Peak Performance

updated 02/23/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

ON A BLUSTERY WINTER AFTERNOON the snow is falling in fits and starts outside Raleigh, N.C., where novelist Charles Frazier tramps across a muddy pasture on his 11-acre farm. Handsome in well-worn jeans, a black turtleneck, flannel shirt and hiking boots, Frazier, 47, shows a visitor the shed recently built for Baby Al, Mama and Annie May, three of his family's half-dozen horses. Speaking so quietly that he is nearly inaudible, he mentions that since the fall was especially rainy, the mud is likely to linger. Before this field—a grassy expanse fringed by river birches, pines and oaks—is ready for the horses, he says softly, "it'll be summertime."

In this tranquil patch of North Carolina, the frenzy triggered by the success of Frazier's first novel, Cold Mountain, seems curiously distant. Never mind that 1.5 million copies of his moving Civil War-era story are in print, that it topped The New York Times bestseller list for 18 weeks or that it captured the National Book Award for fiction last November. And never mind that film rights have been sold for $1.25 million to MGM/UA, with Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) reportedly slated to direct. Life at the Fraziers' spacious farmhouse remains "pretty much the same," says his wife, Katherine, 44.

If that's the case, it's because Frazier has gone to some lengths to stanch curiosity about his personal life. He politely deflects questions he deems intrusive and is especially protective of his daughter Annie, 13. But if Frazier is reluctant to court publicity at any cost, his novel is still a hot topic—if only because it disproves the notion that literary fiction seldom creates a stampede at the bookstore. The story of a Confederate deserter's homeward odyssey—and the struggles of the woman who awaits him—Cold Mountain is an eloquent and timeless love story. Readers have been dazzled by Frazier's lyrical language and his richly detailed renderings of nature, history and human relations. "This is a serious work of literature," observes Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Atlantic Monthly Press, which published the novel last June. "That's what's so stunning about the book's success."

Frazier's ascent was nearly unimaginable 10 years ago, when he was an English instructor at North Carolina State University who had published just one short story. Born in Asheville, N.C., he grew up in small towns including Andrews and nearby Franklin, where his father, Charles O., 78, was principal of his high school ("Just imagine high school with parental scrutiny added," Frazier says) and his mother, Betty, 71, was a school librarian and administrator. His younger siblings—David, who owns a flooring business, and Elizabeth—still live in Franklin. A "moderately" good student, Charles had only vague ideas about what he wanted to do with his life after he graduated from Franklin High in 1969. "I thought I wanted to teach literature, probably, if I thought about it much at all," he says.

Without definite plans, Frazier earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1973 and met Katherine the following year, while he was a graduate student at Appalachian State University (they were married in 1976). He spent the next 15 years in academia—receiving a Ph.D. in English from the University of South Carolina, teaching at the University of Colorado and, in 1986, returning to his home state.

Frazier's fictional world, it seems, was inspired by visits to his grandparents, who kept houses in the shadow of the real Cold Mountain (near Asheville). Caught up in the rural culture he sampled as a boy, "I did a lot of note taking on North Carolina and the southern Appalachians—the folklore, the music, the Indian history, the natural history," he says. "But I didn't know what I was going to do with it."

The spark came about 10 years ago, when Frazier's father, who had been researching the family history, told Charles the story of his great-great uncle, a Confederate soldier named W.P. Inman. Like the novel's protagonist, he deserted while recovering from battle wounds and trekked back to his home near Cold Mountain. "It's like someone saying, 'Here's a brief outline for a book; what do you think?' " Frazier recently told The Washington Post. Though he was able to unearth little more about his ancestor, he would christen his hero Inman and he would become caught up in the tragedy of Southerners "whose lives were wrecked for a bad cause that, in many ways, was not their fight."

During the eight years that Frazier spent writing Cold Mountain, his family proved uncommonly supportive: In 1989, Katherine persuaded him to abandon teaching to focus on the book. (At the National Book Awards ceremony, Frazier acknowledged, "I don't know many wives who would have said to a 40-year-old man, 'Sure, honey, quit your job. Write that novel.' " Replies Katherine: "I don't see why it's exceptional to want your spouse to be happy doing what he does best.") And Annie read his new pages aloud every day. "It really helped to hear it in somebody else's voice and to see if she was getting the rhythm of the sentences," Frazier says.

In 1993, Katherine, an accounting professor at N.C. State, gave her insular husband a push by threatening to smuggle part of his manuscript to the novelist Kaye Gibbons, a mutual friend. Frazier parted with 100-odd pages that left Gibbons reeling. "I was so stunned," she says, "that my left arm went numb. Outside of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, I had never seen anything like it." The momentum carried Frazier to November 1995, when his agent persuaded him that the manuscript was ready to be shown to publishers. By December, Atlantic Monthly Press had paid a six-figure sum for the book. "It was more money than we've ever paid for a first novel," says Entrekin.

Just five weeks after it was published, Cold Mountain was on bestseller lists, and Frazier was on the road talking to reporters and fans. And while he admits that the touring left him exhausted, he says wryly, "When you think of the alternative—and that's nobody being interested—it doesn't seem that bad."

And that, it seems, is just about all Charles Frazier will say on the subject of fame and sudden success. His wife, however, allows that the cataclysm has not been unwelcome. "He was my secret for so many years," she says. "I'm glad now other people are having a chance to enjoy him."

FANNIE WEINSTEIN in North Carolina and LISA KAY GREISSINGER in New York City

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