Twenty-six years ago, when Frances Mayes published Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, it immediately became a New York Times bestseller, staying on that list for two and a half years. years. A 2003 film adaptation of the same name was released, starring Diane Lane, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Mayes.
And though Mayes now has nearly 20 books to her credit, Under the Tuscan Sun remains her most popular. it’s not hard to see why. The poet and writer was the chair of the creative writing department at San Francisco State University when she wrote the book in 1996. Recently divorced, she and her then-boyfriend bought a dilapidated villa in Tuscany and set out to fix it up themselves. themselves.
The appeal to readers is clear: in unsentimental language that focuses on everything from the very big (Italian architectural history) to the very small (wax on a brick floor), Mayes promises that there is life after divorce. and it can be resplendent and include a new lover, a new country, and a new—old—home.
His love story with Italy and his interest in the concept of home are two threads that have run through his work ever since. But in her most recent book, A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home, published Aug. 23, the Georgia native tackles the concept head-on. What is a home can change? can you have more than one? can home be a person?
mayes, who has homes in italy and the united states. With her husband Edward Mayes, she reflects on all the places she has lived, from Italy and France to Mexico and the South, and what it takes to call a house home, from the tangible to the ephemeral: books, friends, food. and art. As she progressed, each of those shrines stayed with her, inspiring and informing the next.
recently, mayes sat down with shondaland to talk about her new book, how places can shape you, and the sweetness of doing nothing.
chelsea greenwood: what prompted you to write a place in the world and how is it different from your other books?
frances mayes: you know, every once in a while you look back on what you’ve written and see the crumbs you threw through the woods to find your way somewhere. and that was kind of what it was. I always write about travel and italy. And as I looked back, I thought, as much as I’ve written about travel, I’ve always written about home, and a lot of my travels have focused on what it’s like to be home in this place. Like, I’m in Portugal for two weeks, and I’m going to get a haircut, and I’m going to a concert. I’m meeting the woman from the apartment next door and I’m going to the restaurants in the neighborhood. and my focus has been: what is it like to live here?
It came, I think, from trying to understand the country and trying to understand what made people the way they were because they lived there. So it seemed like a good way to track down the writings on home and try to think about what home really meant to me compared to what I always thought it meant. I grew up in a very small town, a very deep-rooted place. my family had been there for a long time, there was a family home and all that, and I always thought that I would stay here.
but then, when I was in high school, I knew I wanted to start smoking. it was kind of an early disruption to find out that she wasn’t going to live in this entrenched place. since then, i have moved so many times and traveled a lot. and I love houses. I love my friends’ houses. I love decorating books and decorating instagram accounts and everything that has to do with a house.
and looking back, I saw so many essays that I had written and published about home. So, I put them all together, and then I wrote new material because it was during covid, and I, like a billion other people, was examining what home meant to me and reconsidering whether I wanted to stay in that place forever or if there was another door. on the way for me to open it.
and a lot of the book is about leaving chatwood, this place i thought i would live forever in north carolina. but during covid i sold it and moved to a rental for a year and then bought another house. But the book ends here in Italy, which, to my surprise, has supplanted any idea of an American home I’ve ever had. because this is actually where I feel most at home. and that’s how the book ends, that’s why I’m staying here.
There are many reasons to return. my career would be easier, my family life would be easier, seeing my dearest friends would be so much easier. but this place continues to speak to me with a voice no other place ever has.
cg: did you spend most of the pandemic in the usa? oh?
fm: i came to italy during the height of the pandemic. we have an olive oil business, and we really needed to come here in October for the harvest. so, since we have a house here, we were able to come. when I got here, I had to quarantine for two weeks. and then, it was a huge shock to be here because the rules on covid were nothing like the ones in the united states. we had to sign a paper for the police if we wanted to leave our immediate neighborhood. we had to line up and enter a store one by one, a small store. and to go to a larger grocery store, only a few were allowed in, and you had to take your temperature and wash your hands.
but never, in the united states, are we serious about staying away from other people. not to mention the idiocy of wearing masks. that was never a problem here. and it was kind of exciting to be in a country where people were smart. they were doing what they had to do. And in the United States, that was never really the case. It was always, “You’re not going to tell me what to do. I’m not wearing a mask”, and all this bullshit. but I think the Italians surprised themselves because they are kind of anarchist people. you know, they are people who kiss a lot and hug a lot. physical contact is very important. and they just got in line and did what needed to be done. So, I think they surprised themselves as well, and there was a lot of courage here that was really moving.
cg: so, do you still live in the same house that was the subject of under the tuscan sun?
fm: yes. and we just went through a third wave of restoration. Five years ago, we had to replace the roof. he was 350 years old and my husband said he had no guarantee.
cg: The subtitle of your new book is finding the meaning of home. so what did you find in your search?
fm: I think I would say, “never say forever”, because you don’t know what’s coming. and events ahead can shape you in ways you don’t expect. like it happened to me when i left my north carolina farm, chatwood; I never expected to do that. I discovered that the home can be an evolving concept.
that, in some weird way, you can check into an airbnb on the adriatic sea, and in two or three days, you’re thinking, “this is really cool. I could live here. I love this city.” It’s a way of continuing to fall in love with the world, imagining yourself existing in other versions. You know, who are you if you live here and what would make you live in this place?
because I think I’ve written it before: where you are becomes who you are. places shape you. it’s like the gods shaped the first people out of clay or something. the place itself is mighty. and some places are more powerful than others. you get to that place and it starts working on you right away. I have that experience a lot. I always feel called to try to find out why that place is the way it is and what it is like for the people who live there.
cg: how do you think people’s connections to their own homes changed during the pandemic?
fm: a lot of people felt really weird and I felt terrible for people who didn’t have access to the outdoors. in some cases, people felt that their homes were imprisoning them. and then others loved working at home: they could take breaks and pull weeds or bake a cake. and they felt free from having to exert themselves to work. So, I think it was different for different people. I felt like both. sometimes, I felt, “oh, this is good. I have time. there is no pressure. I do not go anywhere. I don’t have to do this. but then I started to miss my friends a lot. eventually, I felt a bit grumpy about the whole thing.
cg: these days, as you said, home is no longer defined by its geographic proximity to a workplace. With remote work, you can live anywhere, making the line between work and home blurrier than ever. what do you think about that?
fm: it’s a really complex topic. because in publishing there is a lot of synergy between advertising, marketing, publishers, authors who visit there, and many businesses are like that. on the other hand, others are not. and, great, you don’t have to go to a depressing office every day. I mean, even the doctors, a lot of them will never have zoom calls with their patients now. there are many time saving things that are possible now. and I think some of it is great, and some of it is really bad. So again, it’s all a process of re-learning what this life that we live in is like. Are there more viruses on the way? if so, we better get used to our homes and make the most of them, and try as hard as we can to make that home truly a refuge and nurturing place rather than four walls that box it in.
cg: living in italy, when you meet people and they find out you’re american, what do they tell you about the state of our country right now? p>
fm: it’s hard because most people i know find donald trump’s idea absolutely ridiculous and can’t understand it. and then they’ll admit, “oh, we had [silvio] berlusconi.” but as beppe severgnini said, this writer of the corriere della sera, berlusconi compared to trump is abraham lincoln. at least berlusconi had his head in certain areas, and he was not a maniac. Italians find American politics very sad because Italians love Americans. And they have this expression when they get what they want on some front: they say, “I found America.” they have always loved Americans.
cg: what did you think of the choice of diane lane to play you in the movie under the tuscan sun?
fm: i loved diane lane, and she is just a delight. She doesn’t have that “oh, I don’t have time for anyone” attitude. she is very open, very friendly. When they told me I was going to play Frances, I had never heard of her. but i was in greece, and i went to an outdoor theater where they were showing a movie with diane lane and richard gere, unfaithful. she was pretty hot, pretty fierce in that movie. When we got out, I said, “She’s going to have to calm down to play French.” but I thought she did a great job and I liked the movie.
I knew right away that they would have to move it to the big screen because under the Tuscan sun it’s kind of a quiet memory and they have to have something to do on the big screen. and i didn’t know much about screenwriting, but at the moment, tom dolby of water’s end productions is developing my novel women in sunlight as a film. he was a producer of call me by your name. They’re casting now, so I hope it actually gets done. Of course, with a movie, you never know until you walk into the theater that it’s really going to happen.
cg: you’ve been somewhat credited for establishing Tuscany as a tourist destination. what are your thoughts on that? And how have you seen the area change since you first moved there?
fm: oh, so much. everything has changed all over the world. So, it’s hard for me to know exactly what changed because of me. but my people certainly changed because of my books; No doubt about that. it has a very prosperous economy now, and it didn’t before. so most people are very grateful for that. there are, I’m sure, some people in the shadows who wish I had never come here.
but the other things that have changed for the better have nothing to do with me. and it is that Italy in general has become much more prosperous. so, people have nicer cars; They do have some air conditioning, although many Italians think that air conditioning makes you sick.
but the people live very well here, and always have. it was right on the adriatic coast. As we drove, I would comment, “Where are the shacks? where are the bad places to live? where are the bums? you don’t see that of course in naples or rome or maybe milan you see some homeless people. but there’s a great safety net here, and I think it’s only gotten better with the time I’ve been here. Even if you don’t make a huge salary, there is such a safety net that you can live much better on less here than in the US.
cg: you are a very prolific writer, traveler and hobbyist. So, do you accept “il dolce far niente” — “the sweetness of doing nothing” — the Italian mentality?
fm: I wish I could. my goal is to one day embrace “il dolce far niente”. I’m so busy all the time. I get into all these projects, not just books. I’m making a cookbook right now with the fastest pasta recipes I could come up with, and it’s been a lot of fun. and I write a lot for other people, you know, read their manuscripts and give them feedback. we are traveling all the time and very involved with our grandson, traveling with him, my daughter, many, many, many friends.
we’re having people over for dinner tonight. and I’m making roast guinea fowl and lemon pie and watermelon salad. we entertain a lot because we have many good friends here, and we love to spend wonderful evenings with them. So, I’m very busy. but one of these days, I’m going to grab a book, sit under a tree and enjoy.
chelsea greenwood is an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor whose work has been featured in instyle, teen vogue, self, racked, vulture, brit + co, sheknows and vice.
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