So what does the best-selling author of Cold Mountain want to do?
Go for mountain bike ride at Bent Creek.
Sometimes, it’s Pisgah National Forest. Or DuPont State Forest near Brevard. Or, if he’s got the whole day, Tsali. On a typical day, he’ll ride in the morning and write in the afternoon.
Today he can savor a longer ride. He’s earned it, having worked months at a time, writing seven days a week to finish his second novel. It arrives in bookstores this week.
“I took Christmas day off, but not Christmas Eve,” he said. “It’s been that kind of a year.”
As anticipation over Frazier’s second novel swelled during the past month. He’s had dozens of interviews with foreign and national media — everybody from CBS Sunday Morning and Newsweek to Entertainment Weekly and a London newspaper. There were days when reporters actually passed each other coming and going in the driveway of his Asheville home.
So what has changed for Western North Carolina’s most endearing literary son since Thomas Wolfe? (The release date for Thirteen Moons — Oct. 3 — just happens to coincide with Wolfe’s birthday.)
“My day-to-day life is not enormously different,” he said during an interview at City Bakery in downtown Asheville. “It’s not like I’ve been hanging on the phone with people in New York at all.”
The idea for his latest novel came while researching Cold Mountain. He read about an old man living in a mental institution who spoke only Cherokee. Frazier didn’t catch the name of the patient, but just the idea caught his curiosity.
“I made a note of that,” he said.
This man was none other than William Holland Thomas, a 19th century entrepreneur, lawyer, state senator, Confederate colonel, and Cherokee chief who fought to keep land for the Cherokee in Western North Carolina and later helped represent the Cherokee in negotiations to secure what is today’s Qualla Boundary, the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Fatherless as a young boy, Thomas was adopted by Yonaguska, also known as Drowning Bear; and though Thomas was white, he became a member of the Cherokee tribe. Known as Wil-usdi or Little Will, he learned to read and write Cherokee and found success operating a series of trading posts throughout Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. During the Civil War, Thomas led the Thomas Legion, a group of Cherokee and white mountaineer soldiers. Thomas was born and is buried in Haywood County.
Facts and fiction
When Frazier began writing Thirteen Moons, he realized he had to take a different approach. In Cold Mountain, he only knew several details about the four brothers from Western North Carolina who went off to fight in the Civil War. With Thirteen Moons, it was just the opposite — Frazier had a wealth of research he could access. Reading through Thomas’ journals and ledgers scattered in libraries across the state, Frazier soaked up all he could.
“I just wanted to get the facts of his life down,” Frazier said.
But journals aren’t necessarily filled with pages of interesting drama. That’s where Frazier began to think about creating a fictional story.
“I’m a novelist, not a historian,” he said. “I’m trying to write a story that’s entertaining and interesting with characters that feel real.”
Several years ago Frazier was giving a reading at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., when a woman stood up and told him her husband thought he knew where in Cold Mountain Frazier departed from history and started making things up.
“Page one is where I started making things up,” Frazier replied.
And so it is with Thirteen Moons. Will Thomas becomes Will Cooper, and Drowning Bear is simply known as Bear. Will has a love interest, the elusive and charming Claire. Frazier chose the name “Cooper” because it was a common name during the 19th century and also a name in his wife’s family.
Frazier weaves fact and fiction in telling Will’s story. Originally it was written in third person, but it didn’t take long before the author changed gears and made it a first person account through the eyes of Will.
“Very quickly, it took on a life of its own,” Frazier said.
The first part he wrote was the scene in which 12-year-old Will Cooper sets out in the woods alone with little more than a map and a horse to guide him through rugged terrain.
Rather than writing in chronological order or even chapter by chapter, Frazier tends to write a scene that captivates his attention, regardless of where it may end up in the book. Then, after polishing each scene, he arranges the chapters accordingly.
“I’m envious of writers who can start at page one,” he explained. “I just work on whatever I’m interested in at the time.”
That turned out to be long passages on Cherokee food — bean bread, yellow jacket soup and dishes that Frazier would go read about and then sample.
“I’ve got many notes on food that didn’t get in the book,” he said.
Ironically, the original detail about Will Thomas’ days in a mental institution didn’t make it in the book.
What does make it in the novel is a reverence for the sense of place that gave Cold Mountain its haunting spirit. Frazier conjures another era using lyrical descriptions and quaint language right down to the types of wine that people would have been drinking in the 19th century.
At the back of the book, Frazier acknowledges George Frizzell, head of the special collections at Western Carolina University; Barbara Duncan, education director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian; and Wanda Stalcup, director of the Cherokee County Historical Museum as crucial in researching the life and times of Will Thomas. Stalcup proved especially helpful with geographical references.
“Her enthusiasm kind of fired me up for more work,” Frazier said.
Thirteen Moons draws on many Cherokee traditions — stories about the serpent Uktena and the liver-stealing ogre Spearfinger, the clan system, the Booger Dance, village life and Cherokee stickball games.
One day, Frazier was driving through Cherokee when he saw a group of young boys playing stickball at dusk. No referee. No equipment except rackets. Lots of tackling, running and frantic jostling for a small ball. A mix of lacrosse and rugby.
“It’s a confusing and fun game to watch,” Frazier admitted. “And you can’t even see the ball.”
Frazier’s interest in Cherokee culture goes back decades. In high school, he worked after school and on Saturdays at a Cherokee mound excavation.
And while New York critics may haggle over the intricacies of the latest literary theories, Frazier is proud to have won over some of his toughest critics in Cherokee, where Native Americans are eager to dispel stereotypes and read about real, authentic people instead of noble savages.
The Booger Dance, for example, was about humor and making fun of people using exaggerations, Frazier said.
So perhaps the best acclaim for his new book comes from Cherokee elders who say, “You got it right.”
Still, there are those Frazier will have to set straight. When a Dutch translation of Thirteen Moons featured a Plains Indian on the cover, Frazier objected.
“I sent it back and said, ‘Let’s try this again.’”
Frazier can trace his family’s ancestry in Western North Carolina back to the 1790’s. In his early years growing up in Andrews, he would visit his grandparents in Canton. They lived just behind St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and within walking distance of the Colonial Theatre, where plenty of Saturday afternoons were spent watching old Westerns and movies like “Sinbad the Sailor” and “Jason and the Argonauts.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree at Appalachian State University, he went on for his doctorate at the University of South Carolina. By the end of grad school in the mid-1980’s, Frazier had written a few short stories, one of which got published in a literary quarterly and then anthologized in a “Best of the West” book. His story was set in Western North Carolina, but it had a lawman and an outlaw to give it a Wild West feel.
From South Carolina, it was on to teaching in Colorado and then North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he began writing Cold Mountain after learning about ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
Frazier quit teaching to finish the novel. He wrote a good deal of the book in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Then, several years ago, he and his wife bought a house in Asheville. They split their time between Raleigh and the mountains. Much of Thirteen Moons was written in the mountains, according to Frazier.
Just as Will Cooper bemoans the influx of Northerners and packs of rowdy settlers who seize Southern Appalachian land after the Cherokees are removed, so too does Frazier agonize over the sprawl of McMansions and sylvan-named subdivisions that plow over peaks to plop down vacation homes in the name of progress. An avid hiker and mountain biker, Frazier savors his time outdoors but wonders how much more his beloved mountain region can take if developments continue to multiply unchecked.
A time of upheaval
Thirteen Moons calls to mind the heavenly passage of time and serves as a kind of diary for Will Cooper as he sets the record straight on a long life full of adventures, triumphs and regrets. Episodes include his early days as a trading post clerk, his love affair with Claire, a duel with a cultured but dangerous plantation owner named Featherstone, and travels to Washington City and beyond the Mississippi River.
Also included in the story are multiple accounts — as poetic as they are tragic — of the controversial events surrounding the death of Tsali (Anglicized as Charley in the book). What was Will’s role in Tsali’s capture and execution? Was Thomas forced to track down a fellow Cherokee in exchange for the protection of Cherokee lands? Frazier allows readers to piece together different accounts to judge for themselves.
“The real truth is unknowable,” Frazier said, adding that even Will Thomas told different accounts of Tsali’s story.
The time period is full of huge social and political upheaval. A fledgling North Carolina stretches west into Cherokee lands. Races mix. Cultures collide. Lines are drawn and redrawn. Cherokee elders try to maintain the old ways. Even the animals that once roamed this land are disappearing.
On the Cherokee Nation, there was no private land, Frazier explained, so the only way to secure land and hold on to it was to move off the Cherokee Nation. And as Cherokee people assimilated into the Euro-American culture, they were caught between proving their Cherokee identity and fighting to stay on their ancestral homeland. Cherokee landowners living off the Nation were still not considered citizens of North Carolina.
“There was this odd little legal confusion,” said Frazier.
And that’s where Will Thomas came in handy — someone who spoke Cherokee and could read through the legalese and fight for the Cherokees’ right to land ownership. But more often than not, it was a lost cause. In the history of Native American resistance, there aren’t many victories, Frazier said. That’s why the seemingly unlikely combination of a white, adopted Cherokee and self-taught lawyer joining forces with a Cherokee head man proved especially unique.
“Bear was using every tool he had, and Will was one of those tools,” Frazier said.
As a writer, Frazier had to condense the complexities of land sales and history into readable passages.
“I’ve tried to get a sense of the complications without having to put it all on the page,” he said.
Answering his critics
Soft-spoken and unassuming, gentle and pensive as some of the characters he creates, Frazier only hoped Cold Mountain would sell a few hundred thousand copies in his first attempt at publishing a novel.
Needless to say, what followed far surpassed his expectations — or many in the literary world, where it’s nearly unheard of to have a debut novel reach 4 million copies with translations in 30 languages. Cold Mountain spent months on the New York Times bestsellers list and won the prestigious National Book Award. It was that rare combination of both popular and critical success. The great American novel written and admired. A place in American literature alongside Faulkner, Hemingway, and Wolfe.
But there are more books to write — and a great pressure to live up to the success of that first big book. Fame has a way of multiplying those literary critics who swoop in like vultures to claim fresh meat.
When Frazier accepted an $8.25 million advance to publish Thirteen Moons with Random House, some groaned that he had sold out, abandoning a multi-million-dollar offer from Grove Atlantic, which had published his first book. Meanwhile, others complained that Hollywood hijacked the “Cold Mountain” film adaptation by inserting mostly non-Southern lead roles and locating the picture in far-away Romania rather than Western North Carolina.
Frazier actually inserts veiled references of these critics in Thirteen Moons when the main character Will Cooper is beset by rumors, innuendo, hounding journalists and angry preachers.
For the record, publishing houses realize Frazier’s decision to go with Random House was a business deal and nothing personal against his former editor. And though authors have no say-so in a movie production after signing away rights, Frazier pleaded heartily with movie execs to film “Cold Mountain” in Western North Carolina. Some of it came down to not having enough snow-making machines available for the winter scenes, Frazier said. With a budget upwards of $100 million, according to Frazier, “A lot of voices get involved in a project that expensive.”
His daughter, Annie, worked on the film set, but Frazier declined to go to the East European country. Then musician Dirk Powell, who was working on the soundtrack for the movie, told Frazier that many on the set were walking around with dog-eared copies of Cold Mountain.
“You need to go,” Powell urged.
So he went — and signed a few copies while he was there.
Since the movie, he’s kept up with Powell and Tim O’Brien, and recently attended O’Brien’s concert at Canton’s Colonial Theatre.
For those who think famous authors take the money and run, just call up the North Carolina Arts Council. On the heels of his Cold Mountain success, Frazier won a 1998 Literature Fellowship, but he returned the money, which in turn helped fund the state’s Poet Laureate program.
What is more, Frazier set up a college scholarship at Franklin High School in his father’s name to cover the cost of tuition for graduating seniors who want to attend Western Carolina University. Frazier is a Panther graduate and his father was a former principal at Franklin High.
Meanwhile, Frazier is working to translate Thirteen Moons into Cherokee through a language preservation project he’s funding.
The first phase of the project is to translate the scenes about the Cherokee’s forced removal from their lands from 1838 to 1839. Frazier admits there are some challenges with a project like this — typesetting the syllabary characters, making sure the translation is both accurate and interesting, and copy editing.
“The best we can tell, this has never been done before,” Frazier said. “So all of that has to be invented. We’re looking at different approaches as we move through it.”
Barbara Duncan, education director of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and a team of translators led by Myrtle Driver are working to turn this dream into a reality. So far, according to Frazier, the first part of the translation is about 15 to 20 percent through, and if the book project proves successful, he would like to see more books translated into Cherokee.
Frazier got involved in the project after learning that the Cherokee language could die out within 20 to 30 years as Cherokee seniors die and fewer younger Cherokee speakers replace them.
“That figure really struck me,” Frazier said. “To me, so much of language is a part of identity — and not just for the Cherokee.”
Along with the new book, Thirteen Moons will feature an audio version read by Will Patton, a Charleston-born actor with numerous film and TV credits including “Remember the Titans” and “Armageddon.” Movie rights have also been sold for $3 million, and you can bet Frazier will be pushing once again to have the film set in Western North Carolina.
“I certainly hope they’ll film it where it needs to be filmed,” he said.
Until then, look for Charles Frazier to appear at a bookstore near you. He’ll be reading at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville at 7 p.m. on Oct. 14.