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"Where the Crawdads Sing": Bringing a bestselling phenomenon to the screen

Reese Witherspoon and Delia Owens on "Where the Crawdads Sing"
Reese Witherspoon and Delia Owens on "Where the Crawdads Sing" 08:36

You might think becoming one of the world's bestselling novelists would change a person. But not Delia Owens. Whether it's driving her ATV through the brush, or wading into a river, at 73 she's the same rugged Southern belle that she always was before her blockbuster novel "Where the Crawdads Sing" made her a literary phenom. 

Showing her property to correspondent Lee Cowan, she said, "My property manager wants to cut these and I said, 'Don't you dare!'  I love it. I feel like I'm in the bush."

"Do you still kind of pinch yourself that this [success] is all happening?" asked Cowan.

"Oh, every day," she replied. "I still don't believe it's happening.  What are you doing here? 'CBS Sunday Morning' in my living room? No, I don't believe any of it."

To this day, even Putnam, her publisher, can't believe it, because "Crawdads" – Owens' first novel – has broken all kinds of records. It just spent its 166th week on The New York Times Best Seller List, and holds the record for being #1 for the most weeks.

It's a journey that's attracted all kinds of famous fireflies to Owens' flame, not the least of whom is Academy Award-winner Reese Witherspoon. It was she who plucked Owens out of relative obscurity back in 2018, enthusiastically adding "Where the Crawdads Sing" to her Hello Sunshine Book Club.

"It just blew me away," Witherspoon said. "It felt like when I was reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or just any sort of classic Southern literature. So, when I got to meet Delia I was like, 'Who are you? This is amazing!'"

Witherspoon is from Tennessee; Owens is a native of Georgia – two tomboys from the South who bonded almost immediately.

Producer Reese Witherspoon with author Delia Owens.  CBS News

Witherspoon said, "I grew up with women like Delia, and I sat around tables with women telling their stories. And I knew women..."

"And drinking whiskey out of a teacup," Owens added.

"Sometimes in a teacup. Sometimes in a Mason jar!"

A Hollywood star, a bestselling author – you can probably see where this is headed. "Where the Crawdads Sing," out this week, is now one of the most anticipated movies of the summer. Shot along the coast of Louisiana, the film follows Owens' main character, Kya, a young girl left to raise herself in the marshes of North Carolina, with the added complications of a murder.

To watch a trailer for "Where the Crawdads Sing" click on the video player below:

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING - Official Trailer (HD) by Sony Pictures Entertainment on YouTube

"I would have loved to have been Kya," Witherspoon said. "I'm a little too old. I'm a little too old! But that's part of what I loved about it, is like, that's the kind of movies I wanna make. I want to be that character. I know what to do!"

Witherspoon had her hands full just producing the move, so up-and-coming British actress Daisy Edgar-Jones was cast in the role of Kya. She told Cowan, "If you can capture the tone or the essence or the feeling that you have when you read a book, that's the main thing, really."

It took Owens more than a decade to write "Crawdads," all in her Idaho mountain retreat.  That's where "Sunday Morning" first met her back in 2019.

Cowan asked her then, "Do you get lonely out here?"

"I do," Owens replied. "I get so lonely sometimes I feel like I can't breathe."

As a wildlife scientist, she spent years in some of the most remote parts of Africa. Being alone nourishes her in the same way that nature around her does, especially in a marsh. "I feel at home when I'm in a place like this," she said. "You can put me in the middle of a desert, or the middle of mountains, when I'm out away from everything else, I feel like I'm home."

"Where the Crawdads Sing" author Delia Owens 07:43

Her novel was born out of those same feelings – a true labor of love, she said, that is reflected on screen: "They invited me to come to the set. They took me through the woods, we rounded this bend through the forest, and there was Kya's shack on this lagoon, and it looked exactly like I wrote it in the book: there's Kya's shack!

The setting of "Where the Crawdads Sing."  Sony Pictures Releasing

"Then, they start talking, and my words come out! And it was the most surreal – it was part real, part invented or created, and yet that's what a movie does, you know? It was bringing all these elements together. It was beautiful."

That said, she was always anxious to get back to things she knew: bugs and critters, all under a gentle canopy of trees.

Walking in the woods she said, "This is where Kya would have been. This is what Kya loved, being out in the wild, in the forest, among nature."

Since our last visit, she's traded the wintery woods of Idaho for the rolling hills of North Carolina. "I have deer, a lot of groundhogs, turkeys. And we have bears. There's a bear along the river who has three little cubs."

It's an old, historic horse farm; Owens plans to have a few herself, to ride off and get lost in it all, where (bears or no bears) she does her best work.

Cowan asked, "Do you write out here?"

"Well, I didn't bring any today, but I always bring a little pad of paper and a pen," she replied. "'Cause how can you not write out here? I'm fairly sure that pavement, tarmac hardens the heart and softens the brain."

Delia Owens with correspondent Lee Cowan. CBS News

If that sounds like she's writing her next book, well, she is. She's on her third draft. "It's harder," she admitted, "because I feel the pressure, and the expectations are high. I don't want to let anybody down, and I don't know what are the chances of doing this again?"

If you pose that question to Reese Witherspoon, she thinks Owens' chances are pretty darn good. During their joint interview, Owens laughed, "I'm glad I only have to do this once; you do this all the time!"

"Now, don't say that," Witherspoon said. "You don't know.  I'm excited she's writing another book. We're gonna talk in a minute!"

Not bad for a naturalist who never looked for the spotlight. She'd settle for the warm glow of a campfire any day – and she thinks most of the rest of us probably would, too.

"All the numbers, all the weeks on the best seller list, I get excited – you've seen me get excited! It is exciting. But that to me is not the most important part. To me the most important part is to write a story that means something … that connects us all together.  There are a lot of 'Crawdads' out there."

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Story produced by Jason Sacca. Editor: Carol Ross. 

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