An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Frances Mayes
Women in Sunlight: A Novel (Crown, 3 April 2018)
The author of the best-selling 1996 memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes, writes another love letter to Italy with Women in Sunlight. Wish fulfilment of every kind awaits the reader with her trademark warmth, heart, and descriptions of place, food, and friendship.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Mayes, we are so pleased to be able to discuss Women in Sunlight with you at Authorlink. Personally, I am a huge fan of your work and even went to Cortona with my husband to explore the town. Women in Sunlight has recreated that Italian magic with the character of Kit Raine, an American writer living in Tuscany, working on a biography of a close friend, when the arrival of three new friends move in next door. Are any of these characters based on personality traits from people whom you may know?
“My characters are fiction but are made of many fragments of my friends.”
MAYES: My characters are fiction but are made of many fragments of my friends. Their projects and interests are magnified versions of my own passions—art, architecture, food, wine, travel, gardens, and, of course, writing. For example, Camille’s new art project came from one friend’s watercolors and another friend’s paper-making and letter press workshop. The process of inventing characters seemed a bit like laying mosaic designs—making shapes from differently colored pieces. And they became so real—I often wonder what they’re doing in that big villa this morning.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. How wonderful! Stories about women after a certain age group are always so interesting, even though they’re often under-represented in movies and books. Women in Sunlight is a novel about three older women, Camille 69, Julia 59, and Susan 64, who refuse to take the path which they feel life has imposed upon them. Shows like Grace and Frankie, starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, have made inroads in depicting the desires and enthusiasm of the older generation more than at any other time in history. Why did this become such an untapped market do you think?
“I think the Me Too movement encourages women to value their truths…”
MAYES: It’s time. It’s past time! The earlier women’s movement gained so much then seemed to lapse into a well-that’s-that period. My Under the Tuscan Sun twenty years back was reaching for the kind of affirmations that are coming into the light. There are now a few movies, the TV series you mentioned, but still few books about older women written with verve and appreciation. I think the Me Too movement encourages women to value their truths, and the current political climate certainly awakens us to the continuing stay-down mentality that runs rampant through American male politicians. The out-sized, magnified viciousness against Hilary Clinton—beyond all reason—reveals the depth of misogyny we live with. By the way, the ageist thread also includes men—there’s just a terrible youth bias. You don’t see that in Europe nearly as much as here.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, you’re so right. I wonder if it comes down to our issue with mortality. Anyway, when you restored Bramasole, your Tuscan farmhouse, in 1990, your life changed in remarkable ways, not least of which it inspired you to write Under the Tuscan Sun. Since then, you’ve written many books about your beloved Tuscany in the form of photo-texts, memoirs, and cookbooks that are personal tributes about taking chances, living in Italy, loving and renovating a neglected 13th century villa, while enjoying the pleasures of food, wine, gardens, and the “voluptuousness of Italian life.” Along the way, you started the Tuscan Sun Festival; created a Tuscan-style furniture collection at Drexel Heritage; become an official Cortonese; produced your own Bramasole olive oil and wine; issued a range of ceramic dinnerware, and even a cello concerto had been composed in the book’s honour. At one stage, you also purchased an abandoned 12th century house known as Fonte delle Foglie, above the hills of Cortona originally built by followers of St. Francis and, once owned by a count! What other adventures have come to your door since you bought Bramasole? Have there been any internal ones that you would like to share with us?
MAYES: My husband Ed and I quit our university jobs in California and moved to North Carolina where we bought an 1806 farmhouse on the Eno River. Guess what! It needed restoring. We love living in the country and raising vegetables and flowers. A major joy has been William, grandson, now six-feet tall and sixteen years old. We’ve loved every minute of his growing up and have been able to travel with him every summer to new places. I’m lucky to be involved in new writing projects. Next up: See You in the Piazza: New Places to Discover in Italy, coming out in April, 2019. Now I’m beginning The Best of Italy, due out April, 2020.
AUTHORLINK: Wonderful, looking forward to it! Women in Sunlight is your second novel, your first being Swan (Broadway, 2002) based on a small town in Georgia. Is it easier to write memoirs based on your pleasures, than it is to write a novel do you think? What style of writing comes easiest to you? Poetry, memoir, non-fiction, novel? Do you feel one enhances the other?
MAYES: In a way writing is writing, whether it’s a letter to your best friend, and op ed piece, or a trilogy. But a novel seems more difficult than other genres because of all the interweaving of strands of story, the forward dynamic, and the tributaries that keep branching off. Memoir and poetry stay close to the bone, no invention necessary, but the writing requires such selection of detail and incidents that what you omit can skew the truth in a fictional direction. You can’t write about three suicides in your childhood realm. The narrative won’t support three; you choose one. So, is it still true? The novel’s demands are different. You get to invent—that’s the joy. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel a novel always wants to spin out whereas the nonfiction knows its boundaries.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, well put. When Under a Tuscan Sun was published, it struck a chord with many people, including myself, for the romance of both personal and structural reinvention. Nothing seems more appealing then to start a new life in a beautiful country, making ones quest the restoration of an old villa, especially after a period of broken-heartedness. There is an almost innocent feel to that pre-9/11, pre-ISIS, pre-Facebook period which we wistfully recall when we reread this classic. Do you think it would resonate even more loudly if it was published now?
MAYES: So many person-moves-to-foreign-country books came out after Peter Mayle’s and mine that I probably couldn’t get it published if I tried today! With Women in Sunlight my focus was on the place but more on giving these lovely women a big second (or tenth) chance. Their reawakenings have more to do with them than the place itself. Sometimes I think it’s not Italy exactly that causes people to bloom. It’s where they go when they’re ready to bloom.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, good point. In the earlier part of your writing career, you were a widely published poet and essayist, and had published six books of poetry from 1977 to 1995: Climbing Aconcagua (1977), Sunday in Another Country (1977), After Such Pleasures (1979), The Arts of Fire (1982), Hours (1984), and Ex Voto (1995). Your text, The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems, is widely used in college poetry classes to this day. Have you written any poems recently? Can you share a poem that reflects your passion for Tuscany?
When I moved to Italy, I stopped writing poetry and started spontaneously writing prose. Some rhythm in my brain shifted.
MAYES: When I moved to Italy, I stopped writing poetry and started spontaneously writing prose. Some rhythm in my brain shifted. My husband has written many Italian poems but I never have. I was so enthralled with the newness of the old world that my lines just kept getting longer and I wanted to write descriptions of food and wine, and record conversations, and, and, and… Always I try to use what I learned from reading and writing poetry in my prose—imagery, combining levels of language, tempo, repetition, etc. In some paragraphs I use a lot of internal rhyme, just for the pleasure, but also to tie the sound together and make the paragraph hum.
AUTHORLINK: What a lovely expression, ‘make the paragraph hum’. You once said, “I’m just very interested in the idea of a house as a metaphor for the way one lives. Jung said when you dream about a house, you’re dreaming about the body in extension. I dream about houses a lot.” (The Telegraph, 10 Dec 2010) Further to this, you said once, “I grew very interested in the idea of home; finding myself feeling so at home in a foreign country, in Italy. It was a mysterious process to feel so at home in a country that’s not your own. And I started thinking, I’d love to go to other places, see if I could be at home there…” (NC Bookwatch) Do you feel the mystic of ‘home’, near or far, could be interpreted as an apparition from one’s childhood? Especially if that childhood is a little ‘skewered’? Is a feeling of ‘home’ a reflection of how a person feels about themselves?
MAYES: Who knows how one becomes house obsessed, as I am? I come from a long line of women who carried fabric samples and tiles and addresses of antique shops in their handbags, so I suppose I come by it naturally. My father was a manufacturer of cotton drapery material! After I left my southern home, launched into the world, I had to redefine home. I’ve come to believe in some metabolic recognition that lets you know you’re home. Rather than a reflection of self, that recognition seems more like something basic: here’s where I can be my best self. And it’s not necessarily one place. Having now travelled so much, I know I could be at home in many places. If only one had a few lives to spend!
AUTHORLINK: Yes, a universal lament! Other than North Carolina and Cortona, where else have you been able to call home in your travels?
MAYES: San Francisco was home for many years, then suddenly it wasn’t. South Georgia where I grew up is always home. I have an imaginary home in Roma and another on a Greek island!
AUTHORLINK: Ah, a Greek island. Completely understand. If you weren’t a writer, what do you imagine yourself doing? We understand you fancied the idea of opening a cafe in your hometown with international cuisine on the menu after (if ever) you finished your travels. Is this true still?
MAYES: Ah! A dream that ended my book of travels, A Year in the World. I had the fantasy that after all the countries, I would take my travels back home and open The Yellow Café. If I were not a writer, I would like to be an architect. I’m fascinated by the power buildings have to influence the life in them.
AUTHORLINK: Lovely. I found this line so inspired… “I won’t ever choose violence, cruelty, and other page-turning options. It’s much harder to write about happiness.” (Victoria Magazine, December 10, 2016). I totally agree. There doesn’t seem to be any feel-good films or books around anymore. People have so much tension in their lives nowadays, why add more? Something resonated with people given Under a Tuscan Sun was on the best-seller list for two and a half years. What is difficult about writing a page-turning feel-good book that doesn’t contain narrative conflict, do you think?
We are a violent people and often seek violence in our stories. Why? I don’t know.
MAYES: We are a violent people and often seek violence in our stories. Why? I don’t know. I am much more interested in characters that start in one situation, time passes, and they are changed or amplified or in some way moved on from the starting point. Inner conflict, interaction, thought provoking, top-flight writing—these are my interests. A rape and revenge scenario seems much easier to write. Who done it, too. I always wonder what the writer learns from creating such a book. All these high-profile recent murder and rape and incest stories/movies bore me mightily.
AUTHORLINK: Completely agree. And one last question, just for fun, what is your idea of a perfect day and who would you like to be sharing it with – whether alive or no longer with us.
MAYES: Coming off a month-long book tour, right now I’d say a day to work in the garden, read a Jane Gardam novel, take a walk by the river, cook dinner with Ed. In the imaginary realm, I’d go for breakfast on Hampstead Heath with Keats, a long lunch with Colette at her apartment in Paris, followed by dinner at Bramasole, my house in Tuscany, with my lovely family.
AUTHORLINK: It all sounds blissful. Ms Mayes, we are absolutely thrilled to have shared some time with you. We wish you all the very best for Women in Sunlight and anything else that enchants your writing spirit.
MAYES: What provocative questions—many thanks!
About the Author: Under the Tuscan Sun was Frances Mayes first memoir. Before that she was a widely published poet and essayist and had written numerous books of poetry. Her text The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems is widely used in college poetry classes today.
Formerly a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University, where she directed The Poetry Center and chaired the Department of Creative Writing, Mayes has published many books including, Bella Tuscany, and Every Day in Tuscany, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir, and A Year in the World: Journeys of A Passionate Traveller. She and her husband divide their time between North Carolina and Tuscany.
About Anna Roins: Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.
She has studied creative literature at The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna enjoys trying to write novels and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.
You can find out more about Anna Roins at https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins,