A Shot of Southern Comfort
Charles Frazier was at Powell’s the other night. The Oregonian’s Book Editor, Jeff Baker, asked questions of the soft-spoken author, who answered thoughtfully in his wonderful lilting Southern drawl. In fact, he spoke in the same voice as he writes – each sentence carefully parsed out and beautifully stated.
The first topic up was to decide whether Frazier’s new book, Nightwoods, is a thriller. Frazier said, “To a degree. The years that I was working on this, I was watching a lot of film noir. It used to be really hard to see that stuff, even 15 or 20 years ago, to be able to go see Out of the Past, for example, a Robert Mitchum movie. I began realizing all I have to do now is put it on my Netflix queue. So, I was watching a lot of those, and I think that surely had a big influence on this book, but there’s also the sense of playing with some of those genre conventions. You’ve read some of those plot points before, and I was trying to have some fun with getting toward one of those and then veering in another direction. I’m not making my main bad-guy character a psychopathic killer who’s really focused, and knows exactly what he wants, and is always sure of himself. I wanted to write a guy who’s just a real screw-up, who doesn’t think of himself as a hardened criminal. He thinks of himself as an innocent victim of a cruel world that’s rigged against him.”
On his writing process for Nightwoods Frazier said, “I don’t have an outline. I just kind of wander my way through the first year of working on a book trying to figure out who these characters are. There were a number of characters that got discarded along the way. That first part of the book, I’m just feeling my way through. It’s the only way that’s worked for me, and it’s a frustrating process because it’s really inefficient. I throw away a lot of stuff. But, I love that feeling at the beginning of a book, that it’s just like you’re standing at the beginning of a trail, and there are branches that just go everywhere, and you can go down any one of those you want. As you work your way through the book, those things narrow down until you get to the end of the book, and you hope there’s just one way to the end. But I love that first year, when the possibilities are endless, and it feels to me that I would be so constrained by an outline. The way I really think of it is that the first two years of working on a book, I need to be as intuitive as I can be, to be open to those intuitions, following them with the realization that many of them are going to be dead ends. Then, the last year of working on a book, I need to be as brutal and analytical as I can be, and not fall in love with any piece of the book at the expense of the whole book. I cut some stuff I just loved in the last six months of this book – pieces I worked weeks on – because I thought they were changing the pace or they were casting backward when I wanted the reader to be moving forward. I’m very self-indulgent in the first part of writing the book and I try to be really, really un-self-indulgent at the end of it.”
When asked how he liked writing a short book he said, “I loved it. It gave me the time to work the language. When the book gets down to crunch time and there’s a deadline, it’s the language that can suffer. I really like having shorter books so that during the last rush, when your editor is just hammering away at deadlines, you’re at the point where you can still be doing this little tinkering that I like, that probably not one out of ten readers really would notice. I want these things to be right.”
Frazier added, “I never set out to be a writer of historic fiction. In the 80s, I was working on a book that was set at the present moment. The main character drove an Audi 100. The songs he listened to on the radio were the songs of that year. I had been out to Wyoming working on that book in the fall of that year and went back to North Carolina. My father had retired and was working on a family history, and told me this one paragraph thing he had about his family history, about this guy who’s been wounded and was in some of the major battles of the Civil War. He deserted, walked home, and was killed by the Home Guard when he got back. I immediately thought, ‘well, that’s a better story than mine.’ So, within a couple of weeks, I was working on that book and just kind of fell into the 19th century.”
Frazier talked about turning his novels into movies and has been approached with the possibility of making a movie out of Nightwoods. But he said, “You’ll see, you never know. Thirteen Moons is kind of stuck in this limbo where the people who bought it moved to another studio.” About the movie-making experience he said, “With Cold Mountain – there are a lot of writers who have these horror stories about having a movie made from a book, the kind of disrespect that Hollywood can dole out to novelist – but one of the first things that Anthony Minghella (director) said to me was ‘it doesn’t matter how much money this movie makes, or how many awards it wins, if you don’t like it, I’m not going to consider it a success.’ He was as respectful to me as a writer as I can imagine anybody making movies being. It was fascinating to watch the process. From the beginning, I was getting every draft of the screen play, and calls saying hey, we’re going to be in Nashville recording. It’s going to be Ralph Stanley and Jack White from the White Stripes. Come on down. Come to Romania because we’re going to be filming there. It was fun to watch.”
The requisite question on his writing routine brought this response: “Asheville has a lot of things in common with Portland but on a smaller scale. It’s a real food town, it’s an outdoorsy town, lots of kids running around with dreadlocks and many, many, many tattoos. So when I’m there, I get my exercise on my mountain bike usually in the middle of the day. Then, I get home about three and start working and I work as long as I can work, which is usually five or six hours. That’s seven days a week, because if I take a day off, then the next day’s guaranteed to be a bad day. Which means that we don’t go out to dinner a whole lot. It’s a very boring process, but it’s the one that keeps me moving forward. A novel is such a long thing for me, that if I’m doing it everyday, then I can feel the progress, feel the accumulation of the material. If I do it sporadically, I lose heart that it’s ever going to ever actually be a book.”
It was nearly a perfect evening, but for the woman intent on bullying her way to the front of the signing line, even though it meant she had to physically accost patient fans while mumbling something about having reached the store first. But we readers, usually of the meek variety, let her have her spot at the front. After all, it was Charles Frazier for heaven’s sake, so we could almost forgive her. Almost. Though, if she tries it again, we might wrestle her to the ground.
Random House, October, 2011
Charles Frazier won the National Book Award in 1997 for Cold Mountain. Thirteen Moons was a NYT bestseller. Frazier lives in Asheville, North Carolina.