I'm really excited to be talking to Delia Owens. Delia Owens’s novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, was Reese’s Book Club pick in September and is now a bestselling novel. She is the coauthor of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books as well about her life as a wildlife scientist. A winner of the John Burroughs Award for nature writing, Delia has been published in Nature, The African Journal of Ecology, and others. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Georgia and got her PhD in animal behavior from UC Davis. She wrote Cry of the Kalahari about her years living in the African wild studying lions and hyenas, along with Mark Owens. She also cowrote The Eye of the Elephant and Secrets of the Savannah about her years studying elephants. After twenty-three years of living in Africa, followed by her time in the Rockies, she currently lives in Idaho with her husband and many elk, deer, and moose.
Hi, Delia. How are you?
Delia Owens: I'm fine. How are you?
Zibby: Good. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Delia: Thank you for havin’ me. I appreciate it.
Zibby: I can't believe your book has been on The New York Times Best Seller list for eleven weeks now. Is that right? That's crazy.
Delia: Twelve weeks.
Zibby: Twelve weeks. Oh, my gosh. Congratulations.
Delia: Thank you. It’s very exciting. I have to ask you something. I'm new to Instagram. Is this the same people I talk to, have been communicating on Instagram, or not?
Zibby: Yes. It’s me.
Delia: I've been seeing your “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for all of that.
Zibby: Of course. I've been reading your book. I like to snap pictures while I read. That's me on Instagram, @ZibbyOwens and @MomsDontHaveTimeToReadBooks. Thanks for writing back. That always gives me such a thrill.
Delia: Thank you. Thank you for having me on the podcast. This is fun.
Zibby: You are this amazingly accomplished animal and wildlife researcher. You're like a modern-day Jane Goodall. You spent twenty-three years living in Africa -- is that right -- observing and writing about all sorts of animals?
Delia: That's true. Yes. I spent twenty-three years.
Zibby: Now, you just tried your hand at fiction. Look what happened. It’s this amazingly incredible, beautiful novel. How did you do it? How did you decide to write a novel? Literally, how did you do it? Did you take a class? Did you read about it? Did you just try?
Delia: I read books. I read novels. I didn't find the transition hard at all. The nonfiction books that I coauthored, they were written in story fashion in a way. They had a beginning, middle, and end. I describe it this way, I like to ride horses a lot. I live in northern Idaho. I can take my horse and ride anywhere. Writing nonfiction, the other books, are sort of like riding a horse inside of a corral. There's a big fence. The timeline has to be accurate. The characters have to be real. You might want to change this or that, but you can't because it’s nonfiction. When you write fiction, it’s like taking your horse and just clicking him and going as fast as you want across the meadow of the mountains. There was a freedom to writing fiction. My imagination went a little bit crazy. I found it a lot of fun. I found it inspirational.
Zibby: How did you come up with this story?
Delia: That was also from my experiences in Africa. I lived a very isolated life. I was very curious about how isolation affects a person. I wanted to write a novel about that. Also, as I was observing the lions -- I'd go out every afternoon, late in the afternoon, and follow the lions through the night -- I would begin to realize that the animals I studied, the pride of lions, the herd of elephants, the pack of hyenas, those tightly bonded groups are not made up of both sexes. They're made up only of females. The males come and go for breeding and mating purposes. The females are the ones that form these tightly bonded groups that last for all of their lives. I had close girlfriends when I was at home. Suddenly, I didn't have a group. I realized the importance of having a group. I wanted to write a story that would tell and show and make people feel what it’s like when you don't have a group and how it affects your behavior.
Zibby: You wrote this great line. You had Mable tell Kya in the book, “Ya need some girlfriends, hun, ‘cause they're furever. Without a vow. A clutch of women's the most tender, most tough place on earth.” It’s true. Girlfriends are so essential.
Delia: They are. We have a very strong genetic propensity. It’s not just that we like to be with girls. It’s all of our ancestors. All primates live in this type of society with a group of females, the troop of baboons. We have the genetic propensity for that. It’s not just something we’ve thought up on our own. It’s very strongly written in our genes. We feel it deeply when we’re isolated from that type of group. What amazed me was when I came back from Africa after living in remote settings. I'd come back and visit my friends in the cities and find out that some of them, in today’s world, felt just as isolated as I did. They might live in the city with a million people, but they didn't have that strong group anymore, the kind that I had when I was growing up. A lot of people experience loneliness and abandonment and rejection. I felt that was a story a lot of people might be interested in reading, is how to deal with this.
Zibby: Absolutely. I guess you were right, huh? [laughs] I'm feeling now like I should be making more time for girls’ dinners than I have been. As a mom, one of the first things I cut out is “I don't have time to see my girlfriends. I’ll do that another time. I have to be with my kids, or this or that, or working, or something.” You've just given me an excuse to do what I want with my friends.
Delia: It’s not just fun. It’s very important. It’s very important for the companionship. Our ancestors survived because they had a group. A single mom in the wilderness of Africa doesn't last as long as a group would. The best of all cases would be to be with your girlfriends and the children all together. That's what's normal. Bring the kids.
Zibby: Right. That makes sense. Bring the kids. You had this revelation connecting women's friendships in the wild. You wanted to talk about that in a novel, yet you came up with this amazing storyline with different characters and drama and courthouse scenes. How did you get from step one to step two? How did you make that happen?
Delia: I was determined to write something that would be very readable and exciting. I'm terrified of boring the reader. I don't want the reader to be bored. I knew there had to be a lot of things happening. I actually came up with the ending. I don't remember where I was or how. I came up with that ending and I thought, “Wow. I have to write a book that fits the ending.” I didn't start there literally and write backwards, but I knew how I wanted it to end. Then I started in the beginning and began writing a story with the different characters together that could lead to that ending. I wanted to have a mystery that would have clues. The clues are hidden in all sorts of strange places within the story. I wanted to bring that part into it, a mystery that someone could solve. The clues are there. I've had readers go back and read it the second time. They say, “I can't believe how you just told us everything.” The clues are there, but they're hidden. You don't see them sometimes until the end.
Zibby: I was tempted to reread it. I was sitting there next to my husband. I kept grabbing him. I'm like, “Oh, my gosh. This is what's happening. Oh, my gosh. You'll never believe the outcome.” I couldn't believe it.
Delia: If you go back and read it again, you will find that the clues are there.
Zibby: The way you write is so vivid and expressive. It’s truly unique, the analogies even that you use. This one time you wrote, when you were talking about Kya venturing into town to go grocery shopping, you say, “Mostly, the village seemed tired of arguing with the elements and simply sagged.” That was after all the other ways you described the village. I thought that simple sentence was so perfect. It captured everything you wanted to say about that town. The reader instantly knows what you're talking about. You can see it in your head.
Have you always been able to write so lyrically? Is it something that comes naturally to you or something you've had to practice?
Delia: I tried to write nonfiction that way as well. I think I did to a certain extent. It’s more limited when you write nonfiction. I love that type of writing. You have to be careful. As a reader, I don't like to read too much description. It’s like putting too much sugar in your coffee or your tea. There's a fine line. I just don't like a book that has too much description. It’s getting the right words, not a lot of words, but the right words. I worked on that. It took me years to write this book. I didn't just sit down and write it in one go. I worked on it on and off. Over the years, I found myself improving, getting better at writing description. I love that part of it.
Zibby: How long did it take to write?
Delia: I'm embarrassed to say this.
Zibby: No, don't be embarrassed.
Delia: I worked on it for ten years. I had another job. I was back from Africa. I still had a project going on in Africa. I was doing fundraising and doing conservation work here in the United States. I had a day job, and again, living in the wilderness, but it was a job. I would get up at four thirty every morning to write on this book. Then I would get discouraged after a year or so. I'd put it away. Sometimes I put it away for a couple of years. It’s not like I was working on it for ten years. Over a period of ten years, I worked on it. I actually think putting it away and letting it rest, so to speak, it helped. Then when I’d go back to it, I was a better judge of what was actually working and what wasn’t working.
Zibby: You finished writing your book and sent it out. Tell me what happened next.
Delia: Oh, gosh. Really? [laughs]
Zibby: Yeah. I want to know. Do you mind? I'm curious.
Delia: I’d coauthored three nonfiction books, so I thought I’ll just send it to those people. It had taken me so long to get this one written that, honestly, most of those people were retired and moved on. I found myself in that cold world of not having an agent or a publisher. I sent it out to the agent that I had for my very first book, a wonderful man named Peter Matson. He said, “I love this story. I'm not going to be the one to represent this to publishers because I'm almost retired, but I'd love to help you edit it.” He took many, many months to help edit it for me. He said, “Now, it’s ready to send it out.” I thought that was beautiful for him to come back and help me knowing he was not going to be involved with the publication of it. From then, like everybody else, I got the writer’s market off the shelf and started sending cold calls to other agents. Within a few days, I got a great agent, Russell Galen. He came back and he said, “This is it. We’re going.” He sent it out. I got five publishers who wanted to publish it. From then, it was just wonderful, happened pretty fast. It had been very slow up ‘til that point.
Zibby: Then next thing you know, it’s come out. Reese Witherspoon picks it as her book club pick. How did you respond to that? Did you know who Reese Witherspoon was? Do you watch TV?
Delia: I knew who she was as an actress. I do not watch TV. I haven't seen that TV program that’s apparently doing great. It’s a great show. I haven't. I knew her as an actress. I didn't even really know she had a book club. Then once my book came out, I started paying attention to things like that. I did know that she had it. My editor called me one day. I have to say that my editor -- Putnam has been the greatest publishing house to work with. I have such a great relationship with them. My editor called to say that Reese had chosen my book for the September book of the month.
Zibby: Did you get out the champagne?
Delia: Yes, I did. Seriously, the next week I was on the bestseller list. It meant so much to me. I was so thrilled. I feel so grateful. Obviously, I'm excited and happy about how well the book is being received. I also feel so grateful. So many people have helped to make this happen. You don't do it by yourself.
Zibby: Being an author today, you have to do a fair amount of self-promotion. You have to be willing to hit the road, and do the tours, and post, and be on social media, and all that. Are you comfortable with all of that?
Delia: Oh, my gosh. I just refused at first to go on social media. I'd never been on social media. I had no idea how to do it. They kept encouraging me. I won't say they forced me. I tried it. I can understand why people like it. You have this instant connection with people who read the book. I don't have time to do a lot. I still don't understand most of it. I know that probably half the things I put on there end up somewhere else. I don't know. It’s been very fun to connect with people who are reading the book. That part, I've enjoyed.
Zibby: I have to say -- I know we spoke briefly about this at the start -- to have the ability to say that you're reading someone's book and have that actual author write you and be like, “Hey, so glad you're reading my book,” for me as reader, that is the coolest thing. Every time that happens with any author, I get such a thrill. I'm sure other readers feel the same way. It’s nice to hear how it is from the author’s side as well.
Delia: I get the same feeling. It’s a thrill. I love sometimes when you'll see a discussion going on between two readers about what they thought of the ending. You can come in and put your two cents in. No one can argue with you. [laughs]
Zibby: You incorporated a lot of poetry. Are you a big fan of poetry? Some of the poems -- let me just read one or two. You wrote this Galway Kinnell poem from Ma’s book that Kya finds. It says, “I have to say I am relieved it’s over. At the end, I could only feel pity for that urge toward more life. Goodbye.” Then you have the Amanda Hamilton, many, many poems, but the one that she first reads, “Trapped inside. Love is a caged beast eating its own flesh. Love must be free to wander, to land upon its chosen shore and breathe.”
Tell me about your relationship to poetry. Are you a big fan? Do you like to write poetry yourself?
Delia: I do. I've written poetry all my life. I'm not saying I'm good at it at all. Words just come to my mind a lot. I feel a lot when I write poetry. I feel that the words themselves can be so inspiring to readers. Most people who love good prose and literature, even if they don't have time or the inclination to read poetry, when they do read a verse, they feel a lot. That was the number one thing I wanted about this book. I wanted people to feel. Poetry makes you feel. You can get your thoughts into a few words. You can do it in a way that it’s like putting a drug straight into your bloodstream. You have to read a whole novel sometimes to feel certain things and get the point. A poem can say so much in a few words. That's a reason it’s so powerful.
Zibby: This is great. You speak the way you write. You speak just as beautifully. You have so many analogies and ways for me to conjure up visually what you're saying. It’s perfect. It’s great.
Delia: Thank you. I don't feel that way.
Zibby: It’s true. You do the same on your website too. I felt like I didn't want to stop reading your website, whereas usually it’s just very functional copy. You even gave away the first two chapters, or parts of them, on your website, which I thought was really unusual but really great.
Delia: Thank you. I was new at all that. I'm learning.
Zibby: You've had this amazing success. I'm sure you're riding the wave for a while. Do you have ambitions to write another book? Do you feel like you finally checked this off your list? How do you feel about writing books at this point?
Delia: I've started another one. I have an idea for another one. Where the Crawdads Sing, it’s a socio-biological drama. It’s a drama, a story, a thriller, a murder mystery, a love story. Also, it asks some very serious questions about why humans behave the way we do. That is a central theme. I want to continue with that theme. I want to write another book that's also a drama, a love story -- I don't know if there’ll be some sort of mystery -- some sort of compelling story, but with some serious questions. I have to say that I'm a little bit disappointed that right now there's so much going on with this book, which I'm thrilled about, but it’s a little bit hard to sit down and get into the zone of writing. I'm lucky I can find that zone and get into that zone. It’s a little bit difficult right now. I'm trying not to be too hard on myself. I should give myself some time to enjoy this book. I am working on the second one.
Zibby: That's exciting. You definitely owe yourself a little time to kick back and soak it up.
Delia: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
Zibby: For aspiring writers out there -- I know we talked a little about your transition to fiction -- what advice would you give? What if there's someone out there who also has just an ending in mind the way you did? What would you say to those people, what advice about the whole road to publication and writing and everything?
Delia: The most important thing is that you have to believe. Everyone will tell you how difficult it is. It is difficult. The writing is difficult. The whole process is difficult. Never mind finding an agent, it’s getting an agent to read it because there's so many manuscripts that fall on their desk every day. You have to believe in it. You have to really work at it. Get up, four thirty every morning, and work on it. It takes a huge amount of work. You can't let that stress interfere with your creative. It’s being creative that literally connects with another person. Words don’t necessarily connect. It’s the creative words, the words that speak to someone. It’s real important to try to get to that place within your own heart that you feel like you have this that you want to say and you want somebody to listen. When I wrote, it was almost like I had the reader sitting in the chair next to me. I was always saying I do not want to bore the reader. I don't want to confuse the reader. I'm very, very conscious of the reader when I write. That's a cue for people to keep in mind. Don't forget the reader. That's my advice.
Zibby: Absolutely. That's good advice. I'm sure this is going to be a movie. What can you say about that?
Delia: I'm sorry. I can say nothing.
Zibby: I thought I'd try. You never know. It was so nice chatting with you. I loved your book. I was so transported into the whole marshland and all the characters. It gave me this whole other experience, as I'm living here in the middle of Manhattan in New York City. To be able to escape just by opening a book into the world that you painted for me was a real treat. Thank you for that.
Delia: Thank you, Zibby. It’s been so nice to meet you on Instagram. I never thought I'd say that to anybody. It’s been so fun. It’s so nice to talk to you now. I really appreciate your support and enthusiasm.
Zibby: I really appreciate your time. Thanks so much.
Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.