Charles Frazier, Hub City Press and the Cold Mountain Fund
No, I'm not trying to gain favor with this gifted storyteller, it's just that I know it to be true. When I interviewed him at my home recently about how his generous "Cold Mountain Fund" came about, I found out that he just wanted to give back some of his money and fame to aspiring authors and independent publishers. He talks about why he chose Hub City Press in Spartanburg, SC as his partner publisher and how the fund works.
Below is my interview with him and the three inaugural authors who will benefit from his generosity.
I invite you to sit in on our fascinating conversation where Charles Frazier explains why, and how, he came up with the idea of giving away a lot of money. And by the way, Annie Dillard had a lot to do with it.
Jon: Tell me how the three Cold Mountain Series books from Hub City Press were chosen.
Charles: Hub City looked at their forthcoming novels and decided which to designate as part of the series. This all started with me thinking about independent publishing, especially non-profit independent publishing. I've always been a real reader of independent small presses. A few years ago, I noticed that so many of the books scattered around my office and stacked on my desk—way over 50%—were independent press books.
Jon: Good for you.
Charles: There's a book store in Philadelphia —Joseph Fox Bookshop. It’s one of my favorite bookstores in the world. A tiny place. More than four customers at one time and you're stepping on each other. But their selection of books is so interesting and careful. And the thing I like the most is that they have shelves in the front corner all full of indie press books from publishers like Hesperus, Graywolf, Melville House, Copper Canyon, and plenty of others. I always come away from there with more of those books than I have room for in my luggage. Lots of New York Review Classics. They’re independent, aren’t they, still?
Jon (pointing): Yes. Those are all those red spined books up there on my shelf.
Charles: Probably half the books that I’ve bought in the past five years have been theirs. I'm constantly looking to see what's coming up next from them. I just bought three in the past month. And those are books that I would not have found without them going out and scouting world literature looking for these interesting and hard to find books.
I've certainly benefited from corporate publishing, but there's something to be said for those other opinions—not corporate, not New York centric—in selecting books to publish. And so, partly, I was wanting to support that. A few years ago, I was really thinking, "Oh, I'd like to publish some. I'd like to have a small press."
But my wife Katherine and I both need to be careful about over-committing our time. I don't want to get five years down the road and realize I'm never going to publish another book of my own.
So, part of this project was that realization. And also knowing the people at Hub City Press, Betsy Teter, Meg Reid, and John Lane, seeing what a good thing they've had going, and thinking about the ways I could be of help with what they were already doing. And they’re not just a publisher. They also have a bookshop and run the Hub City Writers Project. Over the past twenty-five years, they’ve created a real literary community.
Jon: And they've got a great distributor, too.
Charles: Are they with . . . ?
Charles: Ah, a good match.
The folks at Hub City really know what they're doing. My goal is to provide funding for things they've already got going, and are doing really well. I read the books, but I don't do their jobs.
Jon: So, they chose those three authors?
Charles: Yes. And we'll continue that with the next batch. Those will be books I’m sure we'll talk about, but it's not like a contest where I'm picking a winner, and I’m sure not looking for a job as an editor.
Jon: And it's not an imprint? It's not like “a Charles Frazier book,” you know, that kind of a thing?
Charles: No. One of the first conversations we had, I asked, "What would be helpful?" And one answer was, “If we could give higher advances and had a little more marketing money, maybe we could push these books out there more effectively.” And also, in talking about marketing, they asked if I’d be willing to do some events with the authors. So, for the first book, Magnetic Girl, I did an event at Malaprop’s with Jessica Handler. It was a conversation, and I was asking the questions, not answering them. I enjoyed that, really enjoyed, you know, not being the . . .
Jon: The center of attention?
Charles: Exactly. The center of attention.
And I thought it was a really good book. I very much enjoyed that book.
The second book, Watershed by Mark Barr, comes out soon. And the third one's next spring sometime, Carter Sickels' book, The Prettiest Star.
Jon: In the future, will it be that Meg or Betsy will talk to you and say something like, "We received this manuscript and we love it. But they want more than we can afford. If you love it, can you help us out?"
Charles: I don't think it's going to work that way, but who knows? Maybe.
Jon: Well, who decides which books that you, in particular, will help promote? One of the things that I read was that you might go to some of the signings.
Charles: Yes. So, I've already done that with Jessica Handler, and hope I’ll be able to do that with all of them. Also, I’m moderating a panel with all three writers at the SIBA trade show.
Jon: Will there be anything on the book that says it's from the Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Series?
Charles: Yes. I'm trying to remember what it looks like on Jessica’s Magnetic Girl. It's in the book and on the spine.
Jon: And the official name is "The Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund Series," correct?
Charles (laughing): Something like that. The fund is part of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.
Jon: Okay. So, that brings them into it.
If you read a manuscript that you particularly like, would it be something that you could bring to Meg or Betsy and say, "I'd really like to get behind it if you will publish it?"
Charles: That would be one way. More likely, I’d send the manuscript and say, “I really like this. What do you think?”
Jon: Is your affiliation with them permanent?
Charles: It's a commitment. We're guaranteeing a certain amount over a certain time, to be reevaluated at the end of that time. If everybody’s happy, I assume we’d all want to continue.
Jon: Is there anything that you haven't been asked, that you would like to get out there, that maybe you're particularly proud of, or you're really looking forward to?
Charles: Well, again, for me, it's the support of independent publishing as a whole. That's what interests me the most.
Jon: That’s the core of what's behind this.
Charles: Yes. To support Hub City because of the valuable work they’ve been doing, and also to show support for independent publishers in general, to value the writers they publish.
Jon: Yes. PGW sells a lot of wonderful small presses. So, getting back to Hub City, they will say to you, at the beginning of the fall season next year, "Charles, these are three books, or however many, that we'd really love your support, and your foundation's support on." And you say, "Okay."
Charles: I know we'll be talking about the books, but I didn't particularly want any kind of rigid structure of how decisions get made.
Jon: You just trust them because of their history, basically.
Jon: Okay. So, you have admired their publications in the past. You admired the way that they work, and you want to support them, financially. And they will talk amongst themselves and say, "Well, let's use the Charles's foundation's money to help us get this book, and this one." And then they tell you, and you say, "That's wonderful, and I will support you."
Charles: Yes, approximately. Remember, we just started this project last winter, just getting going with the first batch of books. And I couldn’t be more pleased with it.
By the way, one of the things that they have done very well over nearly twenty-five years as a non-profit is raise money from a bunch of different kinds of sources. So, this current project is only one bit of what they do in that regard.
Jon: But I would imagine that if I was going to be published by Hub City, and they'd already purchased the book, I would be very happy to hear that you're going to be appearing at my launch party, because Hub City chose that book to be part of the program. Because, all of their books don't have the Charles Frazier mark on them, so. . .
Charles (laughing): Well I hope the writers are happy about it.
Jon (laughing): I’m pretty sure they would be happy. It seems perfectly logical, that they have a named author, a world-renowned author, to help them push their book out. And then, theoretically, you like the book, and you're happy to help them out.
Jon: Okay. So, it is different than what I first imagined. But you do have the opportunity to suggest to Betsy and Meg, "I really like this one. I'd like maybe for you to use some of the money to offer to them, so they can get published."
Charles: Yes. But I probably wouldn't do it that way. I would probably say, "Hey, I really like this. Would you take a look?"
Jon: Yes. Okay.
Charles: And then, you know—
Jon: Let them be the judge?
Charles: Exactly. That hasn't come up, yet, but I can certainly imagine it coming up.
Jon: Would that be something that you would like? Would you like to have a publishing arm where you published your own books?
Charles: Publish the books that I write?
Jon: No. No.
Charles: Oh, that I'm the editor choosing the books?
Charles: Not particularly. I thought about it once, that it would be nice to have a literary prize, and publish the book, but I started looking at other ways that would be more helpful and less time-consuming for me.
Jon: Would that be something that you would still might like to do with Hub City, perhaps?
Charles: I doubt it. At least not in terms of what we're doing with the Cold Mountain Fund of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.
Jon: Now you've got to add the Charles Frazier.
Charles (laughing): Yes.
The origin of this fund was right after Cold Mountain, when it was on the bestseller list.
Jon: I remember it well.
Charles: Around that time I met Annie Dillard, one of my most admired writers of all time. We talked about the not-always-great effects of sudden success, and she told me she found that tithing helped. So when the big contract on Thirteen Moons happened, one of the first things that I thought of was, I ought to tithe.
Jon: Have you ever told her that?
Jon: You should.
Charles: I should.
Jon: I'm sure she'd be thrilled.
The idea of taking some of that ridiculous amount of money for that book, and trying to do good stuff with it has been. . .
Jon: It speaks volumes about you, Mr. Frazier.
Charles: Well, thank you. For a long time, I wouldn't even talk about it. It was kind of like, when I did use it, donate it, it would be on the condition of anonymity. And at some point, I realized, "Well, that's kind of precious."
Jon (laughing): Right. Posh. Yes. Let people know!
Charles: So, I mean, the setup of the Hub City project is not what people’s immediate impression might be. But it does what I wanted in terms of protecting my time so that I can write another few books while also accomplishing the goal of supporting independent publishing.
Here are my chats with the lead-off beneficiary Hub City Press authors of Charles's Cold Mountain Fund.
Which turns out really to be a little over an hour from my house. And she, as a teenager, was on the Vaudeville stage for about 18 months. This is real life. On the Vaudeville stage for about 18 months as The Magnetic Girl or The Georgia Wonder. She had two stage names.
And you got to go back about 100 years before, to the 1700s. There was a man named Anton Mesmer. And you've heard of mesmerism, right? Mesmerism is essentially hypnotism.
Anton Mesmer put forward this series of beliefs called animal magnetism, which was loosely that people had fluids in their bodies. Which he was right, they do. But his thinking was that when your fluids get out of balance, that's what makes you sick. So, what does a magnet do? It pulls fluids or it pulls the opposing force left, right, up, down. It re-balances the fluids. So he went into this world of healing by balancing your fluids. Ben Franklin was into it.
Carter: The novel takes place in 1986 and it follows three characters. Brian has been estranged from his family. He's a gay man living in New York and he is HIV positive and sick and dying with AIDS. He writes a letter back to his parents to return home, which is in rural Ohio, in Appalachia, Ohio. The novel follows him, his younger sister, who is 14 years old and named Jess, and their mother Sharon. And it switches chapter to chapter between their perspectives.
It's just kind of looking at the AIDS epidemic and crisis through the lens of rural America and small-town America, and what happened to the men who went back to their families. And then it's also looking at just this sort of family story about love and reconciliation, rejection. It takes place in one year and it's written in first person with each of the characters.
Jon: How did you come up with the idea?
Carter: When I grew up in the 1980s I remember seeing this TV special that I think was on Oprah and it was about this gay man who was dying of AIDS or was HIV positive and was living in West Virginia. He went swimming in city swimming pool and there was a panic and they kicked him out of the pool. And so Oprah did this show of how the town reacted to him. And I think that story always sort of stuck with me. And, I don't know, I think it's important to keep telling these kinds of queer histories and stories.
But everything that I've read, rightly so, takes place in New York or San Francisco because those areas were hit so hard by the AIDS epidemic. But there were a lot of men who went back or lived in these small towns and I just kept thinking about what would that be like for the guy, but also for the family when there was so much fear, so much homophobia and hatred and anxiety about the disease. That's kind of what led me into writing about it.
Jon: Where are we today in 2019 and AIDS?
Carter: I mean, it's certainly not a death sentence like it once was. I think there are a lot of people living with AIDS and living healthy, full lives, but it's still, it's something that we don't talk about enough and it's still affecting vulnerable populations, especially African-American gay men, men who have sex with men, people of color, trans-women. So a lot of the people who were just not getting access to health care.
Jon: But it's just not as rampant as it was..
Carter: No, no, no.
Jon: ... in the '80s.
Carter: Definitely not.
Jon: And your book comes out next?...
Carter: April, 2020.
Jon: Okay, so you're the Spring season hardback from Hub City.
Jon: I was talking with Betsy Teter and she explained that every season they like to do at least one hardback book. But hardbacks are expensive, and that's why the Charles Frazier money is so helpful too. How did you find out that she had chosen your book for his fund money? Or was it just automatic because you are the only hardback of the season?
Carter: I'm not sure. She probably has the details on that, but they said they were going to publish the books. I've been thrilled about that. And then I guess I found out a few months later that it would be part of the Charles Frazier series. I mean, I'm thrilled. I'm excited that it's going to be in hardback. I've been a enormous admirer of Charles Frazier's work for a long time, so it's just an honor to meet him and to be a part of this.
Jon: And he'll come to your launch?
Carter: I hope so, yes. I’m so thrilled and Hub City, they've just been fantastic. I’m very excited about it.
Jon: I was a publisher’s rep for many, many years and I represented Hub City.
Carter: Really? Cool.
Jon: Yeah, I sold their books and of course I love their books.
Jon: Nice shoes, by the way.
Mark: My book is titled Watershed. This is my first book and my debut. It’s set in the late 1930s against the backdrop of the building of a federal hydroelectric dam and the arrival of electricity in rural Tennessee.
As I did a little research, I was stunned to realize that electricity arrives around 1900 in the United States. Edison has DC and all that, and then they're building it out. But my book is set in 1937. In the 30s the countryside still didn't have electricity. Because it was just a market-driven system. Right?
Mark: If you were in the electrical company in the city, you could string a mile of copper and have a hundred customers.
Mark: Very much so. And that's an issue, right? Our jobs are so dependent on the internet. And similarly, it was like that then, everything started to become dependent on electricity. And it just blew my mind that it's not something we collectively know. I'd never heard of it.
What happened was, as you might expect, young people were drawn off the farms to the bright lights, big city. Go live a more comfortable, electrified life.
Anyway, I thought that was fascinating and I wanted to set a story in that space, sort of dramatize it a bit. So that said, my story is more about these people. And I have a story of Nathan, who's this engineer who's working on the dam and he's running from a scandal in his past and Claire, who's a housewife who's getting her first taste of what a career might be.
And it's these two people as they meet in a small town just as electricity arrives. And there's some people who resist and some people who are enthusiastic and young people and old people, and just how it all plays out.
Jon: How some people resist, what would be their reasoning?
Mark: I think there are always people that resist. I was stunned with healthcare stuff when people are like, "Don't tell me that I need good healthcare."
But there were people that were like, "Don't come in and tell me." Well, one example I think of now is a pure manual laborer. Electrification means there might be machines to take his place.
Jon: Yes, of course.
Mark: If you're a guy who has a job shoveling grain all day, someone's going to come up with a machine that'll do that, a conveyor or something. So mechanization's part of it.
And there's people who just don't trust it. They felt like this is the government. Because it wasn't just a free market thing, it was the government, it was part of Roosevelt's rural electrification act. It had a faint socialist sort of tang to it. There were people that resisted and said things like "I'll shoot you if you come on my land trying to string up your electric lines." Or they were told they had to sell the right of way. I'm sure there was some eminent domain issues too, as part of building hydro-electric dams and flooding valleys. There were people who had to be relocated. Some of those people didn't want to go. There was a lot of resistance.
Jon: All these dams were hydroelectric.
Mark: Yeah, they built, I don't know the exact number, but a lot.
Jon: A lot in Tennessee because there was the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Mark: Exactly, which is just in Tennessee. The REA was nationwide, the Rural Electrification Act and TVA came out of that. It was more of a, I guess, a state level. I'm not quite sure. But I think there are at least 17 in Tennessee.
Jon: It's the only one that I've heard of. So it must be because there's a lot of them.
Mark: It's the most extensive system by far, I think. And it made electricity. But because of some laws on the books,the government couldn't get in and compete with independent, private electrical companies. So what they did was sign people up in cooperatives so they were member owners of these things. And then they could purchase wholesale electricity from the government that they've installed themselves. My parents have a place in Northern Arkansas that gets their electricity from them. They are still hundreds of them around the country. And I didn't know about that. I'd never heard of such a thing. I thought this is fascinating.
Jon: How did you first hear about it to think, "Hey, this is really fascinating. I think I'm going to write a book about this."
Mark: Well, I was writing that brochure. I was researching the brochure, and that's when I stumbled across this. I'm fascinated by these things that we collectively don't know. Big things that we somehow missed. I'm sure there's an infinite number of them, big things that created major changes in the flow of our society that we just don't talk about or think about.
Jon: We just accept.
Mark: Yes, it just really held my interest. I wasn't sure if it pulled other people's interest, but I think it's fascinating.
Jon: Well it used to be, on a little aside, that hundreds of years ago, everything was pretty clear on how it worked. You know, either it was gears or other things, and if something broke you could open it up and say, "Oh this ..."
Jon: If all the things that we take for granted, if they just broke there'd be a very small minority of people who would know what to do.
Jon: We'd say "Help!"
Mark: Right. We definitely see that. I've seen some dystopian novels that touch on that.
Mark: I think David Mitchell had one where we're like "If the oil had run out we would lose so much." All these people that have their photos in the Cloud and stuff like that, that all goes away. And not just everyone can engineer a car or build a computer... We'd go back to hoes and hand tools. Right.
Mark: Very quickly.
Jon: Very quickly. Helium. It's going away.
Mark: Right. Yeah.
Jon: What do we have anymore? No more balloons at parties.
Mark: What are children's birthday parties going to be like? "I remember when we had balloons that just floated in the sky."
Jon: We could use hydrogen, I guess. It's just a little more volatile. "Get away."
Mark: That'd make the kids parties exciting. The Hindenburg theme.
Jon: How were you fortunate enough to be published by Hub City?
Mark: We were looking for publishers and my agent suggested them. I'm a southerner, I'm from Arkansas. They have a really good reputation.
Jon: So your agent sent them the manuscript?
Mark: Yeah. And it seemed like just it was a great fit. In fact, I remember when she told me about them that two and a half weeks or so, it was sort of stressful because I was pretty excited about them. I remember Googling them and my wife, I talked to her and said "This seems like such a great fit." I think it says on their Twitter page, they're all about finding new extraordinary voices in the South. It was something that I thought, I want to be part of that. It sounds like just that sort of exciting thing.
Jon: Well, and then, not only do they accept your book and want to publish it, they only publish one hard back a season.
Jon: And it's your book.
Mark: Yes! That was very exciting. What writer hasn't dreamt about seeing their book in a hardback?
Jon: Exactly. And Betsy had already said to you that they wanted to publish you.
Jon: And you're going to be their hardback for the season. And then she says, "Oh, by the way ..."
Mark: Yeah. Which is just like ... I mean it's like having a booster rocket put on your plane or something. Because I, yeah, it was pretty of a real one, two punch of like, I'm pretty excited about this and oh this-
Jon: We have this guy.
Mark: This world-class author's going to throw his name behind this.
Mark: And I think that's incredible. That was very exciting. I mean I'm a big fan of his work and then to have him get behind it just feels like, it felt like winning the lottery or something, you know?
Mark: Because particularly, whereas a debut, no one knows who I am, and being at a small independent press, that's where that money can really make a difference. That's where his name and in this case the Cold Mountain Fund contributed something towards the tour and that's making a real difference. I fully expected that I would have to self-fund my tour as in me driving to book shops around my state. That's what I had in my head.
Jon: Which is a what a lot of authors do.
Mark: Which is what is done. Right? I'm still doing that, but it kind of extends it. I can fly. I've flown here, I can fly to places! (laughing).
Jon: Where are you going to have your launch? Is there a local bookstore?
Mark: A local bookstore is going to host it. Actually, it's a combination of my favorite local bar and local bookshop. And they're going to come sell books at the Whitewater Tavern in Little Rock. I will go to Asheville eventually, but I don't know.
Jon: So maybe you'll be at Malaprop's in Asheville.
Mark: Yeah, but I launch three weeks from today.
Mark: Thanks very much.
Jon: Very impressive.
Mark: This whole experience has been just extraordinary and truly ... It's been so gratifying.
Jon (laughing): Now we just have to sell the book.
Mark: I know. I was telling my wife the other day, I said, "If the book never comes out just this past seven months has been just incredible." You know, right now he's going to actually sell them. People have to actually want to read it.
Jon: And the whole Charles Frazier Cold Mountain Fund is big, so congratulations.
Mark: Thanks, I feel super lucky to have stumbled into it. And to be in the right place at the right time. And yeah, very grateful.
My sincere thanks to Charles Frazier, Jessica Handler, Carter Sickels, Mark Barr and Hub City Press.