A natural way of storytelling
When Delia Owens was growing up in Thomasville, Georgia, her mother encouraged her to venture deep into the wilderness, saying, “Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”
Owens took that advice to heart. After college, she headed to Africa and lived in the wild for decades while studying lions, brown hyenas and elephants in their natural habitats. Over the years, she’s co-authored several memoirs about her experiences, including the international bestseller Cry of the Kalahari.
Now this wildlife scientist and award-winning nature writer has turned to fiction, penning what she calls a “socio-biological thriller” with a titular nod to her mother’s early wisdom, Where the Crawdads Sing.
Set in the coastal swamps of North Carolina from the 1950s through 1970, Owens’ richly atmospheric debut centers on Kya Clark, who was abandoned by her family as a girl and is now surviving in the wild. Locals know her as the barefoot “Marsh Girl.”
Even though Owens’ fictional setting is worlds apart from the remote areas of Botswana and Zambia that she once called home, the experience influenced her tale. “One of the things that interested me most about the animals I was studying is that they live in very strong female social groups,” Owens says, speaking by phone from her current home in the mountains of northern Idaho. She began to wonder, what would happen to a young woman deprived of a pack?
“I was living in isolation,” she explains. “I became determined to write a novel that would explore how isolation affects people, especially a woman, and also how all of those instinctual behaviors I was seeing around me would play into the story.”
A North Carolina setting made sense to this Georgia-born naturalist since its moderate climate would offer plenty of food for foraging. “I wanted this story to be believable.”
A favorite book also helped inspire her literary pursuit: A Sand County Almanac, a classic collection of natural history essays by Aldo Leopold. When Owens frequently recommended the book to friends, however, they complained that it lacked a story. Their reactions led her to a pivotal conclusion: “Wouldn’t it be great to write a book that had a strong storyline but also nature writing?”
Because Owens had her novel’s ending in mind from the start, she began writing from the end, working backward, describing the writing process as “a big word puzzle―a 50,000-word puzzle.” An avid equestrian, Owens adds, “Writing nonfiction is like riding inside the corral, round and round inside the fence, while writing fiction is like taking off at a gait. You just go and see where [you end up], and if you don’t like it, you can make another turn and do something different.
“So I loved it,” she says. “I could kick my horse and go.”
At first Owens wrote chronologically, but she soon found herself with a good third of the story devoted solely to Kya’s childhood. Deciding that “there needed to be a bomb under the sofa that [signals that] something more happens in this book,” she began to interweave past and present, addressing both Kya’s childhood and the book’s murder in alternating chapters.
“It was a bear,” she says of the rewriting, noting that she often set her alarm for 4:30 a.m. to give herself time to write before tackling other duties, and worked on and off on the project for about a decade.
“Wouldn’t it be great to write a book that had a strong storyline but also nature writing?”
Owens knows a thing or two about bears. Now living in a remote valley, she mentions that she’s spotted a mother and cub in the last few days. Elk often wander near her back deck, and bears track across the hot-tub cover. “I just love it,” she says. “It’s where I feel like I belong.”
She shares these many acres with her ex-husband, Mark Owens, although they live in separate houses. The pair met years ago while studying at the University of Georgia, then headed to Africa. “We were great research partners and great friends, and we had a great working relationship for years and years. I think the stress of living there finally got the best of us.”
A question that ends up being central for Kya also remains an ongoing dilemma for her creator. As Owens writes: “How much do you trade to defeat loneliness?”
She admits to sometimes feeling lonely in her beloved Idaho home, acknowledging that her lifelong adventures have required sacrifice. “I realized my mother was right. You don’t really see wildlife, you don’t really understand nature until you get far away from man. And I learned that was my life. It is my life still.”
She based Kya’s struggles on an undeniable fact: “Survival of the wild can be very aggressive and intense,” she says. “And we still have those genes, and we will never understand who we are until we understand the genes that we have from those eons ago. This whole book is about trying to understand why we behave the way we do.”
In the end, Where the Crawdads Sing is about female empowerment. Before abandoning her, Kya’s mother taught her a valuable lesson, saying, “That’s what sisters and girlfriends are all about. Sticking together even in the mud, ’specially in mud.”
That lesson remains close to Owens’ heart. She dedicated her novel to three of her childhood friends who remain close, two of whom happen to be visiting her in Idaho at the time of this interview. “They’re here now,” Owens says, her voice filled with what sounds like a schoolgirl’s joy.
“You know,” she muses, “we all end up in the mud, and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve supported each other after all these years.”
This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo © Dawn Marie Tucker.