The best-selling author of Cold Mountain opens up about his latest novel and its similar themes of self discovery.
by Wiley Cash | photography by Mallory Cash
The first time I met Charles Frazier was in Asheville back in the spring of 2016. Along with several other authors, we had been invited to participate in a fundraiser at the Asheville Community Theater.
I knew most of the authors there that evening, but I didn’t know Frazier, and I was nervous about meeting him. I had read Cold Mountain after it won the National Book Award in 1997, and then I saw the Oscar-winning film, which starred Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger, when it was released in 2003. I’d read — and loved — the two novels he’d published in the intervening years.
But apparently, Frazier wasn’t one bit nervous about meeting me. He walked right up to me backstage and said, “I was up in Hot Springs a few months ago, and I saw that you were scheduled to do an event in town. I left a note for you at the public library. Did you get it?”
Reader, I was too shocked that Frazier even knew who I was to be shocked by his reliance on paper technology. Needless to say, we’ve been friends ever since. He joined me onstage a year later for an in-conversation event for the launch of my novel The Last Ballad, and I did the same for him when his novel Varina was released in 2018.
We’ll be back onstage together on April 10 on the campus of UNC-Asheville for the launch of his latest novel, The Trackers, a book that will both please and surprise fans of Frazier.
There’s an old saying that serious writers never write the same book twice, and Frazier never has, but he has almost always written about the same places, which is to say Appalachia and the southern United States.
The surprise that’s in store for readers is that The Trackers, which is set in Depression-era America, ranges far afield — from the swamps of Florida to the big skies of Wyoming to the sooty factory towns and transient camps of the Great Northwest.
But readers who loved Frazier’s previous novels will find echoes of those works in his new one. Like Cold Mountain, The Trackers is the story of a man on a quest.
WPA mural painter Val Welch is in pursuit of Eve Long, the wife of a wealthy rancher who has absconded with a priceless piece of artwork, and like Thirteen Moons (2006), the new novel is awash in era-appropriate research from automobiles to art and architecture to the politics of the New Deal.
Like Nightwoods (2011), The Trackers expertly employs noir tropes like tight, scene-driven dialogue and dark, ominous settings, and like the titular character in Varina, Long is a dashing, magnetic heroine: a former runaway turned traveling honky-tonk singer who finds herself married to a wealthy political hopeful before pulling the plug on it all and disappearing without a trace.
Her husband, who is sponsoring Welch’s mural project in a local post office, makes Welch a financial offer he can’t refuse: track Long and find out where she is, why she left, and, most importantly, who she really is.
According to Frazier, it was nearly 10 years ago when the idea for the novel that became The Trackers first came to mind.
“We were up in Boone, and I was just killing time,” he says. “I visited the post office, which has one of those Depression-era WPA murals. After that I had more time to kill, so I went to the library at Appalachian State University and looked up information about WPA projects, specifically the Treasury Department art projects.
One of the first images I saw was a photograph taken inside one of those small post offices, and there was a mural in progress on the wall with two young guys working on it. Standing on the floor looking up at them was an older guy and a woman. They were both well-dressed, and I thought, OK, there’s a story here.”
As the story rattled around in his mind over the following months and years, Frazier dispatched with one of the two mural artists and focused on a single artist and how he might interact with the couple that was watching him work. The artist Welch, along with the rancher and his mysterious wife, were born.
Frazier and I are standing in the Mid-century modern house he and his wife Katherine own in Asheville, a home that’s not quite ready for them to inhabit.
Like many people in post-pandemic America, they’re waiting on the right contractor to update the house and make it fully habitable. For now, Frazier has set up a writing desk in the light-filled living room, with a stone fireplace against one wall and tall windows opening to the yard, where, despite it being mid-January, the view is alive with greenery.
Three characters drove the narrative in Cold Mountain, so I ask Frazier if there’s something that spoke to him about using a similar triangulation of characters in The Trackers.
“Well, that’s one of the things that appealed to me while writing this book. I could keep a handle on the relatively limited number of characters because I have a problem sometimes with expansion,” he says.
“Having that very clear arrangement of characters helped me keep it under control and forced me to focus on trying to keep the book short. But, in The Trackers, Eve is the reason the triangle exists. I never lost sight of her as the main character.”
Eve Long is no doubt the main character. Even when she’s not on the page, her presence drives the action and tension. And even though this book is relatively short in comparison to some of Frazier’s longer novels, many of the scenes feel expansive because Frazier allows them to breathe and exist as the reader witnesses them in what feels like real time.
One scene that comes to mind unfolds over a long night in the swamps of Florida when Welch encounters Long’s former in-laws, a dangerous band of lawless folks who are as suspicious of Welch’s outsider status as they are of his questions about their former daughter-in-law’s whereabouts.
“That was a really fun scene to write,” Frazier says. “It was fun to get that rhythm, that really slow, heavy rhythm to the dialogue and pacing. This is the point in the novel when Val is beginning to learn that he is truly in over his head.”
There were points in writing The Trackers when Frazier began to fear that he was in over his head too, especially when the pandemic struck and he could not make use of the location scouting that had benefited all of his previous novels, bringing the realities of place and landscape to the page.
But he had an ace or two up his sleeve when writing about the West and about Florida: Frazier and his wife spent the bulk of the 1980s living in Colorado with their young daughter, and after Cold Mountain was released they resided full-time on a horse farm in central Florida.
Of course, the process of writing The Trackers was full of research, but when you read about far-flung Western states, the boggy swamps of Florida, and people who understand horses intimately, you are encountering worlds that Frazier knows well.
If you read the novel, you might also be reminded of a literary genre that Frazier also knows well: the travel narrative, which his novels certainly borrow from, especially Cold Mountain and Varina. But it is his lesser-known first book, Adventuring in the Andes (1985), a travel guide published by the Sierra Club, that most reflects Frazier’s love for the genre.
During the long years of writing The Trackers, especially during the Covid-19 lockdown, travel was on Frazier’s mind. He was itching to get out West and look around, but he found himself settling for photographs, music, and art that was resonant of the West in the 1930s, especially Woody Guthrie and Diego Rivera.
But writing a novel as complex and rich as The Trackers is hard, and it takes a long time despite how many books you’ve published before or how many millions of copies they’ve sold.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Frazier says, “at least it hasn’t gotten any easier for me. And I’m just an enormously disorganized writer. Every time I finish a novel I’m a little bit surprised.”
As if to give insight to the expanse of hours spent at his desk, Frazier shows me the tiny slips of paper he uses to record his word counts along with the dates of his daily writing sessions.
When I look at his handwriting, I’m reminded of the note he left for me in Hot Springs years earlier, and I wonder how Welch would go about tracking it down.
Well, I’m no tracker. So, to the people of Hot Springs, if you find a little slip paper that contains a message that Charles Frazier wrote to Wiley Cash years and years ago, do me a favor: hang onto it until I’m back in town.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.