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Welcome to the VERANDA Sip & Read Book Club! Each month, we dive into a new book and offer exclusive conversations with the author, along with a perfectly matched cocktail. This month's pick is Frances Mayes' A Place in the World. In the memoir, May looks back at the adventures she's been and the places she's lived to find the meaning of home. Get caught up on our past book club selections here.
Frances Mayes knows a thing or two about travel. Her first memoir published in 1996, Under the Tuscan Sun, has reach cult status as one of the most recommended books to read before indulging in a journey to Italy. The books that followed focus on Mayes' travels, but there's always an underlying idea of creating a sense of home wherever you are. It wasn't until she was stuck in one place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that she finally began to fully examine the meaning of home.
In A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home, Mayes details the her decision to sell her beloved Hillsborough farm called Chatwood along with sharing stories from her Italian villa, Bramasole. Along the journey, the author defines what makes a house a home in her eyes while imploring the reader to do so for themselves. Here, Frances Mayes delves into the inspiration behind her newest memoir and reveals the favorite decorative detail at her Italian home.
What inspired you to write A Place in the World?
My lifelong obsession with houses equals my penchant for travel. Even while traveling, I am interested in who lives in the new place, how does the place shape their lives, what is inside those lighted windows I pass, what’s in the garden. Who are they and how do they live? Travel is, for me, looking for clues into the culture. What pushed me into writing this book was the surprise decision to leave the North Carolina farmhouse where I expected to live forever. I was devoted to its extensive gardens but while sitting on the front porch one afternoon, rather blasted from weeding, it hit me in a lightning flash that the 300 roses, the meadows, the vegetable garden, the numerous perennial beds all owned me more than I owned them. I had the sudden urge to be free. I started writing about the 1806 house, Chatwood, which I loved, gathered a few essays I had written in the past and found that I was writing this book.
Since you wrote the book during the pandemic, what did this global experience teach you about the meaning of home?
I already knew, but learned again, that home needs to give something to you, not only protection from the wolf at the door, but a place where your creativity and your vision of your best self flourish. You make that happen by making the space express who you are, what you value. My homes are full of books and flowers and good smells from the kitchen and a table waiting to be set, art by friends, colors that welcome me when I open the door, and spaces for objects I’ve toted home from my travels.
What was the hardest part or thing to say goodbye to when selling your North Carolina farm, Chatwood?
The Eno River at the bottom of the meadow. More than any body of water, I love rivers, especially the southern rivers’ tannic colors and looping grapevines to swing on, and the flint arrowheads that emerge on sandbanks when the water is low. Near the river, we had the remnants of a stone springhouse, where cold water bubbled up and cut a creek flowing to the river. My cats loved the water. A copperhead lived there, and we often saw the head peering out of a hole; it became a kind of weird pet. In January, the first wild daffodils popped up. Awesome is an overused word, but this was awesome.
Have any of the lessons you’ve learned from growing up and living in the south informed the way you live and entertain in Italy?
When I first came to Tuscany, I immediately noticed parallels with the South. Hospitality! Pull up a chair for the extra guest, and throw on another handful of pasta. Exchange a recipe with the person buying chard beside you at the Saturday market, or chat with the couple at the next table in a restaurant. Rural Tuscany shares many traits with where I grew up in South Georgia, especially an intense sense of community—a sweet kind of trust that we are all here together. The best lesson: With primo ingredients, cooking becomes simplified. No more two-day preps for a dinner party. I wrote about this extensively in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. More than any one thing, food and the emotions around food carry over from my Georgia background to here in Tuscany. Abundance! More than enough, that is southern. And aren’t great leftovers grand!
For someone who is yearning for change but maybe scared to take the leap, what advice would you give them?
Wait a bit. Then remember the quote by Anaïs Nin: "And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
What’s your go-to cocktail or wine to serve when people are over?
A dry and bouncy prosecco is our standby, but we set out a tray of whites, reds, and some artisan fruit drinks for those abstaining. In Italy, drinks are always served with food. Our favorites in summer are fried zucchini flowers, filled with a little Taleggio cheese, some crackers with citrus pesto, and spicy olives. At home in North Carolina, the same drinks but with cheese straws, guacamole, crudités, and buttery roasted pecans in season.
We have to know: Are you still living in the same house from Under the Tuscan Sun? If so, what’s your favorite decorative detail or piece of art in the home?
We still live in the same house, going on 33 years. Our Bramasole has undergone three separate restorations. Each time, we make new discoveries. Recently, repairing plasterwork in a bedroom, we uncovered a fabulous fresco of elaborate draperies around where a bed must have been. Peachy-pink swags and ribbons that recall the Piero della Francesco painting of the Madonna del Parto. Much was too damaged to save, but half of one wall now recalls someone’s fantasy from two hundred or so years ago. Who was she?
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