“The natural world is just the thing that is always somewhere in my mind,” said Charles Frazier, the bestselling author that visited Maryville College on Oct. 30. Frazier is most well known for writing historical novels that are set in Appalachia.
His book, “Cold Mountain,” follows a wounded Confederate soldier that longs to return to his home in Cold Mountain, NC. The book was a number one national bestseller and the winner of the 1997 National Book Award for Fiction, the W.D. Weatherford Award and the Boeke Prize. It was adapted to the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, the academy award-winning director of “The English Patient.”
Frazier is also the author of “Thirteen Moons,” which was both a New York Times bestseller and the first novel ever to be translated into the Cherokee Language. His most recent novel, “Nightwoods,” although still set in Appalachia, differs from his previous historical novels by being set in the 20th century. It was also a New York Times Bestseller and reviewed as “a gorgeously written thriller” by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“I write about the place I know,” Frazier said. “I try to write with dignity and respect for the place I love.” In fact, the character W.P. Inman in “Cold Mountain” is Frazier’s own great, great uncle, and part of the character was also based on his great, great grandfather, both of whom volunteered in the Civil War. “My father was doing a family history after he retired,” Frazier said. “He told me about a soldier that walked home, deserted, from the Civil War and was killed.” He said that this image, of a man’s walk home away from the war and towards the mountains of North Carolina, inspired the writing of his novel. “I was driving back from Raleigh, thinking ‘I can tell that story,’” Frazier said. “I know that story. There was not much there, but it had a beginning, a middle and end and I could tell that.”
He said that the house of his mother’s father was actually located at the bottom of Cold Mountain in NC, 35 miles from Asheville, also providing inspiration for the novel.
“We used to go there and he would tell us ghost stories,” Frazier said. “I loved it as a kid.” Frazier said that Southern Appalachia has a reputation for having good storytellers. Growing up in the small, 1,200-person town of Andrews, NC, he said that he experienced many different types of narrative.
“Narrative was built into the fabric of growing up there,” Frazier said. Frazier explained that when he was a young boy, he and his family would sit down at the dinner table and each of them were expected to tell each other about their day, but “make it entertaining.”
Frazier suspects that traditions like these contribute to the popularity of storytelling in Southern Appalachia. Now, Frazier lives in Asheville, NC with his wife, Catherine. Asheville is also known for its population of novelists. “I don’t what it is, but there are so many writers living [in Asheville] right now,” Frazier said. “There are also dozens of artists and musicians. It’s just a comfortable town to be an artist and not have a regular schedule and all that. You can tell a little about the town as to how many places serve really nice liquor at breakfast. It tells you there are a lot of tourists or a lot of people with time there.” Writing is a day-to-day activity for Frazier. From 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. is his favorite time to write, because he said that in the morning he prefers to get out of the house and exercise. Mountain bike riding is what he especially enjoys, because he said that it helps him to wake up, as well as clear his head.
“The thing I like the best is that a good, difficult mountain bike ride claims your attention,” Frazier said. “It takes my mind away from my books.” Frazier said that, contrary to popular belief, he does not go riding to find inspiration for his novels.
“The guys at the bike shop I go to say ‘yeah, Charles is in here almost everyday. He rides everyday, and goes out into the woods and thinks about his books,’” Frazier said. “I tell them no, I do not go out into the woods and think about my books.I’m riding my bike.” For now, the novelist said that he was just “barely starting on a new book.”
Frazier, who only appears for events three times a year when working on a novel, said that he enjoyed the trip from Asheville to MC. “Writing is a pretty solitary job, and it’s easy, when you go on a long stretch being at home trying to write a book, to forget that there is an audience out there and there are smart people who are still reading books,” Frazier said. “It’s good to get out of the house and remind yourself of that.”
While at MC, Frazier not only spoke in a panel Tuesday evening for the Appalachian Lecture Series, but also came to answer questions for young aspiring writers in both novel and fiction writing classes. In these class sessions, he discussed his books and shared advice for beginning writers.
“Read a lot and don’t wait until you feel inspired to do it,” Frazier said. “I meet people that they just think it’s like having a seizure and it’s this creative thing, but for most of the writers I know, it’s work and you do it as regularly as you can. And some days it’s good, and some days it’s not so good.”
He said that 80 percent of the writing process is editing his own work. “You revise,” Frazier said. “And you know that waiting for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done.”
During his visit, Frazier also made himself available to eat lunch with students, as well as stay late into the night after the lecture panel to sign books, despite his busy schedule. Additionally, Frazier also conveyed a sense of both humbleness and modesty during his discussions at MC. Despite his successes in writing, he said that he never expected the acclaim that he has received during his career as a writer.
“You try to write a literary novel and think ‘if I can just get it published,’” Frazier said. “Then it was like nothing beyond that seemed the least bit real. Maybe a thousand people would read it and get some good reviews. That was about as far as I had dreamed.”