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Frances Mayes '62 returns to Randolph for Lynchburg Reads Lecture

Best selling author to speak March 28

3/24/2011 8:14:44 AM

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The following story was published in the Lynchburg News & Advance March 24, 2011. It is reprinted with permission.

By Darrell Laurant

Most writers would kill to be Frances Mayes.

For part of the year, the former Randolph-Macon Woman’s College student lives in the lovely small town of Hillsborough, N.C. The rest of the time, she’s wrapped in the even smaller, even lovelier womb of Cortona, Italy.

“We always try to be there for the Tuscan Sun Music Festival in August,” said Mayes, who will be speaking and signing books at Randolph College on Monday (7:30 p.m., Smith Hall Theater) as part of the Lynchburg Reads program. “Then, October is the olive harvest, and we have olive trees.”

Tuscany has become perhaps the trendiest region of Italy over the past 20 years, and Mayes’ 1996 book, “Under the Tuscan Sun” – a New York Times No. 1 bestseller that later became a movie – is part of the reason.

“I think all that has brought more visitors to Cortona,” Mayes said, “and of course, they’re happy with that.”

As is documented in her book, Mayes’ initial visit to Tuscany hooked her, seduced by the ancient rhythms of a place where the Internet is still an afterthought and meals are events rather than inconvenient necessities.

“Life there is not so much geared to the clock,” Mayes said.

She was a poet when she came to Italy for the first time, only to find a strange sort of creative alchemy overtaking her.

“I found myself writing prose all of a sudden,” she said, “and I never wrote poetry again.”

She has since produced several novels, a recent memoir (“Every Day in Tuscany”) and now, a Tuscan cookbook. This genre-bending has come to seem natural with her.

Moreover, she and her husband have undergone a long journey into the Italian language.

“I can speak it fairly well now,” Mayes said, “but I’m not quite ready to write a book in Italian.”

The 2003 movie made from “Under the Tuscan Sun” starred Diane Lane and Sandra Oh, and Mayes was generally satisfied with it.

“There are two different ways of telling a story,” she said, “so some of what went on was dramatized a little bit, but I understood that going in.”

Mayes came to Randolph-Macon in the early 1960s from Fitzgerald, Ga., and describes it as a transformative experience.

“I was amazed at how seriously education was taken there,” she said. “Coming from a small town, I kind of skated through high school, and I was just looking forward to having fun and meeting new friends. It was a revelation.”

Soon, Mayes discovered that she enjoyed the academic side of college just as much as its social aspect. After two years at R-MWC, she transferred to the University of Florida, then got an advanced degree in San Francisco and settled down there to teach.

Until the pull of Italy, which she first experienced in college, became too strong to ignore.

“The funny thing is, I don’t have a drop of Italian blood,” she said. “It just grabbed me.”

Mayes hasn’t been back to Lynchburg in 15 years.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” she said. “Is it spring there yet?”

She’s hoping Monday will be warm. It’s already warm in Cortona.

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations


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