“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 and 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 husband and young son in tow, 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 that they’re hunting and the games they are playing are very 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.
A BOOK IS BORN
If you thought Big Little Lies was addictive, just wait till you meet these women. “The original idea came from my mom. We are very close, and she is a phenomenal storyteller. One day we were driving the backcountry roads of East Texas, I had just finished my first novel (2018’s Big Woods) and was looking for inspiration for my next. And 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’s 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 ‘boy’s club’ narrative and wanted a space in which women could behave very 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. 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.”
BEATING THE WRITER’S BLOCK
The writing of the book didn’t come easily, though. Cobb found herself with a major case of writer’s block: “About 6 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.
“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.’ I replied, ‘But I don’t know what to write,’ and he said, ‘Well, you better write something.’ Bless him.”
SULTRY, SCANDALOUS AND A BIT SATIRICAL
The atmosphere of Big Woods was intense, with overtones of horror: young girls disappearing in the woods and turning up dead, and a fourteen-year-old girl’s attempts to save her ten-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 fourteen-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. Once I got started I found I couldn’t stop myself from making it very adult, taking it 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 to 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; she preaches structure, so while I draft I do try to stay aware of the basic three-act structure.”
PAYING HOMAGE TO INFLUENCES
“[Ward] was possibly my biggest influence, but there were so many others. One of my favorite writers, Luis Alberto Urrea, his 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 masterclass in structure and using a few words to say something vs a thousand. It’s 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 while 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 favorite big thriller/psychological suspense writers are Amy Gentry, Tana French, and Ruth Ware; each of their works are so atmospheric to me. And I also must include 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, she 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 known as ”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!”
EVERYTHING CAME TOGETHER
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 either try to make writing something I could do full-time or attempt to find a full-time job. We were so strapped that I wrote quickly, finishing a partial in four months.
I had parted ways with my previous agents, 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 her bookshelf at her authors’ books, she didn’t just see a novel; she saw a college education paid for, a down payment on a house, etc. Her reputation is so stellar and we also just really hit it off, so I signed with her. We immediately started working on the partial for submission with an extraordinary freelance editor, Benee Knauer, who pushed me hard to make each scene more tense and 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: my mom’s birthday! We closed with my editor, the fabulous Danielle Perez, who had such enthusiasm and vision for The Hunting Wives “that afternoon and it was one of the happiest days of my life.”
FORTHCOMING ADVENTURES IN … JAZZ?
What’s next? Two books, and they couldn’t be more different. One has been a passion of hers for twenty 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 that I raced to the record store right afterwards 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. 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 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. It took lots of woodshedding, and I’m only just now 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. Then a major detour happened when I found myself writing thrillers!”
This leads us 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.