An Interview with Charles Frazier, about Cold Mountain
It seems almost incredible that Cold Mountain is your first
novel. Have you ever tried writing fiction before--short stories, or incomplete
Like a lot of people, I tried to write some fiction when I was in
my twenties--college age, just after that. It didn't work out so well. I wasn't
happy with what I did; it was sort of pretentious and technically pretty weak.
So I put that idea away and decided that I was going to be an academic and that
I would study other people's writing rather than write myself. But when I got to
be forty, I started wanting to write again for some reason, and found when I
began doing it that what I was doing was very different from what I had done
when I was twenty-five. I liked it better and was happier doing it, and it
seemed to me to be worth doing, suddenly. I think as you get older you get a
sense of what is important in life and what is significant enough to write
Turning to Cold Mountain: Who was the original Inman?
He was my great great uncle. And part of the character was based on
my great grandfather. Both of them went to the Civil War--volunteered in the
first few months of that war fever and went off to battle. This Inman was in
some of the worst fighting of the war. He was in Virginia and was in many
battles in key positions. But I knew so little about him. There were no
photographs of him; he wrote no letters home. It's just a little fragment of a
family story about this guy--of his war experience, his coming home, and what
happened to him when he got there.
Was there something particular about his story, that struck you as
The thing that interested me most--and I think that caught my
imagination when my father told me this story--was his walk home, away from the
war, toward home and the mountains of North Carolina. I thought about what he
was getting away from and what he was walking toward. And that shaped the
character and the whole direction of the novel.
How long did you think about Inman's story before deciding to turn it
into a novel?
I'd been wanting to write a book that had the southern Appalachian
Mountains as a primary force, almost like a main character, for quite some time,
but I didn't know whether I wanted to write a work of fiction, nonfiction, or
what. I had been keeping notebooks and doing a lot of background research:
history, natural history, that kind of thing. But I didn't have a story. I
didn't have a focus for the book; I just had material. So when my father told me
this story, I immediately thought "Well there's my story, that's my
focus," and I probably began working within two or three days.
So which elements of his story in the book were real, and which did you
Well, we knew so little. The story my father told was a short
paragraph, at most a few sentences, of facts--a kind of an outline of a fairly
short life. I tried to fill that in with research from his war records and the
state archives and came up with maybe that much more. So what I had to begin
with was two paragraphs about this fella. What I knew was what kind of family he
was from, when he went to the war, the battles he was in, when he was wounded,
when he left the war and went home, and what happened to him when he got there.
I tried to keep that bare outline as true to the facts of his life as I could
make it. But what the absence of information allowed me to do was to make up a
character and make a story, and that's what novelists need to do. So in some
sense I'm happy that I didn't have more information, that Inman didn't keep a
journal for me to draw from, that I had to make it up.
What made you decide to base Inman's story on The Odyssey?
When my father told me the story of this ancestor, that was one of
the first things I thought of--that there were certain parallels to The
Odyssey that might be useful in trying to think of a way to tell this story.
A warrior, weary of war, trying to get home and facing all kinds of impediments
along the way, a woman at home beset by all kinds of problems of her own that
are as compelling as his. So I reread The Odyssey--that was one of the
first things I did when I really began working on the book. There was a certain
temptation to write parallel scenes--to try to have a Cyclops scene, or
whatever. But really quickly I decided that that would be pretty limiting and
kind of artificial. So I just let The Odyssey stay in the back of my mind
as a model of a warrior wanting to put that war behind him and get home.
Did you see any parallels between the actual American Civil War and the
Not in particular. I was pretty suspicious of writing a Civil War
novel. I didn't want to write a novel of the battles and the generals and those
famous personalities. There have been a lot of books written about that--good
ones and bad ones--and I didn't want to add to the bulk of that literature. But
I realized that there are two kinds of books about a war: there's an Iliad,
about fighting the war, and about the battles and generals, and there's an Odyssey,
about a warrior who has decided that home and peace are the things he wants.
Once I decided that I was writing an Odyssey kind of book instead of an Iliad
kind of book, I could move forward with it with some sense of happiness.
What characteristics did you give Inman to make him resemble Odysseus?
Well, that desire for home is certainly the core of it. There are
wonderful passages in The Odyssey where Odysseus just sort of drifts into
prayer--these monologues that express his deepest desires. And I looked at those
pretty carefully to discover what this character wants, what it is he's afraid
of and running from, and what it is he's running toward. Those things helped me
The style of Cold Mountain is rather unconventional, not quite
like that of any other book. Why did you decide to use this unusual rhythm and
I was interested in several things in the language of the book. One
was: I was creating this historical, fictional world, and I wanted the language
of the book to create a sense of otherness, of another world, one that the
reader doesn't entirely know. It occupies many of the same geographical points
as our current world, but is in a lot of ways very different. I wanted the
language to signal that. So one thing I used to help with that was words for
tools and processes and kitchen implements that are almost lost words. Ugly, old
words like piggin and spurtle and keeler, which are all kitchen implements.
Those kinds of words would signal to a reader that it's a different material
world, a different physical world from ours. The other thing I was interested
in, since I was writing a lot about the southern Appalachians, was getting a
sense of the particular use of language in that region, the rhythm of it. I
didn't want to resort to spelling liquor "l-i-k-k-e-r" or something
like that. I wanted the music of that language more than just oddities of
spelling and pronunciation. So I thought about the way old people talked when I
was a kid, who had that authentic Appalachian accent, and realized that it was
more a music, a rhythm, than anything else in my ear, and there were days that I
could hear that--a voice, a pattern of voice, somewhat like, say, Bill Monroe's
when he was talking rather than singing, that has a very musical quality to it.
When I could hear that in my ear, I was sure I was going to have a good day of
The dialogue in Cold Mountain is memorably idiosyncratic. Do
people still talk in that region that way the characters in the novel do?
You can find people who still talk that way, who use some of those
old expressions, and have that old rhythm, but it's going quickly. Everybody
listens to television and everybody begins to talk the same. There is a kind of
loss of regional identity in that. But you still get that kind of very laconic
response sometimes with real native mountaineers.
You must have done extensive research into the habits and routines of
agriculture and farm life during the nineteenth century. How did you research
There are a couple of ways: the first thing was just memory. When I
was growing up in the fifties and early sixties, there were still farms in the
southern mountains that ran in that old nineteenth-century way. They maybe had
electricity, but all the processes of farming were pretty much pre-twentieth
century. That is, they didn't have tractors, they plowed with mules, everything
was done with animal power, lots of arms, with no powered equipment whatsoever.
So it was an exercise in memory to try to recover the look of a farm like that,
the rhythm of a day at a farm like that, the quiet of a place like that without
the roar of an engine going on all the time. The parts that I couldn't remember
from my childhood experience--the details--I filled in with library research. A
lot of old journals and letters and things like that--where people would be
talking about what their plans for the farm were--were very helpful, and then
more academic kinds of research on nineteenthÐcentury agricultural practices.
Some might see library research as the least interesting part. How did
you find it?
In many ways it's my favorite part of working on a book. I love to
spend the day in the library with a handful of questions that I need answered.
To be able to fill out this fictional world I'm trying to create. I always go in
with five or six questions, but the things I actually find end up being much
more interesting than the things that I went to find. The kinds of things I
enjoy the most and that were the most helpful in writing the book were things
like letters and journals of women of the nineteenth century. And I think they
helped me a great deal in developing female characters that maybe are a little
different from most people's stereotypical views of what women were like then. I
found journals and letters of women who were very intelligent, headstrong,
opinionated, strong women. One of the things I remember is a group of wealthy
young women who had gone to a prep school in Charleston. They agreed when they
graduated that they would have a reunion ten years later, but they decided that
only the unmarried women could come to the reunion, because the married ones
would by definition be boring. And I'm not sure that that is our view of
nineteenth-century Southern womanhood. I was very interested in reading letters
to their husbands from women who'd been left at home to handle the family farm.
To follow those letters over the course of the war, to feel those women getting
stronger, more confident--they had begun the war asking their husbands'
permission for every decision that needed to be made. By about half way through
the war, those same women were informing their husbands that decisions had been
made. So it was a kind of process of self-mastery that I think is always a very
helpful thing to observe.
Music plays a very large role in the book. Why is that?
One of the things that music does is sum up a culture in some very
concrete way. That old time fiddle music--stringÐband music of the southern
Appalachians that's kind of an extension of Scottish and Irish and British folk
music--gave me access into that old culture and into that other time that seemed
very direct. I began collecting this music when I first started working on the
book, and when I could find something that would be, say, an old man in 1920
recording an old ballad or banjo tune or whatever, I felt like I was getting
about as direct access to a piece of that old southern Appalachian culture of
the nineteenth century as I was going to get.
Were you able to find old recordings that actually gave you a sense of
the music of the Civil War era?
Yeah, that kind of music is more and more accessible. There are
some wonderful re-issues. Small recording companies have done a wonderful job of
keeping that music alive. And in many cases this stuff may exist only on one or
two scratchy old records. To have those things preserved on CD is wonderful.
There are very few people that write about nature as masterfully as you
do. Are there any you particularly admire?
Well, there are lots. William Bartram was one of the great nature
writers of the early years of this country. He did a lot of traveling in the
Southeast, through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and wrote
these beautiful, ecstatic descriptions of the very untouched world in the late
1700s. And he found his way into the book--Inman reads, takes with him on his
journey, a copy of Bartram's travels and reads them as a kind of tonic when he's
feeling depressed or can't sleep or whatever. Some of the best nature writing I
know of is in fiction. Melville, for example, wrote wonderful descriptions of
the sea and sea life and that kind of thing. Tolstoy and Turgenev wrote
wonderful descriptions of nature and had very close observational eyes.
Hemingway in this century--a story like "Big Two-Hearted River" has in
it some of the best nature writing I know of anywhere. And of writers who are
working now, a writer like Barry Lopez is probably the best going in this
regard. Or a fiction writer like Jim Harrison who has a very keen eye for the
natural world. Those are all great writers that I read frequently and with great
What views of the war and of politics do you feel the novel puts
I tried not to think about that too much when I was working on the
book. I was interested in why a man like Inman went to this war--why he
volunteered. "It wasn't his fight," was my first thought on it--he
didn't own slaves and very few people he would have known did. Only about seven
or eight percent of people in the southern mountains owned slaves. I think that
he, and people like him, were fighting because they thought they we repelling an
invasion of their homeland. But what I began to think about the politics of that
war was that is was two economic systems--you had this slave/agricultural system
in the South and a growing industrial capitalist system in the North, and then
you had people like Inman who lived in an older economic system, kind of like
subsistence farming. You had people like that in the North and South, and one of
the tragedies of the war to me was that those people got caught up, caught in
the crossfire of this war. Many of them died fighting somebody else's battle.
Did your research on the Civil War period change your ideas on these
It did in some senses. I remember early on in writing the book,
going for a walk in the mountains and coming upon a grave--it was actually two
graves, side by side--in this lonesome hillside, five miles from the nearest
road. I found out later that it was an old man and a boy who had been killed by
federal raiders who had come over the mountains from Tennessee looking for food.
They killed these two guys that were just going about their business. Near there
is another double grave with a fiddler and a boy in it who were killed by
Southern Home Guard in much the same way. Looking at those two graves, and
seeing these people who were essentially farmers, caught in that crossfire and
killed in this utterly pointless way--I think did shape some of my feeling
toward the war.
Do you feel that thinking about the Civil War and Reconstruction can
shed light on what goes on in the world today?
Well, I think that thinking about the past is always useful. To
look at where we've been and where we are and to think about what we've gained
and what we've lost to get here, to think about whether that's been a good deal
or not, I think is always useful.
How long did it take you to write Cold Mountain?
I think I worked on it for six or seven years. It's hard to say
since I worked on it for quite a while without knowing that's what I was doing.
I was just going up to the mountains, knowing I wanted to write a book set
there, but I didn't have a story. I spent two or three years just trying to
learn the kind of plant lore, for example, that would have been a piece of
everyday knowledge in the nineteenth century and that we tend not to have these
days. Learning that kind of thing, learning the details of local history, of
local happenings, those kinds of things took a long time and didn't seem to have
any purpose for quite a long time.
Once you had written the book, how did you go about finding a
Well, the novelist Kaye Gibbons is a friend of mine and she read
the book when it was maybe halfway done and sent it off to her literary agency.
A young agent there decided to take an interest in the book and I guess when it
was three-quarters done, my agent said "I think we're ready to send it
out." She did, and had it sold within a couple, three weeks.
What were the reactions of people in the publishing industry when they
read you work?
I don't know. . . . They bought it, so I guess some of them liked
Did anyone ever think that it would be even close to the success that
it has become?
No, as a first novelist writing a book--a book that for years and
years was not under contract, I was just working on it and hoping to end up with
a book that I liked and that I was happy that I had done, whatever happened with
it. You'd be crazy to think of it becoming a bestseller, of winning literary
awards, that kind of thing. So I think we were all kind of hoping for modest
success within the realm of normal possibility. This has been an amazing
How has the enormous success of the novel affected your day-to-day
life, either positively or negatively?
Well, I have a whole lot less time
to write than I used to. I've been doing a lot of book tour- related things for
the past year, but other than that, the phone rings a lot more often than it
used to, and I travel a lot more, but it's pretty similar.
What was your reaction upon winning the National Book Award?
Well, I certainly didn't think I would, and I just went up to the event thinking
it would be a fun evening and that I would maybe get to see some writers that I
had always admired, and have a chance to meet a few people. But when my name was
announced, I was pretty surprised and had a hard time believing it for a second,
Probably the most vivid aspect of the novel is your powerful feeling
for the landscape of the Blue Ridge. Have you lived there all your life?
No, I grew up there and I spent a lot of time there as an adult,
but I went off to college and lived in Colorado for a certain amount of time.
But there are landscapes, I think, that people just identify as home, wherever
home is. And for me, that's home. Whenever I'm back in those mountains, I feel
like that's home, no matter how long I've been away. That's the place I know the
best, and the place that in my imagination sums up all those things about being
rooted and knowing a place and having a place.
Do you think you could be happy living in a big city?
No, I don't think so. Cities are nice to visit, but that's about
Are you at work on any other fiction?
I'm just in the very early stages of thinking about and taking
notes about another book. I don't know whether this is actually what I'll do or
not--that's part of what I'm doing, is trying to decide. But I'm interested in
the old mountain resorts in the southern Appalachians that had their high point
in the early part of the twentieth century. And I'm interested in the
relationship of those resorts, where before air-conditioning rich people would
come and spend an entire summer to get away from the heat, and live these
wonderful, elegant lives in beautiful surroundings. I'm also interested in where
that money came from, which was often from cotton mills down in the lowland
South, where people were working fourteen-hour days in 100-degree temperatures.
So I'm doing some reading about those two kinds of cultures and seeing if I find
a story there.
Do you plan on it turning into a full-length novel?
Well, that's the idea. I think there's a story there, and I'm
trying to turn it up.
Do you now consider yourself to be a full-time writer?
Yeah, I think so. For much of the time I was working on Cold
Mountain I was a full-time writer. I haven't taught in five or six years at
least, and probably will just write for the next few years, anyhow.