Q & A: Frances Mayes
As a girl growing up in Georgia, what were some catalysts to your love of literature and travel?
In a small town, I gravitated to the local library. Something to do! I read my way around the shelves. By high school, I was determined to read every single book there. Along the way, I decided that the most exciting thing to do in life was write, that is, once I figured out that not all writers were dead. I kept notebooks on books I read and little red leather diaries with keys.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in writing and education?
Once in college, I fell hard for the romantic poets, then the modernist poets. I always loved the entire range of southern literature. I imagined myself in black, in Paris. In actual fact, I married after college and only became a writer very slowly. What spurred me was deciding to go to grad school. When I finished, I was invited to stay and teach. To my surprise, it suited me perfectly—the gift of good work with very motivated students, and the creativity of devising classes that taught the craft and vision of poetry. I later became department chair and stayed at the university for 23 years. I loved building the department and teaching. There I wrote The Discovery of Poetry, a loving guide for readers and writers, and six books of poetry. My whole writing career before Under the Tuscan Sun was passionately focused on poetry.
Your memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, chronicles your move to Italy. What propelled you to make this transition?
Initially, I went for a month in the country. This was after divorce. I’d met Ed and was quite enchanted. As soon as we got there, I developed a grand scheme of spending more time in that blessed place. After thee summers of renting in various locations in Tuscany, I bought Bramasole. I kept my job in San Francisco—Ed and I only lived in Italy in the summers and vacations until about ten years ago. Now we spend more time there but we always live more or less half the year in the USA, too.
This move abroad was brave and unusual. How did you think outside of the box?
This was 1990. Believe me, it was outside the box! No one I knew ever had done that kind of crazy thing. Of course, now it is more usual, but then—mamma mia! That month in the country house just warmed my being in such a way that I knew it was a good idea to put myself there as much as possible.
How involved were you in the making of the film version of your book?
I met with the director over a period of a week, talking and scheming about what would work. We became good friends. The screenplay was essentially hers. I had nothing to do with casting, although I’m honored to have been played by the darling Diane Lane. The only thing I really didn’t like about the movie was her wardrobe. I would never dress as frumpily as she had to in most of the movie. I think she only had two pretty outfits in the whole film!
What are some of the similarities and differences in the places where you have lived (Georgia, Virginia, California, Italy)?
Mio dio! That’s a book. Let me just sound off a bit with a partial answer. California is like nowhere else on earth. It’s a country in itself and the way of the future. It is so far ahead in so many ways. Italy thousands of years deep and you’d need five lifetimes to be able to say, I know Italy. You cannot in one lifetime. Georgia, Virginia, the two poles of the South. Gentry South, hardscrabble South. I love them both. Right now, it’s spring in North Carolina, where I live, and the sweetness of this season is unbearable. The land smells good, and all the houses are riding on rafts of pink and white azaleas. Everyone’s hanging out big ferns on the porches. The air is balm. Lucky to live in such diverse places.
Do you have advice for Americans who wish to live abroad?
No. You’re on your own!
Who are some artists and authors who inspire you?
My husband, Ed Mayes, poet. Friends: Alberto Alfonso, architect and painter, Rena Williams, painter, John Beerman, painter, novelists Lee Smith, Michael Malone, Allen Gurganus. And old friends: Keats, Yeats, Colette, oh, so many.
You’ve just returned from a book tour.
Yes, 32 events in 23 cities. A fabulous experience!
Can you share some details about your new book?
The Tuscan Sun Cookbook is a gathering of the feasts we’ve prepared while living there for two decades. It’s dedicated to the friends whose tables welcome us over and over. From these friends, we discovered the traditional recipes of their ancestors. But, more than that, we learned about how amazingly improvisational Tuscan cooks are around their ingredients. We looked into their pantries, made grappa with them, put up hundreds of jars of tomatoes, scrapped the dishes, fired up the bread oven, pulled up the onions, rolled out the pasta, pickled the eggplant, ironed the tablecloth, picked the wildflowers—tutto! It has been a grand adventure to find out how the Tuscans know how to live like the gods.
What is your opinion of social media and do you think it has made an impact on the genre of writing?
I’m fairly new to it. I love my blog and the interactions on it. www.fancesmayesbooks.com Twitter is fun and very direct. On my book tour I met lots of Twitter pen pals and it was as if we did know each other. I think Twitter could get to be overwhelming by sheer volume. And I hate all the “inspiring” quotes—I scroll right past those. Facebook seems useful to keep in touch with people you know. I don’t like seeing so many pet pictures. If social media has any impact on the genre of writing, I would be surprised if it isn’t a negative one. I’m waiting for the dreary novel based on Twitter. But wait, I can see 140 character poems, little expanded haikus. Everything has an influence, right?