|The Paula Gordon Show|
"Home." It's the place for which we long when we are not there, according to Frances Mayes. For her, that place now is Tuscany, which she introduced to the broader world in memoirs including the perennial favorite, Under the Tuscan Sun. Now Ms. Mayes has written a novel about another home, her childhood one in the American South.
The elements common to both the South and to Tuscany are as intriguing to Frances Mayes as what makes her two homes different. Perhaps what they have most in common is odd characters, but it's the Land itself, more than the culture, that is defining in both places, she believes. South Georgia gave this memoirist and poet additional grist for her newest creative outlet. While she wanted to write a portrait of a place and an homage to the people she knew growing up, she also is intrigued by the idea of "will," by secrets and by timelessness. All three play major roles in Swan, the novel she's been wanting to write since she was a high school girl in Fitzgerald, Georgia.
One of the things that most intrigued Ms. Mayes in writing the novel, she recalls, was her desire to explore what it is about the American South that makes it different. Her answer starts with her conviction of a profound sense of connection, an idea she's always liked. She has experienced this feeling in encounters with Southerners all over the world. Connection to what? To the land and to each other. For starters, she declares, there's nothing in the world like a Southern night.
Perhaps those connections also add power to the secrets she thinks particularly important in the South, a legacy both of a strong story-telling tradition and of the region's troubled racial history. In her experience, that feeling of connection and the ability to maintain balanced priorities get lost when a person leaves a rural life for an urban one.
Ms. Mayes thinks of herself as a restless type, an inclination aided and abetted through long Southern summers with nothing to do but read her way through the town's Carnegie Library. That library saved her life, she says unequivocally, opening a bigger world for her. It also whetted her appetite to catch the first thing smokin' on the runway when she got out of high school, she recalls. But one never quite gets away from the metabolic part of the notion of "home" she acknowledges. The red clay hills of Georgia still quicken her pulse.
Central to all of her writing, she concludes, is change. Decisions that come from deep instinct, not cold reason -- like buying a neglected old house in Tuscany -- are the ones she thinks you never quite regret, even if things don't turn out the way you want.
In the end, whether talking about Tuscany or South Georgia, Frances Mayes is convinced that what is defining about "home" is not the culture but the land from which the culture grows and flowers. Her taste? Places where one can gain a sense of comfort with time. And timelessness
Frances Mayes tells Paula
Gordon and Bill Russell how differently
she approached her memoirs and her novel, remembering what finally prompted
her to write the novel she'd had in mind since high school days. She sets
the stage for addressing "What makes the American South different?"
A sense of "home"
has many aspects, says Ms. Mayes, who expands with examples from her Southern
roots and from Tuscany. The effects of the sun, small towns, and the ripple
effect of an action all intrigue Ms. Mayes, who considers how these things
influenced her in writing Swan. She explains why she set the novel in
1975. A variety of Southern influences are discussed, with Ms. Mayes choosing
the land itself -- over culture -- as the most influential.
The sense of timelessness
in Tuscany is very appealing to Ms. Mayes, who compares her experience
there to when she is in California. Stories from cities and small towns
are compared, with Ms. Mayes recalling her years teaching creative writing
to college students. Comparing stories driven by character and by plot,
she says her underlying motive in her novel was to write a portrait of
a place and an homage to a people. She expands. The question is considered
-- do people pick a place or does a place pick a person?
Very cold places are
compared to very hot ones. Ms. Mayes recalls how Tuscany changed from
an adventure for her to a place for which she now longs. She personalizes
the role of emotions in decision-making. Trusting one's instincts had
a strong role in her childhood culture, Ms. Mayes believes. She's concerned
Americans are becoming too institutionalized and serious about work, to
the exclusion of other life experiences, and appreciates Italy reconnecting
her to good priorities. She associates this with rural experiences, comparing
the rural and urban. She describes her young self as restless, heightened
by reading her way through her hometown library. That library saved her
life, she declares.
Change is a theme in
all of her books, Ms. Mayes says, sharing striking examples from her own
life. She declares herself a big believer in "will" and shows
the role this concept played in her novel. "Secrets" also have
a very large part, she says, noting they also do in the Southern culture.
The combination of secrecy and the South is explored, including mythic
considerations and the compounding factor of race in the Southern experience.
be combined with "preparing the ground," Ms. Mayes believes.
She contrasts what she means by "will" to what was meant when
she was called a "willful" child. She shares the gift she feels
she received, growing up in a small Southern town. She describes the sense
of character she found in Tuscany and in her native South.
Alana Watkins at Broadway Books was extraordinarily helpful in making this program come to pass, in the face of a range of obstacles. We thank her for hanging in there with us!