Frances Mayes is best known for her memoirs about life as an expatriate in Tuscany, including, of course, Under the Tuscan Sun, the wildly popular book that tells her story of buying and renovating an abandoned villa in the town of Cortona. After publishing six more books about Italy, among other work, Mayes is back with Under Magnolia, a new autobiography about her childhood in the American South. We caught up with her to talk about her love for Tuscany, her newest book and why she’s recently ventured into the world of wine.
Of all the regions in Italy, why were you drawn to Tuscany in particular?
When I rented a farmhouse near Cortona one summer in the 1980s, I immediately fell in love with the Tuscan landscape and the rural way of life. I planted little basic plants and by the end of the month they had rooted and flourished and so had I. I was initially drawn to Tuscany for the art but found so much more.
In your writing it’s clear that your home, Bramasole, is a true labor of love, and after all these years, the renovations are still taking place. What are you currently working on?
We had to put on a new roof. As my husband, Ed, said, after 300 years the warranty was up! Then we decided to do other things we’d put off, plus a few new ideas surfaced – renovation leads to more renovation. We hope to finish everything this summer, then the house will be all set for the next hundred years! The garden has been destroyed with all the work so it will be fun and a challenge to restore it.
Given that Bramasole has its own TripAdvisor page, you must get lots of visitors. What’s that like?
I did not know that! Each time one of my books comes out in a different country, we get new visitors from there. It’s fun to meet people from all over the world, and the people who travel because of a book are not ordinary travelers. People do “show up” but have always been respectful.
Your newest work, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir, was published in April. After so many books about your life in Tuscany, why were you inspired to write about your early years in Georgia?
Childhood is primo material for a writer. When I moved back to the south, so changed from the years when I grew up there, I was interested in exploring who we were, so far south so long ago.
You worked on Under Magnolia at Bramasole. What is it about the place that inspires you to write there?
Time. Days are long there, somehow. The sun strikes our room first so I am up early. I love my third floor study, which looks out over the valley where Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC. I can work long hours without distractions.
Under Magnolia isn’t your only recent project. You also have a new line of wines, known as Tuscan Sun Wines. Why was this something you wanted to do?
The vineyard, the olive tree, the wheat field – that’s the cornerstone of Tuscan life. Wine, oil, bread. I am attracted to the basics of country life in Italy. We press our own olives and now we have this marvelous wine project. But I’ll just buy the bread at the local baker’s.
The wines all have special names that are quiet poetic. How and why did you come up with them?
The names and labels all are connected to incidents and places and concepts in my books. We designed the labels to reflect the way of life that the wines represent. My daughter said that wine labels are too masculine and then admitted that she often buys wine by the label. We took that cue and made them appealing to look at. Tondo, tondo is one of my favorites – it is our house wine at Bramasole – and we took the Cortona dialect expression which means “just right.” We wanted the wines to seem just right for great pastas, hearty ribs, delicate fish and other feasts.
With so much of your work centered on Tuscany, do you feel that in a way you’re an ambassador for the region?
I don’t think of myself that way, though I am aware that my books changed the economy of Cortona and certainly impacted Italian travel. I am just a lover of Tuscany who has found a home in a foreign country.
Do you believe your work has altered Tuscany or left an imprint on the region in any way?
It’s hard to say in the long run. Many foreigners have told me that they bought houses or apartments after reading my books, and having foreigners settle in a place certainly gives it a different dimension. But there are also a lot more immigrants coming into Italy as well, so the complexion is changing anyway. It has been interesting to me that many Italians have told me that my books have made them appreciate their own country, and, they add with somewhat of a lamenting tone, it took, imagine, “an American woman!” to make that happen.
You’re currently busy touring the country, presenting your wines and Under Magnolia. What’s up next for you after the tour?
Completing this phase of restoration at Bramasole is my project for the summer. Also our grandson will be with us, studying intensive Italian. In the fall, I’ll return to writing but I’m not yet sure what that will be.
Frances Mayes will participate in a book and bottle signing at the Tuscan Market in Salem, NH on Saturday, May 17.