Learn about the bestselling writer’s new book, A Place in the World, which explores what home means to her.
as told to Addie Ladner
Unlike your other books, which are more about travel, this one seems rooted in where you live — might the pandemic have had anything to do with that?
During the Covid lockdowns, my husband Ed and I decided to leave what we had thought of as our permanent home. I think those months caused a lot of people to look closely at their lives and goals and home and to reevaluate the future. We can get awfully attuned to routine and the crisis shook up expectations. For me, a born traveler, I felt so trapped. My writing is often tied to travel and that was impossible. We thought our sense of confinement was an individual response but later, of course, we realized we were just part of a national trend and we had contributed to the housing craze that shot up demand and prices all over. I began to think about the question of what’s home and to realize that as much as I have written about travel. I have an equal obsession with the four walls of home. So, yes, I began during that memorable period to write about roots and wings.
Tell us about your home now — what’s it like? How is it different from your home abroad?
Having left the idyllic farm, we are now nicely settled in a house that leaves us free to roam. Two writers need studies and this young house (it’s only fifteen years old) has plenty of space for tons of books, along with excellent light from big windows and a kitchen that works well for two cooks. On the farm, we were happily isolated but now we are enjoying being close to people, sidewalks, shopping. I will always miss the house on the river but this is a good move for us, even if it was on a whim. Our place in Tuscany could not be more unalike. It has 350 years on this place and has been home for thirty years now. It’s perched on a hillside amid olive trees and I always think it looks at home in the landscape.
How many different homes have you lived in?
I’m not sure I can count that high! Fifteen? Oddly, I think of many other places where I felt at home, even if I was there for only a week. There’s a chapter, Momentary Homes, on that subject in my new book—how mysterious it isto find yourself so settled and comfortable in a place you are literally passing through.
What are a few things that have been in all of your homes?
I cart around storage boxes of letters from friends — from back when people wrote real letters — and childhood scrapbooks and photographs. Books, books, books! And the silverware that Southern girls of my generation began collecting in high school.
While traveling, what are some things you come across that remind you of home and comfort you?
Walking the neighborhoods in strange towns, I love the banging pot lids, clink of cutlery, and the aromas of dinner cooking that waft from open windows, that wonderful moment of dinner being served. At night, the lighted windows, music playing, those quick glimpses of how people live in other places. Those are homey images but I love as much the excitement of looking out over the rooftops of Fez, the full moon lifting out of the sea in Santorini, the lights in the canals in Amsterdam. — those sights that are utterly foreign but create a feeling of being at home in the wide world.
We have to ask, since we’re in North Carolina: what about this area called you to make it home?
We decided to leave California, another seeming whim, and I wanted to move back to the South where I grew up. From college in Virginia, I used to come down to UNC for parties. Later, we had good friends in Chapel Hill and had visited many times. Then I started working on a line of Tuscan-style furniture in High Point and was traveling to North Carolina frequently. We were attracted to the progressive atmosphere and the good airport and the town of Hillsborough in particular. There’s a sense of community there that reminded me of my early home. I always felt at home in the South and we just eased right in here. About that “seeming whim,” I’ve learned to pay attention to those “whims.” They come from deep instincts. At the end of my new book, I discover a deeper reason that I was attracted to North Carolina, a hidden family taproot that reaches way down.
If you had to condense your belongings from home into a suitcase — say, three to five items — what would they be?
What a nightmare that would be! I’d grab my old diaries and travel journals, photographs (I should scan them!), my Prada coat, chefs’ knives, a portrait of my grandson, autographed copies of favorite books…
What is your favorite space in your home?
In my house in Tuscany, we early on found a fresco of the local landscape in the dining room. I have an antique oval table that seats ten and we have had so many festive and convivial dinners there. It’s special and full of memories. Here, I love the living room best because it has a wall of windows where the light pours in. Second would be my study, one of those huge rooms over the garage where there’s room for three desks. Who needs three? In the middle of a cookbook, travel book, or novel, it’s a great thing to have room to spread out my papers so I can organize.
On November 9 join WALTER for our event, At Home with Frances Mayes presented by Fink’s Jewelers. Over wine and heavy hors d’oeuvres, guests will hear stories from Mayes’ travel through the United States to Italy, Nicaragua, Mexico, Capri and more! Ticket includes wine, hors d’oeuvres, Q&A with author and book signing. Mayes’ works will be available for purchase separately online with your ticket as well as at the event. Click here to buy tickets and to learn more.
This article originally appeared on October 12, 2022 on waltermagazine.com