Frances Mayes: Following the Sun

by Marie Hefley

“Maybe being a Southern writer is only a matter of loving a damaged and damaging place, of loving its flawed and beautiful people, so much that you have to stay there, observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.”
Margaret Renkl

On a sunny day in April of this year, Frances Mayes, author of poetry, memoirs, and travel pieces, ventured to Asheville, North Carolina, to debut her new novel, Women in Sunlight, at Malaprops Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville's premier independent bookstore. The next day, at a private event, she read from her novel and talked about a wide range of subjects, including her travels, being a Southerner in an unfamiliar milieu, and the craft of writing.

Although her vast travels and long-term residency in Italy have offered Mayes an inside look at a world so much bigger than one even that she, as a curious child, could have ever imagined, she still feels the pull of the South in her heart and in her writing.

Mayes was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia, one of three daughters of the manager of a family-owned cotton mill and his beautiful, fragile wife. In her first memoir, Under Magnolia, Mayes described growing up in a complicated, dysfunctional family. “We were not normal,” she says. Her father, Garbert, drank too much and had an explosive temper. “He was all generosity, all meanness, all enigma.” Her mother, Frankye, a traditional housewife, “gathered, and created perfect bridge luncheons, with the aid of our cook Willie Bell.” Her grandparents lived nearby. Since Mayes' older sisters were already grown and gone, she grew up essentially as an only child in a small, quaint town that was Southern to the core. “A place of continuous contradiction, a box with a false bottom,” she says.

Fitzgerald, where I might have lived forever, was as rigidly hierarchical as England. We had our aristocracy, with dukes, bar sinisters, jokers, local duchesses in black Cadillacs, many earls, and, of course, ladies, ladies, ladies, many of them always in waiting. Everything and everyone had a place and everything and everyone was in it. It was a cloying, marvelous, mysterious, and obnoxious world, as I later came to know, but fate placed me there and, although the house was not lilting, I was happy as the grass was green.”

Although Mayes had her friends and the freedom to play in the cotton bins at the mill, or swing on a vine, or create—with her best friend Jeannie—her own little home out of “elaborate setups of pallets and cardboard boxes, with tin doll dishes and stolen kitchen knives,” as a child she felt claustrophobic and sought escape from her limiting environs in books. She spent hours in the town’s public library, working her way up year by year from the children’s books on the lower shelves in the back room to the main room and its seemingly endless landscape of shelf after shelf of authors just waiting to offer Mayes a peek at places and people other than her own.

And peek she did. In Every Day in Tuscany, she reminisces, “At sixteen, I was way down in the swamps, already dreaming of old-world avenues with chestnuts in bloom, wavy colored reflections in the Grand Canal, and most of all the dry Attic air of Greece, where even the wind might seem to blow ancient sighs of the Oracle.” Once Mayes saw how big the world was, she began her journey to discover it in person, writing about it as she traveled.

Her first step was to leave Fitzgerald for Randolph Macon Woman's College in Virginia, where she began her studies toward an undergraduate degree in English. She later transferred to the University of Florida to complete her degree. While in Florida, she met and married her first husband; they moved to California, where she continued her education, earning an M.A. from San Francisco State University. She stayed at the University and eventually became a Professor of Creative Writing, then director of the Poetry Center, and chair of the Department of Creative Writing.

While Mayes is perhaps best known for her memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun (a New York Times bestseller for more than two and a half years and a New York Times Notable Book of 1997, later made into a must-see movie starring Diane Lane), her first published books were poetry. “Poetry was my first and strongest love,” she says. “That’s what I taught for 25 years. I also wrote a textbook, The Discovery of Poetry. My husband, Ed, is a poet, so that was our whole life, living and breathing writing and reading poetry.” Eventually, she broadened her oeuvre to include fiction and nonfiction writing, travel articles, as well as a cookbook. Some of these later writings grew out of her increasingly frequent trips to Italy, a place that, like the American South, spoke to her soul and eventually invited her to stay.

To understand how and why a location could be so crucial to her sensibilities and her writing requires an understanding of what Mayes calls "a Southern sense of place" which is so prevalent in the works of the great Southern authors, such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Thomas Wolfe. She attributes her deep sense of place, and by extension, theirs, to her Southern history and believes this sense is determined by the landscape of the south.

“The landscape is really powerful," she says. "I’ve always been affected by it myself. It’s unpredictable. In my part of the south, there are limestone sinkholes, and suddenly the house is gone, or there’s this hole in the ground for water that wasn’t there before. The hurricanes come through, and the powerful, powerful summer storms. The way you have to interact with the landscape is shaping. You’re at the mercy of the landscape, in a way. The alligator opening its big jaws, the big snakes, the swamps, the black water where you can step on what you think is a little island and it starts to float. All these things—you don’t see them anywhere else. The California landscape is powerful in its own way, but not in the same kind of primitive way.”

She wonders why Southern literature exists and observes that there isn’t Northern literature. “Maybe it's because the South is the only part of the U.S. that’s ever been defeated. It sort of identifies as almost a separate country. There is the sharing of a bond, the tension between black and white. When I was little whether you liked the dark meat or white meat of the turkey even had meaning. It was weird. The South is deep and dark, which is one reason it’s so powerful and one of the reasons it’s created so many writers. What we grew up under is the tension that produces writers.”

Southern literature usually emphasizes the history of the South; the importance of family and community; religion and its implications, both good and bad; racial and social class divides; and the landscape itself, but those designations can also apply to literature from and about other cultures. Much of Mayes' writing about Tuscany and its people echoes these same designations.

Any number of modern Italian and Italian-American women writers also share this orientation. A quick survey of academic works by and about groundbreaking Italian women writers, including Olga Ragusa, Alba Della Fazia Amoia, Stefania Lucamente, and Elena Ferrante, and of the books by contemporary Italian-American women writers, such as best-selling novelists Adriana Trigiani, Lisa Scottoline, and Camilla T. Crespi, shows an emphasis on a woman’s place in the family and in society, on the strength of women in a patriarchal society, and on the Italian identity itself, perhaps speaking to the universality of their experiences.

Mayes sees other similarities. “I feel that Southerners are like Italians: warm, friendly, hospitable, but also very private people as well. You think you know somebody, but they haven’t told you everything.”

So how did this daughter of the South wind up living in Italy? Mayes says, “I studied Renaissance art and architecture and medieval art and architecture, and usually went to Italy to see things I loved studying. The minute I got there, I realized there was so much more there than I could have possibly imagined. I thought the people were compelling and their enthusiasm for life is so contagious. They’re so generous and warm. I went for the art and stayed for the people. I later rented a farmhouse near Cortona, our town, for a month and I thought, I want this to be a part of my life. I love it so much. It was just one of those ‘fall in love’ moments.”

In 1990, Mayes decided to buy a house, named Bramasole (“yearning for the sun”), in Cortona. Her family was not happy with her decision. She describes their reactions in Under the Tuscan Sun: “My mother has said, ‘Ridiculous,’ with her certain and forceful stress on the second syllable, ‘RiDIculous,’ and my sisters, although excited, fear I am eighteen, about to run off with a sailor in the family car.” Apparently, her family has come around. “Yes, now they visit all the time,” she laughs. “I can’t get rid of them.”

Mayes feels a sense of place in Italy. “It was a kind of an immediate home connection. I felt very much at home there. I think it’s a very powerful feeling to feel at home.” In her fourth memoir about life in Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany, published in 2010, she said, “The place took hold of me and shaped me in its image."

Much as her upbringing in the South shaped her, so have her years as an adult in Italy. “I always feel that where you are is who you become. The landscape itself has such a power over us. When we live somewhere, we start dressing like everyone there, voting like everyone there, doing what they do. Place is mighty. I got to Cortona and wondered what makes these Tuscans the way they are. I realized it was the rhythm of their day. They close down and have the best part of the day for themselves. It gives them a sense that life is meant to be lived, not just to work, that you have time for your own interests.”

This rhythm, this Italian concept of time, is a major theme that carries through Mayes’ books. Accustomed to the pace of life in the United States, with all of its attendant issues, she found “a whole different construct in Italy than any time that I had ever experienced. Time was a big shock to me in Italy. At the time, I was chair of Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State, the largest creative writing department in the country, with a faculty of 31 professors. So you can imagine, herding those cats was a very intense job, and I just felt time pressing down on my head all the time. I think many, many, many Americans live like that—their job just takes everything. I got to Italy, and I realized that my neighbor was having a nap after lunch before he went back to work, and that people were lingering in the mornings over cappuccino in town, and taking long walks, and going out to dinner and staying late on Wednesday night, not just weekends.

“At home, I’m looking at my watch, checking this, making a list. It's like you're always up against time. It's pushing on you and you're up against it. Whereas there, it seemed more like you fall into time. It's like a river. It's moving along and you're moving along and it's just totally different. So that became a big part of my writing, because I was learning to be in that kind of time, and letting my subjects participate in a more leisurely kind of time. Taking the moments, taking the detours, taking the extra road down that way. Starting things like a wildflower photograph scrapbook, just allowing little interests like that which aren't going to lead anywhere practical, but that are so much fun to do.”

The Italian concept of time influences so many aspects of the culture. Mayes describes how Italians live in the present, but always with ties to the past. “Italian history owns so much time,” she says. “For example, our house overlooks Lake Trasimeno, Lago Trasimeno, where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 B.C. You look out at that and think about it. You go to somebody’s house and they’re still talking about whether Hannibal came from the east, and how many elephants he had left, and you think, ‘That was just yesterday.’ So, that stretch of time into the way-past, into the past remote, is another really big aspect of time in Italy.”

The towns and villages of Italy are rife with reminders of the past—medieval walls, Roman ruins, and cemeteries where the living go weekly to bring fresh flowers and talk with their departed loved ones. As Mayes so succinctly says in Every Day in Tuscany, “If you are dead in Italy, you are not as dead as you could be.”

These remembrances aren’t confined to funerals and cemeteries. “How they include the dead in their conversations," she says, "the dead, long lost to time—long back in time, way back in time—reminds me of the south a little bit. The Italians still talk about Uncle Giovanni like he’s going to walk in the door, but of course he’s not. The people from the past are still present.”

Stories about people from the past, woven into contemporary conversations, strengthen the sense of family as an ever-present and reliable linchpin in every Italian’s life. “They include really old people and the babies and everyone at their lunch and their dinner," Mayes observes. "The people who’ve lived a long amount of time aren’t shuffled off to Buffalo. They’re right there, living their lives, making pasta.”

The rhythm extends to food. Many Tuscans, like Mayes, grow some or most of their food. They patiently coax their basil and oregano, tomatoes and eggplants, arugula and Romaine, and olives and lemons from their ancient soil, often using farming and gardening techniques passed down through generations. Those who don’t farm or garden go to town on market days to buy the produce, eggs, cheeses, and meats lovingly raised by others.

“Italians are the most food-obsessed people on Earth,” Mayes laughs. “The ingredients have to be the best. I think that’s one reason Italian food is so good. They don’t torture the ingredients. You’ll see a real Italian recipe and it has four or five ingredients. Italian recipes in the States have fifteen ingredients—that is not Italian.”

Preparation of an authentic Italian meal, made from centuries-old recipes taught for decades by great-grandmothers to grandmothers to mothers to daughters, can take hours; indeed, the best tomato sauces, made from tomatoes and basil straight from the garden and meats bought fresh that morning, simmer for most of the day, letting the flavors mature and blend while perfuming the air and stimulating appetites. These meals, especially on holidays, can extend for hours as food provides the backdrop for conversation, remembrances, and community.

Italy’s art also ties contemporary Tuscans to their past. “They take art for granted,” Mayes says. “Art is in the piazza, in the church, on the wall. It surrounds you and is a natural part of life. That’s another thing that makes them who they are.” She recounts a story, in Bella Tuscany, about having dinner with friends who found two-hundred-year-old frescoes underneath the whitewash on their dining room walls. Later, while restoring Bramasole, she and Ed had a pleasant surprise. “When we uncovered a fresco in our dining room, we thought it was close to a miracle. A fresco! Since then, we’ve learned that almost any time you start scrubbing in Cortona, you discover a fresco.”

Mayes observes that Tuscans almost unconsciously incorporate music in their celebration of la dolce vita—or, to them, everyday life. “You hear a lot of music. They love music. The electrician is digging in the dirt looking for the pipe the rat chewed and he’s singing an aria from Aida! Just walking around in Cortona, you'll hear somebody practicing the violin from the window above, or someone singing. It's kind of a natural thing, as well.”

Music festivals abound in Italy throughout the year. They are curated to reflect the local culture and to celebrate and perpetuate the history and traditions of each area. Tourists and locals alike can enjoy opera in Rome, jazz in Spoleto, sacred music in Lucca, and Italian popular music in San Remo, among many other offerings. Music floats out from arenas, castles, countryside amphitheaters, piazzas, and churchyards—the soundtrack of Italy's past and present.

"As a Southerner, music is very important to me," Mayes says. She recalls the South's rich tradition of spirituals, gospel sounds, folk songs, and country music. Each genre tells a piece of the story of life in the South. “The tradition of spirituals is really strong, and country music was, in my town, very strong." She laughs and adds, "I always hated country music, and so that wasn't much of an influence on me.”

While Mayes writes, sometimes glowingly, of both her beloved South and her adopted home, she recognizes their flaws and problems. Some of her critics have called her work "chick lit" and one blamed her, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for seducing Americans into the Tuscan lifestyle, citing the prevalence in America of Tuscan décor, restaurants, commercially-prepared foods, and even cat and dog chow; they misjudge her awareness of the darker side of life in Tuscany.

Lest anyone think she romanticizes Tuscany, Mayes is forthright about the challenges she has seen or personally faced over her twenty-plus years there. In an interview with The Telegraph, she said “I’ve gotten to know the place and not everything I’ve learned is good…Most of the people are warm, and lovely, and generous, but there are some crazy people, and some cranks, and some fascists. Not everything is just blissful there.”

She recalls an unsettling incident after she and her husband, still fairly new residents of Cortona, got involved in a local issue. The town wanted to construct a public pool near their home, and the Mayeses weren’t in favor of the proposal. A newspaper article called them out, and some residents turned against them. Someone threatened them by leaving a grenade in their driveway. Mayes views the incident philosophically; “The whole thing showed me how bad the Italian attitude to authority can be.”

Everyday life can also have its downside, whether it’s the traffic in the cities, or the infamous Gypsy pickpockets, or the seemingly endless and convoluted bureaucracy involved in everything from building permits to residency permits to the lost-and-then-found money Mayes wired to Italy to buy her villa, only to discover that the bank didn’t have any checks for her account. Without those checks, she couldn't close on the villa. “Maybe next week,” the woman at the bank shrugs. “Right now, nothing.”

Two days later, the banker miraculously produces ten checks for Mayes’ account. Mayes breathes a sigh of relief—but, not so fast. The notaio, the person who handles the closing on the house, is going on vacation but will try to complete the paperwork before she leaves.

Again, a miracle: the notaio comes through. The Mayses anxiously sign the contracts and checks, but are dismayed to find out that the notaio doesn’t have “a parchment deed, a lettered ancient script” as proof of transfer of the property. “We walk out into the brutally hot afternoon with nothing but two heavy iron keys longer than my hand,” Mayes says, “one to a rusted iron gate, the other to the front door.” Yet she is charmed by the Italians’ “confusing but delightful way to conduct business,” by the trust implicit in handshakes.

She is open in discussing a current issue that is changing life in Italy. “They're dealing with the immigrant problem now,” she says. “With the best will in the world toward the immigrant situation, they just can't handle the volume. Immigrants are everywhere, including the small towns. The government is trying to relocate them evenly, but it’s a big problem. Also, the economy is not great. There is very high unemployment, particularly among people just starting out in their careers. There hadn’t been tension before, but now there is.”

Despite these unpleasantries, Mayes has no intention of leaving her villa. As she says in Every Day in Tuscany, “The giving, the fun, and the spontaneity of everyday life here shock me and return me immediately to a munificent state of being that gradually starts to feel normal. I begin to notice, here at Bramasole, that my skin fits perfectly over my body, just as this house sits so serenely and naturally on this hillside.”

A sense of place, indeed.

As Mayes spent more time in Italy, living there for several months a year, her writing evolved from poetry to prose. "I didn't decide to leave poetry,” she said in The Telegraph, “it just happened. The lines kept getting longer. It was like there had been a change in the rhythm of my own mind. Everything in Italy just felt more expansive.” In this transition period, she wrote articles for Food & Wine and The New York Times. “I enjoy writing articles,” she says, “but it was always just a way to make some extra money and to do something fun.”

The Times asked Mayes to write about a Tuscan weekly market, which proved to be the catalyst for her embracing prose, in both short and long form. “We have this wonderful market just outside Cortona on Thursdays,” she says. Her face lights up as she describes the scene. “Everyone still comes in from the country—the men in their old wool suits standing in clumps, talking, while the women are shopping. It's just like a medieval market but they're selling different stuff. I had such a good time writing this article, so I thought maybe I should write more thematic chapters on things like this in Italy. So that's how it started. I was having so much fun doing it, I found that when I tried a poem it no longer wanted to be a poem. It wanted a longer line, wanted to cover the page—so I just went with it and gradually, I guess it was some shift in the rhythm in my brain, I stopped writing poetry and segued in to prose."

She adds, “I do try to use techniques for writing poetry in my prose—like how sometimes making a list is interesting, how repeating words can be interesting, how to cut things off—techniques from poetry that I do use. And imagery. My poetry was highly imagistic, and I think my prose is imagistic, too. My visual sense is my strongest.”

Mayes explored the richness of life in Tuscany in several more memoirs about her life there, as well as in a cookbook. After she and her husband spent a year traveling around Italy, “eat[ing] and drink[ing] their way through all twenty regions—from Friuli to Calabria,” as her website explains, she published See You in the Piazza, which “conjures the enchantment of the backstreets, the hubbub of the markets, the dreamlike wonder of that space between lunch and dinner when a city cracks open to those who would wander or when a mind is drawn into the pages of a delicious book—and discloses to us the secrets that only someone who is on intimate terms with a place could find.”

In 2003, Mayes published her first novel, The Swan, a story in the Southern gothic vein. In 2004, she added to her memoirs with Under Magnolia, which recalled her life growing up in the South. She recently published her second novel, Women in Sunlight.

Women in Sunlight finds 44-year-old Kit Raines, an expatriate American poet and prose writer who has lived in a small town outside of Florence for thirteen years, wrestling with how to start a new book memorializing her dear friend, Margaret. “This project feels more like trying to strike mildewed matches,” Kit says, so she engages in the kinds of diversions familiar to all writers who fall prey to procrastination instead of writing—reading, planning dinner, baking, gathering wood—gathering wool, as it were.

Kit snaps out of her reverie when a van pulls up to the former home of neighbors who recently died. Three women, one yappy dog, and “four mastodon-sized suitcases” spill out. Kit imagines what the women, escapees from a retirement community in North Carolina, are thinking, remembering her own introduction and acclimation to Tuscany and its people. Sensing that the women are not just on vacation but are seekers, she’s struck by inspiration. She’ll write about her old friend Margaret and her three new American friends. As the story of Kit and her friends unfolds, Mayes shows how Italy—its history, its traditions, its culture, and its people—seduces and finally takes in these ex-pats as they find forgiveness, hope, and renewal.

This novel can read as a synthesis of Mayes’ journey from the American South to Tuscany, from her home culture to her adopted one. The women's experiences and adventures parallel much of Mayes’ own journey in becoming an “American-Italian.” In a way, the book echoes her life and career, including poetic imagery and rhythms in her words, and revealing her transformation from a “shy, reserved person who found myself becoming more outgoing, using my hands more when I talked.”

The characters' transformations, like hers, all come to light under the Tuscan sun.

As someone who has dedicated her life to writing and the teaching of it, Mayes generously offers insights and advice to other writers. She allows that writers must know and employ craft while they work—accent on the word work—at producing well-written pieces.

As a teacher, Mayes emphasized both literary theory and craft. She specialized in poetry, which she taught by subject matter, such as imagery, repetition, rhythm, and forms like sonnet and villanelle. "I taught a whole lot of the craft of poetry, and that's where my book, The Discovery of Poetry, came from. I would teach about particular writers and we would read that writer, not like in an English class, but as a writer would. How did he do what he did? How was his book put together? We would analyze structures, sentences, everything. It was a very productive way of teaching."

She also directed workshops. "I loved workshops," she says. "I thought they were really great fun. A lot depends on who’s leading them, that the leader doesn't let it get loose in any kind of destructive direction. I never wanted to make anyone feel bad about their writing. The way I taught was to start with what's really good and talk about how to develop that. I might not even mention what was bad, but would go with the good and make a lot of suggestions, but only after I gave the student's work a good read and evaluation. I could usually figure out what they needed to do."

Mayes suggests that emerging writers study craft and analyze genres they're interested in. "A lot of that analytical reading is very helpful," she says. "If you have a certain genre in mind, like mysteries, or love stories, or a book like mine that's not plotted by more of an arc of time and what happens to people in that time, find similar books and do that kind of analysis."

Mayes also offers good advice that applies to experienced writers as well as beginners. "I believe in free-writing around a subject," she says. "Let's say you have a character, Susie. What is she like? What does she look like? How old was she when she did a particular thing? Where has she been? What is her story? Even if you're not going to use all of it, you need to know her, to have a picture of her in your mind. When you get that picture, you then try to inhabit the character."

To get inside the character, Mayes borrows a concept from the theater. "It's kind of like the Stanislavski method of acting. You want to understand Susie from the inside out and not the outside in. Have her do what she would do, not what you would have her do. Other than that, you're on your own."

And if the writer is blocked? "You just pick up the pencil and do it. If you have trouble, maybe you should switch subjects. I'm kind of with Keats, that it should come as naturally as leaves to the tree. If you're forcing it, and it's not moving, listen to that. If you're really stuck, try what I would tell my students. I would say, 'You don't know where to go with this story. You've gotten this far. What if somebody put a gun to your head and said, “What comes next or I'll shoot you?” You're going to be punished if you don't get this thing over with.' It's like life—you'll figure something out."

What should a writer do if none of this works? Mayes offers a practical idea. "It's a piece of writing. Don't dwell on the fact that you can't just pick it up and fly with it. You sometimes have to push yourself. If it still doesn't come to you, listen to that and think, 'Maybe I better go try to bake a cake or something.'"

It's always possible that baking that cake can lead you, like Mayes, to writing a cookbook.

Frances Mayes divides her time between homes in Hillsboro, North Carolina, and Cortona, Italy. In addition to writing, she travels extensively, enjoying the art, architecture, people, and cuisine she meets along the way. She also offers a literal taste of Tuscany, available through her company Bramasole Olive Oil, created after she found seven hundred olive trees surrounding her beloved villa in Cortona.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Master of Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UNC Asheville. She invites you to read her interviews with Wiley Cash (Issue 9), Denise Kiernan (Issue 13), Robert Beatty (Issue 14), and David Ebershoff (Issue 18), as well as several other authors, found in the Great Smokies Review Archives. She has also been published in The Forest Companion and Smoky Mountain Living.