A Mayle moment in Provence

The man who sparked the 'south of France' obsession keeps an easy pace – strolling in Gucci loafers (no socks) and writing 500 words a day

He has been back in his beloved Provence for seven years now, still writing novels and nonfiction about the region's charms, its cuisine, and its people. But Peter Mayle's a bit more circumspect these days about throwing his personal life open to whoever might drive by or drop in. After his first book here, "A Year in Provence" – the one that made this part of France a household word – the crush of visitors eventually drove him into self-exile for more than four years near Long Island's Hamptons.

Today, Mr. Mayle meets reporters in Café Gaby, a bar-restaurant in the main square of this, his second adopted Provençal village, a place in which a comfortable mas, or farmhouse, lists for more than $3 million with the realtor up the street. Mayle and his wife, Jennie, live nearby, but he'd rather not say just where.

Next door to Café Gaby, in the town's tabac, the works of Mayle in English and in French are prominently displayed, from his famous first book about the region, published in 1989 as he neared 50, to his latest, "Provence A-Z."

Still, as an author whose "Year In Provence" has sold more than 5 million copies, been translated into about 30 languages, and made him something of a celebrity in these parts, Mayle remains gracious with his time and good natured in answering questions he's undoubtedly heard before.

He arrives wearing an untucked denim work shirt and loafers, no socks, even if the shoes, as recent interviewers have noted, are Gucci (I didn't bother to ask). He apologizes for being a few minutes late, even on this morning when rain streaks down from the normally peaceful and blue Provençal sky, even on this day when, Mayle says, the vet is coming to put down Alfie, one of his three dogs, at age 14.

Mayle orders a coffee and greets Gaby's dark-haired proprietor, who, he says, recently brought fresh venison to his house with a recipe for Mayle's wife to prepare it. And he chats with the ease of an old acquaintance as the conversation ranges from why the French eat so well yet stay thin to who his favorite authors are (maritime novelist Patrick O'Brian and essayist E.B. White are two).

What seems clearest is that after nearly two decades of writing about the character and the characters of Provence, Mayle's love for this rich and colorful region is undiminished. He talks of its bright blue winter skies, the wood fires and cold sunshine that set that season apart; the food, from daube to truffles; and the exaggerated nature of Provençal storytellers.

But then, he is one himself.

***

I had stumbled into this interview through serendipity. Reporting about the game of pétanque and its place in the life and lore of Provence, I told a source how delightfully Mayle had captured the game in his last novel, "A Good Year," turned into a movie starring Russell Crowe.

"Would you like to interview him?" my source asked.

Indeed.

I arrived with the requisite questions but also an interest in meeting a writer who allows me to laugh aloud at his portrayal of the region's exaggerated and eccentric characters.

It's hard to understand the anger some still hold in these parts toward Mayle; he's been blamed for drawing tourist throngs here as thick as the clouds of the 20-year locusts in America's heartland.

But it doesn't take looking at the realtor's listings in Lourmarin to see that this region also has prospered, in no small part because of Mayle's writing. (In 2002, Mayle was awarded France's Legion d'Honneur for, he says, "services to Francophonie.")

Today Mayle is happy to talk about matters other than the crowds and controversies that his book stirred up.

May I use a tape recorder, I ask? He says he prefers it. Too many journalists, he explains, are so intent on their meal that they use neither tape recorder nor notepad, producing articles in which neither questions nor answers bear much resemblance to what transpired. And so we're off.

My questions focus on pétanque and Mayle's writing process (I teach journalism). His answers often drift to what seem to be his favorite topics: food, wine, and all things Provençal. Being British by birth and humor, he punctuates his answers with understated and sometimes self-deprecating jabs.

***

On the people of Provence: "They're not a quiet bunch, really. They don't whisper. Very rarely. Only about income tax do they whisper."

On why the markets of Provence serve such fresh food: "The quality is kept up by the consumer in the most direct way possible.... You don't like it when a French housewife gets mad at you. If she gets steam behind her, she is an unstoppable creature."

On his development as a writer: "I made the sort of logical progression from writing advertisements to writing children's books. It was the same sort of discipline – short words, short sentences. Get to the point.... I gradually graduated to longer sentences and words of two syllables or more."

Mayle originally came to Provence, he says, intent on writing a novel. But when that didn't come quickly he placated his publisher by suggesting a book about his life in Ménerbes instead. The initial print run of "A Year in Provence": 3,000 copies.

"You've got to put yourself at some risk in order to be lucky," he says.

He's written 10 books since but when asked how he writes, he insists, "Painfully slowly, actually. By lunchtime it's over."

Three of these – "A Dog's Life," "Anything Considered," and "Chasing Cézanne" – he penned on Long Island. But his heart, and subject matter, remained in France.

"I missed [Provence] very much," he says.

"But it just got ridiculous, the interest promoted by that [first] book. And people think they're the only ones who count. They arrive at your doorstep and say, 'You must get so fed up with all those other people in France.' "

Mayle says he works six days a week, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. when he's writing. On average, he drafts and revises about 500 words a day.

His ideas, he says, often spring from the pages of the local newspaper, La Provence. "So far this area has been remarkably kind to me as an inspiration," he says.

As with "A Good Year," wine and crime will guide Mayle's next novel, he says. In the International Herald Tribune this January, he noticed an article about a $2 million theft of French wine from within a gated California community. Nothing else was taken.

"I love nonviolent crime, beautifully carried out," he says. "And also I love writing about wine because it's an area about which there's so much nonsense talk."

My time with Mayle is running out. Kathy, my wife, asks if he'd mind signing a copy of "Provence A-Z," which he does, with a final aside: "In China they forge your signature on every book."

He pauses for a few photographs, shakes hands, and walks off toward home somewhere near Lourmarin, this time uncharted on tourist office maps.

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