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
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil