When Charles Frazier wrote “Cold Mountain,” a runaway bestseller about a wounded Confederate deserter who returns home to his lover, he thought it would be his only book about the deadliest war in American history.
Based on a true tale about Frazier’s great-great uncle, “Cold Mountain” won a National Book Award in 1997. A few years later, when the historical novel was adapted for the silver screen, the epic drama starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger was nominated for seven Oscars.
But nearly two decades later, after writing the bestsellers “Nightwoods” and “Thirteen Moons,” the North Carolina author unearthed Varina Howell Davis, a Civil War survivor whose story he couldn’t resist.
In 1845, when Varina was a Mississippi teen-ager, she married 36-year-old Jefferson Davis, the man who would become the president of the doomed Confederacy. In their early years together, when her husband is a Congressman, Varina dances and dines in the White House and converses with the brilliant minds of her day. But soon she is plunged into the chaos and devastation of the Civil War. And in her later years, she grieves the loss of five of her six children.
“Varina,” ($27.99, Ecco) Frazier’s new novel based on the extraordinary life of the First Lady of the Confederate States of America, will be published Tuesday, the day after the author appears at Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs.
Capital Region readers are taking a special interest in this book because six chapters are set in Saratoga Springs.
Varina, who is called “V” in the novel, relaxes at a fictional Saratoga spa and rides by carriage to Saratoga Race Course. When she was in her sixties, the widowed, real-life Varina lived in New York City and was friends with Julia Grant, widow of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general and U.S. president who died in a cottage a few miles from Saratoga Springs.
A few weeks ago, Frazier talked by phone to The Daily Gazette.
Q: Did Varina Davis actually visit Saratoga Springs?
A: I don’t know whether she did or not. She took vacations in a number of different places, especially soon after she moved to New York City, when she was in her early to mid-sixties. She went to different resorts in upstate New York, and on a couple of occasions, she went with Julia Grant.
Q: Have you visited Saratoga Springs?
A: We used to go to the horse shows when my daughter was younger and doing a lot of horse showing…hunters and jumpers. We’d do two weeks in Saratoga and then we’d go and do two weeks at Lake Placid. That was on our yearly schedule for a number of years. Probably the last time we did that show was maybe 10 years ago.
Q: What did you do in Saratoga Springs?
A: I would usually bring a mountain bike, go for walks, just enjoy being there.
Q: Why did you pick Saratoga as a setting for some of the chapters?
A: Partly because she went to various resorts in upstate New York, because I knew the town a little bit. And the history of tourism in Saratoga and that area. I’m always interested in 19th century and early 20th century resorts because where I grew up, in western North Carolina, there were a number of those. Asheville had a hot springs resort even in the late 1700s so it was a tourist town from the start and still is. And those old resorts, I’ve been in and around those since I was a little kid.
Q: Is the fictional resort, The Retreat, and its health treatments based on an actual place in Saratoga?
A: I invented a resort. A lot of the higher-end resorts had this kind of trendy, health-type stuff. I just compiled a bunch of those kinds of things and gave them to that imagined resort.”
Q: Do you think Varina had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)?
A: Yeah, she clearly suffered from depression and depression-related things after the war.
Q: What attracted you to Varina Davis as a subject for a novel?
A: I didn’t know anything about her. But the first thing that caught my attention was her leaving Mississippi shortly after his death to move to New York City and then staying there for the rest of her life, making part of her money as a writer.
That I found surprising and I started reading something about her and just finding that her level of education was way beyond not just most women but most people at that time.
Q: In your book, the character “V” is portrayed as intelligent, progressive, well-read, independent and opinionated. Is that how historians have portrayed her or does your book change our image of her?
A: Some of the biographies from mid-20th century and earlier work really hard to portray her as a dutiful wife. You read the letters between them and that sort of thing, and I didn’t get that picture at all. That’s one of the reasons why I call the character “V,” just to differentiate in my mind the difference between the historical Varina Davis and the character I developed based on her life.
Q: Today we have Black Lives Matter and the controversy over symbols of the Confederacy. Last year, the Jefferson Davis statue in New Orleans was taken down. Your novel seems timely in its exploration of slavery, the Civil War and race in America. Was it your intent to re-examine these issues and subjects?
A: Certainly. And all that was happening while I was writing the book certainly kept it right there in front of me. I think the thing that I thought about the most, the thing that was there in my head every day when I was working, was just the consequences of being on the wrong side of history.
Q: What about Varina’s views on slavery, the war and race?
A: One of the things that fascinated me about her is that at an age, later in her life, when a lot of people are clinging to the values of their younger years more and more, she was evolving in her thinking. She certainly never got to anything we would recognize as a modern position, but for me, it’s only the greatest heroes that are able to rise completely above their cultural values, the worst values of their culture. But I’m not so interested in perfection, I was interested in the nuances of someone who benefitted and was complicit in the slave system, the slave economy. They made a huge amount of money on the backs of slavery. And then losing everything.
Q: Did you have access to many of her letters?
A: In a lot of cases, it was other people talking about her letters. Because the thing about her letters, on the bottom it said “burn after reading”… that limits the amount that’s available.
Q: What other ways did you do research?
A: I read a lot of primary material when I start out looking for a character. But at some point I don’t need to see 45 more Jefferson Davis letters. I’m more interested in going to a place where she was. Going to London, going past a theater where she was. Or just walking on the campus of St. Mary’s College in Raleigh, where she stayed for a while during the war with her kids.
Q: Where else did you travel?
A: I drove the entire route that she took from Richmond to Charlotte, down through South Carolina and on down to Georgia, and then went up to Fort Monroe, where he was imprisoned and she was eventually allowed to stay there.
Q: Did you travel on back roads?
A: In a lot of cases, the roads that would have been there in 1865 are the old two-lane roads. So if you go from Abbeville, South Carolina to Washington, Georgia, you can get pretty close to where those old roads would have been, in some cases right where they would have been. So I’m looking at paper maps, Google maps.
Q: Is Varina Davis known to Southerners? Do people learn about her in school?
A: No. I was out at some literary events, book festivals back in the fall, and over and over Southern readers would say “I really didn’t know anything about her.” I always had to reassure them that Jefferson Davis is in this book as little as I could possibly put him. Because I’m not interested in him.
Q: Your descriptions of the natural world are so beautifully detailed. Do you spend much time outdoors?
A: I grew up in a little town west of Asheville back in the day when little kids could go roaming in the mountains. I’ve always loved to be outdoors, I’m out in the mountains when I’m in Asheville. I’m out walking or mountain biking probably at least five days a week.
Q: If you could sit down with Varina, what would you ask her?
A: I guess the first question would be …just what her 17-year-old self was really thinking and feeling to fall in love with this considerably older man who ended up making the choices he made that helped lead the country into such a destructive and such an unethical war.
Q: Is our country still feeling the wounds of the Civil War?
A: After “Cold Mountain,” I never really wanted to write about that period again. Or at least the war again. And I think if you asked me 20 years ago, I think I would have said we’re getting close to resolving the issues that made that war such a part of our history and our national sort of mentality. But the past three or four years have shown that the war is still kind of baked into the history and culture of this country, and that we have still not resolved those issues of race and slavery. They just continue to resonate.
WHAT: New historical novel by Charles Frazier
RELATED EVENT: “Off the Shelf with Charles Frazier,” discussion with Joe Donahue of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, 6 p.m. Monday, Northshire Bookstore, 424 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Frazier will sign books after the discussion. Tickets, which cost $5, are required and space is limited. Buy tickets by calling bookstore at 682-4200 or in person at the store.