Where the heart is
Frances Mayes' latest book is a study of what makes a place 'home'. She tells Bron Sibree what makes Italy hers
FRANCES MAYES was in Italy, travelling by train from her beloved Tuscan farmhouse, Bramasole, in Cortona, to nearby Florence, when she conceived her latest and third travel memoir, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller. 'I was looking out the window, suddenly realising that I know every little fold, every town, and every bit of skyline between Cortona and Florence. I started taking notes of places I would like to go that were not familiar to me.'
By the time the train pulled into the station, she had decided to look at these places from the inside out, 'not just as a tourist but to settle in, and start trying to meet the neighbours. Have tea, or go for a walk with somebody. Get to know people, read the literature, read the history - not just pass through'.
A Year in the World is also an attempt to explore the nature of home. 'The idea of what home is has been fascinating to me for years. I feel American in many ways, but I really feel more at home in Italy than I do in America,' says the Georgia-born poet and author who has spent six months of each year in Italy since 1990, when, in a moment of mid-life impulse, she sunk her life savings into Bramasole, a Tuscan farmhouse she and her partner - now husband - Ed planned to restore.
Mayes was approaching 50 when she first wrote about the experience in her best-selling 1996 memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, which spawned a film of the same name starring Diane Lane and went on to sell more than three million copies. 'It was on the New York Times best-seller list for 21/2 years and is now in 22 languages,' says Mayes. 'It started developing a life of its own right away, and I've just been kind of trailing behind it ever since, and that's been a big surprise.'
Since then, Mayes has become a veritable one-woman Tuscan industry, penning three more best-selling books on Italy, including another travel memoir, Bella Tuscany, and two sumptuous photographic works about Tuscany written in collaboration with her poet husband, In Tuscany, and Bringing Tuscany Home. If that weren't enough, she now has two lines of Tuscan-inspired furniture, marketed in conjunction with the US store Drexel Heritage, and has recently purchased and renovated a second property in Italy.
Her late-life success also enabled her to quit her job as professor of creative writing at the University of San Francisco and become a full-time writer. 'That is a huge change for me,' she says. 'Having to stuff your writing into the cracks around a job for 23 years really takes it out of you as a writer.'
Since quitting her job five years ago, Mayes has also moved from San Francisco to North Carolina, and insists that Italy has not only returned her to her roots, but has brought her to the realisation that home is not just a place, but 'an instinct to trust and follow'. Such as the instinct to write A Year in the World which, despite its title, is five years' worth of meandering the Mediterranean, Western Europe and North Africa compressed into a narrative that spans four seasons. For, she says, 'the dream of a year travelling became compromised by a complicated life'.
From immersing themselves in Moorish Spain to cooking with a local chef in Portugal, the couple make forays into Morocco and Crete.
They rent houses in France and the British Isles, where she gathers gardening ideas, snorkel around the coast of Turkey, stopping off to savour the local food, and trek to archaeological sites.
In Greece they retrace Homer's voyage, and attend a baptism in Mani. Yet through all the couple's wanderings, Mayes remains true to her initial impulse of writing the book in situ.
'I felt writing as I travelled doubled the intensity of the experience. Both the writing and the travel were in a kind of symbiotic relationship that made each one of them more than they were, and I loved that.'
Written in the same intimate style that characterised her previous memoirs, A Year in the World is a loosely connected cluster of diary and log entries, travel essays and letters. Plying its way between the sensual and the scholarly, the public and the personal, the humdrum and the unexpected, it's a seductive amble through some of the world's most fabled cultures and cuisines, and some of its forgotten byways, too.
Mayes leaves no stone unturned in unravelling layers of history and culture but just when you think she's indulging her scholarly passions a tad too zealously, or writing about one museum too many, she will impel you into the kitchen on a spontaneous midnight cooking mission with her sensual descriptions of Portuguese pastries, Sicilian pastas or Spanish churros.
Save that is, for her last night in England, when she confesses to feeling as though she'd swallowed 'a handful of lead sinkers' after a plate of bangers and mash.
Food looms large in all her travel writing, Mayes says, 'because food is the quickest way into a culture. I've certainly tried to get to that connection as soon as possible in every country, because that says so much about who people are. It enables you to savour the country, to see what came out of the earth there. It also enables you to meet people - food is celebratory and when you come together around food it's just a spontaneous kind of connection.'
Mayes credits her passion for giving voice to sensual experience in all its forms in her writing to the influence of French writer Collette, to whom she pays homage in A Year in the World. 'She was the first woman I read who was willing to use imagery in the way she did, and the first to use her own sensory perceptions so exclusively, to ignore general ideas and to perceive through the thing itself and not the story of the thing.
'You can't always do that, but that's the goal for me. I still carry her book Earthly Paradise back and forth with me through Italy because I dip into it now and then, and I just wanted to make a little pilgrimage and pay homage to her in the book because I think that her work says the best things that can be said about the French people.'
Yet for all Mayes' attempts to unmoor herself from the familiar, Italy is never far from her consciousness, or her travelogue. Indeed, much of A Year in the World is devoted to chronicling the couple's adventures in Naples, Sicily, Venice, Taormina and Mantova. For Mayes, Italy, and in particular her Tuscan villa, Bramasole, is 'a magnetic force' in her life.
'I think even more than the book [Under the Tuscan Sun], it's been leading the way. The position of Bramasole, located on a hillside under an Etruscan wall and a Medici fortress and above the valley where Hannibal defeated the Romans, feels like it's in this kind of continuum of time. And my first instinct there was that if I lived in that house that was so at home in the landscape then I would be at home there, too. I think that's really the major thing that happened. That enabled me to write Under the Tuscan Sun, so the house has become an icon for me.'
After setting her 2002 debut novel, Swan, in a fictional town in her native Georgia, she now plans to write not only a new novel set in the south, but also a travel memoir 'about growing up in the south and weaving into what the south is like today and the changes I feel'.
'Being back here, I'm just so taken back not only to my childhood, but to my early reading memories and early sense of history, and how the civil war still reverberates here and influences people enough though it's a long time ago. So I'm curious to see just what is left here, how it has changed and how I'm going to fit into it now.'
Despite revelling in her new life in the southern US, and for all the unrequited wanderlust that brought about A Year in the World, Mayes says 'it's only Italy that I get homesick for'.
'Growing up in the American south in many ways prepared me to recognise Italy,' she says. 'We don't really long for America. We just long for Bramasole. It's been the best thing I've ever done in terms of living in a place.'
A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller, by Frances Mayes (Bantam, $225)