" money hurts the idea, rather than helps it. I wonder how successful Random House would be if they printed books that only Barnes & Noble could sell.

Howard Mandel
Transitions Bookplace
Chicago, Illinois

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am amazed by the blitheness with which some of your correspondents (re the Amazon.com website) dismiss the sale of review copies. My partners and I have been reviewing for almost 20 years, and have held it a sacred duty not to sell our review copies, even though we have one of the largest used book stores in North America right here in Milwaukee. In fact, I have always held it to be evidence of moral turpitude that the Strand openly admits that they buy review copies from crooked reviewers.

Instead, we have gleefully donated these books to small-town and school libraries with which we have connections, knowing that said libraries have minuscule acquisitions budgets.

Are we just hopelessly-stodgy Midwesterners, financially handicapping ourselves compared to those sharp New York writers because of outdated ethical scruples?

Michael J. Lowrey, Editor-in-Chief
Sunrise Book & Software Reviews
Milwaukee, WI


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