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Questions linger over 'Where the Crawdads Sing' author as film adaptation is released

There's a lingering mystery hanging over the author of "Where the Crawdads Sing," now adapted into a film.
Michele K. Short
Sony Pictures
There's a lingering mystery hanging over the author of "Where the Crawdads Sing," now adapted into a film.

Where the Crawdads Sing tells the fictional story of Kya, a girl left to raise herself along a North Carolina bayou in the 1950s and 60s. "The marsh girl," as she's known, is reviled and shunned by those in the nearby town. In time, Kya is put on trial for murder. Now, there's a film adapted from the novel by an author with a mysterious past.

It took wildlife scientist Delia Owens a decade to write Where the Crawdads Sing. Her first novel has now been on the New York Times best seller list for 168 weeks (most of that time at the top). Actress Reese Witherspoon loved it so much, she added it to her popular book club and produced the new film adaptation.

"It just blew me away," Witherspoon told CBS Sunday Morning. "It felt like when I was reading To Kill A Mockingbird or just any sort of classic Southern literature. She layers on this thriller element, there's a murder ..."

And murder — a real life murder in the mid 1990s — is the big elephant in the room. With the film's release, news has resurfaced that 73-year-old Owens is still wanted for questioning by Zambian authorities as a possible witness, co- conspirator and accessory to federal crimes. At the time, she and her then-husband Mark were living in Zambia as animal conservationists, trying to save elephants from poachers.

Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg first wrote about this for The New Yorker in 2010, and more recently, The Atlanticmagazine, where he's now editor in chief. His reporting suggests the Owens set up a brutal operation to go after anyone who was a threat to the elephant reserve. In fact, an ABC news crew documenting the Owens's work in 1995 actually captured the execution of a suspected poacher.

"The bodies of the poachers are often left where they fall, for the animals to eat," narrator Meredith Viera said on the show Turning Point. "Conservation. Morality. Africa."

You can hear the gunshots, but the shooter of the unidentified man was never seen on camera, a body was never found, and no one has been formally charged with a crime. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, some witnesses reportedly implicated Mark Owens and his son Christopher. But the journalist says their attorneys have issued statements of denial in the killing. He quoted Delia Owens saying she had nothing to do with it.

For months, the movie's publicists have told me the author is not available to comment. So the news continues to hang over the film like Spanish moss over a murky bayou.

Taylor Swift wrote and sang on the film's soundtrack, saying onInstagram, she wanted "to create something haunting and ethereal to match this mesmerizing story." But she's faced social media backlash for her involvement in the film. In an interview, the director and star of the movie both told me they didn't know anything about this part of Delia Owens' past, though they did say she has a cameo in the film.

Instead, they talked up how the isolation and resilience of Where the Crawdads Sing resonated with readers, especially when the coronavirus pandemic left many feeling alone.

"There's this great murder mystery that keeps you turning the pages," director Olivia Newman said. "There's this survivalist tale and this observation of nature which is so gorgeously articulated by a scientist. There's this epic romance that provides a certain escape from some of the harsher realities of our lives And so I think especially during a pandemic it was so wonderful to be immersed in that world and that was the hope for the movie. That was the hope for the movie was to create that same sort of world that you didn't want to leave."

British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays Kya in the film, said she met with author Delia Owens when they shot on location in the marshlands around New Orleans.

"To actually film in these amazing sort of bayous and marshes with the Spanish moss and the sound of cicadas, oh, it was just absolutely magical," she said. "We had crazy thunder and lightening storms, and at one point the set flooded. We had alligators along the banks and snake wranglers. And it was just like it had been taken from my imagination."

Edgar-Jones says Delia Owens encouraged her to enjoy herself in portraying the main character.

"Kya's a very complex character," she said. "She is very sort of strong and and resilient. But she's also a very curious and gentle creature. And I think that kind of mixture of things was something I found very interesting about her, because she's complicated like so many of us are."

Early reviews of Where the Crawdads Sing have been mixed. It remains to be seen whether questions about the author will overshadow the film.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.