In a New Memoir, the Travels of Frances Mayes Reach from the Triangle to Tuscany, and Back Again



Frances Mayes: A place in the world: finding the meaning of home | crown release; 23.8


Frances Mayes loves to go on a trip and come back home.

“Houses have always been just as obsessive for me [as travel]says Mayes, 82. “It’s just the obsession that tilts slightly towards the airport. My mother was obsessed with houses. I think it just rubbed off on me, mostly because she never got the house she wanted to live in.”

Mayes has spent a lifetime writing about both concepts. Her 1996 romantic memoir Under the Tuscan sun, about the purchase and renovation of a rickety but venerable Italian villa called Bramasole, launched a writing career that continued enthusiastically into Mayes’ 1980s. She has written six volumes of poetry and three novels (“few,” she jokes; “some have writers’ entire lives,” I reply). She has her bylines in a cookbook and a Field Guide to Poetry. Then there are the memoirs about home, travel and finding a home in an unknown place that made her famous.

“I always see myself as an undisciplined writer, but when I look at all the books I’ve written, I realized that somehow I’m really getting things done,” she says when I call her on WhatsApp one September morning. At this time she is based in Cortona, Italy – her second home base alongside Durham.

her latest book, A place in the world: finding the meaning of home, released August 23, is a series of essays and meditations on the concept of home, full of literary allusions and rich sensory detail, ranging from the Triangle to Tuscany and back again. The collection spans Maye’s childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia, and her homes in North Carolina and Italy, but is not limited to homes where she actually lives. She writes about the homes of her remarkable friends, describes cities that are new to her and that feel like home, and ends with loose associations and literary musings about the word and the concept itself.

It is evident from her work that travel, homeland and writing are intertwined in Maye’s life, and during our conversation she eagerly explores the intersections of these themes.

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“I always come home wanting to work,” she says. “I want to get started on my projects right away. So the house is like a cocoon – an extension of myself in that I can enter it and then start my projects.”

The introduction of A place in the world begins with a description of the River Eno flowing through a field near Maye’s recently sold Hillsborough home. Mayes and her husband moved to North Carolina “about 15 years ago” and spent 12 of those years in Chatwood, a sprawling, historic estate in Hillsborough before selling it to downsize to Durham during the pandemic. But her longest home has been Bramasole, the house she has owned for 32 years in Cortona, a small Italian town of about 23,000 people.

“I didn’t plan it that way,” Mayes says, “but it’s become my longest home.”

Mayes’ memoirs often vacillate between her own experiences of a place and her ideas of what life might have been like before her, often prompted by things she plasters on her walls or discovers buried by generations of gardeners.

In previous memoirs, she has shared the painstaking details of renovating an old Tuscan home over decades A place in the world includes the start of a major project her Italian neighbors have been predicting since buying the house: adding a pool. This project, a 17 month renovation that included the addition of a pool and bathroom, has recently been completed and Mayes is looking forward to a break. During the project, builders discovered frescoes that had been hidden under plaster long before Mayes settled in Bramasole.

“The main thing we found were formal curtains painted across the walls,” Mayes says. “I was glad that we were able to save a large part of it.”

The surprises of the renovation have become familiar to Mayes.

“It’s the secret of all houses,” Mayes says. “They keep revealing their secrets. I thought we knew everything about this house by now, but now I’m wondering what else is lurking somewhere?”

Mayes’ memoir is filled with accounts of the local flora and fauna that offer immersive, intimate insights into the places she loves and keeps her work deeply rooted.

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“I love the southern countryside,” says Mayes. “All the weather extremes and the quicksand and the hurricanes and the alligators… and just the drama and the violence of the landscape and the beauty. You love it even though it’s so flawed.”

Mayes’ place in that southern countryside is Hillsborough, and I was charmed by her descriptions. She spends much of her time telling the story of a previous Chatwood owner’s home and rose garden, and takes readers on a stroll through town, pointing out the homes of friends and artists along the way.

Mayes takes pains to highlight the writing community she’s found: “I’ve always said it was a gathering that hadn’t been held in Concord, Massachusetts, since the mid-1800s.” When we call, Mayes spends more Time talking about her friends and her writing community in Hillsborough than any other home. Her writing group is “the gift of the last few decades,” and she mourns the recent loss of her boyfriend Michael Malone, a writer whom Mayes calls “one of our most important, important people in Hillsborough.”

Her move to Durham only added about 15 minutes to her commute to friends’ houses.

“I mean, it’s not in the scheme of things, but you know, it doesn’t come up in the grocery store and stuff like that anymore,” she says. “But I make — I always will — make a big effort to keep in touch.”

Under the Tuscan sun lived on the New York Times Best Sellers for more than two and a half years, and the international phenomenon that the memoir and film (starring Diane Lane) created has attracted people from all over the world. in the A place in the world, Mayes speaks about the consequences of sharing a life that so many have loved. “There are times in my life that people who read my books come to my house,” she says. “It’s just a daily event. And everyone thinks that would be terrible, but it wasn’t.” Her writing has influenced people who in turn have influenced her, and last year she brought visitors from Brazil, Poland and Hungary.

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“It’s such a powerful feeling to realize that something you write can go out and go around the world,” she says. “It’s profound 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 town or leave notes on the Madonna built into her wall. After a local newspaper reported that she had moved to North Carolina, a distant relative got in touch.

“For me, the beauty of the audience is that they’re not alone,” she says. “It’s no longer an introverted act of writing because it reaches people and they come back to you, and there’s that kind of exchange that’s happening all the time that I really love.”

While she agrees that travel isn’t nearly as challenging or uncomfortable as it used to be, especially compared to the early 20th-century memoir she’s referencing, Mayes loves how many women she roams Tuscany with a notebook sees. She realizes they are on a quest, a kind of journey that she understands and loves.

“I know these women are after something,” she says. “They are not just sightseeing. They are here because they are looking for something. For me, this is the best way of traveling 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 transformed into something you are.”

And the fact that her vision of home in Tuscany has brought a swarm of tourists to the city doesn’t bother her at all: “I mostly see women with their diaries and their novels and their sketchpads and think, ‘Oh, you are so happy. You will discover something.’”


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