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Off the Page: Peter Mayle

With Peter Mayle
Author of A Year in Provence
Thursday, June 10, 2004; 1:00 PM

Peter Mayle's best-selling book, A Year in Provence, was part memoir, part travelogue, part love letter. His new novel, A Good Year, promises to hold much of the same charms: a financier abandons London to run the vineyard in Provence that his uncle once owned, and discovers the joys and intrigues of provincial France.

Summer reading, anyone?

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Mayle was online Thursday, June 10 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about A Good Year (his fifth novel), France and other topics.

Read the transcript.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to Off the Page. Peter Mayle is calling in from Provence to answer our questions. And we'll get right to them.


Washington, D.C.: A Dog's Life is one of my all-time favorite books--the one I pick up when I need cheering up. Is Boy still with us, and if so, will he be writing another book?

Peter Mayle: For those who haven't read the book, Boy is the hero of A Dog's Life, and he essentially wrote it, with a little help on the punctation from me. Alas, he's gone these past few years. He reached a ripe old age, and then, like all good Frenchmen, he had a problem with his liver and left us. But my wife very kindly found me a replacement for him, and it's the same breed and the same devious mentality and the same charm, and she's called Milly. Whether she can write or not remains to be seen.


Carole Burns: You're talking to us from Provence. Can you describe it for us? The time of day, the weather, perhaps the wine you're drinking?

Peter Mayle: How did you guess? Well, it's just passed 7 p.m. The sun is sinking very slowly. It's been a very beautiful day. No clouds, no wind. It's very very hot. And therefore, one has to take some refuge in a glass of cold wine. And the wine that I'm drinking at the moment, as I speak to you, is a rose made by a great friend of mine who lives about three miles away, and the wine is called Constantin Chevalier. And this particular year is the 2003 that I'm drinking at the moment, and it's just delicious. It's very restorative on a hot day. It's very restorative.


Arlington, Va.: Your wit, humor and engaging manner are a delight - in person, as on the page. Any more D.C. engagements?

Peter Mayle: First of all, thank you very much for those kind words. I was in Washington, and at the National Press Club, last week. I don't have any immediate plans to return, although I like Washington very much. It's in the lap of my publisher, and the gods, as to whether I return.


Washington, D.C.: If you could pick another part of the world in which to reinvent yourself -- or your characters -- where would it be?

Peter Mayle: I think probably Italy, because I like the Mediterranean character, I like Mediterranean food, and I've been known to like Mediterranean wine. If I couldn't live in France, I think I would move across the border to southern Italy, where I think probably the people are as interesting as the people are in southern France. I think it would be very similar, of course apart from the language. Anywhere around the Mediterranean basin you're likely to find the same kind of attitude to life, which is take it slowly and enjoy it. Rather than hurry up and miss it, which unfortunately seems to be rather more fashionable in many places these days. So Italy, or maybe even Sicily, which is a fabulous place, and very beautiful too.


Carole Burns: Can you tell us about how you came to write? Did France bring you to writing, or did writing bring you to France?

Peter Mayle: That's an interesting question. I always wanted to write ever since I was 19. I eventually started writing in the advertising business, writing commercials and ads. In the course of time, I began to want to write something that would last a little longer than a commercial or an advertisement. So I started writing children's books, because advertising is quite good training for children's books. The style of writing is very similar--short words, short sentences, nothing complicated.

And then I really wanted to try books that had slightly longer words, and were aimed at adults rather than children. So that was where I was when we decided we wanted to move to France. I think I have to say that France provided me with a huge amount of inspiration, which led to my first grown-up book, which was A YEAR IN PROVENCE. So I think France has been instrumental in my choice of subjects. And I'm very grateful for the luck that led me here rather than Patagonia, because I'm not sure I would have found as rich a vein anywhere else. I'm suited to France. I like the people and the countryside and the way of life. I find it endlessly inspiring as a writer. There's so much to choose from.

We used to come here on vacation a lot. The more we came, the more we liked it. And so we just decided one day that we would like to try living here. And that was about 15 years ago. It's worked out really well. It's one of those rare instances in life where the reality has been better than the expectations.


Washington, D.C.: Which do you feel most comfortable writing -- memoir or fiction? Is it a challenge to keep the two separate, or are they a happy blend?

Peter Mayle: I think they're a happy blend--they're a happy blend for me, at any rate. I like them both for different reasons. A memoir, you're dealing with fact, and your job is to recount that as interestingly as possible. You don't have to invent the story or the characters, you just have to describe. One thing you don't have to do is imagine the story. It's already been told.

With fiction, you have to imagine the story. But you have this wonderful freedom to deal with the characters as you will. You can kill them, you can make them rich. You can base them on people you know and even dislike. You can give them a sticky end at the end of the book. It's that wonderful freedom--there are no rules. It's a wonderful feeling. So I like both forms.

My new book is fiction, and the next one will be non-fiction. And it's been like that for many years now.


Carole Burns: Peter, can you tell us about your new novel?

Peter Mayle: Yes. It's called A GOOD YEAR. It's a novel about wine, women and wine. Part of it is set in Provence, part of it is set in Bourdeaux. It's the story of a young man from England who inherits a house and the vineyard from his uncle. Without realizing it, he is then drawn into a wine swindle. And I will go no further, except to say there are some nice characters, a few bottles drunk and a few meals eaten. And the end--which I think is hard for people to predict. It ends well for most people. And I think next week it's going to No. 13 in the New York Times bestseller list. And so, it is essentially a light read, but I hope it's an interseting light read, and I put a lot of stuff that I learned about wine into it. It was enormous fun to write, and the research was particularly tasty. I had to go to Bourdeaux to taste a few wines there, and I had to taste a few wines here. I was talking to wine growers and shippers and peoploe in the business, just to see what they did. And to see if the swindle I had in mind was possible. And I think it is possible. I don't think it's been done, but I think it is possible.

I have no great literary pretensions. If someone said to me, I had a great time reading your book, that's what I want. That's what I set out to do.


Fairfax, Va.: A Year in Provence inspired my wife and I to visit the area on two occasions. On our first trip we managed to find, but not easily, the Auberge de la Loube. It was all that you had described!;!;!; One of the most memorable meals of our life. Do you ever go back there?

Peter Mayle: Well, yes! He's an old friend of mine, Maurice, the man who runs it. I guess we live about 15 miles away. Aside from the ract that his restaurant is charming, he's a great dog lover. As we are. And he always has several puppies around. Last time I was there he had five, black-and-white fox terrier puppies. And he has a wonderful collection of 18th and 19th century horse-drawn carriages, all in beautiful order and polished. It's always interseting to see those. The food is very simple and very nice, and he's a nice guy. We don't go there every week, but we go there when we're around his neighborhood.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. M: Do hordes of U.S. tourists still besiege you at your home to get you to autograph your books for them?

Peter Mayle: Well, they don't now, because we moved. We moved about 20 miles away, following the example of vice president, we have moved to an undisclosed location. It is still in Provence, it's not very far from where we were, and it's in a well-hidden corner. A slightly more discrete location.

It was every nationality under the sun. Swedish, Germans, Italians... It's a mixed curse, because on the one hand it tends to make life unlivable. On the other hand, it's a great compliment, because they liked your book enough to seek you out. So I can't complain about it too much, and I don't expect any sympathy.


Washington, D.C.: Peter - love the books, have read them all. Please tell me how to correctly pronounce your last name!;

Peter Mayle: Mayle, like Mail. The e is silent.


Washington, D.C.: Sometimes I find your books fun, and sometimes I have to admit I find them annoying. For example, in your new book the character's "money troubles" are solved when his friend loans him 5,000 pounds. Is this what your life is like, or do you see this as fantasy, too?

Peter Mayle: First of all, it was 10,000 pounds. I don't think it's fantasy to expect someone who's your best friend to help you out when he's in a good position, and when you're not. I've been helped out by friends, and I've helped out others. So in one sense, yes that's what my life is like. It's also a convenient literary device. But I don't think it's in any way exaggerated. I don't think anybody would find it unreasonable to find a wealthy young man lending his friend some money.


Carole Burns: I'm afraid Peter had to sign off a little early--something that had to be attended to in the garden before dark. Well. I hope you've all enjoyed this, are inspired to pick up a bottle of wine on the way home, and feel ready for our guest in two weeks: the winner of this year's Orange Prize. Andrea Levy, who was born in Jamaica and now lives in London, was announced as the winner this week for her novel, SMALL ISLAND.

I send out regular emails about upcoming authors appearing on Off the Page. To be included, please send me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com. And feel free to suggest an author for the show.


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