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5 Questions with Charles Frazier

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AWARD-WINNING author Charles Frazier comes to Savannah on Nov. 14.

Frazier appears as part of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home’s Ursrey Lecture Series, endowed in memory of Terry and Ashley Ursrey.

Frazier’s first novel, Cold Mountain, debuted to wide acclaim, landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, winning the National Book Award in 1997, and being adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.

Since then, he has published three more books, the most recent being Varina in April. Varina is a fictional reimagining of the life of Varina Howells Davis, the First Lady of the Confederate States of America.

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We spoke with Frazier last week.

1. What do you have planned for your lecture?

Frazier: It’s an onstage conversation with Dr. Beth Howells, head of the Department of Literature at Georgia Southern, so I’m sure we’ll talk about some questions ahead of time. But, I tend to like those things to be fairly unscripted because it’s more spontaneous. I’ll talk about my new book and, I imagine, the sorts of concerns and things that stretch back through the books I’ve written. I’ll probably read a small amount—not one of those things where you drone on and on.

2. What are those concerns through your body of work?

Three of the four books have been set in the 19th century or largely in the 19th century. Present time in Varina is 1906. That was kind of my area in grad school—19th century British and American fiction. I’m comfortable in that area.

So many of the historical events, political events, the kind of political philosophy events that continue to shape this country were established in the 19th century. Of course, the Civil War was that sort of central event that we’re still dealing with the aftermath of.

Over the four or five years that I worked on Varina, it was like every day was a reminder of how much the issues of that war affect us, the aftermath of slavery that we’ve never fully dealt with. All the things in the news the past few years—Confederate iconography, monuments and flags—all of that is amazingly still relevant. When I was 18, I would have thought that would have been settled long before now.

All those things are just there in your mind, and to be working on this book when the church shooting in Charleston happened and when the violence in Charlottesville happened, it’s a constant reminder that we have not been able to put those issues behind us.

3. Your debut novel, Cold Mountain, was incredibly successful. What was that like for your momentum as an author?

People sometimes phrase a question like that as, “Did you expect that to happen?” and I always say, you’ve got to be psychotic to expect that to happen. It’s like winning the lottery. It was totally unexpected. It was life-changing in a way, and in a lot of ways not.

With the next book, you just had to put that as much out of your mind as you could get it and do what you do. When I wrote Cold Mountain, I wasn’t thinking about that. I just vaguely hoped it would get published.

I also didn’t want to stop at that point. Some people said, “Why didn’t you just stop?” That’s sort of what I do.

4. Tell me about your process of writing historical fiction—that must require more research than other genres of writing.

Some of the reason I’m drawn to that is that I like the research part. It’s the part I really enjoy without any “buts” or anything. I can sped a day happily at a library looking at old documents, that kind of thing. With writing, I’ve got very mixed feelings about sitting at a desk for hours. Even on the physical level, I’d rather be out taking a hike or in the woods.

5. Now that Varina is finished, do you have any new work in the pipeline?

I’ve got something that I’m about 80 percent sure is the thing I’m going to work on next. I’m spending a couple hours a day at the desk looking at that, but I’ve still got a good bit of travel between now and Thanksgiving. That’s mostly what I’m going to be doing, book travel.

This year I did the entire month of April without going home. This is kind of book festival season, so I’ve been doing book festivals since the end of August every weekend or so. I’m kind of looking forward to being off the road. It’s like some musicians I know say, I would play for free and just consider I get paid to travel. It’s the being away from home, in airports especially—that part of it gets old. And meeting people who still read books is nice.

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