Author Charles Frazier goes contemporary in newest bookby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Charles Frazier, author of the best-selling novel "Cold Mountain," is moving forward in time, in his newest book. His novel, "Nightwoods," is a thriller, set around 1960 in a remote community in the forested mountains of North Carolina.
"Nightwoods" opens like this:
"Luce's new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent. She learned early that it wasn't smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens. Later she'd find feathers, a scaled yellow foot with its toes clenched."
Luce is a troubled young woman living alone in a semi-abandoned resort in the Appalachians. Then she becomes guardian of her dead sister's twins -- young children deeply disturbed and mute because of something in their past.
"A lot of the book has to do with Luce learning to deal with these strange children," Frazier said. "Another part of the book has a little bit of a mystery ... element, involving the murderer of her sister."
Frazier became a sensation in 1997 with his first novel, "Cold Mountain," a Civil War tale which won a National Book Award. His second novel, "Thirteen Moons," published in 2006, was set against the forced relocation of thousands of Cherokees known as the Trail of Tears.
Frazier says it's almost by chance that he's become known as a historical novelist. He abandoned work on a contemporary novel to write "Cold Mountain," because he says it was simply a better story.
It also meant a great deal of research, which he says he enjoyed. But Frazier adds it's been good, for the last three years, to be working on something more contemporary.
"I was really happy to get out of the 19th century for a while," Frazier said with a smile. "it's set in my memory, so there wasn't a lot of need to got to the library. It was more of a matter of remembering the physical details of the world."
Important to the details in "Nightwoods" is an undercurrent of violence. Growing up in the southern Appalachians himself, Frazier was aware the threat was always there.
"It would just be one of these things that happened on the spur of the moment, where one guy would stab another one, or somebody would shoot somebody," he said.
Frazier wove that casual violence, as he calls it, into "Nightwoods." He then went to some lengths to build its physical sense. He'd visit locations in the woods where he was going to set a fight.
"I would just stand there and think, 'OK, if this character is going to do this to this character, how would this big tree factor in? How would this little slope factor in?' and then I can see the movements," Frazier said. "Then I can think about how the more character-related or psychologically related elements fit in. But I have to get the physical stuff right first."
All these elements form the framework for Frazier's poetic prose style. He dwells on details, on expanding and expounding. It's a result of polishing and burnishing, writing and rewriting.
"The revisions are every day, and then at the end lots and lots. It's a never-ending thing," he said. "They finally take it away from me at some point, or I'd still be doing it."
Reviewers called Frazier's first two novels American epics, although some described his style as overwritten. But Frazier's fans don't seem to care.
Now on the tour circuit, Frazier says nobody seems upset that he's written a more current story.
"I was in Mississippi last week and a young woman ... came up and said, 'I have a line from "Cold Mountain" tattooed on my back,'" Frazier said. "[She] turned around and showed me."
Frazier said he felt a little odd at that moment "in that I didn't recognize the line," he laughed.
But he later checked the book and found the tattooed line. Because details are important to Charles Frazier.
Frazier speaks Monday evening at 7 p.m. at the Wayzata Community Church.
- All Things Considered, 10/24/2011, 4:44 p.m.