MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Nearly a decade after the release of his sensational first novel, Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier has published his second. It's titled Thirteen Moons, and it begins this way.
Mr. CHARLES FRAZIER (Author, Thirteen Moons): (Reading) There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel. We're called to it. I feel it pulling at me, same as everyone else.
BLOCK: The narrator is Will Cooper, recalling nearly a century of his life in western North Carolina, at the edge of what was the Cherokee Nation.
Mr. FRAZIER: (Reading) The belief I've acquired over a generous and nevertheless inadequate time on earth is that we arrive in the afterlife as broken as when we departed from the world. But, on the other hand, I've always enjoyed a journey.
BLOCK: Will Cooper is an orphan, who's sent out to run a trading post on the frontier by himself at age 12. He's adopted by the Cherokee, eventually becomes a lawyer, senator and a white chief of the tribe. He tells the story of the Army's forced removal of the Cherokee from their land in the late 1830s. It's also the story of his overpowering love for the elusive Claire Featherstone.
Charles Frazier found the inspiration for his character when he ran across an intriguing reference, a white man in a mental institution in North Carolina who many days spoke only Cherokee. His name was William Holland Thomas.
Mr. FRAZIER: This was when I was working on Cold Mountain, and I just realized that that little thing had no place in that book, so it was just a note card in a stack of unused note cards for several years. But I kept coming back to it and wondering about this man, and wondering about that time, that period of transition where the southern Appalachians was a frontier, where my first ancestors in the southern Appalachians were beginning to move in, taking over the land that had been Cherokee land as treaties happened and moved that boundary of the Cherokee Nation farther and farther westward. And then, really, once I started learning about him, the thing that really started me writing was the idea of a 12-year-old boy on his way out to the frontier by himself to run a trading post.
BLOCK: It's interesting when you describe the situation when he gets there, because it's very clear that this is not - that already, some of the old ways have gone, that much has been lost in this culture already, even at that point before the removal.
Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah, it was a real period of transition. The Cherokee had sided with the British in the Revolutionary War, and there had been just a lot of conflict with the American government. You know, their culture was being really almost swept away, and then eventually most of the Cherokee were swept to the Western territories.
BLOCK: Well, Will Cooper manages to acquit remarkably well. He learns Cherokee, he is essentially adopted by the chief, who is named Bear. He and Bear together start buying up a lot of land. He's managed to amass quite a fortune over time, as the book progresses. What was the idea there? Were they thinking that they could protect themselves from what they knew inevitably might be coming, this removal of the Cherokee?
Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah. The whole concept of private ownership of property is something that was not part of Cherokee culture. Will and Bear realize that ownership of land, even though it's an essentially ridiculous idea, is something that could be put to use for their protection. They work the legal system to their advantage and they end up prevailing. They stay.
The real person that Bear is based on was a man named Yonguska(ph). He is one of the very few Indian leaders who prevailed to any degree at all against the government.
BLOCK: Threaded through this narrative about the removal of the Cherokee, you have this love story with Claire, Claire Featherstone. Why don't you explain how Will Cooper meets Claire in the first place. They're 12 years old.
Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah. Will gets - loses his horse, loses most of his possessions, gets lost in the mountains on the way out to the trading post and falls in with this group of card players who are of various races, nationalities, cultures -and Will has been taught to play cards at a Latin academy when he was young, and he ends up winning a lot of money and winning, he claims, the daughter of his main adversary in the card game.
So Will, telling this as a 90-year-old man, goes out as a 12-, 13-year-old boy and falls in love irrevocably for the rest of his life.
BLOCK: It's in the very first pages of this book that I got an incredibly powerful sense of the pull that Claire exerts on him all through his life. And you describe how the fragrance of a clove can bring her memory flooding back to him as if it were - as if no time had gone by, even though it's been almost 80 years. And I wonder if you could read this section. This is on Page 6.
Mr. FRAZIER: (Reading) Back in green youth, Claire became an advocate for flavored kisses. She would break off new spring growth at the end of a birch twig, peel the dark bark to the wet green pulp, and fray the fibers with her thumbnail, then put the twig in her mouth and hold it there like a cheroot. After a minute she'd toss it away and say, now kiss me. And her mouth had the sweet sharp taste of birch.
“In summer, she did the same with the clear drop of liquid at the tip of honeysuckle blossoms, and in the fall with the white pulp of honey locust pods. And in winter with a dried clove and a broken stick of cinnamon. Now kiss me.”
BLOCK: I can taste what he's tasting there, I think. That must have been fun to write.
Mr. FRAZIER: Yeah. The teenage romance parts of the book were a lot of fun.
BLOCK: How long were you working on this book, start to finish?
Mr. FRAZIER: Oh, about five years, at least.
BLOCK: Did you find yourself ever losing the thread, or did the book sort of change or twist in some way for you?
Mr. FRAZIER: Well, I started the book in third person, and I didn't feel like the book ever developed momentum in third person. And as soon as Will's voice -as soon as I started hearing his voice in my ear when I sat down to write, at that point the book began to have a little bit of a life of its own for me, and his voice took over and moved forward. And sometimes you have to learn what the character knows, and Will definitely took me places, directions, in this book that I hadn't planned on from the start.
BLOCK: Like where?
Mr. FRAZIER: Well, to go back to that note card with the guy in the mental institution speaking Cherokee, you know, this voice really seemed to be telling me I don't want to be institutionalized. That was a direction that changed as the narrative voice changed.
BLOCK: Well, Charles Frazier, it's good to talk with you. Thanks very much.
Mr. FRAZIER: Thank you.
BLOCK: You can read an excerpt from Charles Frazier's novel Thirteen Moons at our Web site, NPR.org.