Ever charming, devilishly witty, and with boundless vigor that puts the Energizer Bunny to shame, international bestselling author Frances Mayes has done it again! Her new book, See You in the Piazza, chronicles her Italian adventures as she crisscrosses the boot with husband and favorite traveling companion, Ed. Self-imposed mission: load up the white Alfa Romeo and hit the road to discover hidden gems in Frances' beloved Italy. From Trento in the Dolomites, to Sicily and Sardegna; from the Ligurian coast to the boot's heel in Puglia on the Adriatic.
I recently met Frances in person(!) as she was in town for a book signing, and a few days later via email, we corresponded (her being back home in Tuscany and all, sigh...), about life, writing, travel, and of course bella Italia.
Frances' most notable fame derives from her memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, published in 1997, selling over TWO MILLION copies, and remaining on the NY Times bestseller list for TWO YEARS. It was then made into an insanely popular movie in 2003 starring Diane Lane, guided by the screenwriting and directing genius of Audrey Wells.
In the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, Diane Lane (as Frances) spontaneously buys an Italian villa.
Heavy construction, romance, self-discovery, and adventure ensue!
Please enjoy this chat with the incomparable Frances Mayes. AND...at the end of our interview, check out how you can win a signed copy of See You in the Piazza!
When you first started traveling to Italy, prior to moving there, were you alone? A student?
FM: We were just recently married when we took off for a conference in Bologna. What a revelation. I thought I was going for the art but soon found the lively center full of vivacious people having a big time. Early on, I latched onto the Italians’ gusto for life.
Piazza life, in Trentino Alto Adige
Lago di Tovel, Trentino Alto Adige
You dedicated the book to your husband, Ed. The way you describe his perennial delight throughout your travels, he seems so light-hearted, curious, and always excited by new discoveries.
FM: Absolutely. Best travel companion—and husband—imaginable. He always will make the U-turn and go down the interesting little lane.
Frances and Ed in 2010, celebrating 20 years at Bramasole, their villa in Cortona
When you were here, you mentioned the Duolingo language app that Ed uses. Do you ever get thrown off when traveling throughout Italy, with so many dialects?
FM: Dialects are strong everywhere but everyone—almost—also speaks regular Italian so, no, it’s not an issue. It’s kind of fun in Sardinia and in Trentino Alto Adige to hear the language spoken—not really dialects but actually other languages.
It was fun reading about your grandson, William. How old is he now? How has having a grandchild changed you? How much was he a part of this trip?
FM: He’s 17 now, and has hit six feet. So odd that the darling little boy is seeming like a man! Nothing in life has been more of a pleasure than helping raise this bright and delightful human. Every minute has been wonderful. He went on four trips, I think. Otherwise, when he visits he studies Italian with a tutor in Cortona. This will be his fifth summer of that, including one session in Florence. This year we’ll do an intensive ten days in Torino, then back to Cortona for more.
I read that you still get up to 200 visitors/tourists a day, just to have a look at Bramasole! Does it make it hard to come and go easily with so many people in front of your house?
FM: It varies. Right now there are lots of Brazilians and Spanish people. Also lots of Americans. We meet lots of people and I must say everyone is lovely so I am happy to take photos and sign books.
How many books have you written…and do you have a favorite?
FM: Sixteen, including my books of poetry that I wrote before I began to write prose. Maybe my southern memoir, Under Magnolia, is my favorite.
You’ve inspired droves of people to consider (or at least fantasize about) shucking it all and moving to Italy. La Dolce Vita is certainly a coveted lifestyle, but what advice would you give them before jumping off the cliff?
FM: Visit for a long period, to be sure it “takes."
Other than ones written by you, what’s your favorite novel and/or movie set in Italy?
I imagine these book tours require loads of energy and can be pretty exhausting. What do you do to stay so youthful? You have such a vibrancy about you!
FM: Grazie. I was lucky to be born with the energy of two people!
I love the quote on page 226 when you're in Camogli. "How many layers of beauty? One fishing boat putting out across the water, a few gulls. Quiet. This much beauty: I feel a quick sting of tears." So after all this time, it sounds like your breath still gets taken away.
FM: Constantly. Italy is steeped in beauty. It can melt the heart of a stone.
Camoglia, in Liguria
Regarding Genova, you write, "Uphill, down to a glimpse of water, radiating streets, a scary lane with drunks leaning on walls and prostitutes hanging out of doors and windows." The human landscape can change very quickly in Italy.
FM: Most cities seem like many separate towns smashed together. You can go a block in Genova and you’re in a souk and then another and you’re on a regal street of grand palazzos. Naples, especially. What a changing kaleidoscope that city is. And Palermo, oh!
Where’s one place in Italy you want to go that you haven’t yet visited?
FM: The Aeolian Islands. Cannot believe I’ve never been.
Do you agree with the notion that Americans live to work and Italians work to live?
FM: Generally yes, though I’m sure some poor blokes in Milano are slaving away like Americans. Most seem to have a talent for enjoying the day.
Life is slow in sun-baked Sardegna, second largest island in the Mediterranean,
where the residents' extraordinary longevity has been confirmed by science
Did you ever have a job that wasn’t in the field of writing?
FM: University teaching for 23 years—but I was teaching writing!
What do you think you’d be doing now if you hadn’t made that spontaneous decision to buy Bramasole?
FM: Some other adventure… one I can’t imagine.
With Frances...lucky me!
For a chance to win a free autographed copy of See You in the Piazza, leave a comment below. We'll pick one lucky winner on Friday, May 24th. (And even if you don't win, we've got a few more signed copies in our stores!) Here's an excerpt, soaked in Frances' luscious writing style:
"In late afternoon, the cafés serve aperitivi. No surprise: Campari and vermouths such as Punt e Mes were all invented in Torino. Order a drink and you’re welcome to a lavish buffet of stuzzichini—crostini, olives, chips, focaccia, prosciutto, slices of omelet, and grissini, bread sticks (also invented in Torino). This interlude previews dinner. Which is glorious to anticipate. Torino restaurants are up there with the best in Italy."
Thank you for reading, and we'll see you in the piazza! A presto!
Photo credits: Frances Mayes, Larry Vaughn