Charles Frazier & Kaye Gibbons

Charles Frazier & Kaye Gibbons

Past Event: Monday, September 14, 1998

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Literary Arts

Charles Frazier began Cold Mountain by digging up language and legends buried deep in the backwoods of the southern Appalachians, where his family has lived for 200 years. Frazier was not interested in writing a novel that glorified the Civil War, but rather in recreating the region’s lost culture. His greatest challenge was to develop a voice that would capture the spoken cadences of the oldest people he knew as a child. “There was a musicality to their voices that isn’t in Southern accents today,” he remembers. Listening to early Tommy Jarrell banjo recordings, Frazier strove to capture the mood and rhythm of the culture. To create the physical texture of 1860s Appalachia, Frazier pored over old typescripts of local history, folklore, natural history, and Indian legend, rejoicing when he found archaic words like “piggin” (bucket) or “snath” (handle).

A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Frazier taught literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder until his daughter was born and he and his wife, Katherine, returned to North Carolina. Moved by the spiritual nature of the land and the sense of community he encountered while attending a local bluegrass festival, Frazier began to contemplate a book about the southern Appalachian culture. When his father shared the story of Frazier’s great-great-uncle, W. P. Inman, a Confederate soldier who deserted and walked home to Cold Mountain, Frazier was inspired. With encouragement from Katherine, he quit teaching and began molding his family story into an epic homecoming tale. Having no photograph of Inman, he took as a model a portrait of his grandfather.

The result of eight years of research and revision, Cold Mountain sold 1.6 million copies in its first nine months, won the 1997 National Book Award, and was dubbed “as close to a masterpiece as American writing is going to come.”

Kaye Gibbons, a native of North Carolina. She writes with the power, passion, and tradition of the Southern culture. Gibbons’ novels are set predominantly in rural Southern communities—allowing her characters to speak in the idiomatic, direct language of her own upbringing. She savors the language of the South, which she claims “used to be heavily metaphorical, a very rich and dense language.”

Gibbons had planned to become a teacher before her literary career was launched with the success of her first novel, Ellen Foster (1987), which began as a poem while Gibbons was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The affecting story, told from the perspective of a young country girl, went on to win the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. “Ellen Foster is emotionally autobiographical,” Gibbons said. Like the heroine’s mother in Ellen Foster, Gibbons’ own mother committed suicide when Kaye was only ten, and the breakup of her family made it necessary for her to live with a series of relatives. Gibbons insists that Ellen Foster was written not to provide “an emotional catharsis, but as an artistic exercise,” wrote Publishers Weekly. Influenced by the writing of early twentieth-century African American poet James Weldon Johnson and his use of common speech patterns and idioms, Gibbons notes, “I wanted to see if I could have a child use her voice to talk about life, death, art, eternity—big things from a little person.” Throughout her novels, Gibbons’ realistic portrayal of Southern life, her use of dialogue, and her reliance on traditional moral and social values create compelling and believable protagonists. From cancer victim Ruby Stokes (A Virtuous Woman, 1989) to Hattie Barnes, a young woman struggling with her mother’s mental illness (Sights Unseen, 1995), Gibbons’ strong central characters possess a grounding and wisdom that transcend the often difficult circumstances of their lives.

Gibbons admits that the writer’s life is a strenuous one, but adds, “I wouldn’t want to do anything easy.” She reflects: “As a writer, it’s my job to come up with three hundred pages or so every two years. Each time I begin, I know it’s going to happen, but I’m scared it won’t. It’s working with that element of fear that keeps a book going,” a process she also likens to “looking over an abyss and knowing I have to jump.”

Excerpt from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997)
Inman could see west for scores of miles. Crest and scarp and crag, stacked and grey, to the long horizon. Cataloochee, the Cherokee word was. Meaning waves of mountains in fading rows. And this day the waves could hardly be differed from the raw winter sky. Both were barred and marbled with the same shades of grey only, so the outlook stretched high and low like a great slab of streaked meat. Inman himself could not have been better dressed to conceal himself amid this world, for all he wore was grey and black and dirty white.

Bleak as the scene was, though, there was growing joy in Inman’s heart. He was nearing home; he could feel it in the touch of thin air on skin, in his longing to see the leap of hearth smoke from the houses of people he had known all his life. People he would not be called upon to hate or fear. He rose and took a wide stance on a rock and stood and pinched down his eyes to sharpen the view across the vast prospect to one far mountain. It stood apart from the sky only as the stroke of a poorly inked pen, a line thin and quick and gestural. But the shape slowly grew plain and unmistakable. It was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was homeland.

Excerpt from On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (1998)
I recall, fifty-eight years thence, my extreme horror of recognition that the man standing underneath the spready sycamore had probably done wrong, that he had probably murdered with vile intent, and that all my night-fears of atrocities incited by the Turner rebellion would come true now. . . .

Weighing the two, my surety that my father had indeed meant to kill whoever had ailed him and the prospect of Negroes murdering us all in the moonlight, I had more faith in the Negroes, more trust in their inherent and collective sense of right. Even then, at twelve, I knew that my father was a liar. Although he had served two terms in the legislature and was known all over Virginia to be an honest, upright, hearty, and earnest Episcopalian, I knew he had a dark secret. Children see into the recesses of the soul. They are rarely fooled, seldom duped save at rummy and shell games, so it was not extraordinary for me to stand in that doorway, while my father demanded of God and a brace of Negroes that they acknowledge his innocence, to see that he was lying to all, for I knew him. I was not now struck down in sudden disillusionment of a beloved parent, for I had heard him delivering my mother his fury in the nights.

Selected Work

Charles FrazierCold Mountain (1997)Kaye GibbonsRaised by Hand (2002) On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (1998)Sights Unseen (1995)Charms for the Easy Life (1993)A Cure for Dreams (1991)A Virtuous Woman (1989)Ellen Foster (1987)

LinksInterview with FrazierReading group guide to Cold MountainAn interview with GibbonsReading group guide to Ellen Foster