Talking to Delia Owens is a delight. She is sharp, witty, grounded, grateful, and very likable. A few weeks ago, she was in Seattle on what seems like an endless tour to greet her fans and promote her novel Where the Crawdads Sing.
We sat down to talk about her book, which the Amazon editors chose as a Best Book of the Month all the way back in August of 2018. It's rare that a novel resonates with so many people, and for so long, but that's what Crawdads has done. Talking to Delia Owens, you start to understand why.
Chris Schluep: Thanks for coming.
Delia Owens: Thank you for having me, Chris.
You’ve written nonfiction, and that’s where I first knew you from. I remember reading you… probably in the 80s.
The first one came out in 1984. Cry of the Kalahari.
That’s the one I read. I remember the story about the cheetah running into the fence.
Oh, my. That’s how it starts.
I will always remember that. It was very vivid and gripping. I’m not going to ask you about that book, but I wanted to bring it up out of appreciation. But… did you always want to write a novel?
When I was in Africa is when the idea came to me, because literally every day I came face-to-face with lions and elephants and baboons, and I think it was that experience that got me thinking about how much our behavior is still very similar to animals. I would watch the lionesses lying around in the late afternoon, playing with each other’s cubs, and sleeping together with their paws draped over each other’s faces—and it made me realize how much I missed by girlfriends back home and how I was isolated from a troop. And, as humans, we have a genetic propensity to belong to a group—and I was isolated from a group. And especially females. So I wanted to write a novel that would explore how much our behavior today is influenced by our genetic past.
You were an animal behavioralist, right?
I have a PhD in Animal Behavior from the University of California, Davis.
So it reportedly took you ten years to write the book.
This book took ten years.
Was it in fits and starts?
How did that process go?
Well, I just want to say… I’m always embarrassed to say it took me ten years. But that was not my day job. I would get up at 4:30 in the morning to write. And at that time I was living in northern Idaho, involved with bear research and wolf research. I had a life. So I had this idea to write the novel, but I would get up early in the morning and creep down to my little office and work—to me, sitting in front of the computer in the dark was like sitting in front of the campfire—you know, it was just this nice feeling. That’s the reason it took so long. I would only write two or three hours a day.
And when you were doing research, did you also feel like you were doing research for the book in a way?
No, not really. In the beginning, my former husband and I were doing very serious research on the social behavior of endangered species with the idea of finding better ways to protect them in Africa. And so we were very busy with that. I only had this idea of a novel in the back of my head at that stage.
And what were your expectations for the book when it came out?
I was hoping somebody would read it. I just thought, I don’t know… First of all, the title—who’s going to pick up a book Where the Crawdads Sing? It’s not exactly warm and fuzzy. I never thought the publishers would stick with that title. I just was hoping somebody would notice it and read it, and I’ve been overwhelmed with the response, and I’m just so grateful to the readers who liked it.
You were on CBS Sunday Morning, you have huge crowds at your readings, you’re a #1 best seller, Reese Witherspoon….
…She’s doing a movie.
What’s it like to get so much praise?
Overwhelming. I mean I just feel overjoyed every day. I can’t believe it. Every day I wake up and just feel so grateful. I mean it’s heart-wrenching to connect with all these people. Especially because that’s what the book is about, is connecting. All those years I experienced and suffered from loneliness, and that’s what a lot of the book deals with is loneliness, and now I feel like I’m not even lonely anymore, because of all these people that I’m connecting with. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Do you feel like your life has changed?
Well, my life has changed when I come here and come to the city and do all this, but you don’t see that I’m most, on a day-to-day basis, out feeding the horses and slopping around in my muck boots in the mud or shoveling snow. So, a lot of my life just goes on the same as it did.
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in south Georgia. I grew up outside of town, and I was very lucky that my mother—besides being a great southern belle—was also an outside girl. So she used to encourage my girlfriends and I to go out as far into the forest as we could go. We lived next to these beautiful oak forests, and as kids we would just venture out on our own, and we literally went as far as we could go. And we’d look for frogs, and she wanted us to see deer interacting the way they always had, and she would say to me, Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing. And to her that meant to find that place where you could actually watch a deer interacting with its fawn. Not just running from you because you’re a human, but watch, experience nature. That’s what she wanted from me. And that’s what I’ve done.
So there was a lot of you in Kya.
There’s a lot of me in Kya. But I think there’s a lot of Kya in all of us.
Well, the aloneness and… what Kya taught me, and I think what Kya has taught a lot of people, is that we can all do a lot more than we think we can. I mean, I was the author. I thought I was in charge of writing Kya. But here she was: this young girl, mostly alone, and having to deal with these problems. Every problem I threw in her face, she solved it. And the more problems she solved, the more confident she got, the more independence she got. She learned how to do things, and then she got spunky and witty, because she was tough and could do things. She could deal with everything, except loneliness. And I think that’s where a lot of us are. You know, you don’t have to live in the middle of a swamp to be lonely. You can live in a city and be lonely. And that’s one of the hardest things to deal with. She taught me how to deal with that, and she taught me that I can do a lot more. I can do anything I have to do.
Why did you choose North Carolina?
I chose, North Carolina coastal marsh for several reasons. One, for practical reasons. I wanted to write this story of a young girl who grows up mostly alone. Never completely alone, because that would be unrealistic; but mostly alone. So it had to be a place where that was realistic. The story is nothing if it’s not believable. And so, in the North Carolina marsh it’s warm. It was temperate climate. She could deal with that. She had a shack. There really is food lying around. You know, you really can go around and collect muscles and oysters—I’ve done it. You can fish. So it was realistic. And she could afford grits at least. And then I also chose the marsh for poetic reasons. You’ll notice the book is divided: the first part is the Marsh, the second part is the Swamp. And the coastal marsh has both—marsh and swamp. The marsh is a place of light, and the swamp is a darker place. I’ve found that during our lives most people end up in a swamp. And this book is about how I get back into the light.
So the book is a mystery, it’s a courtroom drama, it’s a love story…
It’s a very intense love story.
It is. That was the thing that struck me first. But it’s kind of a hybrid… it’s also a study of nature. Where did you start with the book?
I started with the ending.
Well, it’s a good ending.
I knew how I wanted it to end. I knew I wanted a girl growing up in isolation, because I wanted to explore how that would affect a person. I came up with the ending and then I went back to the beginning. I say I made up things as I went along… but that’s what you do when you write a novel. I didn’t have a detailed outline. The only major part I added was the courtroom. At first it was a love story and a murder mystery, and only like at the third-to-last draft did I add the courtroom. Because I felt like it needed that.
Do you read a lot of poetry?
I do. I haven’t in the last few years, but during my life I’ve written and read poetry. It doesn’t mean I’m good at it; but I love it. I feel like It’s when you come the closest to feeling what man has to say. I feel most deeply when I’m in nature, and that’s what I wanted to do with this book, is to bring nature not only into the story but into the writing.
What do you like to read?
Well, one of my favorite books is Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. It’s nonfiction—it’s not for everybody—but he explored his farm and noticed nature everywhere, and I just think his nature writing is beautiful. And I read that, while I was in college, I believe, a hundred years ago. And when I was reading, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to write that sort of nature writing and also have a compelling story. And there aren’t many. There’s some but not many. And I love Barbara Kingsolver. One of my favorite books is West with the Night by Beryl Markham, because it’s about Africa, and to me her writing is amazing. I love beautiful writing. I love a compelling story, but I don’t see anything wrong with having some beautiful writing in there. Even if it’s a drama. Even if it’s a mystery.
That’s actually why I asked the question about the hybrid, because I felt like there was some beautiful writing in there that stands by itself.
And I figured that had to happen at a different time than when you were writing the plot.
No, it happened at the same time. It did. I mean, I would be writing along the plot and, you know, these feelings and this writing would just come to me—in fact, it’s kind of a problem because, if left on my own, I would write too much description. And I understand that’s a problem. It’s like putting too much sugar in your coffee. No matter how beautiful it is, you will eventually get sick. So I limit myself. And of course you have an editor who really limits you.
How is that experience?
I have a great editor at Putnam: Tara Singh Carlson. She and I work so well together. She knew just exactly what it needed. You know, the story bounces back from two different time periods. And that’s tricky. When she came in and started editing, we changed some of the time shifts. Well that’s like dominoes. Everything is lined up, and then you move certain chapters around… it’s like oh, my goodness, no, wait. If we move this now, then we’ve got to change that there. It could have been a confusing mess, but we worked very well together. It was a great experience.
What about the young men in the book?
Ah, the young men. Hot.
Are they based on anyone? Are they based on people you know, or where did they come from?
They’re based on people I wish I knew. But I will say this about the men. Almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning. There’s a lot of symbolism in this book, and you don’t have to get it. You can read it just as a story. But to me, Chase represents the guy who is, like, the buck in rut. He wants to go from one woman to the next, and he doesn’t apologize for it. That’s his life. Sort of the unevolved male. And Tate represents the evolved male, the male who loves opera and poetry. Now, I’m not saying that men are separated like that. The point is there’s some of each one of those in all of us, in both men and women; we have the wild side and the other side in all of us. But that’s what those two males represented. And so the interesting thing is of course Kya was attracted to both. And we are. We are attracted to both. So that was what those two males represented to me.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started another novel. I want to continue with this same format of exploring how our behavior today is influenced by our past. So I’m thinking of having my next book be on the evolution of male dominance in mammals.
Yeah, fiction. Again, you’ll be able to read the book and not even know. But after being in Africa for so many years and observing wildlife, I want to continue to explore how our behavior today is influenced by our past. And you can get that into a story pretty easily because almost everything we do, we have a genetic basis for it.
And you’re writing full-time now, so it won’t take ten years.
I’d like to say I’m writing full-time. I’m out here doing podcasts. I didn’t know what a podcast was—is there going to be a camera? So, no, I’m not writing full-time. I want to write full-time. But I want to continue promoting this book as long as I can. It’s fun.
(Note: this interview will be included in our podcast in the near future, hence the talk of podcasts.)
Photo copyright: Dawn Marie Tucker
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