A sharp economic downturn has rocked the U.S., upending the plans of young and old alike. Homeless encampments dot the landscape from Seattle to New York City. Climate disasters strike with alarming frequency, wiping out what little people have left. The president’s agenda is stymied by Congress and a Supreme Court that seems increasingly out of touch. Faith in the country’s institutions is at an all-time low.

By the sound of it, Charles Frazier’s new novel, The Trackers (Ecco, Apr.), could be the first contemporary story he’s published. But it’s set in 1937, deep into the Great Depression, and Frazier’s protagonist, Val Welch, has been handed a lifeline that nowadays sounds far-fetched—a government commission to paint a mural on the wall of a post office in rural Dawes, Wyo. It’s the start of an adventure that will see Val hit the road in pursuit of a mysterious woman, a stolen painting, and an idea of his future.

Speaking via Zoom from Asheville, N.C., where he and his wife are staying in a “really weird” apartment building while their home is being renovated, Frazier seems more wary of the past than one would expect for a man who’s made his career writing about it. “People say it’s haunted,” he says of the building, which was developed in the 1890s as a resort hotel. “But my feeling is, we’re where the ballroom used to be. So, it’s a happy place. I’m not looking for ghosts.”

With his neatly trimmed white beard, shoulder-length gray hair, and casual button-down over a black T-shirt, Frazier looks like a cross between a Civil War general and a health food store clerk. Born and raised in western North Carolina, he is courteous, good-humored, and reserved—a writer more at ease practicing his craft than talking about it. Or, perhaps, one who well knows that once a book enters the world, it takes on a life of its own.

That’s certainly what happened with Frazier’s blockbuster, National Book Award–winning debut novel Cold Mountain (1997), which was hatched from the seed of a family legend about an ancestor who deserted from the Confederate Army. Frazier, who once taught English at the University of Colorado Boulder and NC State, recalls thinking, “Maybe I would get a better teaching schedule if I could write a book that gets a couple of reviews and sells 15,000 copies. That was about the highest I ever let my expectations go.”

Cold Mountain promptly confounded Frazier’s expectations and everyone else’s, spending 61 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and garnering seven Oscar nominations for its film adaptation. Based on a one-page outline, Random House paid more than $8 million for Frazier’s follow-up, Thirteen Moons (2006), the story of a white orphan whose fate becomes intertwined with the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina. Though it also hit the New York Times bestseller list, sales didn’t meet Random House’s sky-high projections, leading to the novel’s appearance in hand-wringing articles about the state of publishing.

Asked why he thinks Cold Mountain struck such a chord with readers, Frazier says, “I’ve thought about that some, not a huge amount, and I’ve never come up with a satisfactory answer.” He pauses a beat, then ventures: “It looks at the Civil War in a way that wasn’t happening at that time. The cost of that war, not the glory of it. Very early on, I was on some public radio interview and this guy called in and just launched into, ‘I know who you are, buddy. You’re some old anti-Vietnam hippie.’ And I said, ‘Well, nailed it.’ ”

Somehow, the contemplation of Cold Mountain’s success has drifted into an anecdote about a guy who probably never read it. But Frazier’s reticence to dwell on his achievements speaks volumes about how he’s managed to navigate the fickle winds of the publishing industry. His answer also sheds light on his well-honed approach to historical fiction, which blends progressive sensibilities with fine-grained period details, slow-burn character development, and deep sensitivity to the legacies of trauma.

The Trackers, like all four of Frazier’s previous novels (in addition to Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons, there’s Nightwoods and Varina), began with an image. In this case, it was a photograph he came across while reading about Works Progress Administration murals, thousands of which were painted on federal buildings across the U.S. in the 1930s and ’40s and depicted scenes of importance to those communities. In the photo, two painters stand on makeshift scaffolding in front of a just-started mural; below them, an older man and a younger woman, both dressed in nice clothes, gaze up at the wall. The image floated around in Frazier’s mind for four or five years before he started writing. “It’s not a very conscious process,” he says of choosing a project. “It’s just sort of like eventually something declares itself as more interesting to me than the others.”

Normally, Frazier starts a book by going to some place that resembles the image he’s inspired by. “It usually takes a good bit of traveling,” he says. “Almost like location scouting for a movie. Find these places and see what it is that’s calling from there.”

In fall 2019, he began making plans to spend the following summer in Wyoming writing The Trackers. Then Covid-19 hit. Stuck at home, Frazier restructured the story to feature places where he “could work from memory,” including Wyoming, central Florida, Seattle, San Francisco, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Along the way, the quartet in the photo became a trio—Val, a young artist at loose ends after his fiancée elopes with another man; John Long, an aspiring senator and avid art collector who’s agreed to host Val at his sprawling ranch; and Long’s wife, Eve, a teenage hobo turned Western swing band singer. Added to the mix is Long’s right-hand man, Faro, an ageless cowboy rumored to have fought alongside Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County War. Val spends his days painting and his nights drinking and talking with Long and Eve, until she disappears with a small Renoir from her husband’s collection. Asked by Long to track Eve down, Val crisscrosses the country, taking in sights as sad as Seattle’s Hooverville and as inspiring as the Golden Gate Bridge.

Though there’s plenty of action, much of it provided by a menacing figure from Eve’s past, the meat of the story lies in what drew Frazier to the subject of the Great Depression and the WPA in the first place. “My father’s parents were real progressive kinds of people,” he explains. “They sent four kids to college off of a little subsistence farm. They were part of a farmers’ co-op where everybody saves a little bit of money on their farm equipment and supplies. There was just this sense of the importance of education, the importance of people working together in a community. Their lives had a lot of optimism in the middle of this terrible time for the country. That sense of the necessity of hope is something that stuck with me.”

Of course, it’s not easy to maintain hope in times of uncertainty and fear, and a sense of ambivalence and anger permeate the novel. One minute, Val’s rhapsodizing about the virtues of public art projects and letting himself fall in love with Eve; the next, he’s railing against “old reptilian Supreme Court justices” and puncturing the myth of the American West as a place of endless reinvention.

“The necessity of hope is something Val doesn’t quite learn, though it’s been demonstrated to him,” Frazier says, sounding exactly like someone who’s still trying hard to grasp the same lesson. “I guess he still has time, right?”