Takes a Villa
1990 Frances Mayes,
then a professor at SFSU, sank her savings into a dilapidated 300-year-old
villa in Tuscany. She and her future husband, Ed, enlisted the help of
workers who lived nearby to restore the house to its former glory. Mayes
chronicled their scrubbing, digging, cooking, shopping, planting, and
painting in "Under the Tuscan Sun," a 1996 memoir which enjoyed
an initial 162-week stay on The New York Times bestseller list.
The Hollywood version, which hit theaters in September, takes a few liberties
with the book, but Mayes says the message is the same, that life in Italy
is indeed la dolce vita.
Hours before a phone interview from her home in Cortona,
Italy, three weeks after the release of the Touchstone Pictures movie,
"Under the Tuscan Sun," Mayes (M.A., '75) learned that
her memoir was back at #1 on the Times' nonfiction bestseller list. "When
I found out this morning," she said, "I felt like throwing open
the window and going woo-hoo, woo-hoo!"
Lately, Mayes has had plenty to woo-hoo about. Her first novel, "Swan,"
a story inspired by memories of her hometown of Fitzgerald, Ga., hit bookstores
during the movie shoot. There are two new books in the works, and -- move
over, Martha Stewart -- in the fall Mayes launched her own furniture line
with Drexel Heritage, a collection called "At Home in Tuscany"
that includes reproductions of antiques Mayes has collected across Italy.
"Usually you write a book, there's a buzz, and then things settle
down," Mayes says. "'Under the Tuscan Sun' seems to have legs
and a will of its own. It keeps leading me in different directions."
was a surprising destination for what Mayes herself describes as "a
quiet book." As a creative writing professor at SFSU, she had six
books of poetry published before she wrote "Under the Tuscan Sun."
Not surprisingly, the memoir is rife with metaphor, literary allusion
and internal rhyme. It's a tale of an American exploring the landscape
and language of Italy -- and the food. There are two chapters devoted
entirely to Mayes' recipes for Italian delicacies such as winter pears
in vino nobile. The writing is lovely, but, as movie producers told Mayes
for many years, there's no dramatic storyline.
"Under the Tuscan Sun," the movie, some of these producers insisted,
needed car crashes, mystery and intrigue, perhaps a ghost who could haunt
the villa. "Everyone I talked to had really bad ideas," Mayes
A chance encounter would bring Mayes an idea she considered a very good
one. In 1998 movie producer Tom Sternberg walked into a Pienza, Tuscany,
wine shop where Mayes and her husband were admiring wine glasses. Sternberg
had just finished a day on the set of "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
"We started chatting and told Tom we lived in Tuscany," Mayes
recalls. "He said he'd read a wonderful book about someone who restored
a home there."
Sternberg was excited to learn he was speaking with the author herself.
A short time later, he reread her memoir and asked screenwriter Audrey
Wells ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs," "Guinevere")
to think about a screenplay. "Her view," Sternberg says, "was
that ‘Under the Tuscan Sun' should be a lush, classical romantic
comedy whose point is that if you stop looking for love, love will find
In the opening scene of "Under the Tuscan Sun,"
the movie, a young, newly published San Francisco State student gushes
with gratitude for Mayes' guidance in the classroom.
Like the movie character, SFSU Professor Toni Mirosevich, a real-life
former student, has nothing but praise for Mayes' teaching. "Frances
could look at people's work and be supportive and also use her eagle eye
as a poet to see what's working and what's not working in a piece. She
inspired so many to continue with their art and for me, to continue with
my teaching," she says.
Like Mirosevich, Mayes decided to teach at her alma mater, staying on
after her graduation in 1975. Over the years, as Mayes took on additional
duties as department chair and director of SFSU's Poetry Center, she found
her free time for writing slowly slipping away. "In my working life
in California, it seemed I was always behind," Mayes says. "There
was a sense of cramped time. I got caught up in the American way of being
obsessed with work."
The demanding workload coupled with an end to her first marriage would
lead Mayes to Italy, where she found she "existed comfortably in
time." She and her new beau, Ed Kleinschmidt, a poet and professor
at Santa Clara University, launched a search for a summer home in the
Tuscan countryside. "Because I had ended a long marriage that was
not supposed to end and was establishing a new relationship, this house
quest felt tied to whatever new identity I would manage to forge,"
she would explain later in "Under the Tuscan Sun."
There were many to choose from but Mayes only had eyes for an apricot-colored
house named Bramasole. After going through a dark time, it seemed appropriate
to take up residence in a place whose name means "something that
yearns for the sun."
Restoring a house -- let alone in another country -- was uncharted territory
for Mayes. "I was afraid I might be crazy," she says. "I
knew it was a risk. It was the sense of risk that was appealing. I wanted
to do something I didn't know how to do."
Bramasole's crumbling walls, malfunctioning toilets and resident scorpions
didn't kill the romance. She and Ed were married in 1998. Three years
later, the success of "Under the Tuscan Sun" enabled Mayes to
retire and focus on her writing full-time.
The College of Humanities lost a terrific faculty member, says Stephen
Arkin, chair of the English Department, "but it has been fun to see
where she's gone. Frances is a gifted poet, a marvelous teacher; she's
good at everything she's ever tried."
book to the big screen
With Mayes' approval, Wells signed on as writer and director
of "Under the Tuscan Sun" in June 2001. Mayes invited the screenwriter
to spend a few days at Bramasole so that they could discuss the movie
adaptation. "I trusted her [with my book]," Mayes says, "because
I liked her so much."
When the final draft was accidentally delivered to a grocery store in
Cortona, Ed jumped into his truck
to bring it home. He was so excited, Mayes says, he tried to read the
script while driving back to Bramasole. "We thought it was funny
and witty and smart," she says.
They approved of the script as well as Diane Lane, the actress who would
play Mayes. Fresh off her performance in the steamy "Unfaithful,"
Lane didn't have to cool off entirely to play Mayes. The movie version
of "Under the Tuscan Sun," unlike the book, is light on remodeling
and heavy on romance.
Diane Lane's Mayes goes to Tuscany alone. Ed doesn't enter until the final
scene. In the meantime, the SFSU professor gets involved with a handsome
Italian man -- something the real Frances Mayes confirms did not actually
happen. "No, unfortunately. But I'd love for my relatives back in
Fitzgerald to think I had an affair with a hot Italian guy," she
says with hearty laugh.
Mayes considers the film a classic romantic comedy. "It's one of
those movies where you get the sense that things are going to turn out
alright in the end," she says. (In the movie, Frances doesn't lose
her faith in romance: she survives her divorce as well as the unfortunate
news that her new Italian man, the one who told her "You have beautiful
eyes, Francesca. I wish that I could swim inside them," has been,
well, trying to swim in someone else's eyes.)
Ebert and Roper gave the movie two thumbs up. Some reviewers couldn't
get past the disparities between the book and the movie. "Some critics
liked it. Some didn't," Mayes responds in her typical Southern straight
talk. "If there were no difference in opinion, there would be no
horse races." She says the movie captured the spirit of her book,
that "risks are worth taking -- you can transform your life."
Bramasole sits high on a hill in Cortona, separated from
a main road by a long driveway with a gated entrance. On any given day
it's not unusual to find travelers pausing here to sketch Mayes' home
or take pictures. "It's fun," she says. "Ed and I always
chat with them as we come and go. I'm very lucky to have readers who take
the trouble to come here."
Mayes doesn't feel her privacy has been invaded. "Not bothered by
anyone," she insists. "The people who come are not the bad type
of tourists -- the ones who drop their ice cream wrappers on the ground
and wear short shorts."
Moviegoers clamoring for a peek at the villa will be disappointed. The
house on screen is an imposter. "Bramasole is much more beautiful
than the house in the movie," Professor Mirosevich insists. She's
kept in touch with Mayes over the years and has visited the Tuscan villa
on more than one occasion. "Frances is incredibly welcoming,"
she says. "There's a terrace with linden trees -- you sit underneath
them and eat tomatoes from her garden, have a glass of wine … it's
"Not a heaven I know," she adds with a laugh, excusing herself
to attend to more than a dozen students congregating at her office door.
American in Tuscany
Mayes spends half the year in Cortona, the other half
in Marin. She says she could never make a permanent move to Italy. She'd
miss the bookstores, the California hills and her relatives on both coasts.
It would be difficult to continue with her writing, too.
"As a writer it's pretty dangerous to cut yourself off from your
own country and isolate yourself from your own language," she says.
"Language keeps changing."
The woman who risked a new life in a new country continues to head into
new writing territory. She's
finishing the text for a photography book about cooking and decorating
called "A Tuscan Home," due out in October. "A Home in
the World," a travel book in which Mayes explores what it takes for
foreigners to feel at home in a dozen different countries, will arrive
in bookstores the following fall.
In the closing scene of "Under the Tuscan Sun," the movie, Diane
Lane beams as she assesses her new life in Tuscany. After heartbreak,
she realizes she has a lot to look forward to. She has a beautiful house
and good friends. A new man appears and it looks like this one might turn
out to be the right guy. We're left to think that all is right in the
life of Frances Mayes.
By all observations, the real-life writer is indeed living the sweet life
in Tuscany. "I'm enormously lucky," she says, "I have a
great family and I'm grateful to the public. I could write about Italy
forever -- it's always so new."
What more could Mayes want?
A little more of that Tuscan time that first called her to Bramasole.
With the publicity for the movie and her work with Drexel Heritage, Mayes
once again is finding the moments for her writing few and far between.
"I'd like to get back to that quiet where I can feel connected to
writing -- I'm missing that," she says.
Bramasole continues to ask for more of her attention, too. Mayes and her
husband have just returned to find one side of its cistern has collapsed
in their absence. There's also the second Tuscan home the couple has purchased
-- this one in the mountains -- a short drive from Cortona. Once it's
restored, it will serve as a guesthouse for friends and family.
Mayes says the house was in far worse shape than Bramasole, but she and
Ed have learned one thing from their first go at remodeling: "This
time," she says, "we're having other people do all the work."
information: The Frances File