OCEAN CITY — Close to 1,000 people crowded into the Ocean City Music Pier on Saturday afternoon to hear bestselling author Delia Owens discuss her debut novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
The free event had been relocated from the library to the larger venue because of the expected interest. The event began at 2 p.m., but library staff said a line had already formed when they began seating an hour earlier.
Owens’ novel, set in the fictional North Carolina town of Barkley Cove, was chosen as the OC Reads: Our Community Reads book for 2019. The project encourages community members to read the same book, with discussions, educational speakers and other events spread over months, culminating in Owens’ talk on Nov. 9.
The novel was chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club in September 2018. At the Ocean City event, Owens said Witherspoon plans to adapt the book into a motion picture. At the Ocean City event, she described a lunch meeting in an expensive restaurant in Los Angeles, in which Witherspoon asked her who she thought should be cast as the main male characters, both handsome young men.
“I have lived such a remote life and have not seen a movie, I can’t even remember the last movie I saw. I don’t know any of the young actors anymore,” Owens said. “I said, I’m so sorry but the last actor I know who would have been really good was Robert Redford.”
Since Redford is in his 80s, the remark drew applause and laughter.
Owens grew up in rural Georgia, moving to Botswana in 1974 and later relocating to Zambia, studying wildlife in remote areas of Africa. She wrote three memoirs of that time with her former husband, Mark Owens. They drew international attention for their advocacy on behalf of wildlife and for violent, sometimes deadly conflicts between government scouts and elephant poachers.
At the beginning of her comments, Owens said there were more people at the event than she would see in a year in Africa.
She described a morning in the Luangwa Valley, where she was charged by an adult male elephant, one she said she knew well. She jumped into the river for safety, adding that the Luangwa River has one of the highest concentrations of crocodiles in the world. The elephant eventually calmed down and she was able to pull herself from the muddy water.
“The reason I’m telling you this story is because I lived a remote and isolated existence for most of my life,” she said, comparing her feeling standing in front of the crowd to that of watching an adult elephant charge toward her.
She spoke both about the novel and about her life.
The novel follows a girl named Kya growing up alone in the marsh of North Carolina in the 1950s and '60s, learning to survive in the wild, intertwined with the murder investigation of a well-known young man.
She said she wanted to go beyond the usual whodunnit mystery novel to explore why it happened.
“It’s also about how much we can learn about human nature from nature itself,” she said. Owens described the connection between human behavior and those of wildlife, especially of social animals such as lions or hyenas. She described watching a young male baboon puffing his chest and strutting in front of the females and thinking, “yeah, I know that guy.”
“I observed wild animals every day, and every day I saw us in them,” she said.
Owens spoke of her mother, describing her as both a southern belle and an avid and dedicated outdoorswoman. She would encourage her to explore deep into the forest, with the idea of seeing wildlife as it behaves on its own, rather than just running away.
“She would say to me, go way out yonder where the crawdad sings,” Owens said. “It was exploring those woods that I found myself. It was where I stumbled upon Kya.”
Owens said her mother likely did not expect her daughter to take the idea so far, until she watched her board a plane with a one-way ticket to Africa.
Owens said the genes that allowed human beings to compete and survive on the savannah eons ago remain, but that people have added virtue and now try to make it to the top of the food chain while remaining moral beings.
“And you know what? We have made progress. We are better. We do behave better than hyenas. I know that. I’ve seen it,” she said. “But we’re not perfect, and every single day we have to balance those powerful, ancient, aggressive genes to compete with our more recent moral side. And it’s not easy.”
She said she wanted explore that idea in fiction and at the same time go beyond the usual whodunnit mystery novel to explore why someone behaved as they did.
“'Where the Crawdads Sing' is about a lot of things. One of those things is where to find the strength to get yourself from the darkness back into the light,” Owens said.
In the question and answer period, the first question was what was a crawdad? She described it as a small crustacean related to a lobster, calling them good to eat and wondering if they exist as far north as New Jersey. They do but are more often called crayfish in this area.
Owens said she has started work on a second novel.