Song for our times

Delia Owens on why her novel about an abandoned girl in North Carolina has proved to be an unlikely story for our times

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It took Delia Owens a decade to write her first novel. But when it arrived in bookshops in 2018, it did so with a bang.

“I was never abandoned like Kya but in other ways my early childhood was like hers.”

Part crime thriller, part coming-of-age tale, Where the Crawdads Sing is a book with no clear genre and a strange title – so it wasn’t predicted to be a hit. American publisher Putnam initially printed around 28,000 copies. But it wasn’t nearly enough. Two years later Owens’s story about a young girl’s life and adventures as she grows up isolated in the marshes of North Carolina has found global success, selling over six million copies worldwide, with one million in the UK.

Owens, a retired wildlife biologist whose previous published works chronicled decades spent in the wilds of Africa studying the social behaviour of lions, hyenas and elephants, admits she never thought it would get this big.

The novel is an ode to nature, to wildlife and to the marshes of rural Georgia and North Carolina, where Owens spent her childhood canoe camping with her mother, and where
she was encouraged to go out alone and explore the woods.

Swamps and wetlands aren’t a common backdrop for global bestsellers. But this year has been a year like no other. A book about a girl who is isolated in the wilderness and wrestling with loneliness, Where the Crawdads Sing has had a unifying effect in 2020, a year of social distancing and isolation but also rediscovery of the outdoors.

“I’ve realised that a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as nature lovers are,” says Owens. “A lot of people are separated from nature – they only go to parks or walk through the trees in town – but they still love nature. They’re separated from it but they long to be there.

“I get a lot of messages on social media about how people loved the nature part of the book even though they had not thought of themselves as nature people.

“I think people miss [nature] so much, but they don’t realise how much they do until they are locked down, and when they’re locked down they realise they just want to go out and walk on the grass, or be under a tree. The reason is that we are not separated from nature – we are a part of nature. Our species grew up in nature. It was our first home. We don’t think about that, but our genetics know it.”

To Owens’s protagonist, Kya, nature is her first love, and an endless source of education, entertainment and wonder.

Abandoned by her family and left to live alone in a shack, Kya learns to be self-sufficient, living off the land and trading mussels and fish for money.

Cruelly labelled the Marsh Girl by local townspeople, Kya lives on the fringes of society, watching other young people as they form friendships, go to school and hang out in the town in groups.

Although Owens did not start writing the novel until she was gone 60, the character of Kya has been with her throughout most of her life.

“I was never abandoned like Kya, ever – I had a lovely family – but in other ways my early childhood was like Kya’s,” says Owens. “I was out on my own a lot in the woods. So she has always been a part of me although I never really thought of it that way, and then when I was in Africa I would be watching a pride of lions lying around, and a pride of lions is made up really of females. The males come and go, and I realised how important a social group is. I would really miss my girlfriends back home. I realised the importance of a group, and I realised how isolated I was.”

Owens couldn’t have predicted how much her theme of isolation would resonate with modern readers. It is perhaps why Crawdads has become the unofficial read of the lockdown, according to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, countless social media feeds and other readers.

The author has spent much of her life living in the wilderness, including 23 years in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia. Then, returning to the US, she continued her career in wildlife conservation in Idaho, waking up at 4am to work on the first draft of her novel beforehand.

But being used to life on your own doesn’t make it any easier. Owens says being a wildlife scientist has taught her how loneliness can truly change a person.

“When I was isolated I lost my social confidence,” she says. “It makes you shy. It makes you think that you can’t reach out to others, that you can’t carry on a conversation. You lose some of your self-confidence when you’re by yourself.

“Where the Crawdads Sing is about isolation but it’s also about how you can find self-resilience and strength and solve your problems by yourself if you have to.”

A feature film is currently in the works with Fox 2000 and Reese Witherspoon’s production company at the helm.

Like the novel, the film will chart Kya’s life from childhood into adulthood, with two actors – a young Kya and an older Kya – expected to play the lead role.

Kya is a character Owens has nurtured through most of her life, set apart by her mixture of irrepressible strength and vulnerability, so what are the most important traits Owens wants to see the actors – as well as those playing other characters Tate and Chase – portraying on screen?

“That is a very good question! Most people just ask me how cute they’re going to be,” Owens laughs. “What is so important for me is that they stay with the story as much as they can as it was written, and they are really doing that. Some things transform very easily to the screen, some things don’t, and I understand that they have to make a few changes, but they’re really staying with the story.

“To me, the strength of Kya, her abilities are her most important traits. And with Tate, Tate was neither all good, and Chase was not all bad. Each one of them had qualities, which is human. All of us have bad – we’re not all perfect.

“I would like them to keep all of the conflicts. Each character has to make hard decisions about what is the right path.”

Now living in the mountains in North Carolina, Owens comments on the critical moment ahead for wildlife conservationists and climate change activists. We speak on a baking hot
day, and Owens looks back on the days when she visited North Carolina as a child, when she and her family would have to wear jumpers to keep warm. But she has seen the climate drastically change in her lifetime – the earth is getting hotter.

Now, with the presidential election taking place in a matter of weeks, and fires raging across the West Coast, Owens has a message from her much-loved protagonist.

“Kya would have so much to say about climate change, and I think she did say it very subtly. There is messaging in the book but I kept it very lightly brushed into the background. Kya’s message is that everything that we need comes from nature. Okay, nature doesn’t provide our cars and our computers, but everything we need to survive: the right temperature, rain, water, soil for growing our plants, fish from the sea. We have to protect it or we have nothing.

“I think finally people are beginning to wake up and I’m hoping our country can begin to play a more positive role, because it’s embarrassing but we’ve kind of dropped out of that under this administration, but I hope we can be more active.”

Where the Crawdads Sing (£8.99) is published by Little, Brown Book Group

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