The North Carolina author had a monster hit with 'Cold Mountain.' Now he’s left the 1860s for the 1960s with a dark crime story. He talks to Malcolm Jones about the pleasures of writing about his own century for a change.
If it was hard to live through the overwhelming success of his first novel, Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier won’t admit it. “It would also be hard if the first one didn’t sell,” he says from his home in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville. “Then you’re scrambling and looking for a publisher and wondering if you just shouldn’t go to law school or something.”
He admits, though, that he was “definitely happy to just to get that second book [Thirteen Moon] done.” And then an almost palpable lightness comes into his voice when he speaks of his new book, his third novel, and the first one that has allowed him “to get out of the 19th century for a while.” Like its two predecessors, Nightwoods takes place mostly in the mountains of North Carolina, but this one—a noirish crime novel and romance—is set not in the 1860s but the 1960s. Unlike the first two novels, this one didn’t require a lot of historical research, although Frazier being the meticulous writer he is, he diligently checked little details, such as whether or not Studebaker Hawks had wind wings or not. But the most wonderful thing, he says, was the ability to write a book about a more or less modern world, “where a line like the one near the beginning about ‘tiny cavemen on Benzedrine making fire’—where a line like that would fit. It was a welcome change of procedure.”
Those tiny cavemen are two orphaned twins, “small and beautiful and violent” and overly fond of setting things on fire. “The children loved fire above all elements of creation.” As Nightwoods opens, they arrive on the doorstep of their aunt, Luce, a single woman hired as a caretaker of an abandoned resort hotel in western North Carolina. The kids—the spookiest pair since The Turn of the Screw—don’t talk, don’t really respond in any way to other humans. Frazier is careful not to diagnose them. Instead, he plops them into the narrative as unnerving little presences. All we know is what the characters in the book know: these children may be autistic, they may be the victims of domestic violence, but whatever they are, they’re damaged goods, capable of setting the woods on fire, or worse.
There is a back story: Luce’s sister, Lily, the children’s mother, is dead at the hands of her brutish husband, a truly scary redneck named Bud Johnson whose wily lawyer manages to get him judged not guilty. Bud knows that Lily was hiding money from him, and he figures the money’s gone with the kids (the children of Lily’s first husband who died before they were born). Since he and Lily lived in the middle of the state, and since none of her relatives know what he looks like, he follows the kids up to the mountains. There he insinuates himself with the locals as the new bootlegger and begins stalking Luce and her two charges.
Bud is a terrifying character, always veering between violence and self-pity. “With Bud, I was trying not to write about a psychopathic killing machine who’s focused on his victims with unwavering certainty. I wanted to write that character without a label on him like ‘psychopath.’ And he certainly doesn’t see himself like that. I think he sees himself as a kind of innocent, a victim.” He cites a scene where Bud suddenly kills a man by stabbing him in the stomach. The man just sits there “clutching that big cut in his middle, and Bud says, ‘How could you do me this way?’ That line just kind of popped into my head. When that one sentence just kind of arose out of nowhere, I thought, well, thanks for that.”
If you’re thinking Night of the Hunter, or Cape Fear or just about any film with a menacing Robert Mitchum in the lead, you’re on the right track. Stir in the plots of old murder ballads where a man kills his sweetheart—Frazier name checks “Omie Wise,” “Knoxville Girl,” and “Pretty Polly” to get you on the right track—and you’ve got the set up for Nightwoods. “The murder ballads get worked into the end of that first chapter,” Frazier says. “Sort of that connection between murder ballads and film noir was rolling around in my head while I was getting some momentum on the book.”
Momentum is just the right word. Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons did not lack for action, but the pace in both books was measured and often downright stately. From the get go, Nightwoods pegs the speedometer needle into the red and keeps it there for the duration. It is a terrifying, exhilarating thrill ride of a book.
“I had in mind from the start that I wanted this book to be shorter, quicker—the language being a little compressed,” Frazier says. “There are more sentence fragments in this one. I think that just came about with me keeping in mind every day I want this story to move.”
That said, he remembers how to slow down and savor the sort of details that make people and place come alive in a reader’s mind. Describing the old hotel where much of the action takes place, he tours us through the long hallways of empty bedrooms, the kitchen where nothing gets cooked any longer, and the yawning space of the lobby, complete with its “Stickley library stand with an unabridged 1913 Webster’s. The places where you naturally put your hands on the soft binding were stained dark, so that all you could figure was that decades of guests finished a greasy breakfast of sausage biscuits and then right away needed to look up a word.”
Luce’s loneliness at the outset, abetted by the silence that abides all around her, is assuaged by the radio that is her companion. “Luce finally fell asleep every night listening to WLAC out of Nashville. Little Willie John, Howlin’ Wolf, Maurice Williams, James Brown. Magic singers proclaiming hope and despair into the dark. Prayers pitched into the air from Nashville and caught by the radio way up here at the mountain lake to keep her company.”
Her loneliness is broken first by the arrival of the twins, and then by a man named Stubblefield, the grandson of the man who owned the hotel. Together this misfit quartet will ultimately band together to fend off all the trouble that Bud Johnson aims their way. But the feeling of aloneness, of isolation, never goes away. Conveying that feeling so successfully may be as close to autobiography as Frazier has ever come.
He grew up in the tiny town of Andrews, in far western North Carolina. “You’d have to come to Asheville, two hours away, to get a Raleigh paper,” he says. “Our radio station went off the air at sunset. We were so far west in the state that we got two TV stations, one from Atlanta and one from Chattanooga, so it really made you feel disconnected from the rest of the state, which was OK, because people in Raleigh felt disconnected from us, too. I met people when we lived down in Raleigh who’d ask where I grew up, and I’d say about two hours west of Asheville, and they’d say they didn’t know there was any North Carolina two hours west of Asheville. It was in many ways an isolated place.
“In the late '50s and early '60s, many of the kids in our town had never been to Asheville, and they were seniors in high school. My father was the school superintendent, and he wanted them to see the outer world, so every year for a while he organized a bus trip to Washington and New York, so that they could just see what the rest of the world was like. The tallest building in the town where I grew up might have been three stories—the church steeple probably was the tallest thing. Recently I was asking my mother about those trips, and she remembered one girl who went up to the top of the Empire State Building and said, ‘Is this all the high it is?’”
That sense of isolation is enhanced by the fact that most of the action happens, or seems to happen, at night, when impenetrable darkness blankets everything just beyond the porch light. “I’m sure a lot of it was written at night,” Frazier says. “When I’m up here by myself, I’ll frequently write until midnight.” Then he chuckles. “I remember Annie [his grown daughter] calling one night about 11:30 and she asked what I was doing. I said I was still working, and she said, ‘Oh, you college kids.’”