Charles Frazier: A moon for the misbegotten

Charles Frazier won a record advance for his new novel, about the last days of the Cherokee Nation. John Freeman meets the bestselling author of Cold Mountain
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There are many things that Charles Frazier would like to preserve in his home state of North Carolina, but right now two loom large in his mind: independent bookstores and the Cherokee language. The chances are that Thirteen Moons, his much-anticipated new novel, could make a difference with both. Sitting in Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina, Frazier has begun to set this plan in motion. Rather than hit the road and barnstorm the big US cities and morning talk shows, he has chosen to unveil Thirteen Moons - perhaps the most hotly desired novel in America in the last decade - at this tiny independent store.

The mood in the back room is jubilant, as Frazier methodically signs his way through a stack of books the width and density of a Land Rover. Clerks stand around handing books to create a human conveyor belt. A publicist offers to spell him with whiskey but he says no thanks, it being just after nine in the morning.

"They took a chance on me when I was just some first-time novelist," says the author of Cold Mountain, as the store's owner beams like a proud mother. Frazier has the sheepish expression of an easily embarrassed son. He wears acid washed jeans and a black silk shirt. His beard is white and trimmed close.

Frazier's gratitude could seem forced, were it not so real. This is, after all, a man who quit his job as a university professor in his mid-forties to write a first novel about a soldier coming through the American Civil War. "I remember when this place used to be on the other side of town," he continues later in a small office, surrounded by purchase orders. "I know, because I helped them carry the boxes when they moved."

You might not guess it, judging from the array of books on the front table criticising the war in Iraq, but this is Bush country. The state gave the president a half-million margin of victory in 2004, and Bush-Cheney stickers adorn more than a few bumpers. Yet Frazier's reading will no doubt be light on the patriotic talk.

Thirteen Moons (Sceptre, £17.99) tells the story of the destruction of the Cherokee Nation - once a country within a country in the US - through the eyes of Will Cooper, a 90-year-old man adopted at 12 by a Cherokee chief. At the same age he meets a girl with whom he falls in love and chases the rest of his life. When not pining for his one true love, Cooper fights against the tide of unfair treaties and westward expansion, unleashed by President Andrew Jackson through the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and carried out by the army in 1838. Cooper ultimately helps to secure a small piece of ancestral land for a group of Cherokee. It still exists today: the Eastern Band.

Frazier has done a lot of work trying to recreate the texture and feel of the time on Cherokee lands. He learnt recipes for bear soup and yellowjacket stew. In one brief scene, Will plays a kind of Cherokee ball game, which Frazier spent several days researching without getting a clear idea how it was played. Finally, one day he stumbled on some local Cherokee playing it at dusk. "The ball is so little - the size of a ping pong ball," Frazier says.

For all their original culture, the Cherokee had begun to assimilate by the time the Indian Removal acts were passed. "They had a council house, a Supreme Court building, they were starting a museum," says Frazier. "It was indistinguishable from how people were living on white plantations in Georgia."

The son of a high-school principal and a school librarian, Frazier grew up within spitting distance of this region, when it was still not uncommon to see farmers ploughing by mule, and went to school with some of its residents. "I still remember when there were people farming the old way," he says. In this part of the state, where vending machines still sell fried pork rinds and train conductors call people ma'am, these things count. "He's just a country boy," one local leader said of him. When Frazier first got readers copies of the new book, he didn't send them to writer friends but brought them over to the Eastern Band to see what the tribal council thought.

"I gave them to some of the elders... and Chief Hicks and other people in the community to read. Then we had a lunch just to talk about it," Frazier says. "One of the things I said that day is: 'What I'm trying to do in this book is not tell your story. I'm trying to tell our story - of this land that we've all occupied together.'"

The significance of this gesture has not been lost on the Eastern Band. Frazier's relatives were among the white settlers who displaced many nearby Cherokee. "My ancestors came [to North Carolina] soon after one of those treaties after the Revolutionary War opened up land west of Ashville to white occupancy... What happened is what usually happened: some well-to-do people came in and bought big chunks of land, and leased them to less well-to-do people."

Thirteen Moons was in many ways born out of this legacy. In a novel sold for a now-infamous sum of $8m on the basis of a few pages and an outline, Frazier initially planned to follow the life of William Holland Thomas, a white Confederate adopted by the Cherokee, who went on to represent them before Congress. Thomas later died in an insane asylum.

As he began to study Thomas, Frazier began turning up documents that showed he was not an anomaly, that settlers' and Indians' lives were more intertwined. "When the army came to throw out the Cherokee," Frazier says, "they kept ledgers of possessions because the Cherokee were going to be reimbursed when they got out West. So you can go through farmstead after farmstead and see what all they owned. Over and over, the lists would have been exactly what my ancestors had back then: a little cabin, some fields, a few animals, a plough."

In some ways, Frazier is trying to make reparations of a sort with this book. Not only is he telling the Cherokees' story; he has also started a fund to funnel some proceeds of the book into preserving the Cherokee language. "At the rate that it's going, it will be a dead language in 20 or 30 years," Frazier laments.

The first project in their translation experiment will be the "Removal" section of this novel, which chronicles the ejection of Cherokee - some only one-eighth Indian - from their land. Frazier is looking at it just as a beginning, to "learn what the problems are for publishing in Cherokee are". Ultimately, he hopes to move on to books for younger readers so that children who come out of a Cherokee day-care programme will have something to read in their own language.

This sort of generosity does not jive with the perception of Frazier created by his enormous payday. But those who know him say that he was embarrassed by the attention the deal created. Frazier still lives in Raleigh, while keeping a house in Florida and a horse farm nearby. Frazier says that his life has hardly changed. "Somebody asked me the other day what I do for fun," Frazier says, breaking into another big, sheepish smile. "I do the same things I did when I was 12 years old: I ride bikes, I read books, I walk in the woods. And I listen to music."

These were the only activities Frazier allowed himself in the past 10 years as he tried to finish Thirteen Moons. The first chunk of time was spent researching, but once he began writing things went very slowly. "I'd say a paragraph or two was a good day," he says. For several years, he hardly spoke either to his agent or his publishers. "I just kept trying to tell myself: 'I want to finish this book without having rewritten Cold Mountain.'"

Reception in the US literary community has been pretty unanimous on that. "Whereas the narrative in Cold Mountain was rich and dense as a fruitcake," wrote New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, "Thirteen Moons - despite its often somber subject matter - is a considerably airier production... a lot closer to Larry McMurtry than to Cormac McCarthy." The book has received its share of knocks, but they have not slowed it down. Thirteen Moons debuted at number two on the New York Times fiction bestseller list just as Frazier hit the road for his driving tour of Southern cities. He seems to know what people want from a storyteller, and how to give it to them. Most of all, he knows the woods will be waiting when he comes back home.

Charles Frazier will be reading at Waterstone's, Piccadilly, London W1 at 7pm on 21 November (020-7851 2400) and at Waterstone's, Oxford at 7pm on 22 November (01865 790212)

Biography: Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier was born in North Carolina in 1950, and studied at the Universities of North and South Carolina. He taught English at universities in his home state and in Colorado. He resigned in the early 1990s to work on his first novel, the Civil War epic Cold Mountain (1997), based in part on stories about his great-great-uncle's return from the war. It sold four million copies, won the National Book Award and, in 2003, was filmed by Anthony Minghella. His second novel, Thirteen Moons, attracted a record advance of more than $8m. Also set in North Carolina in the 19th century, it is published next week by Sceptre. Charles Frazier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.