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Cold Mountain

November 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This year’s fiction award went to Charles Frazier for the novel “Cold Mountain.” The book, his first, is a publishing phenomenon, with over a million copies sold. It tells the story of Inman, a confederate soldier who deserts the army and returns to his home on Cold Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Charles Frazier grew up in that region. He taught literature at several universities before turning to writing seven years ago. He joins us now from Raleigh, where he raises show ponies. Thank you for being with us and congratulations.

CHARLES FRAZIER: Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Your character, Inman, who leaves the hospital and goes home, is based on a real person in your family, is he not?

CHARLES FRAZIER: Yes, he is. My father told me a story six or seven years ago about an ancestor of ours, a great uncle, who was wounded in the Civil War and walked home.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Cold Mountain is a real place, isn’t it?

CHARLES FRAZIER: It’s a real place; it’s over 6,000 feet tall.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Instead of having you tell us about it, read us part of your book about Cold Mountain.

CHARLES FRAZIER: Sure. This is where Inman first gets within sight –on his journey home.

“Inman can see west for scores of miles. Crests and scarp and crags stacked and grey to the long horizon. Catalucci, the Cherokee word was, meaning waves and mountains and fading roads, this day the waves could hardly be different from the raw winter sky that were barred and marbled and same-shades of gray only. The outlook stretched high and low like a great slab of streaked meat. Inman, himself, could not have been better dressed to conceal himself amid this world. All he wore was gray and black and dirty white. Bleak as the scene was, though, there was growing joy in Inman’s heart. He was nearing home. He could feel it in the touch of thin air on skin, in his longing to see the leap of hearth smoke from the houses of people he had known all his life, people he would not be called upon to hate or fear. He rose and took a wide stance on a rock and stood, and pinched down his eyes to sharpen the view across the vast prospect to One Fire Mountain and stood apart from the sky only as the stroke of a poorly-inked pen, a line thin and quick and gestural, with the shape slowly replaying, and unmistakable, it was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was homeland.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck in reading this book and in hearing what you just read the way that you made Inman, this journey, the war that he leaves, and this mountain mythical, and I wonder how you did it.

CHARLES FRAZIER: I thought a lot about the natural history of the place, the human history of the place, the folklore of the place, the role of the mountains in the folklore of the Cherokee Indians, and the folklore of the old Celtic people who settled that area 200 years ago.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When I–I mean, it’s almost a physical feeling one gets in the book. “When I feel it”–almost like a fairytale–although that’s not quite the right word. It’s because you really specifically wanted to do that.

CHARLES FRAZIER: I did. And early on in the book I was reading my daughter a lot of those old Southern Appalachian folk tales, jack tales, and those sorts of tales, so I think some of that fairytale quality might have–might have just bled into the book from that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The language is so unusual too. It’s almost archaic. It’s language from another world. Did you do that–I gather you did that on purpose too?

CHARLES FRAZIER: I did, and I wanted to get that sense; that this is–this is America, but it is another world, that it is an alien culture with an alien language that you have to do a certain amount of learning as you read the book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because it’s the story of a man’s odyssey from this terrible war where he’s so badly injured and so damaged–home–it naturally has echoes of the “Odyssey,” and I felt those echoes all the way through. Were you thinking of the “Odyssey” when you wrote it?

CHARLES FRAZIER: I was. When my father told me the story, that was one of my first thoughts, was that in some of its basic features the story was similar to the “Odyssey.” So I went back and reread the “Odyssey” and tried not to write parallel scenes or anything like that but just to have a recognition, as I wrote, that that was a literary ancestor of the story.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The counterpoint to the Inman story, this injured Confederate soldier, is the woman that he loved. Her story–she is right near Cold Mountain, right there waiting in a sense for him, but she has a very full life of her own. Read something about Ada to us and Ruby, the woman that she hires to work for her.

CHARLES FRAZIER: In this little bit, they’re sitting up in a barn loft, and Ruby is trying to let Ada know that she doesn’t understand much about this world she is inhabiting. “You say you want to get to know the running of this land,” Ruby said. “Yes,” Ada said. “Ruby Rose knelt behind Ada and cupped her hand over Ada’s eyes.” “Listen,” Ruby said. “Her hands were warm and rough over Ada’s face. They smelled of hay, tobacco leaves, flour, and something deeper, a clean animal smell. Ada felt their thin bones against her fluttering eyes. ‘What do you hear,’ Ruby said. Ada heard the sound of wind in the trees, the dry rattle of their late leaves–she said as much–trees, she said contemptuously–as if she’d expected such a foolish answer. ‘Just general trees is all. Got a long way to go.’”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Frazier, Ruby is a person who knows how to do just about everything that needs to be done on a farm, and Ada’s come from a more privileged background in Charleston, a big city girl. Do you think–you go through in great detail Ruby teaching Ada how to be in the world and how to know this world. Do you think that’s one of the reasons people have loved this book so much, because they long for that lost world in some way, of knowing how to do everything?

CHARLES FRAZIER: I think that may be some of it, yes. And not necessarily the particular elements of living in Ada’s world, but this recognition that there are–that living in the world is a matter of details and particulars. It’s a very physical thing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You write about those details so carefully. It took seven years to write the book, and I read that sometimes you would only finish a paragraph a day. Is that why, because you wanted to be so detailed about exactly how a leaf sounds when it quivers in the wind, or how you deal with–with the goat that you’re butchering?

CHARLES FRAZIER: I’m a very slow writer, and a page a day–a page is a very good day’s work for me. And a lot of it is conjuring up those details that make an imaginary world.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you brought back the world of–all the things that Ruby teaches Ada to do, and also the way of talking and telling stories from that world, in a way that there’s something elegiac and sad about it. Do you long for that lost world yourself?

CHARLES FRAZIER: Certainly. I think there’s that old culture of America that’s gone, and I suppose when I was a child in the Southern Appalachians, there was just a moment when you could see little, little vestiges of that, and part of the book is an elegy for that old America.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So part of your goal was really to give us a chance to see that old America.

CHARLES FRAZIER: To see the old one and perhaps to imply a comparison to the current one.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve sold the book to be made into a movie for more than a million dollars. Your life has changed greatly. Do you welcome the change?

CHARLES FRAZIER: I’ve been pretty much on a book tour since June, so I’m going to be curious to see how my life is difference once I’m home and living it again.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Will you work on the film? I gather the screen play is to be written by the same person who wrote the screen play for the “English Patient.” Will you collaborate?

CHARLES FRAZIER: I think that’s the plan. I don’t understand screen plays. When I read ‘em, they seem incoherent to me, and so I think that disqualifies me to write ‘em, but I’m happy to answer any questions they might have.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you have another novel in mind?

CHARLES FRAZIER: I’ve got a couple of ideas, and once I’m home in January for an extended period of time, I’m anxious to see which one of those I want to start on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Frazier, thank you so much. And congratulations again.