More than 10 years ago, author Frances Mayes had only the sketchiest notion of how her decision to cash out her retirement and buy a villa in Italy would turn out.
But, in the aftermath of a bruising divorce, Mayes said she sought solace in a country that offered such lush abundance.
"Surely the wine, the food, the people, the cypress trees, surely all that Italy had to offer would be an adequate replacement for just one man," Mayes told the crowd of more than 300 who braved frosty weather to hear her weave tales about her idyllic life in sun-drenched Tuscany.
Looking back on that life-altering decision, Mayes said that she was glad she didn’t realize at the time how risky it actually was.
"All those friends and relatives who assured me that I was stepping on the path to ruin are now very frequent houseguests, and they chat endlessly about how they always knew this was such a wonderful idea," she said.
`The sharpest knives in the drawer’
In her talk in Packard Hall, part of the celebration of Linderman Library’s 125th anniversary, the former San Francisco State creative writing professor told her audience how her midlife adjustment accomplished far more than merely soothe a broken heart. It also put her on a path of creative discovery that resulted in three wildly successful books about Italy--including the New York Times bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun--and helped coax her into writing her first novel.
"It had to do with the landscape," she said. "I’m convinced that place is a great shaper of character, and ironically, my time in Italy helped me reconnect with the sense of place I enjoyed growing up in the South."
Mayes set her novel, Swan, in familiar territory--a small Southern town where "everybody might accept you, but they still want to know about your grandmother," she quipped. "You can recognize a family’s gene pool by the way someone lifts their eyebrow, turns their head, or walks down a street. We call that ‘community.’'
Particularly intriguing to her were the aspects of Southern family life that were never openly acknowledged or discussed.
"Those secrets," she said, "are the sharpest knives in the drawer."
Although friends and family members feared a scandalous expose--"sort of a Peyton Place with grits"--Mayes said that after several false starts, she finally found the courage to "dip my ink pen into the black swamp waters of Georgia."
The sweet, simple life
Critically well-received, her first novel may lead to a second, but Mayes said her plate is already pleasantly full. She recently edited the 2002 edition of the Best American Travel Writing digest, and is currently immersed in another project that will allow her to visit eight countries over the course of two years and spend at least a month in each to gain a sense of daily life.
Tentatively titled A Home in the World, the project has already taken Mayes to the southern region of Italy, Greece, Spain, and the Cottswold area of England. Next year, she will most likely set up temporary homes in Portugal, Spain, Mexico, and Australia.
Her time in Italy was the inspiration for several of the questions from the audience, which centered on her daily routine, the food, the warmth of the Italian people, and their views of the U.S.
Her adopted town of Cortona, she said, is "extremely liberal, and there is a very large social net to catch people."
"What they cannot understand is how America is so rich, yet people live on the street. They also question us about capital punishment. They reject it completely and do not understand it," Mayes said.
Yet, Mayes said, Italian people tend to like and admire Americans very much, and nurture a great fondness for "all things American."
"Italians tend to have a broader view of the world than we have, and see some things differently," she said. "But the biggest difference for me is that life there is very sweet, and whole lot simpler."