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Discussing “la dolce vita” with the author

Discussing “La Dolce Vita” with the Author By Oonagh Stransky January 10, 2016 – 8:35 AM

In 1996, Frances Mayes published “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a memoir about buying, renovating, and living in an abandoned villa in rural Cortona. It reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for over two years. In 2003, it was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Diane Lane. Our correspondent, Oonagh Stransky, who resides year-round in Cortona, interviewed Mayes for The Florentine.

Oonagh Stransky: How much time do you currently spend in Cortona?

Frances Mayes: We come and go. We were just there for the olive harvest. In total, we spend about five months a year there.

OS: What do you typically do while in Tuscany?

FM: I walk the Roman roads. Recently, I’ve started listening to audiobooks while I walk. We live close to town, so I walk in for a cappuccino, then take a meandering route back to Bramasole, my house.

OS: What advice would you offer to visitors in Cortona—what should they make sure to see?

FM: Certainly, the museums. Most foreigners don’t know much about the Etruscans, and visitors are captivated by the variety of artifacts. No one should miss the Annunciation angel by Fra Angelico. I love her neon orange hair! Exploring the hidden upper neighborhoods of Cortona allows you to step back in time.

OS: Is there anything you would like to change about Cortona?

FM: Of course. No place is perfect. But I’ll wait until I’m asked about my grand schemes!

OS: “Under the Tuscan Sun” is associated with “living the dream,” and although you acknowledge some hardships in doing so, they always lead to personal growth. Can we hear Frances Mayes express a complaint about something in Tuscany, just this once?

FM: Too much “we” and not enough “you.”

OS: While Cortona has remained a particularly lively town thanks to cultural initiatives and the presence of schools that help retain the population, other towns have struggled to preserve this essence. What do you think Tuscany must do to maintain its livability?

FM: There’s something that skews this question, and I’ll say, with all modesty and as a matter of fact, that much of Cortona’s good fortune comes from my books! Everywhere I go in Italy, people say, “Cortona is so lucky. PLEASE write a book about this town.” My books about Cortona are available in 54 languages, so much of the influx of life and the economy result from the thousands and thousands of people who come here seeking that Tuscan sun. The movie adaptation of the book, too, is known worldwide, and many visitors arrive expecting to see Diane Lane and the fountain in the piazza. I can always tell when a new edition of the book has been published because suddenly we have Brazilians, Estonians, or Chinese tourists taking pictures at our gate. Sometimes, we have up to 200 visitors a day coming by our house. We’ve been privileged to meet people from all corners of the globe. Even in winter, there’s a constant flow of visitors. Other towns that have initiated local festivals (sometimes, regrettably, with very poor attendance) lack this unique attraction that draws travelers. Cortona is well-positioned to take advantage of this. The local people are exceptionally welcoming to visitors. Hundreds of people have told me how at home they feel here. We’re fortunate to have so many dining and wining options, making it a truly livable center. I often feel like I’m in a spacious living room.



Bramasole, Mayes’ Cortona home

For beautiful places like Castiglione del Lago, Lucignano, Città di Castello, and even Arezzo, there’s a different world when it comes to tourism. The best approach is to develop a town as a fantastic place for residents to live: promote artisan crafts and products, create parks, clear the squares of cars, encourage new businesses with tax incentives, adhere to strict zoning laws and architectural reviews, keep away from low-quality shops, avoid posting signs in English, maintain a lively weekly market, and don’t rely solely on tourism (I know, easier said than done). Small towns worldwide struggle to prosper when cities attract so many talented individuals. But there’s a certain kind of traveler who seeks out places with fewer tourists, places that preserve their essential Italian essence. I’m in the process of writing a book about exactly those towns, my top one hundred hidden gems in Italy. I started with some of the islands in the Venetian lagoon (see the article in Smithsonian Journeys, Winter 2015). I’m eagerly anticipating all the upcoming travels.

OS: How has Cortona changed since you wrote “Under the Tuscan Sun”?

FM: Cortona was solemn and quiet twenty-five years ago. Now, it’s lively and thriving. Almost no one spoke English back then. I believe most of the changes have been for the better—more art, a greater awareness of fine dining and wine, and the addition of quality shops. It’s understandable that young families prefer newer housing, but I do lament that the center has lost so many residents to apartment complexes outside town. I love being in Cortona during the winter because it’s reminiscent of the past, but I also cherish the activity of summer with the wine dinners, music festivals, and friends coming to visit.

OS: Any advice for aspiring writers?

FM: Go work for Google. Just kidding. My best advice is as follows: (1) apprentice yourself to accomplished writers and read their work not only for enjoyment but also to analyze how it’s constructed, how language is employed, what defines the writer’s voice, what you love about it, what could be improved, and conduct a thorough analysis; (2) write what you want, not just what you think will sell (sometimes they can align), write to explore and tell yourself something you want to hear; (3) accept criticism as if it were true and assess your work in light of the criticism to see if you can make improvements—if not, disregard it; and (4) find a writer friend or two, or better yet, join a writing group. You may not always benefit from workshopping, but having a supportive environment in a world where no one is telling you to write is incredibly comforting.

OS: How do you feel about your book’s title becoming such a catchphrase?

FM: I still encounter it everywhere, even after all these years. It’s amusing. Sometimes it’s “Under the Tucson Sun,” “Under the Santa Barbara Sun.” Recently, at Feltrinelli bookstore, I saw a stack of mystery books with the sign, “Under the Yellow Sun.” Some book titles, like “Too Much Tuscan Sun,” have also emerged. Personally, I would prefer an original title for a book I’ve written, not a copy of someone else’s, but it truly doesn’t bother me. Many houses and businesses have also adopted the name of my house, Bramasole.

OS: What are you currently working on?

FM: I have three book projects in progress—a novel, a non-fiction book about houses, and a travel book. There’s another cookbook I’d like to write, but where does the time go?

OS: What are your thoughts on Jhumpa Lahiri writing in Italian with a translation by Ann Goldstein?

FM: I read Lahiri’s book and thoroughly enjoyed it because the Italian was simple enough for me to read! What a gift she gave herself—two solid years dedicated solely to studying Italian. I envy that. I attempted to read Ferrante in Italian. It was challenging!

OS: Any book recommendations about contemporary Italy?

FM: I can’t say I exactly enjoyed them, but I read the books by Saviano. Like everyone else, I devoured the four Ferrante books. I don’t read much social science or political material. (Italian politics is almost as discouraging as American politics.) Some of my favorites over the years in Italy are Eco, Calvino, Pavese, Sciascia, Montale, Moravia, Pasolini, Levi, and Ferrante’s earlier novels. Closer to home, among many foreign books about Italy, I deeply admire Ann Cornelisen, who lived in Cortona for over twenty years. I hope she’s remembered for “Torregreca,” “Women of the Shadows,” “Where It All Began,” and the humorous “Any Four Women Can Rob the Bank of Italy.” Also, Claire Sterling, who wrote (to international acclaim) “The Terror Network,” “The Time of the Assassins,” and “Octopus: The Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia.” These topics continue to plague us even more now than when she investigated them in the 70s and 80s. Germaine Greer was her neighbor. What an incredible group of writers around here when I arrived in 1990! Muriel Spark over in Monte San Savino, William Weaver, Lyndall Hopkinson Passerini…

OS: Will you be able to join our book club in Cortona? What book would you suggest we read and why?

FM: I would love to participate, especially at the wonderful Bar Tuscher. I’d recommend discussing Sciascia’s books. And perhaps the short stories of Jane Gardam. It’s always stimulating to talk about Virginia Woolf, Primo Levi, Cesare Pavese, Eugenio Montale—my list could go on and on.