A month after its August 2018 release, “Where the Crawdads Sing” hit the New York Times bestseller list. By January, the debut novel by Delia Owens was at No. 1. Seven months and more than three million total sales later, it was still there and is the top-selling book of 2019, so far. Reese Witherspoon is producing a film version, and the local response has been no less astounding.
When Roswell Reads had the opportunity to host Owens during her upcoming fall tour, organizers of the one-city, one-read program knew interest would be keen. Deciding to nearly triple the number of tickets typically available for its author events, Roswell Reads chose the 600-seat Roswell Cultural Arts Center for Owens’s Sept. 22 appearance.
The event sold out in a week.
Owens, who grew up in rural Georgia in the 1950s and ’60s and received a zoology degree from the University of Georgia, is no stranger to literary achievement. She and her ex-husband, Mark Owens, wrote three nonfiction bestsellers about their two-plus decades as wildlife scientists in Africa.
In discussing her novel about a young girl abandoned in North Carolina’s coastal marshlands, Owens often mentions the loneliness and isolation she endured those years in Botswana and Zambia. Until recently, home was a remote corner of northern Idaho. But Owens has lately moved to North Carolina, where she took time to reflect on her blockbuster book and upcoming trip back to her Georgia roots.
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is set not too far from Thomasville, Georgia, where you grew up canoeing in nearby swamps with your mother. What about the North Carolina marshes inspired a Georgia-born naturalist?
I chose the wild coastal marsh of North Carolina as the setting for “Where the Crawdads Sing” for both practical and poetic reasons. I felt it was very important to make this story of a young girl growing up mostly alone in a wild area to be believable. The coastal marsh has a temperate climate, and food such as oysters, mussels and fish are within reach for a young girl; so it was possible that Kya could survive. This is especially true since she had the shack and some adults in the background. Also, I knew the coastal marsh of North Carolina, and it is better to write about an environment that you know.
For poetic and symbolic reasons, I chose the marsh because it is a place of light, with streams slipping through stretches of green grass and tidal pools reflecting the sun. And yet within the marsh, there are true swamps, which are darker places. I have seen that most people end up in a darker place at some time during their lives. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is about finding your way back from the darkness into the light.
After co-authoring three international bestsellers about your research and work in Africa, how would you compare writing fiction to nonfiction?
I found writing fiction to be liberating and exciting, after writing nonfiction for most of my life. Writing nonfiction is like riding your horse in a corral. You are constricted by the tall fences of facts. The storyline must be accurate; the timeline must be precise; the character descriptions must be real, because you are discussing an actual person. Then, writing fiction is like nudging your horse into a canter and riding through the gate across the meadow and into the mountains. You can write in any direction you want to go. The plot can be changed, the characters can be described however you choose. My imagination soared.
As with your protagonist, Kya, you spent much of your life in isolation. While Kya is abandoned in the marshes, you once spent seven years in the Kalahari Desert, one of only two people living in an area the size of Ireland. How did decades of solitude shape your fiction?
Yes, like Kya, I have spent a life of isolation and was lonely for many years. I studied wildlife in Africa for 23 years, mostly conducting research on the social behavior of mammals such as lions, brown hyenas and elephants. Among these tightly bonded groups, for example, a pride of lions is made up only of females. Observing the togetherness of lionesses reminded me how much I missed my girlfriends back home. I had lost touch with my troop.
It was while I was studying these social groups of wild mammals in Africa that I realized how much our behavior is like theirs, and became determined to write a novel that would explore this concept. Female humans have a strong genetic propensity to live in a strongly bonded group, so I wrote a novel that shows how isolation affects a young girl who is forced to grow up alone; who was rejected by villagers the same way strange lionesses are not accepted into the pride.
You will be joined in Roswell by childhood girlfriends — friendships that have been important your entire life. How much of your experience is reflected in Kya’s story?
One of the greatest joys of my life is that I still have a very tightly bonded group of girlfriends, whom I have known since second grade. They will be at the Roswell event. I have learned that this is rare. Many people, even in large cities, are isolated from groups and are lonely.
My experience of living years of isolation and loneliness inspired me to write Kya’s story. I wanted to explore how a woman is changed and how she could survive, even thrive in solitude.
You have mentioned starting your novel with the ending, an approach sure to fascinate aspiring authors. Do you have other writing advice or tips?
To me, the most important component of the writing process is to enjoy it, to love it. Writing makes me content and pulls me into another world of adventure and exploration where the only ceiling is my own imagination. Run with it, see where it goes. Surprises are everywhere. This does not mean that writing is easy. It is hard, stressful and sometimes infuriating. You have to be extremely determined.
Beyond a wildly popular story, what are the novel’s true-life lessons from the natural world you hope your readers embrace?
Nature shows us that we can accomplish much more than we think we can. In our past, we were hardy, physically and mentally strong, and capable of so much. We can draw on our inner strength to overcome more than we think possible. Kya learned from nature that we all have many innate capabilities.
As humans, we have a genetic propensity to live in a tightly bonded group, especially females, but we can draw on our strong genetic past to endure and thrive alone. Once we gain self-confidence, we are more likely to be accepted by others.
We can learn justice from nature, which is sometimes more fitting than the justice of man. But as humans, we have to balance survival and justice with virtue.
Nature shows us that, unfortunately, discrimination and rejection are common and have deep-seated adverse effects on an individual. As humans, we can see these detrimental effects and should accept others, even if we believe they are different. We all lose when someone is rejected and bullied.
You’ve called your novel a “socio-biological thriller.” Will your next book be fiction or nonfiction, and how would you describe it?
I have started writing my next book, and it will follow the course of “Where the Crawdads Sing,” a novel that explores how much we can learn about human nature from nature.
Contributing journalist Kathy Des Jardins Cioffi, owner of Johns Creek’s KRC Communications. Connect with her at krccom.com.