Here’s an excellent profile of crime novelist Patricia Cornwell that will probably tell you a few things about the woman you didn’t know, and give you a glimpse at the way her work has had to change over the last twenty-five years.
One is tempted after reading it to invent an aphorism: You are what you write. That’s largely true in Cornwell’s case, but it is not everywhere and always true. She may write out of the traumas of her early life, but other writers do not have to. Robert Bloch, for instance, the author of Psycho and many other creepy stories about homicidal maniacs and similarly bizarre persons, was reputed to be a pleasant, mentally-balanced man who simply had a gift for writing about those who weren’t so balanced.
Change the aphorism: You are what you can imagine. That gets a little closer to the truth. A man can imagine himself being a homicidal maniac, but that doesn’t make him one. What we have to be able to do as writers is access those feelings without being controlled by them. It’s those feelings–of anger, frustration, fear–that give our writing its humanity, its depth. Even the best of us have those feelings; we’ve been dealing with them, both men and women, for thousands of years in our evolution, and given the immense struggles we’ve had to survive and carve out a civilization in a multitude of hostile environments it’s not surprising that any of us retain virulent forms of those feelings.