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.'