Charles Frazier is one of those writers who move by instinct, and he's learned to bide his time. It's been five years since he published the best-selling, critically acclaimed Civil War novel "Cold Mountain," and since then he's been prospecting in library stacks, researching his next book. "I take a lot of notes," he told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview. "I write sketches. It's the point in writing a book where it looks like a scary kind of mess, because nothing coheres for a while." Frazier hopes to finish the novel in question before 2005. "Like I said," he says, laughing, "I'm slow."
The publishing industry, however, can move at warp speed. Last week, after reading just a one-page proposal from Frazier, Random House bought the National Book Award winner's next novel for what sources close to the deal said was $8.25 million. The publishing community was hardly through gasping--no one could recall a piece of literary fiction selling for so much--when producer Scott Rudin, who's known for buying high-toned literature ("Angela's Ashes," "The Corrections"), got his hands on the proposal. Rudin pitched Frazier a John Ford-style drama to be directed by Peter Weir. Before anyone else had a chance to bid, he snapped up the movie rights for more than $3 million.
Then the second-guessing started. Some publishing insiders were dismayed that Frazier was signing on with a conglomerate publisher and leaving the middle-size, independent Atlantic Monthly Press, which had worked so assiduously to make "Cold Mountain" a classy blockbuster. Atlantic Monthly publisher Morgan Entrekin was more philosophical: "I'm really, really disappointed, but I can't begrudge him for whatever decision he has to make for his family. The guy wrote a book that helped me build my company into what it is. I can't be bitter toward him."
Frazier asked uber-agent Amanda Urban to put up his book for auction so early because he wanted to choose an editor carefully. "I wanted to pick the person I wanted to work with," says the writer, who ultimately chose Random House's editor in chief, Ann Godoff. "I've heard writers say, 'Nobody up in New York puts a pencil to my work,' but I find it a really rewarding experience to work with someone who knows what they're doing." And, he adds, he finds that a little pressure early in the process never hurts: "Deadlines help me."
Frazier's new novel features a true-life North Carolina mountain man who lived almost the entire 19th century, a white man who grew up among the Cherokee in the novelist's native North Carolina. The man, whose story Frazier turned up while researching "Cold Mountain," represented the Indians in Washington, led them in the Civil War and spent the last years of his life in a state mental institution. "His life spans the time from when the southern Appalachians were still a white space on the map to the time when there were early automobiles and sound recordings and light bulbs and telephones ringing," says Frazier. "The contrast interests me."
Unlike "Cold Mountain," where what he knew about the historical figure upon whom he based his hero could be written on a single notecard, the historical record on this character is voluminous. But it's not the facts that fire Frazier's imagination. It's what's not spelled out in the history books. "I've been on some tracks in South America years ago when the maps I got from the Peruvian military still had some white spaces on them," he says. "That was exciting when you crossed into that white territory and all the detail on the map was gone and you found your way without charts." Kind of like writing a novel? Frazier chuckles. "That's right. Just wandering around, trying to find the path." He's found the path before, with memorable results. Now, for the first time in a long time, he's pretty sure he can do it again.