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"It never occurred to me that there would be anything in common between growing up in the [American] South and living in Italy. As it turns out, they're both rural cultures and they both have an intense sense of community, so those were big things. I think beyond that, the main thing is that there's this great, friendly, generous, welcoming spirit in Tuscany that is exactly like Georgia, where I grew up. People want to eat with you, they want to talk to you. They take time, they're not in a rush. It's a pace of life that's similar."
"Can I ask how old you are?" It's something I always ask the people I interview. I ask it as calmly as I ask where they live, if they're married or if they have children. Razor sharp pencils or a word processor? It's one of several personal things that readers like to know that are generally easily shared by an author. It gives us context: a point of reference and cross-reference with our own lives.
She recoils, though prettily. "Oh no! What a horrible question." And where this reaction might perhaps be questionable in another writer, from Frances Mayes it's somehow not even surprising: perhaps it's almost expected. She is, originally, a daughter of Georgia and even though she hasn't lived in the South for many years, there remains something deeply Southern about her. "I just feel kind of metabolically Southern. It's something that doesn't go away."
And though she's not talking about her age, we can do a little math and figure out that -- with a 32-year-old daughter and because she said she was attending college in the late 1960s, she's at least 50-something. Maybe even an energetic early 60-something and so, a woman of a certain age. A Southern woman of a certain age. One who still remembers when, "Can I ask how old you are?" was not considered to be a polite question.
While Frances Mayes does not seem disposed to talking at great length about her own distant past, her body language says a great deal. She is, on careful examination, a neat package of a woman. Everything about her is neat: her figure is trim and -- as previously mentioned -- energetic. Her hands -- her gardener's hands -- are carefully but not luxuriously manicured. No Tuscan dirt left beneath well-trimmed nails.
When she considers a question, she sits quietly in her chair, her hands sometimes in her lap -- one atop the other -- like a well-behaved child in a very good school. Her head might tilt to one side as she listens, as though extracting all that is good from the question. And she won't rush to answer. Rather she will consider the question and reply with polite warmth when it's correct to do so. Yet sometimes you can't help but see the passion beneath the neat and well-schooled exterior. A question will pique her interest or land in some warm place and she fairly bubbles with the delight of it. When she talks, for instance, about the similarities between the American South and her beloved Tuscany. Or her garden. Or her home. Or the food she loves. La dolce vita. She didn't, of course, make it up, but she lives it. Has even, perhaps, imbued it with a little bit of her own, Southern energy.
I keep mentioning the South, yet in many ways, Frances Mayes no longer considers herself a Southerner. She hasn't, after all, lived there since she was in college and today home is in two places: and one of them isn't south of the Mason-Dixon. It's still there in her voice, though blurred with many years of living in other places. A softness is left. A languor. And certainly a view of the planet that can only really be cultivated by being reared in rural Georgia.
Linda Richards: From reading your work, I had sort of surmised you were from the South. And now that I've heard your voice, it's confirmed. Where are you from originally?
Frances Mayes: I grew up in Fitzgerald, Georgia. It's a real tiny town way south of Georgia. It's not near anything. It's just a little place.
Do you think being from the South contributed to the passion that you found for Italy? Because it seems that in some ways the lifestyles are pretty similar.
I didn't think that when I started going to Italy. It never occurred to me that there would be anything in common between growing up in the [American] South and living in Italy. As it turns out, they're both rural cultures and they both have an intense sense of community, so those were big things. I think beyond that, the main thing is that there's this great, friendly, generous, welcoming spirit in Tuscany that is exactly like Georgia, where I grew up. People want to eat with you, they want to talk to you. They take time, they're not in a rush. It's a pace of life that's similar. A big emphasis on food. I think the Southern cuisine in America is the strongest and most fully developed cuisine that we have. Though California cuisine is getting there. So it turns out there are quite a few similarities. But there are a lot of things that are different too. The Italians are a very tolerant people. They're a peaceful people. Southerners are violent and some of them are racist so some of the big things couldn't be more dissimilar. But a lot of the nice things that are close to home.
Do you also find a sort of geographic similarity? Because the South is very warm and...
The climate, yes. Both are torrid landscapes with mild winters. And I love that.
How long has it been since you lived in the South?
Oh, I haven't lived there since I went off to college. But I still am very connected there. My family is still there and I still go down there all the time. I just feel kind of metabolically Southern. It's something that doesn't go away.
I was interviewed by a French woman who was the editor of one of the major magazines in France and she said, "I have a second home," and I asked where and I thought she would say Provence or something, as she lives in Paris. And she said, "Kiawah Island, South Carolina." And I asked how on earth she got there and she told me she loved Southern food. So that was interesting coming from a very sophisticated woman. French. And she loves South Carolina.
That's funny. Because with you having homes in San Francisco and Tuscany, it's almost like you have parallel lives.
Yeah, we hit it off immediately, and I think that was probably part of it.
An exotic locale is always a matter of perspective, isn't it?
Yes, it is. The Italians are very fascinated with San Francisco. When they ask where I'm from, they say, "Oh! The most beautiful city." So they're very attracted to these new, beautiful cities. And it's interesting knowing people there. Knowing they grew up in these little stone towns. And you think about what it would be like to be with them in a fast-paced contemporary city. It's quite mind-blowing for them. The Italians I've talked to who have been to America have really hated the food. They loathe the food. But I think often they're on some awful tour and they get taken to the places where the food isn't that great.
What led you to Tuscany in the beginning?
I started going there right out of college. I studied Renaissance art and architecture -- medieval art and architecture -- so the minute I got there, there it all was right before me. And I just loved Italy from the outset. I stepped off the plane and I thought: I'm at home. This feels great. And then I thought: these people are really having a good time. What's going on? So I just started going there whenever I could, for vacations.
In 1985 I rented a farmhouse there for the first time. I liked it so much -- found that it changed traveling to be in a different relationship with the place because you're really staying there. You're not just in the hotels and restaurants. You're actually going to the markets and buying suntan lotion and -- you know -- just kind of the normal shopping that you do. So the first night I was there in that farmhouse I saw in the distance this tumble down old farmhouse and I said to Ed: Wouldn't it be fun to get a farmhouse here? And then for the next three years, four years, we rented different farmhouses around Tuscany, trying to get to know different parts. We'd stay two weeks here, two weeks there, a week here, because we liked that area. We kept going pack to where we'd stayed first of all and started looking for a place and never regretted it. It's been great.
So you bought the house you have now between the books? Between Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany?
No. I bought the house in 1990. And I started writing Under the Tuscan Sun then. Then in 1995, I guess, I started writing Bella Tuscany.
The two books I think of as one book: one continues the other. And it spans the decade we've been there. Then I've written another book that's coming out in October  that is a phototext and that was really fun to work on. It was a very quick project: I did it with Bob Krist who is a photographer for National Geographic and others. There's about 200 photos in there and I wrote about 100 pages of text. That was really fun. It's about 8 x 10", it's not a big ol' heavy coffee table book, but it's kind of a hybrid book because it has too much text in it to be a photo book and it's just kind of itself. It's about the little-known places in Tuscany and it's not a memoir. It's more objectively written.
It must have been fun to research that.
It was. It was really fun. And I think he and I both learned things about seeing. I'd say: Take this! And he'd say: No. And then that would turn out to be great. Or he'd start taking [a picture of] something and I'd wonder why. But it was just different ways of seeing and we began to complement each other.
Did that energize your writing?
It did. And my husband Ed wrote one chapter, so it was a more collaborative project than I'd ever really worked on before. But I'd like to do it again. I liked it.
Ed is a writer as well?
Yes. He's a poet. He has a new book of poems called Works and Days, it's published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. It won a major poetry award. He's written five books of poetry.
Do you have the same last name?
Yes. Mayes. His name was Kleinschmidt. And when we got married we wanted to have the same name and I said: Honey, I'm not going there. I am not going to be Kleinschmidt in this lifetime. I just didn't like that name at all: it was so heavy. And he was tired of spelling it. His parents were dead, so they wouldn't get upset. So he took Mayes. He's an enlightened man. Very enlightened.
What year was this?
We just got married two years ago. We'd been together for a long time, but finally got around to getting married. It was fun. I have a daughter and she's just getting her PhD in forensic psychology. She's 32. She worked as an artist for eight years in New York and then she decided she wanted to go and get a degree and get a grown-up job. She's doing her internship in a maximum security prison right now. So she comes with a lot of interesting stories. There's some bad dudes out there.
So the next book is out in the fall?
Yes. October. It's called In Tuscany. We've been round and round about the name. I never have gotten the name I wanted on any book. My names have always been different from the names they choose. For Under the Tuscan Sun my title was In the Country of the Sun and now I can't imagine that it was ever anything but Under the Tuscan Sun. But the publisher didn't want that because they though Country of the Sun sounded like Japan. And my title for Bella Tuscany was The Sweet Life and they said: No way. And my title for In Tuscany was Food, Wine and Laughter and they didn't want that.
They wanted the Tuscan word in there.
They want the word "Tuscany." They say it has to be in there.
Are you working on anything else?
I'm also writing a novel that's supposed to come out next spring. That will be with Broadway Books, as well.
Can you talk about it yet?
It's loosely based on some things that happened in the town where I grew up. And it's very place-oriented. It's a family novel.
And that will be your first novel?
Oh yes. I wrote poetry before this.
You've written three books?
Five. And also a university textbook. The Discovery of Poetry. It's still in print and still used in colleges.
What took you out of architecture and into poetry?
Structures. [Laughs] When I started getting to the math part. I realized that my interest was really in the history of architecture and kind of the beauty of architecture, not the structural part. I was taking architecture courses in 1969, this was at Princeton: they had a fantastic architecture department, real humanist. They were great.
Can I ask how old you are?
Oh no! [Laughs] That's a horrible question. | May 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.