Ink-Quisitioner Jesse Rawlins prods author Marietta Miles into talking about May Cosby, and her new book AFTER THE STORM
Photo: Southern Noir Author Marietta Miles
Hi Marietta. You live and write in Richmond, Virginia. Florida publisher Down & Out Books (D&O) released your novella MAY in December 2017. And D&O is set to release your follow-up book AFTER THE STORM September 30th.
I just finished reading MAY. And we first meet your title character as a ferocious hurricane surges toward her home in fictional Folly Island, off North Carolina’s coast, in 1987.
But we quickly find ourselves transported to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1970—May’s last year in high school. As May batten’s down the hatches and the storm advances, her past continues to unfold in a series of flashbacks, written in present tense.
I’d say she’s lived a life no one would choose to live, Marietta. So why did you create May Cosby?
You know, I feel like I’ve known or at least met many Mays in my lifetime. They’ve stayed in my memory and each makes up a measure of this character.
I’m sure you’ve met them, Jesse. Regular women who end up doing small, but important things. Step-moms who work at the all-night grocer to buy tennis shoes for another woman’s child. Grandparents who raise their grandchildren because the mother or father can’t or shouldn’t. Women in imperfect situations finding any way they can to love and protect. These women don’t get a lot of shout-outs.
Really, one of the foundations of May’s story, in both the first book and AFTER THE STORM, is motherhood. Motherliness in all of its different dressings.
Raising children is one of the jobs you don’t want to screw up. The ramifications of throwing in the towel and not committing reach far and wide. The damage can last for generations.
Worst case scenario you raise a violent criminal. Or, best case, you simply rear a child who will be riddled and pulled down by the same hang-ups you as the parent have lived with. In-between lies the possibilities of addiction, abuse, or depression. So many crippling potholes. The cycle of volatility continues. Sins of the father and mother, as they say.
I think May’s parents were too young and too distracted. A million daily problems plaguing them. As a teen, May wandered and floundered with no one to look out for her. When she became too much of a handful, Mr. and Mrs. Cosby did what they thought was best.
But sometimes, despite the most well-intentioned attempts, parents get it wrong and those mistakes can lay a very long and bumpy road.
I know you have daughters, Marietta, and I’ve got a strong sense of how seriously you take parenting—so I understand how the theme of “motherliness” could appeal to you when writing novels. But perhaps you can enlighten us further on why you’ve now chosen to write two books involving a character like May Cosby, whose life is filled with what I’d call “mundane activities.” Your writing’s been described as “Southern Noir.” And May’s life essentially proves “humorless.” She seems to consider herself a “Misfit”—and I can certainly relate to that.
But other writers on the so-called Indie Crime circuit routinely write either zany or violent crime stories with characters who take on qualities many would call “larger-than-life.” Why do you think you’ve chosen a different path?
The stories I’ve had published are pretty realistic, Jesse. They involve things that can happen. May is a small-time weed dealer, for example, who sells just enough pot to supplement her meager income. So the characters are just three or four steps off the right path. They can go one way or the other. The choices they make have much to do with who they are as a person, and what they’ve learned in their life. They have families that are too busy for them, too caught up in their own needs. Their mother or father might be locked up in prison or already dead. Such characters will probably make a lot of missteps and those fumbles can be learned from—or can be the death of them. I tend to write about the death of them.
There’s a heavy dose of family dynamic in my stories because family, too much or too little, can deeply affect who a person will become. I write about simple people and psychotics. They all started somewhere, and to me that’s interesting.
I also think boredom is a strong instigator for some cases of extreme behavior. Sometimes, the worst crimes happen for no other reason than the perpetrator had nothing better to do.
I wouldn’t say I’ve consciously avoided the “larger-than-life” crime writing. I also think I don’t write zany or wacky because I don’t really read wacky books. Though I myself am extremely wacky.
My taste in reading has always leaned to the darker side. Mainly horror. When I do read crime it’s usually heavy, psychological crime with elements of horror. RED DRAGON. SILENCE of the LAMBS. The BLACK DAHLIA.
My first novella ROUTE 12 from All Due Respect books feels more like psychological horror. Very Different from my two subsequent books MAY and AFTER THE STORM.
I could crack a few quips about the wacky side of your personality, Marietta. But I’m trying to behave. Not easy I assure you!
So … how do you want readers to feel toward May?
One friend said they wanted to shake her—and then hug her. Reviewer David Nemeth wanted to buy her a hot meal. California writer Sarah M. Chen said that, too. All things I’ve felt for her, as well.
May is broken. She just doesn’t know it. She doesn’t sulk or complain. She just picks up her shit and moves on. For better or for worse. By choice or by force. For her, living might be more of a habit. A series of tasks to get her through each day. Half-assed attempts at making her life a little better. Never fully dedicating herself to anything or anyone.
I imagine a lot of people can relate to that way of thinking. Existing can be hard—it can take a lot out of you. If like May, you’re still inching forward and keeping your head above water after one of life’s curveballs? Well, I think that’s close to heroic.
But May is sometimes fearless for the wrong reasons. Brave when it’s too late. Distracted by her own baggage, which makes her very human.
May Cosby in some instances doesn’t strike me as someone unwilling to commit. Rather, like many people, she meets others with “no desire to commit”—or, unwittingly but to her benefit, aren’t worthy of commitment. I actually admire her willingness to venture from place-to-place. Some folks never live more than a matter of miles from where they’re born.
I did feel however that May’s “too insular.” And I’m not blaming her for that. But in my everyday life I don’t “engage” with folks who have “no desire to engage.” So I wouldn’t feel compelled to even buy May a cup of coffee. If I were to somehow have a serious conversation with her? I’d suggest she try and find a good therapist—which is no easy task in my experience.
I can see why you say she doesn’t seem unwilling to commit, but she definitely commits to the wrong people, or at the wrong time—and that leads her to becoming almost too careful. She leaves the best people she’s ever known out of insecurity and fear. She’s the perfect example of someone who would benefit from therapy, but not everyone has those resources.
The story also spans the 70’s and 80’s—and the availability and cultural acceptance of therapy has changed drastically since then. That generation was still dealing with the “don’t-talk-about-it and have-a-stiff-drink” way of handling mental and emotional issues. May is riddled with those same hang-ups.
And, yes, May has ventured out and traveled: but many times, for the wrong reasons. First she was forced away from home—then she ran away. After that she keeps everyone at a distance.
Moving and experiencing the world is an important and special aspect of life. My Dad was in the military and we moved a lot. After graduating I took off and did a fair share of my own poking around the world. No matter how hard it was at the time I’m glad I had the chance to travel—but May is trying to find a corner to hide in, not see the big-wide-world. She’s never learned how to stick around, only beat feet. In that regard, I think she’s pretty typical.
Is it your hope that some readers will find saturating themselves in May’s life therapeutic, Marietta? And perhaps feel less “alone” if they do feel like a “Misfit?”
My favorite books mean a lot to me, they’ve helped me get through tough times. Living in L.A. in my late twenties and in N.Y.C. in my early thirties would’ve been impossible without the public library. Books helped me to forget and took me away and, at times, made me feel understood. Less alone. It would be a gift if I could do that for someone else.
Like teenagers and adults alike, May gets sucker-punched by life experiences she’s not prepared for or equipped to deal with. These events leave her confused—and although she’s about 34 when the storm indeed hits Folly, the beleaguered woman is still confused.
Much of her confusion stems from the fact that her parents don’t talk to May when she lives with them—they talk at her: and together they make unilateral decisions for their daughter without her input. I could relate heavily to May in these two areas, so reading her story sometimes took me places I had no desire to re-visit. And given some of May’s misfortunes, which I’ve never experienced, I imagine some female readers might experience troublesome flashbacks as well.
When the storm hits you also expose readers to physical violence that doesn’t arise from the hurricane itself. Whether only psychologically—or quite possibly otherwise—this violence will carry long-term if not life-long consequences for May.
Considering the ways you’d initially shaped May’s life, did you find weaving such story-ending violence into this tale difficult, Marietta?
It’s a dramatic moment, Jesse—but it didn’t feel out of place. I tried to build up to that violent bubbling point. I wanted to show small, almost forgettable incursions occurring throughout May’s life to demonstrate just how tired she is at this point. Fed up and done fucking around.
Underneath it all, May is very angry person. The scene you mention is the first time she’s ever let go and let everything flow out of her. Every hurt or betrayal came back and she responded to her feelings. Her need.
The consequences of that purging are something May has to deal with throughout AFTER the STORM.
At the conclusion of MAY, surviving inhabitants are evacuated from Folly. But as your new book begins, May Cosby returns to the devastated island. In what ways does May change or evolve in AFTER THE STORM?
And who are some of the people she meets in these next chapters of her life? Is this book also written in present tense?
Yes, AFTER the STORM is also told in present tense, Jesse. May wouldn’t have returned to the island if she and Tommy—a forgotten, troubled teenager whose mother has simply vanished—hadn’t crossed paths. I imagine she would have taken off. He’s the reason she considers, on a whim mind you, to stick around and move forward. Rebuild.
Going back to a home that’s been destroyed. Seeing the rubble of your life in a heap. Saying sorry. Facing the fight. Or, as it also plays out in May’s story, holding the face of someone you love as they pass. These are the hard things to do, the terrible things. Running away is easy. May tends to take the easy way out.
Because of all these different building blocks in her past she doesn’t know how to withstand life—she only knows how to start a new one. To me, those are two very different things.
Her evolution, if there is one, is ugly. She trips and falls. Fails. A lot. And her steps are quite small. She is, I think, like most people in that way. May tries to be a better person—much as her own folks tried, yet she’s the same broken record, playing on repeat.
But in AFTER the STORM, May’s mistakes, her addictions and risky way of life, prove dangerous for Tommy, who she aches to protect. Her choices—combined with his instability, insecurities, and his naivete′—put him in harm’s way.
Significantly, Curtis, a young man with a fairly dark family history, much like Tommy and May, is on the run: with his sister Icky Vicki as an unwilling accomplice. They’ve fled the mountains of Virginia and like a bullet, he’s pushing his stolen Mustang toward Folly’s crystal coast. Rudderless and given to dark tendencies, Curtis is just stepping into his violent persona.
He’s evolving into a hunter--
Keen eyes open for weak prey.
While May’s male adversary appears early in MAY, we don’t learn much about him until the storm hits. In terms of the kinds of crime books I typically gravitate to—it’s where you bush-whacked my attention.
Now that your first book MAY reveals Ms. Cosby’s daunting past, I’m guessing we learn intriguing details about Curtis and his sister Icky Vicki much earlier in AFTER THE STORM? Sounds like this poor girl was born behind the eight ball, Marietta. Dare I ask how she earned the nickname “Icky?”
And speaking of attention-grabbing, since we’re drawing to a close, I also outta mention: Los Angeles crime and suspense writer Eric Beetner certainly did an arresting job designing the cover for AFTER THE STORM.
Eric’s extremely talented, and immersed in the writing life. Besides being a prolific writer and co-hosting the podcast Writer Types with Steve W. Lauden, he also creates book covers for publishers All Due Respect and Down & Out. Publishers work with a lot of cover designers—and I was very lucky, since authors like me don’t get to choose their artists. Having Eric design the cover for AFTER the STORM was secretly on my wish list, Jesse!
I’m hoping readers will find the next chapters of May Cosby’s life—as well as these new characters like Curtis and Vicki intriguing. Vicki’s given the name at the end of AFTER the STORM, so if I told you I’d be revealing too much. No spoilers, Jesse.
But readers will discover early on what what happened to Vicki and Curtis. And for them, the violence just continues.
Thanks for the chance to chat, Marietta. I know you’ve been busy lately. Best wishes to you and May Cosby—as well as to your family of course. And thanks Mick Rose for hosting us here at Center Stage!
Photo: Jesse "Heels" Rawlins
Publisher-Editor-Crime Fiction Writer
Addicted to tawdry tales that sometimes make her blush, Jesse Rawlins typically writes crime, mysteries, and humor. Places like England's Spelk Fiction, Canada's Red Fez, Punk Noir Magazine in Poland, and The Rye Whiskey Review here in the USA have kindly published her stories. Care to say “Hello?” You can visit Jess on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jesse.rawlins.583