This year’s Ursery Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home, will feature world-renowned and award-winning author Charles Frazier.
The intimate, conversational lecture on Nov. 14 will be led by Beth Howells, chair of the literature department and professor of literature at Georgia Southern University, and is free and open to the public. Frazier will possibly read from his new book, “Varina,” but will mostly chat with Howells on the subjects of fiction writing and storytelling.
Frazier is best known for his debut novel, “Cold Mountain,” which won the 1997 National Book Award and sold over 3 million copies worldwide. The 2003 film adaptation by Anthony Minghella was an Academy Award-winning sleeper hit starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. Frazier followed “Cold Mountain” with two New York Times bestsellers, “Thirteen Moons” and “Nightwoods.”
Frazier was born in a small town in western North Carolina. His grandparents lived at the base of the real Cold Mountain, and it is there, in the heart of Appalachia, where the art of storytelling grew roots in him.
“My one set of grandparents lived at the foot of Cold Mountain,” Frazier said. “They didn’t have a television ... A rainy Sunday afternoon was just people telling stories. Whether they were kind of talking about what people around them had done or going back into family history, it was always a narrative. There tended to be a beginning, middle and an end to the stories they told. That Southern, Appalachian, Jack Tales storytelling tradition was still somewhat alive when I was a kid.”
When he set out to craft his first novel, it originally followed a contemporary line. A story told to him by his father, about a distant uncle, shifted Frazier’s focus into the past. From the seeds of true history, Frazier visualized a new story around a young soldier, W.P. Inman, fleeing from a war he didn’t want to engage in. Frazier drew from Homer’s "Odyssey" for inspiration, as well as great Southern writers like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.
“That little bit of family history kind of pulled me out of the present time and into the 19th century,” Frazier said. “I’ve always been interested in 19th century British and American fiction. It was kind of my area. I felt comfortable in the 19th century as a writer.”
For Frazier, it wasn’t the details of Civil War history that sparked his interest in the time period, but rather that the time period laid a foundation for a story about a journey.
“It was getting away from the war," he said. "It was something I realized really quickly, thinking about the story, that bit of family history my father had told me — it’s not an 'Iliad,' it’s an 'Odyssey'. Leaving the war, going away from the war, going home; that’s the story, not the battles themselves.”
History has acted as a starting place for Frazier in his works of fiction. His newest book, “Varina,” released in April, is the fictional story of the life of Varina Howell Davis, Jefferson Davis’ wife and the only First Lady of the Confederate States of America, and a mixed-race boy who lived with her, Jimmy Limber.
The story spark for the novel began with a photograph of Limber during his time with the Davis family in the Confederate White House during the Civil War. Frazier became fascinated by this young man, whose real history was mostly lost.
“Part of the fun of it is finding the things that people don’t know,” Frazier said. “With ‘Thirteen Moons,’ I have had so many people tell me that they did not know that there was that level of Cherokee leadership that had money and was educated, that traveled and that owned plantations and owned slaves. That was not within their knowledge, or the history of the Cherokee. The Trails of Tears is what everyone knew.
“With ‘Varina,’ one of the first things that hooked me, was finding out — when I wasn’t even looking for a book idea related to the south or the Civil War — that she packed up her bags after Jefferson Davis died in Mississippi and moved to New York City and essentially never came back.”
In Frazier’s fictional world, Limber travels to New York to find Varina. They begin retelling the stories of their lives in a series of meetings.
“That little boy, that they called Jimmy Limber because he was doubled jointed, was taken from her somewhere in the Hilton Head area,” Frazier said. “He disappears from history a couple years later. I just imagined a character in a story. What if that child grew up and had a life and began to realize that these odd memories of living in a mansion, that those memories add up to him being that little boy in those pictures. He comes to ask her that question.”
“An Evening in Conversation with Charles Frazier” is part of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home’s Ursrey Lecture Series, according to a news release. The series is endowed in memory of Terry and Ashley Ursrey, native Georgians and brothers who, like O'Connor, were lifelong devotees of all things Southern, particularly the art of storytelling.
The series officially debuted in 2008 with a talk by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham and has included illustrious contemporary authors like Roxane Gay, Ann Hood, Robert Olen Butler, Luis Alberto Urrea, Jaimy Gordon and Allan Gurganus.