Delia Owens wasn’t expecting her debut novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, to spark the fan following that it did, but we at Read It Forward weren’t surprised. Owens’s novel set in the North Carolina marshlands defies genres—it’s a murder mystery, a coming-of-age tale, and a gorgeous meditation on the natural world—and her heroine, too, resists easy boundaries. Kya Clark grew up isolated with only her father for company; she’s known to the surrounding town as the “Marsh Girl,” and it’s the Marsh Girl who’s blamed when an attractive young man is found dead.
Owens weaves a fiercely intimate Southern novel that’s making waves: Where the Crawdads Sing was our March Book Club pick, a Reese’s Book Club selection, and it’s currently being adapted for the big screen.
Recently, Delia sat down to speak with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright about making the leap into fiction, understanding the dark impulses of human behavior, and how she pulled off the ending of all endings.
Read It Forward: Where the Crawdads Sing is not your first book. You’re a zoologist by training and have written three incredible, bestselling nonfiction books, primarily about your time in Africa studying animals. What was it like writing those books, and why did you decide to make the leap to fiction?
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Delia Owens: It was great living in Africa and studying wildlife for 23 years. I loved it. It seems like a different life now, but I literally came face-to-face every day with lions or elephants. Writing about it was an extension of the experience. It was so exciting, and I just felt like there were stories that needed to be told. I worked with Mark Owens at the time, and several times we’d sit outside our Land Rover when we were observing the lions, and it would be so hot that they would move into the shade of the Land Rover. We would be so close to them, and we lived like that for years.
After some time of that experience we thought, “We have to write this. Other people have to be able to share this experience.” The elephants in the Luangwa Valley would come right into our camp, and they would try to eat the thatch roof off our little huts. You had to be very careful walking from one hut to the next because sometimes they would mock charge us. They weren’t being aggressive. They would also mock charge the impalas to get them away from the marula fruits they wanted to eat, but you don’t ask an elephant whether it’s a mock charge or not. You get out of the way.
RIF: Exactly. Hard to tell when they might be joking.
DO: I think the second part of your question was about writing fiction. You know, I ride horses a lot in northern Idaho where I live now, and to me writing nonfiction is like riding a horse inside of the corral. There are all these tall fences. You have to stay within the facts: the timeline has to be accurate, the dates have to be accurate, you might want to make the characters thinner or cuter, but you can’t. You have to stick with the truth. Writing fiction is like getting on your horse and riding through the gate across a meadow, up the mountain, wherever you want to go. You ride this way or that way. You can write anything. My imagination just blossomed when I started writing fiction. I loved the freedom. You can make a guy as cute as you want him to be. I love that.
RIF: I love the idea of truth as a tall fence. When you moved to fiction, you also moved from Africa to the North Carolina marsh. What was behind that choice? Did you know this marsh intimately, or did you just do an incredible amount of research?
DO: When I was a young girl growing up in South Georgia, my family would take vacations in North Carolina every year. Usually we went to the mountains because it was cooler, but we did visit the marsh. Also, growing up in the South, I had many swamps and marshes around me. My mother and I used to go camping in the Okefenokee Swamp all by ourselves. No guide, just Mom and I in the canoe. So, I knew that habitat very well. During the writing process, I did visit the marsh because it had been many years since I’d been there, and I wanted to make sure I had the species of the trees and the other vegetation correct. But I knew it quite well.
RIF: In the book, we see Kya create these gorgeous volumes of her life’s work—the birds and the marsh plants in beautiful watercolors. Were you consulting a book like that, or did you invent her scholarship as well?
DO: I invented her scholarship, but the only thing I looked up to make sure I had the species name right was the name of the shell—a scallop shell she found and made a necklace out of for a special character, which turns out to be a big part of the book. I had to look up the genus species name for that. I think all the other plants and birds I knew from my life experience.
RIF: Wow. So how has it been as a debut novelist to see the explosion of Where the Crawdads Sing?
DO: Life-changing and wonderful. I still can’t believe it. I’m afraid it’s all going to be over before I even believe it. Mostly what I feel is grateful for all the people who made it happen and for all the readers reaching out to me. I’m just overwhelmed by the excitement. I never expected people to respond to the story the way they have, but I have people coming up to me with tears in their eyes because they were so moved by the story. That means everything to me.
RIF: Well, we at Read It Forward chose it as our March Book Club pick, so we’ve had readers talk to us on Facebook about how much they love it. This question actually comes from Carol Sheetz, one of our devoted readers. She asks how you created the character of Kya, making her so vulnerable but also incredibly resilient. How did you think about that in your crafting of this character?
DO: It was amazing because I thought I was the author, right? I thought I was in charge. But when I started writing Kya, she took off on her own. Of course, I knew she was going to be shy and afraid sometimes because she was so isolated. What I didn’t expect is that every time I threw some obstacle in her way, she found some way to solve it, and because of that she became stronger and independent. She became more and more resourceful. She became gritty and witty. I learned that probably in many cases that’s what would happen, and what it taught me is that there’s some of Kya in all of us. We can all do more than we think we can. And one of the most important points is Kya could handle anything except loneliness.
RIF: That was her Achilles’ heel at the end of the day.
DO: I think that’s true for all of us. That’s one of the toughest things to handle.
RIF: I’m getting weepy all over again. So, in this book you talk a lot about human nature and animal behavior, and how they compare and contrast. Did you have a lot of that knowledge from your work as a zoologist, or did that flow into Kya’s point of view?
DO: I knew about this part of science from my zoology degree, and I did my PhD in Animal Behavior. I studied the animals, the elephants and lions in Africa, and I learned that one of the many behavior patterns you see every day is how aggressive and competitive animals are. They have to be to survive. Eons ago on the savanna, we also had to be aggressive and competitive, or we wouldn’t be here today. We still have those genes for some behavior patterns that aren’t necessarily acceptable now. Those genes don’t go away, and in times of threat or stress, humans can behave in ways we don’t consider acceptable. That’s why when man is threatened, many times we resort to behaviors we aren’t necessarily proud of. To me, it helps us better understand who we are if we understand that those behaviors are still in us. A lot of this is genetics.
RIF: It certainly helps Kya understand Chase’s behavior or her father’s behavior, when she can look at the animal world and say, “Oh, I’ve seen this before.”
DO: And it helped teach her how to handle some of the problems she was dealt.
RIF: So, quick spoiler alert.
DO: Spoiler alert? I have a dunce cap I carry around that I like to put on people.
RIF: Well, I’ll just say if you haven’t yet read it, go read it and come back. I won’t do too much of a spoiler, but I want to know how much writing and rewriting it took to make the reader sympathetic to what was basically a premeditated act that resulted in…
DO: In the ending.
DO: It took a lot of rewriting. It was a very thin line. I wanted the reader at the ending to be surprised. Secondly, I wanted the reader to question if this was justified or not. And thirdly, I wanted the reader to say yes it was, but I wanted to them to have to read it to go through that process. Kya had to defend herself. She had no one else, and she knew that. No one was going to help her, and whose fault is that? She resorted to what she’d learned from nature, and she resorted back to her genes. Most of us would.
RIF: I loved the ending. Did you know what it was going in, or did it take form as you were writing?
DO: I started this book with the ending. I knew I wanted to write a story about a young girl growing up and how she could adapt. I wanted to explore how her behavior would be affected by isolation. That was the whole point. While I was trying to form this in my mind, I came up with the ending, and I thought, “Oh, I gotta do that ending. This ending has to be written in literature.” So, I went back to the beginning and then created the rest of the story to end up at that point.
RIF: This book, I think, refuses to be defined by a single genre.
DO: I hope so, because some of the genres I don’t like. I mean, you know you’re getting old when you write a book that’s set in your lifetime and they call it a historical novel.
RIF: You’re like, what the heck?
DO: You’re like, wait a minute! I know I’m old, but I didn’t know I was historical. I’m not even going to go there. I just like fiction.
RIF: Fiction, exactly. It’s got the thrum of what happened that makes you want to turn those pages. There’s a lot of poetry throughout the book, too. Are you secretly also a poet?
DO: Secretly is the word.
RIF: Do you write your own poetry? Do you plan on giving us a volume of your poetry?
DO: I do write poetry. I wouldn’t say that I’m a poet. There’s a big difference.
RIF: Yes, there is.
DO: A big difference. I’ve written poetry since I was in high school, but that doesn’t mean I’m a poet. I just love it.
RIF: So, Delia, talk about the movie. What was it like meeting Reese Witherspoon and chatting about the movie version of Where the Crawdads Sing?
DO: I was so excited when I found out that she and a studio wanted to do a movie. That was so exciting. Then they invited me to LA to have lunch with Reese and some people, the screenwriter and the people from the studio, at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I mean, it was so grand. It was just otherworldly. But in fact, Reese was so welcoming and very fun to be with, and she’s a southern girl, so we just hit it off.
RIF: She is.
DO: I felt really comfortable, and it was a great time.
RIF: That’s so exciting. Do you have any idea when we’ll see it on the big screen?
DO: It takes a long time. I mean, they’ve already started—they’re working on the screenplay now. I don’t think I can say who the screenwriter is. I love the way Reese has adapted other books into movies. They stay with the story of the novel, and I hope that happens for this one.
RIF: Totally. Let’s talk about you as a reader. What are some of your favorite books that you go back to again and again?
DO: I read a lot of nonfiction, and one of my favorite books is A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. In fact, it was one of the books that inspired the story because the nature writing is so beautiful. I love the writing of Peter Matheson because he also writes about nature; it’s just beautiful, beautiful literature. One of my favorite books, of course, is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. That was an important inspiration for Crawdads because it teaches that you can see the world through a child’s eyes and get a good perspective.
RIF: Is there anything on your bedside table that you can’t wait to start reading?
DO: Oh, I have a whole stack on my bedside table.
RIF: So do I.
DO: To tell you the honest truth, now I’m getting a lot of books sent to me for blurbs, so I have a lot of books no one’s heard of yet because they haven’t been published. I’m in the blurb pile now.
RIF: That’s a good problem to have.
DO: Yeah, that’s a good problem.
RIF: As readers continue to come to this book and fall in love with it, what do you hope they take away from the story?
DO: One of the most important things to me is how much we can learn about ourselves from nature, because we are part of nature. We’re not separate from it; we came from nature. We all started in the wild, and we can learn a lot of secrets about ourselves from the wild.
Author photo © Dawn Marie Tucker