Charles Frazier revisits American Civil War with remarkable woman in the lead

Charles Frazier is the author of the novel Varina.

Charles Frazier burst onto the international literary scene with a book about the journey of a civil war soldier of the South back home to his true love on Cold Mountain.

Frazier had not wanted to return to the American civil war for another novel, but when he found Varina Davis, he knew he would.

“I read a couple of things about Varina Davis and I didn’t know anything about her, except her name and the fact that she was married to Jefferson Davis (the president of the Confederate States during the civil war),” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

“I wasn’t planning on going back there, I really wasn’t interested in revisiting that, but I just found her life so interesting.”

One of the first things Frazier read about Varina was that shortly after Jefferson Davis died in Biloxi, Mississippi, she packed her bags and moved to New York and never came back to the American South. Her unique life’s journey is the stuff of Frazier’s well-received fourth novel of historical fiction.

“That was interesting enough to start me reading more and thinking. She went to New York to be a writer at age 59 or 60. She made a good part of her living writing for newspapers.

“I just loved that idea that most of the people she grew up with and knew in Richmond, Virginia, during the civil war were digging into that lost cause mythology and she was in New York living a very modern life.”

The result is another great book that is full of the characters of her real life. While she’s not Forrest Gump, she does meet and hang out with presidents and paupers, slaves and Senators.

Frazier injects a character called Jimmy Limber into his narrative who catches up with Varina. There was a real Jimmy who was a child slave.

“There is a photograph of him made during the war.The childhood Jimmy Limber is real, the adult version is made up. The more I read about the little boy, he disappears from history just a little after the war. I kept thinking, the first year I was working the boom what could have happened to him … what were the possibilities?”

He ended up creating a life for Jimmy and placing him in the book. Varina had a lot of children and lost all but one daughter by the time she died in a sanatorium, trying to kick her opium habit, in 1906, the year the novel begins. Jimmy Limber’s presence connected her to her past and all her children. And thus the story of a remarkable woman unfolds.

It seems history never lets Frazier go … or the rest of us for that matter.

Citing the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s phrase “History never really says goodbye. History says ‘See you later,'” Frazier says the past five years in the United States has felt like so many of the issues around the war and slavery he found in Varina’s story.

“We still have not found a way to put these things behind us. They have just risen their ugly heads again.”

Every day working on the novel, Frazier has been watching the news and feeling the connection.

He has a set of rules when he writes about facts and accuracy, but it remains story first.

He is not totally unaware of the obligations of truth citing Ezra Pound who said, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

“I have always felt that good historical fiction is usually at least as much about the time the author is living in as the time being written about.”

Frazier says he is a slow and steady writer. “Every day I take off is a day that I lose. Seven days a week works best for me, even if it is only a couple of hours. This one, there were a lot of things that were related to my interests.”

He’s not interested in Jefferson Davis, or the generals or the battles. One of his struggles, then, was how to write the book with as little Jefferson Davis as possible.

“It’s her book not his. They had a genuinely difficult marriage. In the biographies of her, she is presented as this doting wife and mother and then you read her letters and you get a different picture of her. One of the letters that I use a good bit of verbatim is from when she is in London, Eng., after the war to him saying ‘Stay away until autumn and then we’ll see what’s left’.”

Frazier frequently found her letters in collections of his material. There are bits and pieces here and there, he added.

She wrote at the bottom of her letters, “Burn after reading.” Frazier is happy many of them survived.

“She was a prickly person, but the thing that I liked about her was that at her age she was still reading, thinking and progressing. She did not settle into that golden view of the South as it was before the civil war. I liked the flaws and her struggle with the flaws.”

Frazier’s life as a writer was launched by Cold Mountain. Its great success put him on a book tour for about two and a half years.

“I had a lot of people say ‘Are you even going to write another book?’ What is that question? I didn’t want to just say whatever I write next will not sell as well as this.

“When the movie rights were sold, Anthony Minghella said something that stuck with me. I had had calls from people wanting to make the movie and they said how they could make it faster, better and make me executive producer. Anthony called and  said: ‘Here’s what I can promise you, my next movie will not be as successful as The English Patient.’ I thought, ‘there is my guy’.”

With his references to Ezra Pound and Eduardo Galeano, it’s easy enough to understand that for 30 years of his life Frazier was going to be a literary scholar. Hence the echoes of The Odyssey in his first novel.

“With Cold Mountain I didn’t want to write about battles but I was very interested in that little fragment of family history that my father told me. I could see how to write parts of it.

“I kept putting it down because of the generals and the battles. When I realized it could be an Odyssey not an Iliad, I realized what the book was.”

Varina connects herself to a version of the story of  Helen of Troy by Euripides.

When Frazier got down to writing Cold Mountain, he was teaching, and was helping raise his daughter. “At some point my wife and a writer friend said it was time to choose between teaching and writing.”

He chose writing and became a stay-at-home dad and finished his book. The rest is historical fiction history.

His daughter Annie is now 34 and is a published writer herself.

“When we are all together as a family, it’s like a writers’ workshop.”

Varina (Ecco)
Charles Frazier
In town: The author will be at Centretown United Church Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. For more information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.