NEW YORK (Reuters) - Charles Frazier’s novel “Cold Mountain” was a bestselling and critical phenomenon in 1996 and later became an Academy Award-winning movie, which is not bad considering it was the 46-year-old’s debut.
Ten years later, the North Carolina native returned to his home state and the 19th century with “Thirteen Moons,” another best-seller.
His latest novel, “Nightwoods,” takes readers to early 1960s North Carolina, where Luce, a backwoods recluse, takes in her mute, pyromaniac twin niece and nephew after their stepdad murders their mother.
Frazier, who will be 61 on November 4, spoke to Reuters about the book and his career.
Q: How did the idea for this book develop?
A: “I had a different idea -- the place was going to be the same, and Luce would have been one of a group of secondary characters. I worked for maybe six months along those lines and then just got more interested in Luce. And then when the kids came into the book I kind of shifted gears and the book became more Luce’s book. The old lodge, the lake, the setting was probably the first thing I had.”
Q: You write extensively about nature in your books. How did you attain such knowledge of botany, animals and landforms?
A: “I’ve always been interested in the woods, even when I was just a little boy. Second or third grade after school on a fall day we would be wanting to get out into the woods, tromp around. So there’s that level of observation and experience. Another part of it is sort of construction. I don’t know nearly as many plant identification terms as I really should. I have to work that out when I need it. I learn it and then I forget it in a year. But I can re-learn it.”
Q: How does Cherokee culture influence your writing and lifestyle?
A: “I grew up with Cherokee land not far away -- not far away as the crow flies; as the roads went, it took a while to get there. I’ve just always been interested in and aware of the culture. And just in the past five years or so I’ve been working on a couple little projects to try to help preserve the language.”
Q: You were 46 when you published Cold Mountain. Were you ever frustrated that success didn’t come sooner?
A: “I don’t think I knew enough to write, certainly not to write Cold Mountain earlier. That was my first novel, so it wasn’t like I had six sitting around in boxes that had been written and rejected. I just didn’t get around to trying to write one till I was nearly 40.”
Q: A common theme in your books is that modern entertainment robs us of the freedom nature offers.
A: “Certainly that, and also I think it robs people of idiosyncrasies and oddities. It smoothes out the edges and sort of regularizes. It has this effect of bringing the outliers in, I think.”
Q: Are you conflicted, then, about your books being made into movies?
A: “I think if you can’t let go of the story and the characters enough to take the attitude that the book is your expression of the material, the movie is somebody else’s -- the director, the screenwriter, that whole group of people that have the creative input in a movie -- then you probably shouldn’t sell it. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t always try to get a book into the hands of a director or screenwriter that I think sees the material a lot the way I do.”
Q: Cold Mountain was critically acclaimed, Thirteen Moons less so. Do you feel any pressure to prove critics wrong with Nightwoods?
A: “If you write books for other people’s taste I‘m not quite sure what you end up writing. Spending all your time looking backwards for me would be a guaranteed way to run into a writer’s block. I don’t give that an awful lot of thought. Looking backwards, that’s really not going to get me anything I want.”