Sometimes life becomes so extraordinary you can fail to recognise yourself. In November, 1997, Charles Frazier’s first novel, Cold Mountain, received The National Book Award, one of America’s most prestigious literary prizes. He was seated in the audience: “I went up there not in the least expecting to win the thing,” he says with a smile in his easy, North Carolina voice. “When they read the citation describing the book, I still didn’t get it. It didn’t even sound like mine.”
The award was a high point of a remarkable year. Forty-six when he made his literary debut last year, he had up until then kept a horse ranch with his wife, Katherine, in their native state. Bought by a small American press, Grove Atlantic, Cold Mountain has now sold 1.6 million hardback copies in America, and after 18 non-consecutive weeks at No 1, still hovers at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. The English Patient ‘s Anthony Minghella bought the film rights for $1.25m; just out in paperback here, so far the book has sold more than 60,000 hardback copies in Britain, where reviews were just as laudatory as in America. I should confess that I was its reviewer in The Times; it moved and delighted me, it made me wonder at its author’s skill.
Cold Mountain might seem an unlikely bestseller, as far removed from a blockbuster as is possible. Set in North Carolina in the last days of the American Civil War, it is one man’s quiet odyssey homeward. Inman – named after and based upon Frazier’s great-great-grandfather – flees a Confederate hospital, knowing his wound is not severe enough to keep him away from the front for long. He sets his sights on returning to Cold Mountain where Ada, not quite his sweetheart, waits. During the course of Inman’s travels, Ada experiences her own journey: learning to manage the farm left in her care after her father’s sudden death. She learns the rhythm of the seasons with Ruby, not a servant, but a friend; and their life is set to music by Ruby’s ne’er-do-well fiddler father, Stobrod. It is a slow, rich coming together, its language both precise and lyrical. It is the kind of book, says Leigh Feldman, Frazier’s New York agent, “that gives you hope that beautiful books do get appreciated for merit rather than hype.”
Now, of course, the hype is going full throttle, but Cold Mountain was six years in the making. Frazier has gathered fame as the horse-farming novelist – although the events of the past year, which have seen him touring coast-to-coast with Cold Mountain, have meant that the horses have had to be boarded out – but his background is literary. He grudgingly admits to a PhD, and up until a few years ago taught American literature at the University of Colorado, and then, when the birth of his daughter Annie made him and his wife yearn for home and family, at North Carolina State. It was that return that prompted what would become Cold Mountain.
“North Carolina is home to me”, he says, in a deep slow drawl that flows like a river of honey, “it’s a landscape that’s always in my mind. But I’d been away a long time, and I just had this real urge to get to know it again. I went up into the mountains a whole lot, not with a book in mind, just going on walks and bike rides, going to local libraries and reading local history and keeping notebooks. When I was a child, the last of that old, traditional southern Appalachian way of life was disappearing fast; by the time I was a teenager it was mostly gone.” W.P. Inman had been a part of that vanished world.
Frazier came across him through the family history that his own father, determined to record their past for his grandchildren, had started to work on. “I was looking over what he was doing, and I came across this story of this guy who was wounded in the Civil War and walked home. When I saw that, I was really taken by the walking part, and thought, ‘there’s the odyssey, there’s the American odyssey, of walking home from the war and yearning for home’. Within a few days that had given a purpose and direction to all this stuff I had in my notebooks – and I just went on from there.”
And on and on and on. Six years is a long time. It must have been hard to believe, at times, that anything would ever come of it. The success of the book, he says, was “inconceiveable”. “It’s just not something I ever thought about. If you’re writing a book, if you don’t have a contract – especially if you’re not 20 any more – you go around telling people what you’re doing and generally they’re like: ‘yeah, right’. I think a lot of people thought it would never come to be. But if you think about that, or worry that people are feeling sorry for you, it just gets in the way of writing.”
It was not just Charles Frazier’s determination that never faltered. There was his wife, Katharine: “How many wives would tell their husbands, ‘Yeah, quit your job, write a novel’? She said, ‘If you don’t really work at this, and write it, good or bad, you’re going to regret it. You’re going to be 65 years old and say, why didn’t I see what I could do?’ ” And there was also Kaye Gibbons, another North Carolina author, who, it seems, had her work cut out even getting a look at the manuscript. “She’d been saying, ‘Let me read some of this, let me read some of this’, but have you ever been in that awful position where someone who’s a friend gives you something they’ve written and you don’t like it and there’s that terrible ‘what am I going to say’? I just hated the thought of that kind of conversation. You know, where she’s trying to pick out two little things that she likes.” He laughs, but I get the feeling from his look that he knows that particular kind of discussion too well. Eventually both women conspired, it seems, to steal the thing and sneak a chunk of it over to Gibbons’s agent, now also Frazier’s – and the rest is history. So those two strong women in the novel, Ada and Ruby, may well be drawn from life.
Drawing from what lies around him is what Frazier does best. The strength of his writing lies in its ability to both evoke and transcend the particular, whether that particular is of period or place. While Cold Mountain is set during the Civil War, it is not by any means a “Civil War novel”, an American genre guaranteed to attract a certain kind of reader and alienate another. British readers must not fear: there are no Stonewall Jackson set-pieces, there is no need to keep battleplans of Fredericksburg by the bedside table. Cold Mountain is a novel of the specific, almost enclosed effects of a devastating war, experiences common to all people and all nations.
“In the South there is a myth-ology of the Civil War,” Frazier says.”It’s this noble and tragic thing. I guess there were elements of that, but when I read the local histories, how the war affected people, it didn’t seem noble and tragic to me – it seemed awful. When I first started working on the book, I was walking in the mountains, just trying to get my thoughts together, and I found a grave – you have to walk quite a way to get to it and there’s only an old riverstone for a marker. There are two men in it, an old man and a boy, killed by Federals who had come over the mountains raiding for food.
“On the other side of the mountain, only about eight miles away, is another double grave, and in it is a fiddler and retarded boy who were killed by the Confederate home guard. None of these people were related to the slave economy, or industrial capitalism – they were two farmers caught in the crossfire of these two huge incompatible systems. Those two graves shaped the way I thought about the war a lot. Those people lost their lives over something they really didn’t have anything to do with.”
That fiddler became Stobrod, Ruby’s wastrel of a father redeemed, in the end, by his music. This Appalachian sound binds the book together, particularly in the second half; it is clearly an aspect of the novel dear to the author’s heart. While the whole Hollywood deal mystifies him (“I don’t understand screenplays and wouldn’t be any help”), he is very keen to help with the music, and glad that Anthony Minghella has already asked for some tapes. That, he says, and locations; he would be more than glad to point out some good spots.
The present, I think, has yet to sink in. But how much has he thought about the future? The past year has not left him much time for writing: he hopes that by the end of May he will be able to settle down again to begin his second novel, another North Carolina tale. He admits that the pressure will be on: “I was at a reading a while ago when this woman asked me the same kind of question, and I think it got out of hand. She said: ‘I’ve seen so many wonderful reviews of the book, I’ve read all about it, and I wonder if you ever think, ‘I only have one book in me?’ Or, ‘I’ll never write again?’ Or that my life will just…’ and she put her hand up and then dropped it down and said ‘…just be all downhill from here?’ ” He grins, but then is more serious. “I’ll have to try to figure out how to make things not too different, not think about sales or anything like it. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I’ve written anything now – it’s going to be a change just to sit down and be quiet.” He will be glad, too, to tend to the ranch again, which “is kind of like Ada’s farm – a lot needs doing!”
He is looking forward to taking it slow. In researching Cold Mountain, Frazier spent some time at music conventions all over the South, watching and listening to the traditional players. There is almost an envy in his voice when he speaks of those artists: “I met an old guy up in south-west Virginia. He was picking a banjo out in a parking lot at a fiddler’s convention, just sitting out there playing it. I said, ‘I believe you’ve been doing that a while’; and he said, ’62 years’. Playing the banjo. And he’d never got paid for it, never recorded. There’s something wonderful about doing something artistic with no thought of self, no thought of being famous, no thought of any thing other than entertaining himself and his friends.”
Indeed there is. But I am glad Frazier has reached a wider audience, an audience he well deserves.