Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Charles Frazier in the Fast Lane

Book Beast, Oct 13, 2011 1

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.

“Nightwoods” by Charles Frazier. Random House. 272 p. $13.98

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.”
Rest at Daily Beast.

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