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''Cold Mountain'' man

Author Charles Frazier’s romantic Civil War tale is the year’s biggest hit

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Charles Frazier is giving John Grisham and Danielle Steel a serious whupping: His literary first novel, Cold Mountain — from small independent Atlantic Monthly Press — is firmly lodged above their books on national best-seller lists. But that’s not the publishing surprise of the season. Nor that Vintage bought the paperback rights for $300,000 — before a single hardcover thumped onto shelves. Nor that The English Patient director Anthony Minghella enjoyed it so much, he’s agreed to take on yet another wartime love story.

No, the real gasp inducer is that after holing up for seven years to write the book — often declining all human companionship for weeks on end, the better to steep himself in arcane Southern folklore — Frazier emerged with his 21-year marriage intact.

Maybe it’s his sense of humor. ”Bet you’d eat it if it were called essence of deglazed prosciutto,” he chides a Yankee reporter who’s gagging on a first taste of red eye gravy (ham drippings) at Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant in Raleigh, N.C.

Frazier’s pick-up truck, a sleek Ford Lariat in a particularly acid shade of techno-teal, resembles a spaceship. After strapping his 6’3”, denim-and-black-boot-clad frame into the driver’s seat, he drums his fingers to the beat of y’all-ternative band Wilco. He mourns the cancellation of Murder One.

This is the same guy who tenderly tsks his ailing tomato crop? Whose nose spent much of this decade tucked into dusty 19th-century documents?

”I went into a little sandwich shop in Georgetown the other day,” he reports, more amused than aghast, ”and this woman behind the counter hollered: ‘I know you! Famous Author Man!”’ Frazier, a 46-year-old former college professor, never imagined he’d become such a creature. Cold Mountain refuses easy categorization. The novel describes a Confederate deserter named Inman, his torturous, 300-mile journey home to his brainy, brave dreamgirl, Ada, and her equally torturous vigil. It contains copious historical detail, a James Joycean absence of quotation marks, and allusions to The Odyssey.

”I sure didn’t want to write a battlefield kind of book,” says Frazier, who lives on a 12-acre spread outside Raleigh with wife Katherine, an accounting professor, and their 13-year-old daughter, Annie. ”I wanted to write about the old Southern Appalachian culture. Like watching somebody make molasses with a mule, which you now only see at a folk festival.”

Molasses with a mule doesn’t exactly suggest a marketing picnic. Yet in 1995, Atlantic’s rights director Elisabeth Schmitz became mesmerized by a partial manuscript of —Mountain sent to her by agent Leigh Feldman. Schmitz not only offered a six-figure preemptive bid — a ”terrifying” sum to wager on an unknown author — but also became Frazier’s editor, conferring with him daily on the phone.

But lavishing editorial attention on a manuscript, while unusual these days, hardly ensures its success. So Atlantic staged an early paperback auction to generate buzz. Random House imprint Vintage’s backlist happens to include many of Frazier’s favorite authors (including The English Patient‘s Michael Ondaatje). Editor in chief Marty Asher recalls ”seeing the words Buy this book in neon lights.” Soon he found himself madly calculating ways to justify his purchase to his higher-ups. ”I thought, ‘Okay, it’s Shelby Foote meets Bridges of Madison County,”’ he says. ”I stayed up probably at least 50 nights afterward thinking ‘I’m out of my mind.’ Pure insanity. In retrospect, of course, it was pure brilliance.”