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A writer's tool: Author Charles Frazier follows the sound of music in new novel, 'Nightwoods'
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) ' Growing up deep in the mountains of western North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s, a young Charles Frazier couldn't wait for the sun to go down. That's when the WLAC signal would suddenly come clear out of the night sky and things would get really interesting on his radio.
"We had a little radio station that went off at dark," Frazier recalls. "So all during the day, one radio station, country music. When school was out there was two hours of teenage music. And then the sun goes down and all the sudden there's this station from Nashville pouring in. And I liked that really raw rockabilly stuff that's so hard to classify. It's definitely rawer ... than even country at the time, but it was way more country sounding than most rock 'n' roll from places outside The South."
James Brown came wailing from the speaker. That spooky voice of Howlin' Wolf added an uneasy edge to the night. Guys like Charlie Feathers and Gene Vincent would rock his world.
Those sound memories populate the pages of the author's new best-seller "Nightwoods," whose quiet, reflective moments play out to a soundtrack of rhythm and blues, early rock 'n' roll and melancholy jazz.
"Nightwoods" is the story of Luce, a disconnected young woman who is left to take care of a nearly feral set of twins after her sister is murdered by her husband. As the book opens, she has sequestered herself in an abandoned lodge far from the nearest people or town. She spends her nights listening to WLAC and waiting for life to pass her by before the children and eventually a love interest named Stubblefield somehow find her in her self-imposed exile.
Frazier assigns each of the book's main figures music that sheds light on their personalities.
"It always helps me connect with characters, to think about what music they respond to," Frazier said. "So Luce has her WLAC. She is such a closed-up inner person who is holding the world at arm's length and things like that, yet she stays up late at night listening to this really intense, energetic, passionate music and she sees them like prayers.
"Or Stubblefield with his record collection and the reference that (Miles Davis') 'Kind of Blue' is the thing that makes him think about his inability to sustain a relationship. All he can do is listen to 'Kind of Blue' and get sad."
Frazier talked about "Nightwoods" during a stop last month for a book festival in, appropriately enough, Music City. He was something of a literary rock star while in town, filling Tennessee's legislative chamber with admirers for a reading from "Nightwoods." He stopped by Third Man Records, owned by "Cold Mountain" film friend Jack White, for a look around.
Much of the time Frazier sits reserved behind a salt-and-pepper beard on a serious face. Ask him about music, though, and his eyes light. He becomes animated as if from some unseen energy source and his hands begin to move as he talks.
He's been listening to jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz and Tom Waits in heavy rotation this fall and he's been listening to new recordings from Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen, Saharan guitar heroes Tinariwen and Nick Lowe. Until record stores began to disappear, he could be found leaning on the stacks three or four days a week.
Music is as much a part of his life as the words with which he fills his books. The two are intertwined. The stone walls in his office are lined with shelves full of CDs, vinyl and stereo equipment, and something is always playing as he taps out his books. His breakthrough debut, "Cold Mountain," in 1997, had music at its heart and has spurred a whirl of creativity as others responded strongly to the sounds in his books.
Bluegrass and roots player Tim O'Brien and friends recorded an album of music inspired by that National Book Award winner, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon is working on an opera based on the book, set to debut in 2015. It is a delightfully curious development that brings a wry smile to Frazier's face.
"So I'm going to put on the tuxedo and go to Santa Fe," he says.
Higdon was drawn to "Cold Mountain" because she grew up in east Tennessee, on the other side of the Great Smoky Mountains from the territory Frazier's characters haunt in North Carolina. She heard the melody in Frazier's prose from the moment she picked up "Cold Mountain" five years ago.
"This is going to sound really strange, but I think the way he writes is musical," Higdon said. "The phrases and the rhythm and the pacing ' to me it sounds very musical. It's like a poetic kind of music, and I don't have that with all the authors I read. But it drew me in from the first line. It was that noticeable. The length of his sentences, just the way the sentences flow, to me it sounds like music."
O'Brien remembers reading "Cold Mountain" with a friend and being riveted as little bits and pieces of old-timey music popped up here and there in chapter titles and dialogue. O'Brien and Frazier have become friends and often discuss the power of music and its ability to inspire.
"Music is a touchstone like smell or color or taste," O'Brien said. "It sort of reminds you of things. And getting to know him afterward, after having read ('Cold Mountain'), it was really telling. He said that he tried to listen to the oldest recordings made by the people who were oldest in age at the time to get back to a certain way of speech and thinking. Obviously, that worked for him."
"Nightwoods" unfolds something like a murder ballad, one of those dark, often gory tales of death and deceit so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. There's tragedy and death at its heart, but there are moments of quiet strength and bravery as well, not to mention a mysterious deep, dark hole.
Frazier will soon wrap his "Nightwoods" book tour and has begun assembling a sound track that will help him craft his next book. He's looking for AM radio gems from the 1930s and 1940s that would have been played in the rural west. Think Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys.
"(I've got) these few little flickers of ideas," Frazier said. "I've lived out West some. ... I've always liked the High Plains areas ' eastern Colorado, eastern Wyoming, western Nebraska. Can that factor into maybe half of this next book? I'll tinker around with that for a couple or three months and see if it's something worth spending three years on."