Interview with Frances Mayes

Posted by Goodreads on March 8, 2010
If a foreigner could become an ambassador for Italy, Frances Mayes would have been nominated by now. The poet, journalist, travel writer, novelist, and memoirist inspired a generation to visit the Heeled Boot with her book Under the Tuscan Sun, an autobiographical account of moving to Cortona and rebuilding her life from the ground up. (The ensuing movie with Diane Lane only increased Mayes's mystique.) Today the retired San Francisco State writing professor still lives part of the year in her 13th-century home nestled in the Tuscan hills and continues to write honey-soaked prose about the vibrant world of small-town Italy. Every Day in Tuscany is her third memoir. Goodreads spoke with Mayes about the allure of Bella Italia, why food is so essential, and what she tells writers who want to follow in her literary footsteps.

Goodreads: Your newest book, Every Day in Tuscany, is a sequel to your two previous books, Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany. How does this one differ from your two previous memoirs?

Frances Mayes: Twenty years ago I took up an Italian life. Such a long time ago! This book continues the pleasures of rural life in Tuscany but has a big focus on changes I've experienced over this time. I felt more reflective writing it and looked at questions about happiness—how to hold on to it, what it means, and how it connects to mindful everyday life, to solitude and to quests. There's an almost pull-out section on the Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli. I follow his work around Tuscany and Umbria, a great joy for me, and I hope it brings some attention to his work. Another different focus is on friendship. I went to Italy for the art, cuisine, landscape, piazzas, etc., but I stayed for the people.

GR: People from all over the world have fallen in love with your tales of Italian life. What is it about that place that universally captivates people from so many different countries and cultures?

FM: No other place has it all. Italy is the hot spot on the planet—blessed with beauty, a huge hunk of western civilization, enchanting towns, opera, the whole history of architecture and art, Rome!, blissful islands, robust food and wine—tutto! Other places have their glories, but Italy really corners the market. There's something else. Maybe it's built way into the spirals of the DNA, but Italians know how to live. You sense that immediately when you travel there.

GR: You sprinkle recipes throughout Every Day in Tuscany, as you did in your previous books. In a way, this hybridization of a traditional memoir echoes many trends evolving in digital books. Soon it will be possible to write a digital book interspersed with videos, music, reference links, etc. Does this sound like something you'd be willing to experiment with? What sort of digital book would you be interested in creating?

FM: I love combining images with text. The possibilities out there now are thrilling. I've always had audiobooks, most of which I've read, but now the ways of putting voice, music, image, and word together will lead us into exciting new arenas. I'd love to work on art books or programs that involved images, details, context of place, with music and poetry of the period incorporated. I'm working on a cookbook now and of course will add video as well as still images. If only I could get the aromas of roasted guinea hen and long-simmered ragù to waft through the words.

GR: Food has been emblematic in books for centuries, from the works of Trollope and Proust to those by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jonathan Safran Foer. What do you believe is the role of recipes and food in your books?

FM: I really didn't have recipes in mind when I started Under the Tuscan Sun, but it quickly became clear that one can't write about Italy without writing about food. For me the recipes convey the actual texture of the Italians' most outstanding quality, their celebratory attitude toward life—and that always centers on the table.

GR: In the '90s, when Under the Tuscan Sun was published, your book struck a chord with many women, perhaps because it embodied a phoenixlike rise from the ashes of a previous relationship. Some members of Goodreads have compared your memoir to the very different Eat, Pray, Love. What would you say to those comparisons? Is there one book every decade that resonates with female readers? Can you put your finger on the element of your memoir that you think grabbed readers?

FM: Both Elizabeth Gilbert's and my books are quests for change. Different, yes, but in both there's a drive to strike out for the territories and see what's there. Is there a woman's book for every decade? Not sure. Certainly Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique galvanized a generation toward change. From letters I've received I'd say the common denominator is that one word: change. Of course, Italy is a great attraction, but my sense is that the response was more "She did that; I can, too." Men, too, write me about knowing how to do what they do, all too well, and wanting a midcourse correction. You see the same life looming in front of you for several decades, and sometimes you feel a profound urge for the new. Traditionally the quest novel belongs to men. Perhaps that's part of why Elizabeth Gilbert's and my books have found large audiences among women.

GR: You've had a long and impressive career as a poet, novelist, memoirist, and professor. Prior to Under the Tuscan Sun, you published several books of poetry. Why did you decide to transition into memoir writing and what were the challenges you encountered with this writing style?

FM: What luck I had! When I started living in Italy, my writing simply changed on its own. The prose came to me spontaneously. Yeats said that when he changed his syntax he changed his world. I changed my world, and my genre changed. I wanted to bring what I practiced as a poet into my new writing. Sometimes I've been criticized for a "poetic" style. Well, that's a lyric inheritance and preference, and it's just the way I write. I still read poetry daily. When it's good, there's nothing better.

GR: The huge success of Under the Tuscan Sun and the two sequels have made you something of an honorary expat in the region. Do you ever feel pigeonholed by your success in this realm and harbor dreams of writing a great detective novel or an apocalyptic work of fantasy?

FM: No. I probably would be better off if I could stick to the same genre. I've written, since Under the Tuscan Sun, a novel, Swan, set in Georgia, a book of travel narratives, A Year in the World, and two photo-texts, In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany Home. Now I'm into a cookbook. I would like to write an anonymous novel. And a children's book. Imagine writing The Secret Garden, a book that marks for life generations of young readers.

GR: After many years of teaching writing at San Francisco State, you've worked with many aspiring writers. What do you tell young writers starting out who want to become the next Frances Mayes?

FM: Write, write, write. Free write, then take what's strong in that and go from there. Join a writing group, a good one, with members who are committed to saying what's right with a piece of work, not what's wrong. You build on your strengths. Probably no one is encouraging you to become a writer, so it's most important to find soul mates. And find your mentors in print. Mine, early on, were Keats and Colette. I still go to them with a "Now let's see how you did that." And also, read, read, read. Read once for pleasure, then again to see the structure and craft and language.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

FM: I write erratically. I'm obsessed with beautiful notepads, blank books, typefaces, ink. I long to be disciplined, an 8-1 writer, but instead I find my best hours are those between dog and wolf, 5-8. I work well with a close deadline. Otherwise, I tend to read and cook and take walks.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

FM: So many. I keep up with my neighbors' books: Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, Michael Malone, Craig Nova, Jill McCorkle, Wells Tower, Randall Keenan. (The North Carolina town of Hillsborough attracts so many writers, photographers, artists, musicians.) Recently I loved Anne Michael's The Winter Vault. I'm a big Sebald fan. The poetry of C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander always is close to me. All the Southern greats with their sense of place have had a lifelong hold on me: Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, James Agee, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Thomas Wolfe, Conrad Aiken. Other favorite writers about place: Freya Stark, Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Fermor, Eric Newby, Ann Cornelisen, and D.H. Lawrence.

GR: What's next, after the cookbook?

FM: A Southern road trip/memoir.

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Gabriella (new)

Gabriella You might want to change "Now let's see how you did that attitude" to "Now let's see how you did that" attitude... Otherwise, great interview!

--SF State creative writing program alum

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

You make me want to visit Tuscany. I've read one of your books. Not sure which one. You and your husband had moved from the states to Tuscany.

message 3: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Gabriella wrote: "You might want to change "Now let's see how you did that attitude" to "Now let's see how you did that" attitude... Otherwise, great interview!

--SF State creative writing program alum"

Nice catch Gabriella!

message 4: by Gabriella (new)

Gabriella Thanks, I'm a proofer ;)

message 5: by Linda (new)

Linda I can't believe I did not know Under the Tuscan Sun was first a book, and has sequels! One of my fav movies. Now I must go to the bookstore.

message 6: by Kim-Lost-In-A-Book (last edited Mar 13, 2010 09:56PM) (new)

Kim-Lost-In-A-Book I loved the movie "Under the Tuscan Sun" and had wanted to read the book for so long. I recently got the book and it's much different than what I expected. I was expecting to fly through the book and read it very quickly, but Ms. Mayes's pace is so unrushed and relaxed, that I'm finding I just want to take my time with it. It's the kind of book I want to savor, to sit and truly enjoy reading every word. This is very unlike me as I've always been a fast paced person, so this is a welcome change in my world! It's forcing me to sit and relax and just be, enjoy the story and fully picture the scenes unfolding before my eyes... it brings me back to Italy and makes me want to explore more of the country. (I have visited Italy but have not made it to the Tuscany area YET).

I also have Bella Tuscany to read after I've finished this one. I will have to add the newest book to my shelves as well.

message 7: by Dottie (last edited Mar 15, 2010 10:25PM) (new)

Dottie What I find appealing in Under the Tuscan Sun and your other writings on and about Tuscany is the idea of simplifying -- of changing life -- though not all of us can reach for Tuscany, we won't let that stop us from hearing the message of finding the good things in life wherever we may land for however long we might land there -- to enjoy eating food grown ourselves and prepared with love and shared, in love, with friends and family. To care for and value older things -- to bring an older home back to a grandness of simplicity and new life, to gather cherished objects (including books and poetry) around us in building a home which nourishes the inner being as well as the physical outer body. To be aware of and grateful for the moments which are our lives rather than to rush through them -- to even find the humor in the worst of those moments. That's the chord I believe is sounded in many of the books which seem to become touchstones in whatever decade they are brought forth.

message 8: by Kay (new)

Kay I so enjoyed this interview, as your responses were as engaging and interesting as reading an excerpt of one of your books. My daughters gifted me with a copy of each of the "Tuscany" books, which I loved. One invited me to see "Under the Tuscan Sun," which was a visual delight. Now, I know exactly what to give my younger daughter for her birthday...just before she and her husband embark on a delayed honeymoon trip to Italy this spring. She is bound to venture trying the recipes, too. Perhaps you will be able to work a book signing into the Hillsborough, NC area...hope so, as that is local enough for me! Much continued success and happiness to you.

message 9: by Juz (new)

Juz I have a question about the following bit from "Under the Tuscan Sun":
"They love it but it's downhill now in comparison to the four armoires from that nutty contessa." (A Long Table under the Trees chapter). Not sure I get the "four armoires" and "nutty contessa" reference.


message 10: by Dick (new)

Dick Wilkin My wife and I visited Italy and fell in love with culture. Part of our inspiration to visit were your books. We spent a week in Monterchi and ate several times at the little cafe you mention as a favorite. We loved it and the owner's family. We also spent a week in Cortona and of course we had to walk the country road to see the real Bramasole. My wife and I are learning the language in anticipation of returning. We are planning to walk the Via Francigena. What would you suggest we see or try to grasp about the country while we are there? If you had to list one thing about Italy that people have to "get," what would it be?

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