Delia Owens returns to “Beloved” every now and then: “One sentence from Toni Morrison can inspire a lifetime of writing.”
What books are on your nightstand?
My bedside table is stacked high with prepublication galleys, but most notably “Surfacing,” the upcoming collection by the John Burroughs Medal-winner Kathleen Jamie. Her essays guide you softly along coastlines of varying continents, exploring caves, and pondering ice ages until the narrator stumbles over — not a rock on the trail, but mortality, maybe the earth’s, maybe our own, pointing to new paths forward through the forest.
Also living on my nightstand are old favorites: “A Long Long Way,” by Sebastian Barry, and “A Sudden Country,” by Karen Fisher, because I can’t find more poignant descriptive writing anywhere.
What’s the last great book you read?
“Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, which reached so deep it tore my heart open with the roaming loneliness of Beloved. We need to read it again and again until we never forget the ghosts of slavery. Also, I return to it every now and then for the literature: One sentence from Toni Morrison can inspire a lifetime of writing.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Several months ago, I read William Faulkner’s three major novels of 1930 to 1935, “As I Lay Dying,” “Sanctuary” and “Light in August” to experience the image of a buzzard “spraddle-legged, with its wings kind of hunkered out, watching me … like an old baldheaded man.” To hear “mud whispering on the wheels.” To see a lantern as it “sheds a feeble and sultry glare upon the trestles and the boards and the adjacent earth.” I’m drawn to the poetry and complexities of Southern dialects, and to Faulkner’s homegrown characters.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Mohsin Hamid’s novels (“Exit West”) are so engaging, written with language so injectable, you only realize gradually that he’s tackling enormous issues and that you’re right in the middle of them. I admire that he and Tommy Orange (“There, There”) confront some of our foremost social problems without dragging us too deeply into the dark.
You were a wildlife biologist and best-selling nature writer before you were a novelist. What science and nature writers would you recommend?
Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” was my first book of nature writing and changed my view of the world with such words as: “It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese. So would I — if I were the wind.” I still have my original, yellowed and marked-up copy and will never let it go.
Peter Matthiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” brought the scientific search for a remote and wild carnivore into a language only the massive Himalayans and one man’s search for a soul could transcend. Two of my favorites are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, one leading us into the inner sanctum of our selfish genes and the other to the very precipice of the event horizon. The language of each is a beautiful and precise math of nouns and verbs. No adjectives required.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I am inspired by breathtaking descriptions of nature or place, descriptions that know when to stop, but push a compelling story forward, not letting you rest. For example, those found in “White Oleander,” by Janet Fitch, or “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini. My heart races when prose is laced with phrases simulating poetry. In perfect measure.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I read more nonfiction (biology and physics) than fiction. So when I read novels — to break away from the precision of science writing — I choose those with compelling story lines written descriptively. I’m drawn to creative and inspiring language, spiced with the colors and curiosities of the surroundings and characters. “Shantaram,” by Gregory David Roberts, for example, and “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” by Tracy Chevalier. I’m not sure a particular genre describes my choices, but I do not read heavy crime books or science fiction. There is too much great, real science to be had.
How do you organize your books?
The books on my shelves are organized into nonfiction (sociobiology, physics, zoology and old textbooks) and fiction according to authors, except for my favorites of both, which are lined up together: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, “The Origin of Species,” by Charles Darwin, “A Sand County Almanac,” by Aldo Leopold, and “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.”
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
All of Jane Austen’s books. I don’t read any modern romance novels, but I dive occasionally into the classics. Austen is, of course, a master of trickery and twists, which I admire greatly.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My twin brother gifted me Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” when the two of us visited the LIGO laboratory just after the first gravitational waves were detected. Inside the facility, we studied the computer graphics and listened to a recording of the sweet, little chirp — like the sound of a bird — produced by the wave as it hit the earth and passed through the detector, providing the final proof for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. An astounding moment in time for a scientific principle that redefines time. An astounding time for twins.
Also astonishing is the book he gave me. Carlo Rovelli fuses literature and science into a new discipline that takes us to “the edge of what we know. … And it’s breathtaking.”
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
For years, Scout Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been my favorite heroine because she shows us that it’s O.K. to see life’s lessons, such as the harsh consequences of discrimination, through the eyes of a child. Scout gave me license to write Kya. My favorite villain is Boo Radley of the same novel because once we see him in the right light, we see that he never was a villain.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
When I was a child, I thought reading was something you did when it rained. I was a tomboy out collecting and releasing frogs and salamander or riding a horse named Strawberry. When I was about 9, my friend dragged me into the library and while she was searching for a book to read, I stumbled into a display table filled with guidebooks for birds, insects, reptiles and shells. In an instant, my world of nature was connected with the world of words. I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember those early authors, but Roger Tory Peterson (field guides) and Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”) soon became my heroes.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Edward Abbey would bring great humor and lively conversation to the table even as he spoke lightly of environmental issues. Charles Darwin would really hit it off with Edward Abbey. Besides, I would love to tell Darwin about genes, which were largely unknown in his lifetime. Karen Blixen would be my third guest because she could entertain and enlighten us with her extraordinary stories of Africa.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I am a choosy reader, and put down quite a few books without finishing them. But I would never list the authors. Every book is not for every reader, and I see no reason to pan a writer just because a book did not work for me.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
“It is an honor that I dream not of.” W.S.
How do you decide what to read next? Is it reviews, word-of-mouth, books by friends, books for research? Does it depend on mood or do you plot in advance?
I choose my next book from recommendations made by my sister and other friends who have similar reading tastes.
What do you plan to read next?
“Educated,” by Tara Westover, and “The Great Alone,” by Kristin Hannah.
An expanded version of this interview is available at nytimes.com/books.
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