Bigtime book bestsellers like Where the Crawdads Sing don’t come around every day.
With her debut novel, Delia Owens, Ph.D. ’93, became a literary sensation in 2018. A coming-of-age story and murder mystery set in two time periods, the book hit No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Hollywood actress and producer Reese Witherspoon chose the novel for her book club in 2018, and her production company Hello Sunshine obtained film rights to the story shortly after that. The movie is slated for release on July 15.
“The novel explores how isolated individuals behave differently from normal and how much we change when rejected by others,” Owens said in a Q&A with her publisher. “On their own and excluded, humans often revert to behaviors that resemble those of early man, who survived eons ago on the savannas, or of wild creatures who still live ‘way out yonder where the crawdads sing.’”
Owens earned her Ph.D. from UC Davis in animal behavior. Before that, she already had a long history working in conservation.
With her then-husband, Mark, she moved to Botswana in 1974 to work as a field zoologist. For seven years, they lived in tents and studied the wilderness in a remote area of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
“For one seven-year period, I lived in the Kalahari Desert with one other, and we were the only two people in an area the size of Ireland.”
These experiences became their first book, Cry of the Kalahari (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984). This included a widely documented story of exposing the cattle industry in the country for an environmental disaster, resulting in the couple being expelled from Botswana.
In 1985, they moved to the remote North Luangwa National Park of Zambia to study carnivores, publishing two more accounts of their work there.
Plotting the story
Where the Crawdads Sing (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018) pulls from experiences Owens had as a child, visiting North Carolina. Set in the coastal marsh, the book centers around Kya, a girl who is abandoned by her family early in her life. She uses her knowledge of the area to survive from collectible food.
“When I was girl, I went canoe camping with my mother in the Okefenokee Swamp and other wild places,” she said.
She added: “Other important reasons I chose the North Carolina marsh: Very little has been written about the historical population of people who lived within these untamed deltas and estuaries for more than 400 years.”
And of course her own experience with isolation gave her a perspective on Kya’s character.
“I know what it is like to be alone. To make friends with baboons and brown hyenas because there are no other girl friends around. I know how isolation can make you feel insecure and inadequate. What it is like to avoid people when you go to town because you don’t belong.
“However, I also know how your confidence soars when you learn how to track a cougar across sand or recognize a deer’s alarm call. When you can live in the wild — start a campfire in pouring rain and find your way in the dark — you truly believe in yourself. You may still be lonely and feel awkward around other people, but you can do much more than you ever thought possible.”
A film and another book
Owens took 10 years to write Where the Crawdads Sing and didn’t tell anyone about the project, she told iNews UK in 2021. The big screen deal came quickly.
In 2018, Reese Witherspoon told The New York Times about her latest book club pick.
“It’s a heart-wrenching novel about a little girl named Kya growing up by herself in a fishing community in the swamplands of North Carolina, intercut with a young man’s unsolved murder,” she said. “Beyond that, it’s just beautiful. I loved every page of it. That little girl Kya stole my heart.”
For the movie, Daisy Edgar-Jones, known for her role in “Normal People,” will play Kya. Last year, Witherspoon and Owens visited the set, where Houma, Louisiana, had been transformed into the fictional Barclay Cove.
Now, Owens is reportedly working on a new book.