Updated: Oct 22, 2020
How writing is influenced by experience
The Surprising Success of Where the Crawdads Sing
You may have read it. You may even have purchased it as a gift this Christmas. You may have loved the lyricism of the language or the depiction of North Carolina’s swamplands in every season of the year. Maybe you appreciated the strength and resourcefulness of Kya, the ostracized girl growing up alone. Perhaps it was the murder mystery angle that captured your heart.
But if you loved the book, you were not alone. Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing has broken records and surprised the book world with its popularity. (Can you hear me shouting now? “Hallelujah! I love it when a 70-year-old author with an unconventional book takes the world by storm with her debut novel!”)
The success of the book has surprised and delighted a slumping industry. In 2015, 144 million adult fiction titles sold. In 2019, the total is 116 million. Sales for even popular, established novelists are not guaranteed.
Where the Crawdads Sing is blowing away modest expectations and rocking the publishing industry.
Putnam published Delia Owens’ first novel in 2018 and did a modest press run of 27,500. The expectations were not high. The book, after all, had an odd title and didn’t fit clearly into any genre. But after Reese Witherspoon named it for her book club, independent book stores promoted it heavily, and word-of-mouth was rampant, sales of Where the Crawdads Sing soared.
To date, ‘Crawdads’ has sold more than 4.5 million copies. It’s been on Amazon’s Bestseller and Most Read book lists for 16 weeks, longer than any other book, ever. For an incredible 67 weeks, Owens’ novel has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list, spending 30 weeks in the number one position. In February of 2019, big-box stores started selling the novel and sold 2 million copies within two months. Foreign rights have been sold to 41 countries.
But wait. There’s more to the story.
Writers are influenced by their own experiences. Deliah Owens is no exception except that her experiences were out-of-the-ordinary, sometimes painful, traumatic experiences.
“The Rest of the Story”
When I was young, I listened to a radio broadcaster named Paul Harvey who did a series called “The Rest of the Story.” I loved those pieces. They gave you the back-story, the behind-the-scenes details hidden behind the cover story. Factual. Historical. Humorous. The “Rest of the Story” puts a new perspective on accepted information.
Get ready for this.
Where the Crawdads Sing has a disturbing, problematic “rest of the story.”
Delia Owens is originally from Georgia. She got a degree in Zoology and then went to the University of California, Davis, where she got a doctorate in animal behavior. She and her husband, Mark, went to an isolated area of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana to study animals, mostly hyenas and lions. While there, her husband, Mark, was enraged when he witnessed a great herd of wildebeest unable to get to water because the government had erected a long fence across the plains to curtail hoof-and-mouth disease being found in cattle, oblivious to the thousands of wildebeest they were killing. The Owens criticized Bostwana’s approach to conservation and were asked to leave the country immediately.
They traveled from Botswana to Zambia in 1986.
In Zambia, Mark and Delia found hundreds of elephant skeletons, and in that first year they were there, approximately 1000 elephants were poached.
The Owenses tried to stop poaching by talking to villages, starting small businesses so they’d have other income, hiring them to do collective work so that they didn’t have to rely on poaching for income. They pushed the idea of tourism to the natives, reminding them that this could happen only if there were animals. They tried to protect the wildlife.
Delia’s husband, Mark, was inflamed by the aggression of poachers and became a strident activist and appointed avenger, hiring scouts to prevent poaching.
Mark went a little nuts. The Owenses were given the title of “honorary game rangers,” which allowed Mark more leeway to openly fight poachers. His willingness to be personally involved in fighting the poachers was a source of contention with his wife who wanted to take a less aggressive approach, so much so that she left him and established her own camp away from him for four months. They reconciled and she went back to living at his camp.
One journalist, Laura Miller and author of “The Dark History Behind the Year’s Best-selling Novel” compares Mark Owens to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a man who in his zeal has lost his moral compass.
She says of Delia, isolated in a remote African wilderness:
In the company of a charismatic but volcanic man, she apparently lived through a modern-day version of Heart of Darkness.
The Back-Story of a Murder
As the Owenses worked to make more people aware of the slaughter of the elephants, their cause gained attention. In 1994, they got a call from the producer of the ABC television show, Turning Point. Mark and Delia agreed to do a documentary on the issue of poaching and the elephants.
Meredith Vieira and an ABC television crew came to film. Vieira states,
“We were allowed to accompany patrols in Zambia after we agreed not to identify those involved, should a shooting occur. On this mission, we would witness the ultimate price paid by a suspected poacher.”
They recorded the sound of a gunshot, and with a cameraman running behind a scout, they came upon the body of an unidentified poacher lying face-down on the ground, who was then shot twice more and was obviously dead.
“The bodies of the poachers are often left where they fall for the animals to eat.”
Delia Owens was not present during this event, and while some have implicated Chris Owens, Delia’s stepson, as the scout who shot the poacher, no charges were ever filed, partly because no body was ever recovered. Some suggest that Mark Owens picked up the body after the television crew left, put it into his helicopter, and dropped it into the water.
Influenced by experiences
After the murder of the poacher, the Owenses left Zambia, came to the United States and settled on a 720-acre ranch in Northern Idaho. They divorced after 40 years of marriage, and Delia now lives not far from Asheville, North Carolina.
Laura Williams, the author of the “Dark History” article, highlights the similarities between Delia’s experiences in Africa and Where the Crawdads Sing.
“I found it strange and uncomfortable to be reading the story of a Southern loner, a noble naturalist, who gets away with what is described as a righteously motivated murder in the remote world.”
Reading this background gave me new perspective on this marvelous book. First, now I understand why it’s so beautifully written. Delia Owens was a zoologist. While ‘Crawdads’ is her first novel, it is NOT her first book. She and her husband, Mark, co-authored three other memoir-type about their time in Africa:
Cry of the Kalihari, 1992
Eye of the Elephant, 1994
Secrets of the Savannah, 2006
But more than the beauty of the natural world displayed in the book, I understand the effect that isolation, violence, and passion might have had on Owens’ life.
No one can exorcise the impact of experiences on their own psyche. Delia Owens’ run-away success Where the Crawdads Sing is proof.
Read these fascinating, in-depth articles if you are interested in Owens’ history in Africa BEFORE she spent the last decade writing ‘Crawdads.’
The Dark History of the Year’s Bestselling Debut Novel by Laura Williams in Slate
The Hunted by Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker
The Long Tail of Where the Crawdads Sing by Alexandra Alter in The New York Times
The Debut Novel That Rules the Bestseller List by Tina Jordan in The New York Times
Melissa Gouty often reads books about African expeditions and has enormous admiration for people traveling the globe, studying the natural world, and fighting for animals. She is excited by Success After Sixty and is ultra-enthusiastic about Delia Owens, aged 70, who has made the publishing world take note. Melissa has not been to Africa yet, but it’s on her bucket list.
Read other fascinating book backstories in Book Talk.