In a new memoir, Frances Mayes’ travels go from the Triangle to Tuscany, and back again

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Frances Mayes: A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home | Crown Publishing; August 23


Frances Mayes has almost as much affection for leaving on a trip as she does for returning home.

“Houses have always been an obsession for me [as travel]says Mayes, 82. “It’s just the obsession that leans slightly towards the airport. My mother was obsessed with houses. I think that rubbed off on me, especially because she never had the house she dreamed of living in.

Mayes has spent his life writing about both concepts. Her romantic memoirs from 1996 Under the Tuscan sun, about the purchase and renovation of a rickety but venerable Italian villa called Bramasole, launched a career as a writer that continued with flying colors into Mayes’ eighties. She has written six collections of poetry and three novels (“little”, she jokes; “the whole life of some writers”, I say in return). She has her signature on a cookbook and a “field guide to poetry.” Then there are the memoirs, about the house, the travels and making a home in an unfamiliar place, which made her famous.

“I still think of myself as an unruly writer, but I look at all the books I’ve written and realized that I really do do a lot of things one way or another,” she says one morning from September when I call him on WhatsApp. At the time, she was in Cortona, Italy, her other home base besides Durham.

His latest book, A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home, released August 23, is a collection of essays and meditations on the concept of home, peppered with literary allusions and lush sensory detail, that range from the Triangle to Tuscany and back again. The collection sits between Mayes’ childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia, and her homes in North Carolina and Italy, but it’s not limited to the homes she actually lives in. She writes about the homes of her notable friends, describes towns new to her that feel like home, and ends with loose associations and literary musings on the word and concept itself.

It’s clear from her work that travel, home, and writing are all intertwined in Mayes’ life, and during our conversation she eagerly expands on the intersections of these themes.

“I always come home wanting to work,” she says. “I want to get started on my projects right away. The house is therefore a bit like a cocoon, an extension of myself insofar as I can enter it and then start my projects.

The introduction of A place in the world opens with a depiction of the River Eno flowing through a field near Mayes’ recently sold house in Hillsborough. Mayes and her husband moved to North Carolina ‘about 15 years ago’ and spent 12 of those years settling in Chatwood, a sprawling historic property in Hillsborough, before selling it during the pandemic to shrink to Durham. But her oldest home is Bramasole, the house she’s owned for 32 years in Cortona, a small Italian town of about 23,000 people.

“I hadn’t planned it that way,” Mayes says, “but it became my longest home.”

Mayes’ memoir often drifts between her own experiences in a place and her ideas of what a life before hers might have been like, often driven by the things she discovers stuck in its walls or buried by generations of gardeners.

In previous memoirs, she’s shared the painstaking details of updating an old Tuscan home for decades, and A place in the world understands the beginning of a big project predicted by her Italian neighbors since she bought the house: the addition of a swimming pool. This project, a 17-month renovation that included the addition of a pool and bathroom, was recently completed, and Mayes is looking forward to a break. During the project, builders discovered frescoes hidden under plaster long before Mayes moved to Bramasole.

“The main thing we found was formal curtains painted on all the walls,” says Mayes. “I was happy that we were able to save a huge part of it.”

The surprises of the renovation became familiar to Mayes.

“It’s the mystery of all houses,” Mayes says. “They keep revealing their secrets. I thought we now knew everything about this house, but now I wonder what else is hiding somewhere? »

Mayes’ memoirs are filled with tales of local flora and fauna that create immersive, intimate looks at the places she loves and keep her work deeply rooted.

“I love the Southern landscape,” says Mayes. “All the ends of time, and the quicksands, and the cyclones, and the alligators…and just the drama and the violence of the landscape and the beauty. It makes you love him even though he’s so flawed.

Mayes’ place in this southern landscape is Hillsborough, and I was enchanted by his descriptions. She spends a lot of time sharing the story of a former owner’s Chatwood home and rose garden and takes readers on a stroll through town, pointing out the homes of friends and artists along the way.

Mayes is careful to point out the community of writers she found: “I’ve always said this was a gathering that hadn’t happened since the mid-19th century in Concord, Massachusetts.” On our call, Mayes spends more time talking about her friends and the Hillsborough writing community than any house. Her writing group is “the gift of the past two decades” and she laments the recent loss of her friend Michael Malone, a writer whom Mayes calls “one of our main people in Hillsborough”.

His move to Durham only added about 15 minutes to his journey to his friends’ homes.

“I mean, it’s nothing in the scheme of things, but you know, you don’t meet it at the grocery store anymore and stuff like that,” she says. “But I do – always will – make a big effort to stay in touch.”

Under the Tuscan sun lived on the New York Times list of bestsellers for more than two and a half years, and the international phenomenon created by the memoirs and the film (starring Diane Lane) has attracted people from all over the world. In A place in the world, Mayes discusses the fallout of sharing a life that so many have loved. “It’s constant in my life that people who read my books come to my house,” she says. “It’s just a daily occurrence. And everyone thinks it would be awful, but it wasn’t. Her writing has touched people who in turn have touched her and last year attracted visitors from Brazil, Poland and Hungary.

“It’s such a powerful feeling to realize that something you write can go out and go around the world,” she says. “It’s deep for me.”

Today, Mayes is active enough on Instagram to make genuine connections with strangers online, some of whom later knock on her door. Tourists in Tuscany approach her in the city or leave notes at the Madonna built into her wall. After a local newspaper published that she had moved to North Carolina, a distant relative contacted her.

“So that’s the joy of having an audience for me is that it’s not lonely,” she says. “It’s no longer an introverted act to write because it touches people and they come back to you, and there’s this kind of exchange that happens constantly that I really love.”

While she acknowledges that traveling isn’t as difficult or inconvenient as it used to be, especially compared to the early 20th-century memoirs she references, Mayes loves the number of women she sees wandering around Tuscany with a notebook. . She can tell they are on a quest, a kind of journey she understands and loves.

“I know these women are after something,” she said. “It’s not just sightseeing. They are here because they are looking for something. For me, this is the best kind of travel and the best motivation to travel: because you want to grow. You want something to happen to you, you want to be changed. You want to be changed into something that you are.

And she’s not at all bothered that her vision of home in Tuscany has drawn a crowd of tourists to the town: ‘I mostly see women with their journals, novels and sketchbooks, and I think: ‘ Oh, you’re so lucky. You’re going to find out something.


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