Revered author Charles Frazier comes down off the mountain for
a talk in Santa Cruz about his new book, ‘Thirteen Moons’
There are few big league writers who can score something like an $8 million advance for their sophomore book. Charles Frazier is among the select few. He might even be the one-and-only. In 1997 his first book, “Cold Mountain,” was published. The novelist was quickly ushered into the A-list. His book became a massive bestseller, he won the National Book Award for it and the story went on to hit the big screen, starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger, who won an Oscar. Now, in 2006, nearly 10 years later, Frazier competes with his past success, while reviewers and fans soak up his new book, “Thirteen Moons.” At 7:30 p.m., on Monday, Dec. 4, Frazier will speak at Bookshop Santa Cruz about his new offering in the literary world. “Thirteen Moons” tells the story of young Will Cooper, a 12-year-old orphaned boy who is turned out by his aunt and uncle, and sent to oversee a trading post in the woods, on the edge of Cherokee territory. Eventually, the Cherokees adopt young Will into their culture and family. Meanwhile, a love story, and a whole lot more arise in this powerful work by Frazier. GT recently caught up with the esteemed author.
GT: It’s been 10 years since “Cold Mountain” came out, how much of that time until now was spent researching “Thirteen Moons” and how much time was spent writing the book?
Charles Frazier: I write and research at the same time. I don’t spend a year doing research and then stop and start writing. I work the first part of a book doing 75 percent research and 25 percent writing and then those figures reverse over the years. For about five years or so, I worked on it. After “Cold Mountain” was published I spent two years pretty much on book tours.
GT: “Thirteen Moons,” like “Cold Mountain,” has exquisite details about unique cultures. It’s not the sort of stuff you find in history books. What does that say about your research process?
CF: One of my main interests in reading and art is “place,” and so the place that I know best is the Southern Appalachians. With this book I spent a whole lot of time reading natural history, travel writing from the period I was going to be dealing with, memoirs, any kind of primary document, a lot of military reports, all kinds of things like that. And I do a lot of getting out and walking and bike riding in the kinds of place that I’m writing about. When I know I’m going to be writing about something, I pay attention at a different level to the changes of seasons and the plants and the weather, those kinds of things. And if I get stuck on a scene, often I’ll go to some place in the mountains that would work for that scene and think about what it is I’m going to write if it happened there.
GT: When writing this book, how did you measure up to yourself and your previous book? In essence, were you in competition with yourself? Or did you just let that go and simply write?
CF: Ideally it would be the latter—that you’re trying to write the best book you can write at that particular time and just try to be content with that. On the other hand, it’s hard not to think about the expectation. I didn’t want to finish this book feeling like it was a redheaded stepchild to “Cold Mountain.”
GT: At what point do you know that you’re ready to begin writing? Do you have an outline and chapter summaries written up?
CF: None of that. With “Cold Mountain” I had a little bit of a story about that ancestor of mine. That would have been an outline, only you could have written it on an envelope. I like to have four of five key elements. It makes a story and with this one (“Thirteen Moons”) I knew there were a handful of elements that I wanted to be in the book. This book was going to be a lot more dependent on a narrative voice that drives the book. It’s kind of a process of discovery. I have writer friends that by the time they have an outline written, the book is half done. For me, I just love finding things. For example, I had this vague sense that Will and Featherstone (a character in the book) needed to have some conflict. I ran across a little piece about the etiquette of dueling. They both want to be so cultured, and in some way, they needed to get involved in that.
GT: How much time do you spend writing every day?
CF: Without a deadline, three hours a day. With a deadline, more than that, usually six hours a day. Sometimes you sit there long enough to know whether anything will happen or not. I’m not a morning writer or a morning person in general, so I usually aim to start writing at two or three in the afternoon and I go until something is happening.
GT: Tell us about Will Cooper (the main character in “Thirteen Moons”). Who is this man? What do you like about him? Is he someone that would be your friend?
CF: I think I’d enjoy spending some time with Will. I think Will is more optimistic than I am. He has more of a sense of his ability to shape the world in a direction that he thinks is good. He’s a very forward-looking person. Even though the book is retrospective, through his life, he is looking forward.
GT: I understand Will Cooper is based on a real person?
CF: William Holland Thomas, a guy who was sent out to the edge of the Cherokee nation at 12 or 13 years old to run a trading post. (He was adopted by the Cherokee people.) From that point on in his life, he was tied up with that small group of Cherokee until he died and it was that group of Cherokee who were able to resist the Trail of Tears and stay there.
GT: How did you find out about William Holland Thomas?
CF: I was doing research on “Cold Mountain” and I ran across (some information) about an old man in a mental institution in the Raleigh area who some days would only speak Cherokee. I kept thinking who was that guy? How did he end up in a mental institution?
GT: I understand from reading some other interviews that you were frustrated about news getting out about your $8 million advance for this book. Did you feel like people were putting too much emphasis on the money, rather than the literature?
CF: Well, yes. And also, that kind of thing is private. How would people feel if their salary was on the crawl on CNN? But, it is what it is and I have to accept that it is a part of the territory.
GT: I also read somewhere that producer Scott Rudin paid $3 million for the rights to the movie version of “Thirteen Moons.” When will the movie come out and will you be involved in that process? And, do you have anyone in mind to play Will Cooper?
CF: If I was making the movie I would be thinking about an actor in the 25-30 range. But I don’t have a dream person. I haven’t been to a lot of movies in the past three years. I’ve been pretty much working seven days a week on this book. I’ve had one call saying that they’re beginning to think about a director and screenwriter and are in the very early stages.
GT: What did you think about the movie version of your book, “Cold Mountain”?
CF: I liked what some of the actors did. I was very happy that Renee Zellweger got her Oscar. Going on a film set and seeing these things that have been in your head made real, to see and walk into Ada and Ruby’s house and there’s Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger walking around … it was really weird.
GT: Are you still living in North Carolina and raising horses?
CF: We live in North Carolina part of the year then follow the horse show season. We raise jumpers and a couple of hunters. Mostly doing jumping right now.
GT: What’s next for you after the book tour?
CF: A short novel. I have a couple in mind, but they’re not set in the 19th century.