'Where The Crawdads Sing' movie contends with reports about author Delia Owens Resurfaced news about author Delia Owen may overshadow the film adaptation of Where The Crawdads Sing, her bestselling 2018 novel about a young woman raised in the marshes of North Carolina

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

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, the new film "Where The Crawdads Sing." It tells the fictional story of a girl left to raise herself along a North Carolina bayou in the 1950s and '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING")

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: (As Kya Clark) I had a family once. They called me Kya.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) A little girl surviving in the marsh on her own, reviled and shunned.

MARTIN: In time, Kya is put on trial for murder. The film was adapted from a novel by an author with a mysterious past. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us more.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: It took wildlife scientist Delia Owens a decade to write "Where The Crawdads Sing." It's now been on The New York Times' bestseller list for 168 weeks. Here she is on "CBS Sunday Morning."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS NEWS SUNDAY MORNING")

DELIA OWENS: It holds the record for being No. 1 for the most weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And this was your very first novel?

OWENS: First novel.

DEL BARCO: Actress Reese Witherspoon loved it so much, she added it to her popular book club and produced the film adaptation.

REESE WITHERSPOON: It just blew me away. 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.

DEL BARCO: 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 Atlantic magazine, 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 work in 1995 actually captured the execution of a suspected poacher. Here's a clip with gunshots from the show "Turning Point."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TURNING POINT")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The bodies of the poachers are often left where they fall for the animals to eat - conservation, morality, Africa.

DEL BARCO: 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. Some witnesses reportedly implicated Mark Owens and his son Christopher, according to Jeffrey Goldberg. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINA")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Oh, Carolina knows why, for years, they said that I was guilty as sin.

DEL BARCO: Taylor Swift wrote and sang on the film's soundtrack, saying on Instagram 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 don't know anything about 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. Director Olivia Newman told me the story is more than a murder mystery.

OLIVIA NEWMAN: There's this survivalist tale and this observation of nature, which is so gorgeously articulated by a scientist. There's this epic romance. That was the hope for the movie, was to create that same sort of world that you didn't want to leave.

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

EDGAR-JONES: To actually film in these amazing bayous and marshes with the Spanish moss and the sound of cicadas and just - oh, it was absolutely magical.

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

EDGAR-JONES: Kya is a very complex character. You know, she is very sort of strong and resilient, but she's also a very curious and gentle creature. And I think she's complicated, like so many of us are.

DEL BARCO: Early reviews of "Where the Crawdads Sing" have been mixed, and it remains to be seen whether questions about the author will overshadow the film. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINA")

SWIFT: (Singing) Will ever know, oh.

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