The latest novel from Charles Frazier, the author most famous for the American Civil War tale Cold Mountain, is set in the Appalachians in the 1950s.
Nightwoods is the story of Luce, a young woman who has retreated from society after a rape attack in favour of a solitary life as the caretaker of an old, abandoned lodge at the edge of a lake in the hills of North Carolina. Her self-imposed isolation is shattered by the arrival of two mute and traumatised young twins, the children of her murdered sister Lily. Reluctantly assuming responsibility for the pair, Luce finds herself with a wealth of new cares, not least because the twins love fires and have a penchant for arson.
Meanwhile Bud, their mother's killer, is on the children's trail, knowing that if they begin to speak again they will have the power to convict him for his crime. Luce soon finds she has great danger to contend with, but also help in the form of Stubblefield, a man who has carried a torch for her since high school and who now unexpectedly re-enters her life.
In London to talk about the novel, published this week, Frazier says he finds himself a little uncomfortable. His hotel is near the bustle of Oxford Street and this quiet man with the gentle North Carolina drawl confesses he sometimes finds large groups of people difficult.
He grew up in a "very isolated little town" in North Carolina, he says, with just 1,200 people, and was free as a child to wander up the mountain right behind his house, exploring the woods, dotted with old lodges like Luce's, dating back from the area's long history as a holiday escape from the hot summer temperatures.
He still spends half the year in Asheville, North Carolina, during the summer months, and much of his time there is spent out in the surrounding forests. "At least 150 days of the year I am several hours out in the woods by myself - mountain biking, walking, running," he says. "It's sort of become part of the writing process. When I'm in Florida [where he spends the winters, on his small horse farm, run by daughter Annie] I probably get more done - but I feel like I'm charging the batteries when I'm at home."
Frazier insists he never set out intending to write historical novels, and after his previous book Thirteen Moons, a first-person tale of frontier life which spanned the 19th century, was happy to be writing something with a more contemporary setting, a short timespan and a limited cast of characters. All novels for him begin with a visual image, he says, and with Nightwoods that was the image of the lodge by the lake, and of a man driving through the darkness with beams of light falling across his face - an image that occurs late in the novel as Bud drives his car up into the hills. Frazier had been watching a lot of film noir in the past few years and thinks that "very stylised" imagery had got into his brain.
"I'm not a real abstract thinker naturally," he explains. "I've got an old friend who has a real philosopher mentality and he's always amazed and upset that I don't start a book with a theme I want to express. No, it's a picture in my head, that is where the characters and plot points come from. I always trust that if I really immerse myself in the place and people, how it looks, how it feels, the kind of spaces they live in, all those concrete things, that the ideas will cohere."
And trust there has to be, because Frazier says that for the first year or so of working on a book the ideas don't cohere at all. His writing process is involved and slow, and Nightwoods took five years to complete. "The novel always looks like a crazy mess for the first year," he acknowledges. "I worked for six months on a book set in the same place with different characters, a different plot - six months. And then I was sitting at the beach and the first line about the kids came into my head - it is now the opening line of the book: 'Luce's new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent' - and I thought, 'Who do those kids go with?', and that was Luce alone in her lodge. I got so interested in them that the rest of the book went away."
Frazier's "messy and inefficient" method sees him writing by hand in notebooks, scribbling sketches here, or a paragraph about the weather there. It means he's forced to edit rigorously in the last few months of finishing a book because there is so much extra material to lose. "When [publisher's] editors want to see work in the first year, I just say, 'Absolutely not, because all it will do is scare you, because you will think this could never be a publishable book.' My editor has said: 'I've never worked with a writer who works the way you do,'" he says, a touch ruefully.
His visual sense of the novels also makes it hard for Frazier to see a film made of his work. "The writer Jim Harrison who wrote Legends of the Fall that was a movie with Brad Pitt, that came out just about when Cold Mountain got sold - I asked him: 'What did you think of that movie?' And he said, 'The same thing you'll think - too pretty.'" When the film - starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law - came out, Harrison was proved right, he says. "The images would always be less gritty than the picture I saw."
Gritty, Nightwoods is, with its tough characters and their often unforgiving lives. Luce is the daughter of a rejecting and absent mother, who sends her and the twins away in their time of need with a flick of a cigarette and the laconic comment: "I wasn't made for a grandmother". But the novel also has a romantic core, exploring the children's healing from their emotional wounds, and a new beginning for Luce with lover Stubblefield. "I'm always interested in people for whatever reason that are isolated," muses Frazier. "How they deal with that, and how they reconnect with other people."
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is published by Sceptre