photographs by Jillian Clark
The ballroom at the Umstead Hotel & Spa was filled with the colors, flavors, and stories of Tuscany on a Sunday in April, when Under the Tuscan Sun author Frances Mayes joined 125 Walter readers for a very special luncheon, reading, and conversation with the author.
The beauty and stories of our own region also took center stage as Mayes discussed her most recent book, Under Magnolia, a memoir of growing up in the small town of Fitzgerald, Ga., and her move with her husband Ed to Hillsborough, N.C.
Mayes described the luxurious lunch – which included a pinot grigio and a sangiovese from her own Tuscan Sun line of wines – as similar to a traditional Italian Sunday midday meal, or pranzo. And she took her time, as dessert was served, to discuss at length her writing, her move to North Carolina, and her latest book.
Writing Under Magnolia, Mayes told the room, allowed her the opportunity to relive her childhood: “As the Chinese poet said, to make an image is to live twice. So you get to try to find the exact words, the exact images for these experiences that you had … You can again sit in the choir of the Central Methodist Church and feel your graduation pearls come unstrung on the floor; you can again baptize the dog who does not want to be baptized. You can sit at the table with all of the relatives who are fighting over the wishbone or arguing over who’s going to get the biggest piece of pecan pie. So you get your life back, and you get to try to recreate it in words. To me as a writer, it was a great privilege to have that experience.”
Yet the early years she relives in the telling were not without challenges. “My parents were very volatile creatures,” she told the crowd. “They had the kind of fatal gift of beauty.” In Under Magnolia, Mayes writes of their late-night arguments, heavy drinking, dramatic scenes. As the family’s much-youngest child living in a small and insular Georgia town, Mayes spent many of these years with her head in a book. But she couldn’t escape entirely. “The only thing I can figure out about their high-voltage lives together was that they had no outlet for all of that electricity,” she said. “So a lot of it landed on me.” The sights, smells, and sounds of that household – and of the South – permeate the book, and, she says, never did leave her. “…the powerful ambience of the Southern landscape. The moss-hung oaks, beautiful pecan orchards just lit from within … I just loved the land always.” Those sense memories were eventually strong enough to bring Mayes back home to this part of the country after years living in California.
“I think when you grow up in the South, particularly if you are of a literary bent, you kind of absorb this sense of place along with the cheese grits; you know, it’s just a part of your mentality. Even after many years in California, any time I came back to the South, I had this kind of metabolic, pulse-level connection. There are certain places where you feel at home.”
It was that same feeling that inspired her to buy the house in Tuscany that spurred her international best-selling Under the Tuscan Sun. “When I got to Tuscany,” she told the group, “I thought, this is so bizarre, because I really feel at home here. I didn’t speak the language, I had never been there … it’s a mysterious feeling that sometimes you know where your psyche lines up with the horizon.”
Today, Mayes and her husband divide their time between the horizon in Tuscany and the one in Hillsborough, where they are also restoring an old house. “It’s just an 1806, square white farmhouse,” she said. “We absolutely love it … It’s on the Eno (River) … It has a beautiful rose garden that was put in in the ’50s, and it has all of these heirloom roses. I really love living in old houses, because there are always things to discover in them.”
It was in unpacking boxes in Hillsborough after the move that Mayes said she came across some of her old diaries and photos, and then became inspired to write Under Magnolia: “It did start me thinking about how much the South had changed in the years I had been away, and how interesting it was for me coming back here and feeling that it was almost a foreign country, but at the same time it was deeply familiar. So that tension between those two things got me started with writing.”
It also got her memories flowing, and thinking about the subject of memory itself. “I’m always fascinated by memory. Most of my books are really involved with memory. I think my memory is infallible. Everybody always says that in a family, people remember different things. It’s not true in my family. We all remember the same things,” she said with a laugh, “and that’s why they’re so mad at me!”
In telling their stories, and her own, Mayes said she hoped to tell not just the truth, but a universal truth. “How many times I have heard people condescend to the small places in America – like nothing important happens except in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. So I wanted in my memoir to show the passion of living in a small place, a small world, a whole world. And that was one of my goals in writing, (to show) that these lives are so important, they’re just as passionate as anyone else, they’re just as smart as anyone else, or just as dumb.”
As for the writing itself, Mayes said she gets a lot done mentally, while she’s going about other things, before committing words to the page. “I don’t ever have any schedule,” she said. “I like to do so many other things that I will put off writing for a long time while I go plant my little gem lettuces, or take a walk, or play with the cats, or anything to keep from writing. So I think that my process is that while I’m doing all of these things, I’m thinking about what I’m going to write. It’s kind of like the dog that turns around and around and round and then sits down. That’s a very inelegant way to say it … but I mull on it a long time. I can write very quickly once I begin.”
With two houses under various states of renovation, Mayes clearly has plenty of suitable distractions to let her ruminate and plan her next project. First, she says, she wants to write a travel book about Italy, and then “I might try a novel after that.”
With writing to look forward to and beauty all around her, it’s not hard to see why Mayes has been able to put her tumultuous childhood into such poetic prose. “The way you’re raised is not your fate,” she told the crowd. “You can have your own will to power, and create your own life.”