Frances Mayes has nearly equal affection for leaving for a trip and returning home.
“Houses have always been just about as much of an obsession for me [as travel],” says Mayes, 82. “It’s just the obsession slightly tips in the direction of the airport. My mother was obsessed with houses. I think it just rubbed off on me, particularly because she never got the house she would dream of living in.”
Mayes has made a life of writing about both concepts. Her romantic 1996 memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, about buying and renovating a rickety but venerable Italian villa called Bramasole, kicked off a writing career that has continued with gusto into Mayes’s eighties. She’s written six books of poetry and three novels (“few,” she jokes; “some writers’ entire lives,” I say back). She has her byline on a cookbook and a “field guide to poetry.” Then there are the memoirs, about home, travel, and making a home in an unfamiliar place, which made her famous.
“I always think of myself as an undisciplined writer, but I look at all the books I’ve written and I realized that I do really get a lot done somehow,” she says one September morning when I call her on WhatsApp. At the time, she is in Cortona, Italy—her other home base besides Durham.
Her latest book, A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home, released on August 23, is a set of essays and meditations on the concept of home, rife with literary allusions and lush sensory details, that reach from the Triangle to Tuscany and back again. The collection cuts between Mayes’s childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia, and her homes in North Carolina and Italy, but it isn’t limited to homes she’s actually inhabited. She writes about the homes of her remarkable friends, describes new-to-her cities that feel like home, and finishes with loose associations and literary musings about the word and concept itself.
It’s obvious from her work that travel, home, and writing are all intertwined in Mayes’s life, and during our conversation, she eagerly expands on the intersections of these themes.
“I always come home with a desire to work,” she says. “I want to get onto my projects right away. So the house is kind of 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 opens with a description of the Eno River cutting through a field near Mayes’s recently sold Hillsborough home. Mayes and her husband moved to North Carolina “around 15 years ago” and spent 12 of those years settled into Chatwood, a sprawling, historic Hillsborough property, before selling it during the pandemic to downsize into Durham. But her longest home has been Bramasole, the house she has owned for 32 years in Cortona, a small Italian town of roughly 23,000.
“I didn’t plan it this way,” Mayes says, “but it has become my longest home.”
Mayes’s memoirs often drift between her own experiences in a place and her ideas of what a life before hers might have looked like, often prompted by the things she discovers plastered into her walls or buried by generations of gardeners.
In previous memoirs, she has shared the laborious details of updating an ancient Tuscan house for decades, and A Place in the World includes the beginning of a major project her Italian neighbors have been predicting since she bought the house: adding a pool. That project, a 17-month renovation that included the additions of a pool and bathroom, was recently completed, and Mayes looks forward to a break. During the project, builders discovered frescoes that had been hidden under plaster since long before Mayes took up residence in Bramasole.
“The main one we found was formal curtains painted all over the walls,” Mayes says. “I was happy that we were able to save a huge piece of that.”
The surprises of renovation have become familiar to Mayes.
“It is the mystery of all houses,” Mayes says. “They keep kind of revealing their secrets. I thought we knew everything by now about this house, but now I wonder what else is lurking somewhere?”
Mayes’s memoirs are loaded with accounts of local flora and fauna that build immersive, intimate looks at the places she loves and keep her work deeply rooted in place.
“I love the Southern landscape,” Mayes says. “All the extremities of the weather, and the quicksand, and the cyclones, and the alligators … and just the drama and violence of the landscape and the beauty. It makes you love it even though it’s so flawed.”
Mayes’s place in that Southern landscape is Hillsborough, and I was enchanted by her descriptions of it. She spends a long time sharing the history of the house and rose garden of an earlier Chatwood owner and takes readers for a walk around town, pointing out the homes of friends and artists along the way.
Mayes takes pains to highlight the writing community she’s found: “I always used to say it was a gathering that hasn’t happened since the mid-19th century in Concord, Massachusetts.” On our call, Mayes spends more time talking about her friends and writing community in Hillsborough than any house. Her writing group is “the gift of the past couple of decades,” and she laments the recent loss of her friend Michael Malone, a writer Mayes calls “one of our major, major people in Hillsborough.”
Her move to Durham has only added 15 minutes or so to her drive to friends’ houses.
“I mean, that’s nothing in the scheme of things, but you know, it’s not running into each other at the grocery store anymore and stuff like that,” she says. “But I’m making—I will always make—a big attempt to keep in touch.”
Under the Tuscan Sun lived on the New York Times best sellers list for more than two and a half years, and the international phenomenon the memoir and the movie (which starred Diane Lane) created has drawn people from all over the world. In A Place in the World, Mayes discusses the fallout of sharing a life so many people loved. “It’s constant in my life that people who are reading my books are coming to my house,” she says. “That’s just a daily occurrence. And everyone thinks that would be awful, but it hasn’t been.” Her writing has impacted people who have in turn impacted her and last year brought visitors from Brazil, Poland, and Hungary.
“It’s such a powerful feeling to realize 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 real connections with strangers online, some of whom later knock on her door. Tourists in Tuscany approach her in the town or leave notes at the Madonna built into her wall. After a local paper published that she’d moved to North Carolina, a distant relative reached out.
“So that’s the joy of having an audience to me is that it’s not solitary,” she says. “It’s not an introverted act to write anymore because it reaches people and they reach back to you, and there’s this kind of exchange that constantly happens that I really love.”
While she agrees that travel isn’t nearly as challenging or inconvenient as it used to be, especially compared to the early 20th-century memoirs she references, Mayes loves how many women she sees wandering Tuscany with a notebook. She can tell they’re on a quest, a kind of travel she understands and loves.
“I know these women are after something,” she says. “They’re not just sightseeing. They’re here because they’re looking for something. To me, that’s the best kind of travel and the best motivation for travel: because you want to grow. You want something to happen to you, you want to be changed. You want to be changed into something you are.”
And she’s not at all bothered that her vision of home in Tuscany has brought a bevy of tourists into the town: “I mostly see women with their journals and their novels and their sketch pads, and I think, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You’re going to discover something.’”
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