Frances Mayes Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Frances Mayes
Photo: francesmayesbooks.com

Frances Mayes

An interview with Frances Mayes

Frances Mayes discusses Italy and how it differs from the USA, her books, and the terror of giving a speech in Italian when she was made an honorary citizen of Cortona.

You say in your book that when you wrote the last line of Under the Tuscan Sun, you wrote the first line of Bella Tuscany. What do you mean?
When I finished Under the Tuscan Sun I was in the beginning of my life in Italy. When I ended that book, I wanted to continue to write about the place--such a powerful landscape and I was just falling under its spell. I sensed early that Italy is endless; five years later, I'm still at the beginning.

You often say how you feel more at home in Italy than anywhere else. Why is that?
I thought I was strange to feel this way. Since I've met so many people who read Under the Tuscan Sun, I've found out that lots of people feel this way. It's complicated but feels so very easy. The warmth of the people, the human scale of the towns, the robust food, yes, but I've begun to think, too, that it's the natural connection with art, the natural exposure to beauty on a day-to-day basis. This concept is a big focus of Bella Tuscany. We all know the Italians have more fun. This makes us feel at home, or rather returned to a sense of play, which we may not have experienced so fully since childhood.

What do you think Americans need to learn from Italians about living?
Well, I could write a book on this subject. In fact, I have! A few quick things-- work does not have to govern life. So many of us are work-obsessed. I've loved experiencing how Italian friends take the time to enjoy family and friends, how they pursue their interests with so much pleasure, how they enter the community life of the piazza. I'm fascinated by the importance of the table, the central role it plays--and, of course, by the generosity and abundance of what's served forth, with all that is implied by those values. People of all ages mix easily; we separate people according to age too much. It's absurd.

Why does Italy inspire so many comparisons in your mind with the South, where you grew up?
Fitzgerald, Georgia, where I grew up, is a very small place. Everyone knew everyone. In Cortona people say, "Neighbors know what you're going to do even before you do." I rather like that. Everyone is someone, someone special. More mysteriously, I feel an emotional affinity with the gentle green landscape of Tuscany, punctuated by cypress trees and hilltowns. And I feel the same affinity with the very different south Georgia landscape of black water swamps, pine forests, big rivers, and palmettos.

How have the people of Cortona reacted to your book?
They seem so pleased! They're immensely proud of Cortona's history, art, and beauty and, I think, are thrilled that an American tried to express a love for the place. I was honored a few years ago to have been made an honorary citizen of the town. They had a formal ceremony with ribbons and swords and music. Uniformed policemen--no uniforms like Italian uniforms!--escorted me up the grand town hall steps. The terror was that I had to give a ten-minute speech in Italian to the gathered citizens, dignitaries, and TV cameras. After I did that, I decided I could do anything.

Before your first book of prose, you published many volumes of poetry and articles for food and wine publications, and now your first novel, Swan, is available in paperback. What led you to these shifts in your writing?
As a writer you have to grow up. Otherwise you are doomed to repeat yourself. I always knew I'd write prose someday but I've just gotten around to it. As a poet, I never, ever expected to be a bestselling author. Now I'm in love with writing prose. I'm liking the freedom of the larger space.

Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, 2003

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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