In 1997, North Carolina native Charles Frazier won the National Book Award for Cold Mountain. It was Frazier’s debut, telling the story of an injured Confederate soldier who deserts from a hospital near Raleigh. The novel was later made into a star-studded film nominated for seven Academy Awards and, 25 years later, has become a classic in the state.
Frazier recently spoke to The Assembly books editor Wiley Cash about his work.You can read more on the book in our newsletter.
The following is an edited transcript.
Wiley Cash: What was life like when you were writing Cold Mountain?
Charles Frazier: When I started writing it, I was teaching at N.C. State in a lecturer job. I frequently had three classes per semester, and it was freshman writing mostly—a lot of paper grading and a lot of time. Three or four years into working on Cold Mountain I realized I wasn’t making a lot of progress. I was writing during vacations and summertime, but during the school year I wasn’t getting much done. Our daughter, Annie, was just a little kid then, and [North Carolina novelist] Kaye Gibbons told me, “You’re trying to do three jobs, but you can only do two. And you need to pick two. Annie is not an option. So either write your book or teach, but quit trying to do all three.” So I quit teaching, thinking that after a year and a half I’d have the novel finished, but of course I didn’t.
We’d built a little farm north of Raleigh, and I was building fences and getting grass planted—just working around that 10-acre farm, and then working every day on the book starting around 3:00 p.m.
WC: The story of Inman was a story you’d grown up hearing from your dad, right?
CF: In a loose sort of way. He had retired about the time we’d moved back to North Carolina, and he was writing a family history. So he was telling me some of the stuff he was going to put in the family history when I was up there visiting one time. And I immediately thought, The Inman story is one I know how to write.
WC: I know research was important to you while writing Cold Mountain. Did you travel a lot? Did you drive Inman’s route?
CF: Yes, over and over. When I would get stuck while writing, that’s what I would do.
WC: Where would you go?
CF: Well, I sort of had to make up a route, so I’d go west out of Raleigh and think about where the old roads were. I had maps from the mid-19th century, and I could see where the main roads were. There were places where you’d be on a modern two-lane road and look at the houses on either side, and think, Okay, that house was here then when this was a dirt road. You know, going out toward Asheboro and that area.
If I was stuck and needed a scene—it was almost like location scouting for a movie—I would go find a place where something could happen in the novel and think, What could happen here? So I drove back and forth from Raleigh to western North Carolina over and over, doing that kind of thing.
WC: Is Raleigh where you had envisioned Inman setting out?
CF: Yes, it’s where the real Inman was in a hospital when he took off. My [wife’s] grandmother, I guess when she was a young woman, did some volunteer work in the old building that the Civil War hospital had been in. But by then it was a veterans’ hospital. She remembered, “Oh, it had these big, tall windows.” Those windows are in the first couple of pages of Cold Mountain. I was just collecting information. Anything I don’t have to make up is good for me.
WC: Did Cold Mountain hit the New York Times Best Sellers list the first week, or was it a slow build?
CF: It built. It was published in May, and I can remember getting a call from the business guy from Grove Atlantic, and he said, “I’m going to read you some numbers, and they’re not going to sound like much to you, but they’re very interesting to me.” And he started with stuff like, “This bookstore in New Hampshire ordered two copies and re-ordered three days later.” It was that kind of thing: two copies here, five copies there. And I was thinking, Big deal. He said, “It’s not the numbers. It’s the pattern.”
The reviews started coming out, and that helped. Right around June the movie sale happened, and that kicked up interest. It was one thing after another. The cards fell right. It didn’t hit number one on the bestsellers list until the end of summer.
WC: What did it mean to win a prestigious prize like the National Book Award, and to have all the critical acclaim while being a North Carolina native who’d written a North Carolina novel?
CF: I don’t know that it struck me much at the time. One thing I do remember is that I didn’t know any North Carolina writers except for Kaye [Gibbons]. And then I started meeting them, and it felt like such a welcoming group of people. I remember sitting and having a drink with Reynolds Price. I’d been reading Reynolds Price since I was about 14 years old. All that just felt fairly unreal. And I was traveling nonstop. A lot of it was just the crazy, sudden change in my life from living on this little horse farm and building fences to traveling all over the country.
WC: What did it feel like when you learned that Jason Mott, another North Carolinian down on the east side of the state, had won the National Book Award?
CF: I was very happy to have another North Carolinian get that, especially knowing what it does. I remember the night of the award, sitting in a pancake house in New York City in a tuxedo, and the publisher Morgan Entrekin saying, “Whatever else happens in your career, and who knows what that will be, you will always be the winner of the National Book Award.”
Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.