When I first began interviewing crime writers, the first thing I noticed was how nice they were. It wasn’t that the writers of literary fiction that I’d known for years weren’t nice—they were kind and generous people one-on-one—but most of them didn’t necessarily feel the need to share publishing tips or champion the work of other writers, unless the writer happened to be a good friend. The crime writers were different. They posted pictures of ARCs; they talked up other writers on social media, even ones they hadn’t met yet; and they were quick to share their knowledge of the industry with anyone who cared to listen.
Even when I only knew her through social media, I thought of May Cobb as the paradigm of this breed of warm, open, and big-hearted writer. Unlike the women in her highly praised novel The Hunting Wives, who use Facebook as both a means of showing off and a kind of speculative surveillance, she is wholeheartedly positive online. After she posted earlier this fall about her young son, who is on the autism spectrum, I mentioned in a reply that I had a son of the same age with ASD. This also gave me an excuse to tell her that her novel, which I’d devoured in a matter of days, had been one of my favorites of 2021, and I was pleased but not entirely surprised when she responded within hours to my request to interview her. Though Cobb’s writing life has its challenges, her genuine love for her work and for the community that she’s become a part of shines through in every word of our conversation.
Polly Stewart: Your forthcoming novel is called My Summer Darlings (May, 2022). Can you tell me a little bit about that book?
May Cobb: It’s set again in Texas, like The Hunting Wives, and it’s about three lifelong best friends whose lives get upended one summer when this mysterious, handsome stranger moves to town. Kind of like The Witches of Eastwick, except without any of the paranormal stuff. I wanted to do another adults-behaving-badly look at female friendship and complex, messy female characters. But it’s different from my last work in that it has three different points of view—one for each of the friends.
I can’t wait to read it. I read The Hunting Wives (May, 2021) in about two sittings. With the writing, did you just breeze through it or was it a difficult thing for you to piece together?
Well, first of all, thank you. That’s so nice to hear. It did actually come out pretty quickly. I wrote the first half in about four months. I had the idea for about a year, so I had been thinking about it. And I had the overview, the basic plot points, but I still didn’t know who the murderer was till I got to the halfway point. There’s a lot that I had to figure out, but it was it was so much fun. It was a good escape for me because I’m definitely not hitting the bars or going to ladies’ nights, so it was like, “Okay, I’ll just do this in my writing.”
It was also a real crossroads. If this was going to be my career and the way I made my money, something had to happen because it didn’t happen with my first book. I started to look for full-time jobs and I couldn’t get anyone to call me back. I had been out of work for a while, since my son had been born, just taking care of him. And I was like, “Well, I’ve got to figure something out.” That’s why I wrote The Hunting Wives so quickly. I had the pressure of, if this doesn’t happen, then I really need to get serious and get my realtor’s license or my emergency teaching certification, which are two things that I still have in my mind, careers that I’d like to do.
When I was finished, I sent it out to a dozen agents that I kind of had on my radar. The one I signed with, she really wanted to polish it. We worked on that partial probably for four months before she sent it out, and the freelance editor vastly improved it. Then once it sold, I had to write the second half and I did that over summer. Then I thought, “Cool, I’m going to take a break.” But I had a two-book deal, and my freelance editor was like, “You can have a week off and then we’re writing the next one.” And I was really so glad because this was September of 2019, and we all know what happened in spring 2020. I tell her all the time, “I’m so glad you pushed me because there’s no scenario where I could have finished it if I’d waited.”
I assume that your life is not much like the lives of the hunting wives. How have people reacted to the characters? Do they assume that it’s autobiographical?
I’ve gotten kind of a lot of that, and it’s so interesting. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, but then I’ve gotten a lot of pearl-clutching reviews where people say they can’t stand the women. Some of it’s kind of crazy, like they’ll even put trigger warnings and say that the story includes a scene of statutory rape. That’s not true—all the characters are over the age of consent—but I can’t sound off on social media about that. I’d like to, but it might make me sound like a lunatic. Then there are a lot of negative reviews saying that they don’t agree with the women’s choices, and I’m like, “Is that why you read novels—to agree with the characters?” The question of likable female characters is endlessly fascinating to me.
Obviously we’re not the first people to talk about this, but it’s such a different reaction than a man would get writing about people behaving badly.
Exactly. My editor at one point was like, “I just don’t think it’s realistic how much the women drink.” And I was like, “I actually toned it down.” We had a laugh over it and I was like, I know that in most sane, urban areas, it’s not like this, but in east Texas that’s legit what they’re doing.
In the book, Sophie definitely has to deal with the consequences of some of those choices. At certain points, she’s really vilified. It’s amazing that people would look at it and think this behavior without consequences, when she suffers the consequences.
That was baffling to me too. It’s not like she just breezes through the novel unscathed. It makes me go, “Yikes, what’s the response going to be for this next one?” Because it’s pretty racy too. But I don’t know why thrillers can’t have sex in them.
I wanted to ask you about social media, since it’s such a big topic in the novel. How do you navigate it as an author?
One thing I love about it is getting to meet other writers like you. That’s the reason I keep coming back to the trough. Especially during COVID, when you can’t go have coffee with somebody, it was really sustaining. But now I really need to figure out TikTok, which I don’t have the energy to do. Mostly I just like to post about books that I’m reading, and even though I don’t have any kind of big following, l feel like that’s something I can do for fellow authors.
Social media does take a lot of time away from writing, though. If I could just check it once a day and then be done, but I’ll be on for hours and then it’s like, oh my God, I could’ve written a chapter. Do you do that too?
Oh yeah, it’s so easy to talk myself into like, “Oh, I’m really stuck on the sentence, so let me just open up Twitter.” Then I wonder why I did that.
I know, right. I do that all the time.
The main character in The Hunting Wives, Sophie, feels a lot of jealousy when she looks at social media and compares herself to other women in her community. There’s a perception that writers are prone to that kind of jealousy and comparison too. Do you feel like that’s something you’ve gotten past?
I think so. In a way, I still can’t believe I get to do this and that people are being nice to me. That’s really cool. The only time I get a little jealous is when someone posts their word count and they’re being super productive. I love seeing other people’s splashy deals and film announcements. That just gives me hope for everybody. But when someone’s like, I write 5,000 words a day, I start thinking that I wish I could be that way!
You said you have a new project that you’re going to start up after you finished these revisions. Do you have a deal for that as well?
Yes, this one is part of the two-book deal. It’s called A Likable Woman. It’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek title.
What are you reading right now? Is there anything coming out soon that you’re excited about?
I’ve been reading an ARC of Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister and it’s just phenomenal. Kellye and I met because we were published by the same indie press, Midnight Ink. Her new one is coming out in March and it’s so great. The narrator’s sister was a reality TV star and she’s been estranged from her for a couple of years, and then she’s murdered. Afterwards, she’s trying to piece together what happened from her sister’s Instagram account. I love the social media aspect and then all these red herrings, and Kellye’s writing is just so razor-sharp. That’s what’s been keeping me up too late at night.