Charles Frazier didnít plan to return to the Civil War for his next book. But he couldnít shake the story of "Varina."

April 30, 2018 

Itís been more than two decades since award-winning author Charles Frazier had wild success with his debut novel, "Cold Mountain."

It became an international bestseller that won the National Book Award and was adapted into an Academy-Award winning film by Anthony Minghella.

As 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.

When 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.

"When 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."

Olson, 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 1997.

"Varina" explores the life of Jefferson Davisí second wife, Varina Howell Davis, a complicated and fascinating woman.

Itís a return to the Civil War era for Frazier, which also was the setting for "Cold Mountain."

A 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.

Nancy Olsonís husband, Jim, said he had no idea Frazier planned to dedicate the book to his wife and was "humbled" to read it.

"He 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."

He said his wife considered Frazierís invitation to the National Book Award ceremony the "highlight of her bookselling career."

"She was just delighted to be sitting there at the table," he said. "It was one of the most wonderful things that happened to her."

Frazier, in a recent telephone interview from his Florida home, talks about what intrigued him about Varina Davis and his writing process.


Q: How much of Varina Davisí story is based on facts versus fiction? How much creative license did you take?

A: 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.

The 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.

She 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.


Q: Whatís your process of structuring and shaping a big novel? Do you have a model you use?

A: 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.

This 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.

I 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.


Q: What insight does this novel provide in educating modern day readers about the Civil War?

A: 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.

I 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.


Q: Why did you dedicate the book to Nancy Olson?

A: 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.



Q: What are your guilty pleasures?

A: 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.




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