(reprinted with permission from Advance Reading Copy)
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.
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. 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, Betsy and Meg 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's 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.
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.
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 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.
Read the interview at Advance Reading Copy