BookTrib Spotlight: May Cobb

Sex, Death, and Obsession in Small-Town Texas

By Neil Nyren

     I keep seeing her face, upturned in the pool. Her long hair darkened by the water, stringy and tangled and noodling around her neck. Her eyes are closed, her body floating. Her lips are parted just slightly, and it looks as if she’s resting, tranquil and at peace.

     Of course, it wasn’t like that at all. Her body was found facedown in a puddle of mud-soiled leaves. A shotgun blast had shredded her back. She was slumped down next to the edge of the lake, and near the silty shoreline, the lake water is the color of rust, not a sparkling turquoise. But the pool was the first place I saw her.

     A week later, she was dead.

In May Cobb’s sexy, dark, completely unpredictable thriller THE HUNTING WIVES, she won’t be the only one to die.

Sophie O’Neil has left her high-powered job in Chicago and, with her husband and young son, moved to the small Texas town of Mapleton “to slow down”—and maybe to escape from herself: “In moving here, I thought I would become someone more wholesome, more grounded….As it turns out, you can’t outrun who you are. My darker urges simply followed me here.”

Bored and restless, she falls into a circle of town queen bees known as the Hunting Wives, led by an alluring socialite named Margot Banks. Every Friday night, they go out to Margot’s lake house to shoot skeet and “blow off some steam,” but it soon becomes clear that it’s more than skeet they’re hunting—and the games they’re playing are dangerous indeed.

“I just need to tell you…be careful,” a friend tells Sophie. “Margot Banks is not a nice person.” But the more Sophie tells herself to pull away, the more she is pulled in, deeper and deeper into a growing web of scandal and deadly secrets. Margot Banks is indeed not a nice person; neither are the other Hunting Wives; and neither, Sophie discovers with both a shock and a thrill, is she.

May Cobb

If you thought Big Little Lies was addictive, just wait till you meet these women.

“The original idea came from my mom. We’re very close, and she is a phenomenal storyteller, and one day we were driving the back country roads of East Texas and I had just finished my first novel (2018’s Big Woods) and was looking for inspiration for my next. My mom tells me this story about when she was in high school—which was in the ’60s in East Texas—and how sometimes on the weekends, some of the rich, popular guys would take a group of friends and girls out into the woods at night and sit on the hoods of their giant cars and shoot at rabbits, etc. My mom was middle class and in shock and awe of the shooting (she didn’t know that was what was going to be happening) and when she told me this, I had the thought of how easily wrong it could all go.

“I loved this idea of a hunting party, and for a few moments, I thought about setting it in that time period, but because I wasn’t up for trying to nail down the period correctly, I quickly started to think about it in modern times. Soon after, I decided it needed to be an all-female shooting club, as I was keen on upending the usual ‘boys’ club’ narrative and wanted a space in which women could behave badly.

“None of the incidents or characters were based on something from real life. I just drew upon the overall vibe of growing up in oil money-rich East Texas in the 1980s. Longview (the town I’m from for which Mapleton is a thinly-veiled version) was like a microcosm of Dallas, with its high society, which I viewed mostly from a distance. And because it was so much smaller population-wise, in many ways, it was like Dallas on steroids with the outsized charity balls, giant mansions, the fancy cars, and country clubs.”

The writing of the book didn’t come easily, though. Cobb found herself with a major case of writer’s block: “About six months before the launch of Big Woods, it sunk in that I really needed to get back to work on my next novel. My husband, who at the time was supporting us by waiting tables at this amazing, famous BBQ place right outside of Austin, The Salt Lick, gently prodded me by asking questions like, ‘What do you think your next one will be about?’ And also saying things like, ‘A writer is always writing.’ We have a special needs son, so I had been staying at home since he was born, trying to make a go of writing, trying to make a living at it.

Neil Nyren

“I’m so proud of my debut, but the advance was quite small, and the pressure to bring in money was mounting. And I got depressed by it, and frozen. And found I couldn’t write. I had the idea for THE HUNTING WIVES, but just couldn’t do the work.

“For better or for worse, my husband believes in me, and while I was bemoaning to him the fact that I was stuck, he turned to me and said ‘We’ve got a little boy in there who is depending on us. You just can’t give up.’ To which I replied, ‘But I don’t know what to write.’ And he said, ‘Well, you better write something.’ Bless him.”

The atmosphere of Big Woods was intense, with overtones of horror—young girls disappearing in the woods and turning up dead, and a 14-year-old girl’s attempts to save her 10-year-old sister. THE HUNTING WIVES has plenty of intensity of its own, but it’s also sultry and scandalous and a bit satirical. The change in tone was deliberate.

“With Big Woods, I basically channeled a lot of my experience growing up in the ’80s through the character of the 14-year-old, and some editors, when my agent took it out on submission, were wondering if it should be considered YA.

“With THE HUNTING WIVES, I was thirsty to write a clearly adult thriller novel and take a deep dive into adult bad behavior, and once I got started I found I couldn’t stop myself from making it very adult, from PG to R-rated, but it’s all my characters’ faults because they are a devious bunch.

“I did learn from writing my first novel, though. I think the biggest thing is that I could indeed, reach that final page and type ‘The End,’ which for me was huge. My process was pretty much exactly the same. The idea came to me, I sat down and made myself write a one-page synopsis of what I thought it would be about, and then I just started writing. I’m very much a pantser, for better or for worse, and struggle when I have to plot things out or plan the story too much in advance, so I just followed Sophie’s voice and tried to capture what was going on inside her head.

“Certain plot points or later scenes would come to me during the writing, and I would jot those down for later, but I very much try and write not knowing what is going to happen next. I’ve been lucky to have studied under my friend and mentor, Amanda Eyre Ward, who is also one of my all-time favorite novelists, and she preaches structure, so while I draft, I do try to stay aware of the basic three-act structure.

“[Ward] was possibly my biggest influence, but there were so many others. One of my favorite writers, Luis Alberta Urrea’s novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter was so formative to me when I was really setting out to study the craft. I was just astounded that somebody could do what he does with language—make reading a novel a true dreamscape. I remember fellow Austin-novelist Sarah Bird once saying that she was honored to share the same alphabet as Urrea, and she just really nailed it.

“Another seminal novel for me is Owen Egerton’s Hollow, a master class in structure and using a few words to say something vs a thousand. Just a gorgeous read and one I read over and over.

“While writing THE HUNTING WIVES, I pretty much exclusively read thrillers, and Riley Sager is probably the author whose books I turn to most. I’m in awe of his masterful, intricate plots and whip-smart storytelling, and I re-read Final Girls in the early stages of drafting.

“A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window knocked me down completely—his exquisite prose, the immersive noir world he created—and I kept that close at hand, too, while writing the novel. It’s just such a perfect thriller.

“Some of my other big thriller/psychological suspense writers are Amy Gentry, Tana French, and Ruth Ware—each of their works are so atmospheric to me. And also true crime author and memoirist Suzy Spencer.

“For atmosphere and lyrical prose, I am obsessed with both Clare Empson and Tessa Hadley.”

And there were other influences as well. In San Francisco, Cobb studied Victorian literature for her master’s degree, and “after wading through extremely thick Victorian novels—I love me some Dickens, but Our Mutual Friend nearly did me in with its length—I was thrilled to discover that there were these Victorian-era page turners, ‘sensation novels,’ like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which I inhaled, that I could focus on for my thesis work instead of the longer, more exhausting novels. And once I turned to those, I’ve never gained my appetite back for longer books. Maybe they inspired my writing to be more strictly plot-driven in the hopes of keeping readers turning the pages!”

It obviously worked—here’s her publishing story for THE HUNTING WIVES: “With my debut novel, my agent at the time landed me a deal with Midnight Ink (now defunct), and I got to work with the amazing editor, Terri Bischoff. I began writing THE HUNTING WIVES in earnest the same month that my first novel launched. As I mentioned, I was really under pressure from myself to try and make writing something I could do full-time or try and find a full-time job. We were so strapped, so I wrote quickly, finishing a partial in four months. I had parted ways with my previous agent, and during Thanksgiving week, I queried a dozen agents with the partial. To my delight, I received five offers of representation, all from wonderful agents, but when Victoria Sanders (my now-agent) called me on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I knew she was the one. I remember her telling me that when she looked around at her bookshelf at her author’s books, she didn’t just see a novel, she saw a college education paid for, a down payment on a house, etc. And her reputation is so stellar, and we also just really hit it off, so I signed with her, and we immediately started working on the partial for submission with an extraordinary freelance editor, Benee Knauer, who really pushed me hard to make each scene more tense, more fleshed out. Four months later, Victoria landed me the incredible WME film agent, Hilary Zaitz-Michael, then sent the book out wide on a Friday to editors. We went to auction the following week and to come full-circle to the beginning of this interview, the auction was held on Friday, on my mom’s birthday! We closed with my editor, the fabulous Danielle Perez, who has such enthusiasm and vision for THE HUNTING WIVES, that afternoon, and it was one of the happiest days of my life.”

What’s next? Two books—and they couldn’t be more different. One has been a passion of Cobb’s for 20 years, a biography of the great jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk: “He is my North Star, my muse and hero, and the reason I am a writer. I first discovered his music while in college, taking a jazz appreciation class. One day the professor played Rahsaan’s trademark song, ‘The Inflated Tear,’ and it just grabbed me. So much so that I raced to the record store right afterward and found his albums. As I began to find out about his life story—that he could play three saxophones simultaneously, that he overcame staggering odds such as blindness, prejudice, and later, a paralyzing stroke, to play the music that came to him through dreams—I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a book out yet about him so I set out to write one.

“I spent years retracing his footsteps (he died when I was just four, on my birthday, so I never got the chance to meet him) interviewing those who were closest to him including his widow, Dorthaan—who was recently named an NEA Jazz Master for her lifelong work in jazz—and each person I spoke with was enormously impacted by Kirk, and each story I heard was more incredible than the last. So my book about him is not just the story of a musician, but also a story of a phenomenal human spirit triumphing over adversity. It’s also the story of our mysterious connection and my obsession with him.

“It’s taking me so long to write his story because first of all, I started this project when I was a mere child and really didn’t know much about writing, only that I had to tell his story. So lots of wood shedding, and I’m only now just seeing clearly the structure it should take. Also, I’ve wanted to do right by his legacy, so that has meant really spending the time getting to know him through those who knew him best. And then a major detour happened when I found myself writing thrillers!”

Which leads to the second project, which is, of course, her new novel, ”a thriller set in East Texas about three lifelong friends whose lives get upended when a mysterious and seductive stranger moves into their neighborhood.”

That stranger has already moved into mine. It’s THE HUNTING WIVES.

*****

Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.

He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.

This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet:

 

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