It's 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 have named his fourth novel, "Varina," one of the most anticipated books of the year.
It will hit bookstores April 3. And when readers turn to the dedication page, they'll see the name of Nancy Olson, the late owner of Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books who championed Frazier as an author before "Cold Mountain" was even published in 1997.
"When 'Cold Mountain' 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 Frazier’s first reading at Quail Ridge in 1997.
He'll be at Quail Ridge April 17 as part of his national book tour for "Varina," a novel that explores the life of Jefferson Davis’ second wife, Varina Howell Davis, a complicated and fascinating woman.
It's 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 Olson's 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 Frazier's 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.
Fact versus fiction
Q: How much of Varina Davis’ 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. Grant’s widow, became friends. They purposefully did things together in public, where they would be seen. They felt like that was a symbol of reconciliation…. 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 — who had benefitted so greatly from the slave economy, slavery, and the plantation in Mississippi — 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. … It’s only the greatest heroes in history, who are able totally rise above the values of their culture. She certainly wasn’t. But she was trying.
How to Build a Novel
Q: What’s 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 doing…she goes from being the first lady to a fugitive on the road. She says in the book, "That’s 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 didn’t want it to be chronological. It covers 70 years or more, but I wanted it more driven by memory than by the calendar.
Right or wrong side of history
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 (Davis’ older brother) and Jefferson Davis had in Mississippi, like that stuff about wanting to incorporate ideas ... about fairness to employees developed in factories from Scotland and England to a slave economy seems bizarre beyond belief.
The friendship of bookstore owner Nancy Olson
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 location… I’d 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. ... 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 don’t feel guilty about it. But I do spend time out in the woods, especially when I’m working on a book. If I’m in Asheville, a good chunk of the day, I’m out in the woods. The guy at the bike store…was introducing me to a customer and he said, "This is what Charles does, he goes into the woods to think about his books." No, that’s where I go not to think about what I’m working on.
Charles Frazier will talk about his novel, “Varina,” (Ecco, $27.99) at the following events.
▪ April 17, 7 p.m. Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, in North Hills Shopping Center in Raleigh. Reserve a signing line ticket with purchase.
▪ April 18, 7 p.m. Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill
▪ April 19, 6:30 p.m. Bookmarcs, 634 W. 4th St., #110, Winston-Salem
▪ April 23, 7 p.m. Books-A-Million, 300 S. Firestone St., #200A, Gastonia
Varina and Fuquay-Varina
Triangle readers may wonder: Is the title of the book related to Fuquay-Varina, the town in southwest Wake County? Varina, the titular character in the book, is Varina Davis, the second wife of President Jefferson Davis. She is the first and only first lady of the Confederate States of America. She died in 1906 at the age of 80.
Fuquay-Varina once was two separate towns: Fuquay Springs and Varina, which merged in 1963. Varina, the town, is named for the wife of a soldier named J.D. "Squire" Ballentine, according to Fuquay-Varina's website. A woman named Virginia Avery wrote Ballentine while he fought for the Confederate Army, and she signed those morale-boosting letters to him "Varina." They fell in love, and later when Ballentine became the town's postmaster, he named the post office and a store after her. The Fuquay-Varina entry on Wikipedia speculates that Avery's signature is "an homage to the wife of Jefferson Davis."