Frazier builds riveting character, history

Charles Frazier, a quiet, soft-speaking North Carolinian, has written the literary equivalent of an explosion.

Already, "Cold Mountain," his novel about a wounded Confederate veteran who deserts the savage war and begins a journey home across North Carolina, has won the National Book Award.

Frazier's novel -- remarkably, his first -- has seemingly found a home on the New York Times best-seller list. It has been in the top of the book charts for more than 40 weeks and does not show signs of losing its grip.

Frazier, a former English professor at North Carolina State University who quit his day job to write his novel, has penned a stunning work of fiction.

He is as surprised by the reaction to his novel as anyone else.

For the record, the hardback book has sold more than 1.5 million copies. Film rights have been purchased by UA/MGM for $1.25 million. Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") is scheduled to direct the movie.

Heady stuff for a writer who nine years ago was teaching English and working on a novel whose outline was based on a few lines of family history that traced the fatal trek by his great-great uncle, W.P. Inman.

Frazier grew up in Franklin and Andrews, N.C.. His grandparents lived on a farm at the foot of Cold Mountain in Haywood County, and even as a boy he was hiking in the countryside, taking notes in journals, studying the land, the animals and the people and their culture.

"I just loved walking in the mountains." Says Frazier. "Where I grew up, that little town is pretty much surrounded by National Forest land. I would take a walk with my grandmother. She knew the names of any plants you pointed out. I wanted to know a place, and my place is Southern Appalachia.

"My grandfather was born in the 1870s. He was very much a 19th century man. When I was real young, the farm was still in operation, that old-style mountain farm. There was no tractor, no power lawn mower, nothing with an engine. It was sort of a last chance to be a farm to run in that old style way. Except for electricity in the house, it wasn't that different from the way a farm was run in that (Civil War) era."

As a child, Frazier says, he thought a lot about his grandparents and the fact that they grew up not long after the end of the Civil War.

"I'm 47. When I was a kid the echoes of the war and Reconstruction were still there. ... The pride and resentment they felt for those years of real hardship, you could just feel it in the older people who had lived through that ending of Reconstruction."

Frazier also grew up hearing stories about Yankee soldiers stealing livestock from mountain farms.

"I thought of it all like throwing a great big rock into a pond, and it takes a long time for those ripples to flatten out."

Frazier, who worked on his novel for about nine years before it was published, says he did not set out to write a typical Civil War novel of battles, strategies and generals.

"I was very suspicious of that. There have been good ones and bad ones. In the South, you get all that sort of stereotypical idolization of Lee and Jackson.

"I didn't want to get into that. The story of my ancestor being just so horribly damaged by that war and just wanting to get home, that walk home, that caught my imagination. I wanted to write a book that the Southern Appalachians were a big part of."

In writing the novel, Frazier borrowed a page from Cormac McCarthy, one of his writing heroes. He studied old words and word usage. He dug into the roots and wrote phrases that died out with many of the mountain ways.

"A lot of it was trying to remember those old words and expressions. I did an awfully lot of research for the book."

This book is his first. It is also pretty much the first story he has ever published. One 12-page short story prior to the book had found its way in print. He had been teaching English and living on a 11-acre horse farm in Raleigh with his wife, Katherine, an accounting professor at North Carolina State, and their daughter, Annie.

In 1989, Katherine, 44, gave her husband the boost he needed to abandon teaching and to focus on his book. She told him to quit his teaching job and finish his novel.

Over the years, the notebooks he had kept on folklore, mountain music, Indian history and natural history of the area kept nagging at him.

"I was doing notebooks before I knew I was working on a book," Frazier says.

"If you want to know a place, you have to know it in detail. I was trying to learn some of that, that I hadn't learned as a kid. It was all going into notebooks. I kept looking at them and thinking, 'There is material here, but I don't know what for.' But when I heard the story of my ancestor, then I thought, 'That's what this is for.'

"I never thought one day I would write a novel. It doesn't seem too surprising for my relatives. They always said I would do this one day. That's because I was always a reader. "

The story of Inman, the main character in "Cold Mountain," was actually his great-great uncle Pinkney Inman, who lived with a clan of Inmans on the Little East Fork of the Pigeon River near Waynesville.

Frazier's father, Charles O. Frazier, had written a family history of the Inmans, and it was just a few lines about Pinkney which serves as the foundation for the book. Like the novel's protagonist, Pinkney deserted while recovering from battle wounds.

Pinkney walked away from a Confederate hospital in Raleigh to return to his home near Cold Mountain, which is in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area of Pisgah National Forest.

Frazier says his father's short description of Pinkney was "like someone handing you an outline for a book.

"I know a lot about the Inmans. My father knew the basic story of his war experience. It was just 40 words in my father's history. There was not much to be found on Inman himself," says Frazier.

There is no known photograph and not very much written family history on Pinkney Inman.

Frazier says this scarcity of knowledge may have worked the way it should for a writer.

"I look at it now and think it is lucky I didn't have a lot of information, because it let me do what a fiction writer needs to do, and that is to create a character and situations."

Other than fashioning a riveting character, Frazier says another purpose of the book was to look at how the Civil War affected the people of the mountains.

"I just kept trying to think, 'Why did people go fight in that war?' For the most part they didn't own slaves in Western North Carolina or East Tennessee. Only a tiny fraction of people owned slaves, less than 10 percent. They weren't connected to that slave economy or that northern industrial economy. They were subsistence farmers. I don't think I ever understood why they went to fight.

"But part of it was that feeling of being invaded."

In this respect, Frazier says he was an architect, building a fictional world with specific details. He was writing to let the world of Pinkney Inman and the people of Southern Appalachia of the 19th century seep through to the reader.

"I wanted people to read it and really feel the texture of it and understand that it was a very different world than the one we live in. It was another culture."