Frances Mayes and the riches of Tuscany

The poet-turned-memoirist talks about Italy, writing and how a bestseller changed her life.

Published April 14, 1999 6:30PM (EDT)

I met Frances Mayes about two decades ago. Back then, the poet and memoirist -- author of the mega-bestselling "Under the Tuscan Sun" and of the new sequel, "Bella Tuscany" -- was a professional poet with two published works and a teaching post at San Francisco State. And I was a would-be poet fresh out of a graduate writing program, where one of my teachers had given me Mayes' name to contact when I got to San Francisco.

Now, three books of poetry and that life-changing memoir later, Mayes is sitting in the living room of her new Mediterranean-style home in one of San Francisco's most exclusive neighborhoods and laughing, recalling those penurious days. "My bestselling poetry book sold -- let's see -- probably around 2,000 copies," she says in a rich, slow voice that still carries a slightly syrupy Georgian drawl from her youth.

When she laughs, the corners of her eyes crinkle, and I get the feeling those corners are crinkling a lot these days.

"'Under the Tuscan Sun' just passed 1 million copies," she says, and a childlike hint of what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this bewilderment and oh-my-God-look-what-I-found wonder echo in her voice.

The Tuscany book did not leap to the top of the bestseller lists. When it first came out in 1996, in a hardcover edition published by Chronicle Books, it sold respectably enough to make it onto a Bay Area bestseller list, but failed to achieve national prominence. That changed the following year, when Broadway Books -- blessed with deep marketing and promotion pockets -- brought it out in paperback.

It rose almost immediately onto the New York Times' bestseller list, and there -- like the sun on a languid Tuscan day -- it has simply stayed and stayed and stayed. It is now in its 80th week.

"And that's not all," Mayes says, the eyes crinkling again. "Look at these." She hands me the Swedish, British and Italian versions of her book. "It's been translated into 18 languages. This one just arrived," she says, cradling the Chinese translation like a precious gift she's not quite sure what to do with.

"How has the book changed your life?" I ask.

"Well, the most important thing is that it's given me time. I was able to take a sabbatical for the first time in 20 years, and that allowed me to live in Italy for half a year and see it in spring, a season I'd never seen before. And of course it allowed me to work on the new book. And we've been able to buy a few things we wouldn't have bought before."

"Are you suffering from the Peter Mayle syndrome," I ask, "where all these foreigners you've never met are suddenly knocking on your door?"

"No," she says. "Lots of people walk by our house and sometimes stop to chat if we're
out working on the land or garden. But it has not been a problem. Maybe
the readers of my books are particularly nice -- only a couple of times have we been invaded by pushy people. And I've made literary pilgrimages of my own, so I
understand the impulse -- it's natural. Also, I know my books won't be popular
forever, and that makes it all a little easier to enjoy, or at least bear.

"One of the interesting byproducts of the book is that the people in our little town [in Italy] are being introduced to visitors they've never seen before -- Japanese and South Americans, for example. The shopkeepers are very happy about this."

"Has anyone in town complained about the new celebrity?"

"No, they haven't. In fact, last December I was made an official citizen of the town. This was one of the high points of my life. There was a huge ceremony with all the townspeople present, and I had to give a long speech -- in Italian! I haven't been that terrified in years."

"What do you think accounts for the popularity of the book?" I ask.

"The writing, of course!" Mayes says, eyes crinkling. "I've never said that to any interviewer before. I think it's all the great qualities of Italy -- the people, the food, the landscape, the art, the history. People love Italy! From my mail I've also learned that many, many people identify with me taking a huge risk in mid-career. You know, at a time when most people are thinking of settling down, [my husband] Ed and I decided to take this huge risk and buy a house in a foreign country and fix it up. Plus I hear from a lot of readers who just love houses and house stories."

Doubtless all this is true, but I think also that Mayes has tapped into two of our culture's most potent and cherished myths: the you-can-start-all-over-again myth and the somewhere-there-is-time myth. In the case of Mayes and Tuscany, these myths have combined into something like this: Tuscany is a place where the pace of life still allows people to live gently and well, and if I move there, my life will magically change, too. Suddenly I'll have time to appreciate the world around me -- to linger in the garden and in the kitchen and over the table. Time to read and time to write. Time to talk to the neighbors and the shopkeepers. Time to savor life's little riches -- to watch the violets and hawthorn bloom, to smell the mesmerizing perfume of spring lilac -- and time to delight in life's huge disasters: when the pumps fail or the roof leaks or the walls crumble and sag.

I think this notion taps straight into our collective memory (or fantasy) of how life once was and is still supposed to be, just like the subtitle of "Bella Tuscany": "The sweet life in Italy."

But the fact that Mayes has harnessed this potent notion in no way detracts from the power of her literary achievement: In "Under the Tuscan Sun" and "Bella Tuscany," she approaches life with a wonderfully warm and open spirit, capturing its daily ups and downs in a precise and poetic prose. The books are sensual celebrations -- each a vital, vibrant mix of history and art, landscape, food and travel and, of course, character -- that remind us profoundly of our life's, all life's, mundane riches and meanings.

I ask Mayes what the essence of Italy is for her, and she looks out the window at a rain-spattered San Francisco day and sighs. "That's a tough question! I think I'd have to quote all of both books
because it's layered and complex to think of the essence of Italy. I can
talk about the essence of a sauce -- but Italy! Well, the Italians know
how to live. They have more fun than the rest of us. They inhabit time
in a way that makes the day long. The cycle of seasons profoundly
changes what they eat and what they do. Oh, there are so many things -- it's all in the books!"

As we near the end of our talk, I ask Mayes if there has been any downside to the success of the Tuscany book.

"Well, before the Tuscany book, I had to work my writing time around my demanding
but wonderful job teaching creative writing. Now, I have a great deal
of business around the success of my book -- all the foreign contracts,
invitations to speak, events, etc. So, except for the sabbatical I spoke about earlier, finding the
uninterrupted time to write is still a great challenge for me. Writing requires, for me, not only the actual time when I am writing, but a span of time for dreaming,
taking notes, reading, meditating in the bathtub, walking alone. That
peripheral time is just as crucial.

"On the other hand, I've really enjoyed the touring for the book. I used to be something of a snob when it came to the U.S., used to think I could only live in San Francisco or maybe a couple of other cities. But now I've been getting to see parts of the U.S. I've never seen, and I've been astonished to meet in just about every place I go people who, I understand, would be friends of mine if I lived where they live. It's also been wonderful to hear so many stories about people's Italian families, incidents of
the generosity and friendliness of Italians to travelers and those
incredible moments that happen on journeys.

"In fact, the only daunting or
disappointing thing has been the flying. You know that moment at the end of the flight when
the entire crammed plane stands up and begins jockeying to leave, to get their
overhead baggage down? I truly hate that moment. Moment! Sometimes
it's half an hour. Flying is not fun, especially not if you're in steerage. It's misery!"

The misery of flying is about to bedevil Mayes again. This week she sets off on a six-week, 30-city tour to promote her new book. Then she flies on to Holland and France for more promotions. "After that," she says, "in mid-June, I will be in Italy, and I hope to travel to my study -- and finish a novel that's set in Georgia. Then I long to go to
Greece and Egypt, to Scotland, everywhere. And of course," she ends, her eyes crinkling at the thought of it, "there's always more traveling to be done in Italy, too."

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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