Victoria extends its gratitude to the 2016 Writer in Residence—novelist, essayist, and memoir writer Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and others—for her contribution of vibrant essays to this year’s issues. In this brief interview, she discusses her inspirations, her writing, and her forthcoming book, Women in Sunlight.
Q: What inspires you?
A: Everything! From the veins in a leaf, the stray cats among the ancient columns in Rome, the sweet breeze on my porch wafting the scent of gardenias, to the face of a friend who’s lost his wife, the starry white drift of the Milky Way above my house in Tuscany, the clutch of the newborn’s fingers around my thumb. Everyday life inspires me.
Q: How did you first come to writing?
A: I came to writing from reading. I grew up in a small Southern town, and the library was always a magnet for me. If I could do anything, I thought at age nine, the best thing would be to write a book. Of course, I thought all writers were dead, but when I found out that some were living, I was thrilled. I began by writing poems for family occasions and holidays, proceeded to little red diaries with keys, and blank books where I recorded all the books I read. In college, I took a creative writing course my first semester. I’ve been writing ever since.
Q: What is it that you love most about writing? About being a writer?
A: What luck to be a writer! It’s a portable profession. All you need is a pen and a notebook. Writing doubles living. You have your life, your experiences, then you write about them—recreating for a second time. I love words and etymologies and rhythms of sentences. It’s like the skill of seasoning in cooking. There’s the plain dish, then you bring it to life and memory.
Q: How do you go about planning a novel? Could you describe your process?
A: I’m no expert; I’ve written only two novels. Most of my books are nonfiction, which is so much easier for me. No plot necessary! You write what happens, as well as you can. I started both novels with a general idea, not an outline. I learned as I proceeded, letting myself go down discursive paths if they appeared. Unless you’ve written one, you can have no idea how deeply tracked in your psyche a story is. How to keep all the subterranean working aloft in the narrative is the skill you must learn. I enjoyed writing my second novel so much. By then, I let the characters have free reign. I liked them and was not going to let anything bad happen to them. They’d had their share of sorrow. In my pages, they could soar. Writing is a rich life, the life of the imagination, of possibility. To create something where there was nothing—well, that’s the joyous root of any artist’s life.
Q: What can you tell your many fans about your forthcoming book, Women in Sunlight? (We are so excited to read it!)
A: Thank you! Women in Sunlight is a novel about women getting older and refusing the roles they feel pushed into. Three Southern women take off for Italy and lease a house in a small town. Many adventures ensue! It’s about friendship, recovering the ideals of youth, travel, gardens, art, food, and all good things. I love the three women and the younger narrator who observes them as they discover a new life. I won’t ever choose violence, cruelty, and other page-turning options. It’s much harder to write about happiness.
Read more about Frances Mayes online at www.francesmayesbooks.com.
Interview by Cynthia Reeser Constantino