#smwc2020, San Miguel de Allende

Delia Owens explores impact of isolation in ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ and discovers millions of friends

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Hal Wake and author Delia Owens dazzle a sold-out Gran Salon Ballroom at the Hotel Real de Minas during the closing night of the 15th annual San Miguel Writers’ Convention. (Photo by Mary Finley)

Select one of the following:

  1. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a stunning debut novel about a young girl who grows up alone in a North Carolina swamp with only Nature to nurture her. Her story if folded within a tale of romance and a murder mystery.
  2. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a science-based allegory about the primal needs of mammals for community and the impact and consequences of growing up outside the socializing influence of the herd.
  3. “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a figment of your imagination because, good lawd dahling, everyone knows crawdads do not sing.
  4. The correct answer is a combination of bits and pieces of A, B, and C.

You said “D”?

Yes, you did. I distinctly heard you say “D” under your breath. Don’t try and wriggle out of it now. You said “D”!

Well, you are correct.

All nonsense aside, I love it when an author comes to talk about his or her novel and suffuses it with new context, textures, dimensions, and meanings — and inspires you to go back and re-read the book in this bright new light.

Or, in my case, inspires you to finish “Where the Crawdads Sing.” Yes, I am that solitary creature who can not say that I could not put the novel down, that I read it straight through on my red-eye flight, that I hallucinated as I read the achingly beautiful prose.

That said, I love “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

That said, all my life I have suffered from conflict avoidance. And I have reached that turn in the road where something really really shitty is going to happen to my beloved Kya. I can just feel it. It’s like standing knee-deep in the swamp outside Barkley Cove on a July day. I can scrape thick sheets of air and foreboding off the back of my neck. Kya has gone through so much. I don’t want her to feel any more pain.

But who the heck killed Chase?

I. Must. Press. On. I. Must. Find. Out.

Last night, the sweet, shy, funny, brilliant author of this novel, Delia Owens, gave me the strength to power through the conflict, to press on through the murky swamp, and finish the novel.

Today. At the latest.

Delia Owens spoke Sunday night in the closing hours of the 15th annual San Miguel Writers Conference & Literary Festival. More correctly, she engaged with interviewer Hal Wake in a scintillating conversation about her life as a wildlife researcher in Africa, her first novel, and so much more.

I skipped the closing after-party so I don’t know if anyone danced on tabletops but on the strength of Owens alone, I’d have to say this year’s to-do finished with a Big Big Wow.

It started with one too, in a whole other dimension.

“I covet first editions,” said Hal Wake while holding up his copy of “Where the Crawdads Sing.”

“This is a 35th edition.”

You get the point. Delia Owens’ novel is much-beloved and a very big deal.

Reese Witherspoon thought so, too. The actress-producer championed the novel through her “Reese’s Book Club,” and called Owens to tell her so during the author’s first book tour in 2018.

Shortly after “Crawdads” hit the New York Times best-seller list and hasn’t left the building since.

Witherspoon is producing the movie version for FOX 2000, the studio that turned “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Devil Wears Prada” into hit movies.

Owens, the author of three books on her life as a biologist studying mammals in Africa, wasn’t expecting so much when the book came out.

“My hope was that someone would read it,” she said last night in the overflowing ballroom of the Hotel Real de Minas.

Her expectations shot low by — in some estimates — more than five million readers. Maybe 30 million if you consider how many people share books they love with friends and family. (There must be an algorithm for that.) 

“I never dreamed this would happen,” she said.

Understandable.

Owens did not grow up in a literary world. She grew up in Georgia where her “lovely Southern belle” mama encouraged her to experience nature to its fullest, to trek deep into the swamps and learn about life. It was her mother who urged her to “go way out yonder, where the crawdads sing.”

Spoiler alert: Crawdads do NOT sing. Owens said so, and I believe her. However, if you have ever sucked crawfish heads at a Louisiana boil, that slurping sound feels like a song. Just saying.

Owens chose to become a natural scientist. Armed with a doctorate from UC Davis in California she and her then-husband moved to remote Africa to study all sorts of mammalian life — especially the lesser-understood brown hyenas. 

They inhabited an area the size of Ireland, population two, for two decades. 

“The number of people in this room,” said Owens, gazing out on about 600 attentive faces, “exceeds the number of people we’d see in a whole year in the wild.”

Does this kind of attention make her nervous?

In the spirit of W.C. Fields and his aversion to Philadelphia, Owens replied, “I prefer charging elephants.”

She speaks from experience.

Stepping out of her hut one morning, a well-known bull elephant named Cheers, roared and flapped his ear in warning, then charged Owens. She jumped into the nearby river, only upon reflection recalling that no river in Africa was more-densely populated by crocodiles.

So, yeah, being in front of a crowd fills her with the “same butterflies.”

And yes, her decades of nature study infuses her fiction. You can find cliques and mean girls on the African plains, too. Females in one closed group will reject an outsider who appears different in any way. The last is a trait, Owens notes, is common “to animals and sororities.”

“Animal behavior is very much like ours,” she says.

A great example is the power of the female community. “In every species with closely bonded groups, the herd or pride is made up exclusively of females.” The older males hover on the edges of the group, protecting and looking for the opportunity to mate. The males who grow up within the matriarchal cluster must leave and hop from group to group seeking females for mating.

“I explained all this to a girlfriend,” recalls Owens, “and she said ‘You had to go all the way to Africa to learn that?’ “

“Animal behavior is much like our own,” she adds.

But animal behavior still yields unanticipated discoveries. Take the brown hyenas, long classified as solitary creatures. It was Owens who discovered that the nocturnal females in a clan of hyenas will take their young to a single cave for protection while they go out and hunt.

Hyena daycare? Hardly antisocial behavior.

You can learn a lot about humans by studying other animals, but humans are different from other mammals in significant ways, she notes.

“Somewhere, human nature decided that we as a species would survive through virtuous behavior — like good manners,” she said. “Evolution has never seen anything like this, a conscious decision to collectively impose rules for decent behavior.” (A bit of paraphrase in there.)

Some people follow the rules and some don’t. In “Crawdads,” for example, the good son who becomes a good man, Tate, represents virtue. Chase represents the “sneaky fuckers.”

No, really. Sneaky fuckers. It is a scientific term. Look it up.

Owens first encountered it in a scientific paper while studying at Davis.  Sneaky fuckers are weaker animals that use the stronger characteristics, abilities, and virtues of other males in their species to get what they want.

Owens’ example is a certain frog population in which the males with the deepest croak “attract the females to copulate, a word we use in science.” The little guys — tenors, sopranos, and altos, I assume — hang around the big deep croakers and make plays for the surplus females.

“Yeah, that big deep croak you heard? That was mine. Come here often, baby?”

See? Sneaky fuckers.

“You’ve seen the guys with the big pickup trucks and oversized tires?” Owens asks sweetly. “They just want to copulate.”

Later in the talk, when prompted for her scientific animal-based observations of U.S. President Trump and his clan of hyenas, Owens offered a succinct analysis.

“Sneaky fuckers.”

Have you ever seen a room erupt into a standing ovation over the word “fuckers”?

I have.

She did add that “politicians make hyena behavior look good.”

Social issues and scientific observation are key ingredients in the delicate stew that becomes a Delia Owens novel.

“Crawdads” addresses so many of Owens’ personal concerns, but in ways so subtle and delicate you might not fully sense their presence.

“Kya solves every social problem that I threw at her,” she says, “all but one.”

Without the benefit of community, Kya learns to overcome, or at least deal with, rejection, class systems, bigotry, discrimination, even navigate the vile gossipy currents in a small town. Kya survives on instinct — for better and worse — and the lessons drawn from her acute observations of Nature.

What she can’t defeat is the loneliness of isolation, something Owens knows well.

(When asked how the reception for this first novel changed her life, Delia Owens said brightly: “I’m not lonely anymore!”)

“I think people got my messaging,” she said. “But I purposefully kept it light.”

On reflection, she adds: “I wonder if I overdid the underdoing.”

She suggests that the lessons will be less-subtle in her second novel.

And what is that all about?

“The evolution of male dominance in mammals.”

Amid the laughter and applause she adds one quick, last, note from Nature: “Among mammals, the spotted hyena is the only species in which the female is dominant.

“To which a friend said, ‘ No wonder they’re always laughing.’”

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2 thoughts on “Delia Owens explores impact of isolation in ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ and discovers millions of friends

  1. Pingback: Delia Owens explores impact of isolation in ‘Where the Crawdads Sing,’ and discovers millions of friends « Bound for Belize

  2. Pingback: In a chaotic world, writers play with the traditional structure of novels | Musings, Magic, San Miguel and More

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