Charles Frazier: 'Violence was a part of normal life...'

In his new novel, the author of 'Cold Mountain', Charles Frazier, revisits the rural Appalachian town of his youth

Charles Frazier is not an easy writer to pin down.

I don't mean that the 61-year-old best known for the bestseller Cold Mountain is elusive or inarticulate. Far from it. But when we meet in London, he occasionally seems reluctant to examine the mysterious convolutions of his imagination. For example: why do his books take such a long time to complete? His extraordinary new novel, Nightwoods, was five years in the making.

"Writing Nightwoods actually felt fast by comparison," Frazier says in his mellifluous North Carolinian drawl. "There were almost 10 years between Cold Mountain and [Frazier's second novel] Thirteen Moons. This one felt like it just blazed along."

Frazier's hesitancy could be explained by a certain discomfort with the interview process: I suspect he prefers writing books to promoting them. Like many of his characters, he has spent much of his life in and around the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina. While he likes London, Frazier brightens considerably when describing the 1,000 miles a year he covers on his mountain bike. He sounds similarly tranquil when he recalls being snowed in last winter during the final draft of Nightwoods. "There was 16 inches of snow. On our little mountain, the roads don't get ploughed. You just have to wait for it to go away."

Taking it slow has worked out pretty well, however. Although he didn't publish his first novel until he was 47, Cold Mountain won the National Book Award and attracted the attention of Anthony Minghella, who directed the Oscar-winning film adaptation in 2003.

Frazier explains his tortoise-like composition speed with reference to "the most inefficient creative process possible". This involves following his storytelling instincts wherever they lead, and working exhaustively on the tone and texture of his prose. "Writing doesn't come real easy to me. I couldn't write a novel in a year. It wouldn't be readable. I don't let an editor even look at it until the second year, because it would just scare them. I just have to trust that all these scraps and dead-ends will find a way."

As Nightwoods developed, Frazier found himself travelling across time. The original idea sounds like an Appalachian Upstairs, Downstairs: set in the late 19th century, the action took place around the luxury tourist lodges that peppered North Carolina. "The rich people would be in the mountain cool, the poor people down in the cotton mills breathing the cotton dust. I had a picture in my mind of a guy walking from the lowlands with a fairly big knife to rectify a situation."

The plot gradually thickened – or in fact thinned – into something sparser, more claustrophobic and strange. The final incarnation ended up set in the mid-20th century. The once lavish lodge is now deserted, save for Luce, a tough, self-contained housekeeper, whose solitude is interrupted by the arrival of twin children whom she inherits after her sister is murdered by her husband. "People who are isolated interest me," Frazier says, "Whether they isolate themselves or have been isolated by circumstances."

For Frazier, inspiration arrives suddenly and inexplicably. The unsettling, damaged twins, for example, intruded themselves six months into writing the first draft. "I was sitting on a beach and this line popped into my head: 'They were small and beautiful and violent. Luce learned not to leave them alone in the yard with chickens.' I thought, who are these kids?"

Frazier found at least part of the answer in his own past. The eventual choice of time and place for Nightwoods – North Carolina, 1962 – transported him back to his own childhood. "I wanted to write a book where I mostly accessed my own memories. The Sixties were different in an isolated place. We got two television channels if the wind was blowing in the right direction. The radio stations went off at sundown. Then you picked up Chicago and heard the teenage music you really yearned for."

Frazier's upbringing was defined by contradictions. "I remember a little town surrounded by mountains, very few people and a whole lot of land. That was wonderful. But there was also plenty of violence and ignorance." The town in question was Asheville, population: approximately 60,000. On the one hand, it possessed an impressive literary pedigree. (Thomas Wolfe was born there; Zelda Fitzgerald died there. "I'm most curious about Henry Miller," says Frazier, "who took a job as a real estate agent. He arrived during the stock market crash and the job disappeared.") On the other hand, Asheville was as yet untouched by Sixties revolutions such as the civil rights movement. "There was a one-room schoolhouse that the black kids went to."

Frazier benefited from his own family's passionate faith in education. His great-great grandfather returned from the Civil War and started a progressive Universalist church. In addition to spiritual succour, it provided a summer school for the mountain children. Frazier's own father was the local school superintendent, and Frazier himself was a university lecturer prior to Cold Mountain's success.

As his father discovered first-hand, there was plenty of ignorance to combat. "Casual violence didn't feel like a disruption of normal life, it felt like a part of it. I remember my father checking on a mountain kid who hadn't been coming to school. My father had this beautiful Harris tweed overcoat. He came back with a knife cut all down one side. The parents had told him it was none of his business why their son wasn't going to school."

Frazier has the germ of a new novel, but needs a couple of months to see whether it will grow. The good news for impatient readers is that he is committed to writing shorter books: Nightwoods is less than half the length of his previous works. Still, I wouldn't hold my breath for his fourth novel. "I'm enjoying stories that move along, but that give me time to really focus on the language," he says. Here's to the next five years.

Nightwoods, By Charles Frazier (Hodder and Stoughton £17.99)

'All her life, the main lesson Luce had learned was that you couldn't count on anybody. So she guessed you could work hard to make yourself who you wanted to be and yet find that the passing years had transformed you beyond your own recognition. End up disappointed in yourself, despite your best efforts. And that's the downward way Luce's thoughts fell whenever she went upstairs into the dreary past.'

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam