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Frances Mayes took audience members on descriptive journey

By Staff | Mar 2, 2016

Frances Mayes spoke before a full room at the Sanibel Public Library during the Author Series last Tuesday. MEGHAN MCCOY

Author Frances Mayes entertained a crowd last week as she serenaded them with her colorful, descriptive words taking them on a journey from Georgia to Tuscany.

“I became a writer because of a library. In my hometown there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Fitzgerald, Georgia, except kind of bake in the summer. I started going to the library when I was very little. They had lots of reading programs and you could get stars on your card. When you got 10 stars you got to go to the movies, or get an ice cream cone, all these cool little incentives for reading. I didn’t know you could be a writer. I thought you had to be dead. When I found out that you could be alive and be a writer I thought it seems like the most wonderful thing you could possibly do. I started reading my way around the library,” Mayes said.

She attended the University of Florida and during her last two years of college, she traveled to Sanibel in the 1960s, which Mayes said although is still beautiful has changed.

The author spent time talking about the sense of place and the connection it has with writing during the Tuesday, Feb. 23 Sanibel Public Library Author Series.

“Under Magnolia,” Mayes memoir came out about two years ago, which rose from her moving back to the south after living in California throughout her grown-up life. Although she loved living in California away from her “crazy family” and starting over on a clean slate, she decided it was time to move back to the south.

Library Commissioner Linda Uhler and Toni Warren and author Frances Mayes. MEGHAN MCCOY

“I was absolutely flooded with memories and also reconnected with members of my family and discovered people in the family that I had never known about because of various wars within the family,” Mayes said. “I started writing this memoir. It was so much fun. It was layers and layers. When I finally finished it it seemed like an arbitrary end because memories keep on going.”

Although most of the reviews were really nice, most of them mentioned Mayes “dysfunctional family.”

“I said to Ed, my husband, we weren’t dysfunctional, we are just southern,” she said laughing. “I didn’t think they knew what dysfunctional meant.”

Mayes said she does not know why anyone writes memoirs because it’s a thankless job that leaves family not talking to you.

“You are going to risk some really tough Thanksgiving dinners,” she said before a laughing crowd. “You wonder if it’s really worth it to take that big swan dive into the past. If you don’t get a big broad white wash brush and go over the whole past over your family’s tricker exploits they get very upset and you hear that term dirty laundry applied to your most noble efforts to try and translate life on paper.”

The good reason of writing memoirs stems from someone’s life being precious. Mayes said she wished she had records of her family because there is not a whole lot left.

“It’s important to write your memories because you are keeping a record and you can pass it on. You can kind of think of it as a document,” she said. “You are writing your life. You are writing from your perspective and in that you begin to see a wider context you are wedged into and see yourself in the big picture in a way you didn’t in the past. You begin to understand who these people around you were without you. Who would they have been if you would not have been there. How you struggle to be without them, as much as you struggle to be with them. It’s very powerful.”

Another aspect of memoirs that Mayes enjoys is giving life to a memory. She said her passion for writing stems around images and finding the place where she first caught sight of a specific memory.

“I delighted in writing something to show an intense, private world of individuals in a powerful, hidden away landscape and show that it is important,” Mayes said.

When she moved to Italy she was awakened to the power of place because of the shock of a different culture, which polished the lens on her own culture.

“I stayed long enough in Italy that I felt this power to change me was becoming quite operative,” Mayes said.

The story “Under the Tuscan Sun” began very naturally due to her writing about what was happening being in a new culture. She said the house she purchased in 1990 became more than a home over the years, it became the center of her private universe.

“All this exotic new beauty symbolized a risk that I took because I was at that time wanting to change my life,” Mayes said. “It symbolized also not a life that I had been given, but the life I wanted to make with my own two hands.”

The 200-year old Italian farmhouse, Bramasole, has given Mayes nine books. She said as she restored the house, her writing life had expanded.

“Poetry I had written all of my life and intended to write forever refused to fall into line breaks. Every day in that new place, such a new old place, took over the rhythms in my brain and my lines grew longer into paragraphs and chapters. I didn’t will this, that place made it happen,” Mayes said.

Although the biggest challenge of living in another country is the language, Mayes said it has been such an adventure in mid-life. She shared a few funny stories of the language barriers they have encountered.

A lot of her discovery came from Tuscany food, which was incorporated into a cookbook a few years ago.

“We found the atmosphere around food to be so different,” Mayes said. “There’s a lot of spontaneity around food. Season really means something. It helps you live by seasons and by the sun, instead of by the clock.”

This thought process has moved into her writing because she learned to let her books lead her in directions.

“It’s put the spontaneity in my writing process that I really have enjoyed,” Mayes said.

The final speaker of the Author Series is Lawrence Block, who will make a stop at the Sanibel Public Library Tuesday, April 12. Ticket requests will be accepted online for 24-hours, starting at 9 a.m. Monday, March 14.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.