"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 where they live, if they're married or have
children. Razor sharp pencils or a word processor? It's one
of the personal things that I think readers like to know
that is generally easily shared by an author. It gives us
context: a point of reference and cross-reference with our
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
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
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
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
Do you also find a sort of geographic
similarity? Because the South is very warm
The climate, yes. Both are torrid landscapes with mild
winters. And I love that.
How long has it been since you lived in the
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
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
Yeah, we hit it off immediately, and I think that was
probably part of it.
An exotic locale is always a matter of perspective,
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
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
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
So you bought the house you have now between the
books? Between Under the Tuscan Sun and
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
They wanted the Tuscan word in there.
They want the word "Tuscany." They say it has to be in
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
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
What took you out of architecture and into
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
Richards is editor of January