A conversation with Putnam Executive Editor Tara Singh Carlson
Photography by John Michael Simpson
“Where the Crawdads Sing” is part murder mystery, part romance and part coming- of-age tale that follows main character Kya Clark as she survives alone in the marsh of fictional coastal North Carolina town, Barkley Cove, in the ’50s and ’60s. The 2018 novel has topped The New York Times Best Sellers list nearly since its debut, and the book’s fervent success led to its development into a major motion picture, which released on July 15 and features an original song by Taylor Swift.
The words by author Delia Owens had a monumental impact not only on the novel’s fanbase, but also on the book’s publisher, Tara Singh Carlson, who felt such a connection to North Carolina after reading the story that she moved here, sight unseen, from New Jersey in 2020. Now the Chicago native lives in the Garrett Farms neighborhood with her husband, Andrew Carlson, and the couple’s two children, Charlie, 3, and Felix, 5. “I love it here,” she says. “I feel very lucky.” Read on to learn more about her career path, book recommendations and how she hopes to earn cool points with her her kids one day:
Tell me a little bit about your background in publishing. I started in publishing in 2009, and my first job was actually at a literary agency, [Sanford J. Greenburger Associates], where the agents are on the other side of the publishing business, [representing] the authors. I did that for a year, and it was quickly clear that this was not the right spot for me. My very next job was at [Penguin Random House]. I started as an editorial assistant [in 2010], and was at Penguin Books for four years. Then I moved to Putnam, where I’ve been for almost eight years.
What initially drew you to the industry? Everybody who works in publishing is a reader. In college, I kept thinking, ‘What could I possibly spend the rest of my life working in?’ The answer for me was pretty obvious – books. I always loved to read and escape into reading. Some of my biggest role models were fictional characters, and I wanted to make a living out of bringing stories to readers.
What are some of your favorite books you’ve published over the years? You never forget your first, so the very first book I published was “The House at Tyneford” by Natasha Solomons. That book really launched my career because it ended up becoming a New York Times bestseller, so [it] will always have a soft spot in my heart. The most fun publications are when, through all of the stars aligning, [a book] manages to find its audience. Another I will always remember publishing is “The Light We Lost” by Jill Santopolo.”Where the Crawdads Sing” is also just one of my favorite books I’ve ever read and ever published. I bought [“Where the Crawdads Sing”] at a very special time in my life, right after I had my first child, and just fell in love with that story. More recently, “Nora Goes Off Script” by Annabel Monaghan and “Love & Saffron” by Kim Fay are two books I first acquired during the pandemic that took me out of my pandemic reading funk. They’re [both] beautiful stories that lift your heart.
What are you reading at the moment? Any other books you’d recommend to our readers? I recently finished a book called “Every Summer After” [by Carley Fortune], which is a summer love story. I also loved “Black Cake” [by Charmaine Wilkerson], a story of family secrets. A lot of layers slowly unfold as you’re reading the novel; it’s really well done.
Tell me about your experience editing “Where the Crawdads Sing.” When I read the book, I fell in love with it immediately, and so did the rest of the Putnam team. [Delia] and I worked on the timeline together, making sure Kya’s past could be told in the present day. Then we worked on when the two storylines ended up intersecting to make that have as much impact as possible.
How did editing this book help you feel connected to North Carolina, having never visited? I always had this idea of North Carolina, and the Durham area specifically, as being this beautiful place with a lot of nature. Reading Delia’s novel, she is a gorgeous nature writer and describes the marshes and landscape of coastal North Carolina so vividly I felt like I had been there. I could see it, I could smell it, I could taste the air – it made me so desperate to visit.
How did you find out the book was being adapted into a major motion film? What was your reaction? A lot of books get optioned for film, but very few make it to the big screen. I can’t remember the moment I learned it was optioned, but when [Delia flew out to Los Angeles], everybody at Putnam was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is really going to happen.” It was very exciting. Although, the moment I learned that Taylor Swift wrote a song for the movie, it might have been even more exciting. I remember thinking, “If my kids ever one day think I’m cool, it’ll be because of this.”
Are you excited to see Kya come to life on the big screen? Absolutely. I actually got to go to an early screening in March. I was very anxious, but as soon as I heard Daisy Edgar-Jones had been cast as Kya, I was so excited. I felt [Daisy] had exactly the right kind of strength and vulnerability to play a character like Kya.
What motivated your decision to move to Durham? Is it true you moved here having never even stepped foot in the state?
It’s true! I had never been here before. I was always a reluctant New Yorker – I moved to New York to get into publishing, and I stayed because I wanted to be in publishing, and I couldn’t do that and live anywhere else. But I never actually lived in Manhattan proper; the pace was too much for me. After [my husband and I] had two kids, I kept dreaming of living somewhere with trees and lots of green. I had this idea that Durham could be a great place to live. Good friends of ours had moved to Durham a year before we ended up moving, and they kept singing its praises. When the pandemic hit, and life became so untenable, with our family of four living in a [1,000-square-foot apartment], it just felt hard. Everybody was remote, and we didn’t know for how long, so we decided to take the leap and just moved to Durham. And I’m so happy we did.
What are some of your favorite Bull City eats? I love Juju; that’s probably my favorite restaurant. I also love the French onion soup at Vin Rouge – I stop by there more frequently than I should. Early Bird Donuts is another family favorite.
What has been the best part about living in Durham, thus far? The access to the outdoors and how close everything is. I love how many trails there are within Durham proper, just getting to Duke Forest and to the Eno [River]. I live within walking distance to [Sandy Creek Park] and a short drive to [Hollow Rock Nature Park]. To me, [Durham] is the perfect size, and there’s all this beautiful nature you have easy access to. – as told to Isabella Reilly