been more than two decades since award-winning author
Charles Frazier had wild success with his debut novel,
became an international bestseller that won the National
Book Award and was adapted into an Academy-Award winning
film by Anthony Minghella.
expected, national media like Southern Living,
Entertainment Weekly and USA Today named his fourth
novel, "Varina," one of the most anticipated
books of the year.
readers turn to the dedication page, theyíll see the
name of Nancy Olson, the late owner of Raleighís Quail
Ridge Books who championed Frazier as an author before
"Cold Mountain" was even published in 1997.
ĎCold Mountainí was about to be published, she was
so helpful to me in so many ways, including telling me
how to do a book store event," said Frazier, a
former Raleigh resident and N.C. State University
English professor. "I had never done one before.
She offered all kinds of bits of advice, things to do
and not to do."
known for her support of North Carolina authors, sold
6,000 copies of "Cold Mountain," with 1,200 of
them at Frazierís first reading at Quail Ridge in
explores the life of Jefferson Davisí second wife,
Varina Howell Davis, a complicated and fascinating
a return to the Civil War era for Frazier, which also
was the setting for "Cold Mountain."
young Varina Howell marries the much-older widower
Jefferson Davis, expecting a life of security as a
Mississippi landowner. Instead, her husband pursues
politics and becomes the president of the Confederacy,
placing Varina at the center of one of the darkest
moments in American history.
Olsonís husband, Jim, said he had no idea Frazier
planned to dedicate the book to his wife and was
"humbled" to read it.
sent me the book," Jim Olson said. "He had
marked the page where the dedication was. There was a
note stuck in there. Before I got to the card, it flew
out at me."
said his wife considered Frazierís invitation to the
National Book Award ceremony the "highlight of her
was just delighted to be sitting there at the
table," he said. "It was one of the most
wonderful things that happened to her."
in a recent telephone interview from his Florida home,
talks about what intrigued him about Varina Davis and
his writing process.
How much of Varina Davisí story is based on facts
versus fiction? How much creative license did you take?
I took a lot, but the framework is factual. The thing
that caught my attention, I had no intention of ever
writing about the Civil War era again, I had zero
interest in her husband. But the first thing I read was
that shortly after (Jefferson Davis) died, she moved
from Natchez, Mississippi, to live in New York City. At
age 60, she went up there to be writer for newspapers,
one of the Pulitzer papers. And made part of her living
as a writer.
other thing that caught my interest is that she and
Julia Grant, Ulysses S. Grantís widow, became friends.
They purposefully did things together in public, where
they would be seen. They felt like that was a symbol of
reconciliationÖ. Then she said, and this made some
Southern newspapers mad, she said publicly that the
right side won. It really intrigued me that this woman
ó who had benefitted so greatly from the slave
economy, slavery, and the plantation in Mississippi ó
was still evolving in her thinking in 1906.
would have days when she would say something incredibly
retrograde, and then she would say something so positive
and progressive. She was struggling with what had become
of her life, being on the wrong side of history. Ö Itís
only the greatest heroes in history, who are able
totally rise above the values of their culture. She
certainly wasnít. But she was trying.
TO BUILD A NOVEL
Whatís your process of structuring and shaping a big
novel? Do you have a model you use?
Not really a model. Usually, I get an image or more than
one image. It was really simple in "Cold
Mountain." (The character of) Inman was a straight
line. Ada was a circle. It was kind of built around
those two basic shapes.
one, the first picture I had of what the shape of the
book could be is when she says those days after the
Civil War, when she was fleeing with the kids, and
Jefferson was back to doing what he was doingÖshe goes
from being the first lady to a fugitive on the road. She
says in the book, "Thatís the axle of my
life." Everything turns around that.
need to keep coming back to that part of the story,
where the life she thought she had collapses in a matter
of weeks. And the other thing, I didnít want it to be
chronological. It covers 70 years or more, but I wanted
it more driven by memory than by the calendar.
OR WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY
What insight does this novel provide in educating modern
day readers about the Civil War?
I hope some of the complexity of the years building up
to the war, I hope that comes across. Country by
country, slavery was being abolished, all over the
Western Hemisphere. You name a country in South America
other than Brazil, and they had abolished slavery. The
writing was on the wall, but those slave owners who had
the power refused to see this is coming to an end. We
can be on the right side or the wrong side, and they
chose what they chose.
wanted to show some of that. The strangeness of some of
that odd plantation that Joseph (Davisí older brother)
and Jefferson Davis had in Mississippi, like that stuff
about wanting to incorporate ideas Ö about fairness to
employees developed in factories from Scotland and
England to a slave economy seems bizarre beyond belief.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
Why did you dedicate the book to Nancy Olson?
She was so supportive of me from the start, well before
"Cold Mountain." We were living close to the
original locationÖ Iíd published a short story of
mine in an anthology and a travel book for Sierra Club
Books. When she found that out, she stocked those in the
store. She included me in the community of the store.
Ö She was there in New York for the National Book
Award, at the table with me. She was such a positive
supportive figure in my life.
What are your guilty pleasures?
What would that be? I donít feel guilty about it. But
I do spend time out in the woods, especially when Iím
working on a book. If Iím in Asheville, a good chunk
of the day, Iím out in the woods. The guy at the bike
storeÖwas introducing me to a customer and he said,
"This is what Charles does, he goes into the woods
to think about his books." No, thatís where I go
not to think about what Iím working on.