By Ekta R. Garg, A.uthor
May 21, 2020
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Release date: August 14, 2018
Genre: Women’s literary fiction
As a child, I consumed books like some people consume their meals. I would read and then re-read the ones I liked best. Characters became old friends, and because my parents were careful with their money new books didn’t come with such ease back then. I had to earn them with chores or summer homework. Birthdays and Christmases often meant new books, and I would fall headlong into new adventures.
Because I read so much and so often, on a subconscious level I must have decided somewhere along the way that writing books would happen as fast as reading them. Later in my life that expectation translated to the publication of books as well. You wrote, you published, and you went on to the next book.
I never had a specific time frame in mind, but I think I just assumed it would happen fast. Within months, maybe. Surely no longer than a year. As a child, anything longer than that felt like an eternity. When it came to writing and publishing, even well into my twenties, I didn’t quite grasp the idea of why it took so long for books to be released.
Since becoming a freelance editor, I know. I started following the publishing industry more closely, subscribing to newsletters, reading them almost as voraciously as I read books. I still read a lot, of course. But now, as a person trying to become an author in her own right, I get it. I get why it takes a while, for the writing part at least, to become a published novelist.
Many people compare writing and publishing a book to having a baby. I’ve given birth to two human babies myself, so I can see the correlation. The difference, of course, is that once a human is born, we still spend time caring for it, nurturing it, admonishing and praising by turns, shielding it from the world’s criticism and encourage it to flourish under the world’s praise.
Once a book baby comes out, you don’t get a second chance. Even if you’re an indie author, even if you have the opportunity to take down your books and re-publish them, at some point you have to let the work go. You have to let it be judged by the marketplace. It has to face the world on its own merit without additional explanation—or excuses—from the author.
In the case of Crawdads, though, and other books I adore—Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, for example, or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr—the authors took their time. They probably didn’t spend every waking minute of those years on their manuscripts, but the care and love are palpable on every page. Readers feel it, they see it, and they’re willing to wait for it.
Some books are meant for easy consumption. Chick lit. Beach reads. Romances. Readers want something fast and entertaining. It’s the same reason we watch sitcoms.
Sometimes, though, you want a book to say, “Wait. Listen. Pay Attention.”
Crawdads does that on every page. And because Owens took time to develop and nurture this book, she’s taken liberties that most first-time authors don’t. Or can’t, really. Publishing and writing experts discourage writers all the time from doing some of what Owens does (things I’ve covered more in depth last week my E.ditor’s post.) Here, though, obviously the publishing team responsible for making sure we received Owen’s gift of a novel let her take risks.
And they work.
For example, as the youngest of five children Kya doesn’t get a say of any kind in her house. When her mother leaves, contrary to what young Kya might want, she doesn’t come back. Eventually, everyone in Kya’s life abandons her. She grows up without context in her life. She doesn’t know her family history or how it came to a point where she was raising herself from the age of 10.
It would be easy to hate Kya’s parents. The book is mostly from Kya’s point of view, so we see everything through her eyes. We feel her pain and her intense loneliness.
Owens, though, gives us a quick glimpse into the back story. She breaks the fourth wall by giving readers information that Kya will never have, which might seem unfair to the young protagonist but balances out why her parents did what they did.
This comes in Chapter 16 of the book, when Kya finally learns to read enough that she can pull out the family Bible and read the names of her parents and siblings. As she sits and contemplates this tiny piece of information—the only piece she’ll really know of the people tasked with raising her—Owens pivots. She gives readers a glimpse into how Kya’s parents, Jake and Maria, met. Owens writes:
“She sat there for a few minutes with the Bible open on the table. Her family before her.
Time ensures children never know their parents young. Kya would never see the handsome Jake swagger into an Asheville soda fountain in early 1930, where he spotted Maria Jacques, a beauty with black curls and red lips, visiting from New Orleans. Over a milkshake he told her his family owned a plantation and that after high school he’d study to be a lawyer and live in a columned mansion.”
It’s the start of the Great Depression, so Jake’s dreams never come true. Instead he becomes an alcoholic, and even fighting in World War II doesn’t restore his pride. He just continues to drink away the money his family needs, his wife’s trust in him, and everything meaningful in his life.
Writing experts often like to say don’t use flashbacks. Some of them allow for flashbacks but sparingly. Here Owens takes readers back to Jake and Maria’s past, and readers get everything they need to know about why Maria walks away from the family and then, eventually, Jake does too. All the while keeping the secret from Kya.
Two rules, broken so easily, yet with such elegance that readers won’t even bat an eye. Owens’s writing style and the setting of the book—the marshlands—allow for this kind of leeway. It’s also proof that good books are rule breakers because they follow all the other rules of writing with command and ease.
The advice, “Less is more” means that often writers can accomplish with a few words what they might take paragraphs to do. In Chapter 26 of Crawdads, Tate has gone to college to pursue his degree and his dreams. Kya is left behind with fragments of her heart. She lets Chase Andrews into her life, but even she knows her relationship with him is a dim reflection of what she shared with Tate.
Still, she’s willing to try. When Chase makes a joke that indicates he’s not Kya’s intellectual equal, Kya doesn’t mock him. Instead, the narrative says:
“She laughed for his sake, something she’d never done. Giving away another piece of herself just to have someone else.”
The gravity of those two lines tells us all we need to know about what the break with Tate and the subsequent relationship with Chase means to Kya.
Another area where Owens excels is the innovative ways she depicts scenes and ideas. In Chapter 29, after bumping into him during a rare trip into town, Kya discovers that Chase has been cheating on her and is engaged to another girl. She grabs the bread she was going to use for a picnic with him and heads to her beach where she often feeds the gulls. Owens writes:
“A strong ocean breeze pushed up the path, so that when she emerged on the beach, at least she had the wind to lean on.”
The power of that sentence is incredible. Here in Central Illinois, where we experience gusting winds of up to 40 miles per hour on a regular basis, I have an instant picture in my mind of what it means to fight the wind when I’m outside the house. I know the ferocity of that wind and what it feels like to push against it for every step.
Now, in the moment when her heart’s been broken a second time, Kya is in a place where she might fight the wind. Instead she has the opportunity to lean on it. To give in to it. To use something from the natural habitat she loves for comfort, even as it’s also something that could harm her.
Owens has taken the wind and turned it into a friend, of sorts, for Kya. She’s made it a positive presence in her life when everything else seems to have gone against her. She’s reminded Kya, and us, that there’s one constant in Kya’s life when nothing else will be there for her: nature.
With this kind of writing throughout the entire book, Owens makes us take a second and sometimes a third or fourth look at her writing. These kinds of sentences don’t come without care and time. They don’t come without thoughtful consideration of the story, the circumstances in it, the protagonist and who she is through and through.
Often in our Instagram-Pinterest world, we’re looking for fast entertainment and easy access to it. Owens’s book is neither fast nor easy—it takes a lot to buy into the idea that a family would abandon a 10-year-old girl and that she’d be so accomplished at raising herself—but she invites us in with a gentle nod and an outstretched hand.
I don’t think I could write like Owens does, and maybe that shouldn’t be a goal of mine. What I can do, though, is look for every opportunity to elevate my prose in all the serious writing I do. I can take heart that writing and publishing don’t have to happen with the snap of my fingers. A meaningful writing career can develop over time.
Readers would probably benefit the most from that scenario. I know I certainly would as a writer, as I push myself to get better in my craft. And that’s the best kind of relationship, after all: one borne of time and care.