Peter Mayle

Peter Mayle rises from his lobby armchair at San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel his face bronzed as befits a man who spends lots of time under the provençal sun. He is wearing a black suit with a pink open-necked shirt, black loafers and bright red socks. We find a window seat overlooking San Francisco’s Market Street, order espressos and settle in for a discussion of his life and career.

 

mayle.jpgPater Mayle

Peter Mayle rises from his lobby armchair at San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel his face bronzed as befits a man who spends lots of time under the provençal sun. He is wearing a black suit with a pink open-necked shirt, black loafers and bright red socks. We find a window seat overlooking San Francisco’s Market Street, order espressos and settle in for a discussion of his life and career.

TG: When did you first go France?

PM: When I was 19. I first went to Paris. I was the junior bag-carrying assistant to my boss at Shell Oil. I’d never been there, always stuck in England. It was an eye-opening experience. The French people with whom we were doing business insisted on stopping at 12:30 and going to lunch and as you know it wasn’t just a sandwich lunch it was a lunch that I still remember. The restaurant is still there: it’s called Marius & Jeanette on the avenue George V. And I’d never seen food presented like that. I never had food that tasted like that and I was just astonished. Growing up in England in the pre and post-war days butter was scarce, meat was scarce, eggs were scarce–I didn’t know what a banana was. I was given my first banana when I was six and I didn’t know what to do with it. Olive oil was something you bought in a pharmacy in very small bottles.

Food at school was famously bad and gray. And so my palate had been dormant until that day I went to France, and I thought: ‘This is really wonderful and I’d love to live in a country where people do this all the time.’ It wasn’t to be for many, many years but I never lost that first jolt. Also, I liked the way the French spoke, the way they dressed and their general attitude and I thought Paris was lovely. And so as I got older and got a little bit of money I started to go to France on vacation and the more I went the more I liked it and then one day about thirty years ago I came to Provence. Like a good Englishman I’d been on the coast (cote d’Azur) and there was bad weather and my wife and I decided to drive back into the hills. Quite by chance we happened upon the Lubéron. We came to Gordes, a picture post card village, at sunset and it was absolutely ravishing. It was one of the very few times in my life when reality exceeded expectation. We’ve now been in the Lubéron for fifteen years and the longer I’m there the more I like it. And I think I shall be there until the final trumpet.

TG: When did you decide that you could afford to leave England and make your home in France?

PM: It wasn’t a comfortable financial situation. It was adequate. I was doing some work for GQ magazine and I had a little bit put aside. We sold our house in England. But I had an idea for a novel that I had sold to a publisher in England. I was going to go out to Provence, lock myself away and whack out this novel and financial things would be more comfortable. I got there and was so distracted by what was going on that I didn’t do anything on the novel. My literary agent kept ringing me up and asking to see pages and I eventually sent him some pages on why I couldn’t start the novel. He took them to the publisher and said this actually is a much better idea than the novel and the publisher agreed. ‘If he can do another 250 pages like this we’ve got something’ They gave me a “modest advance”, so modest in fact that it was self-effacing. We had a two-man publication party-me and the publisher and he printed 3, 000 copies and said there’ll be a few left over but I’ll give them to you at a discount so you’ve got them for Christmas gifts. About six weeks later I was back in France and he called and said we sold them all. We’re reprinting another 1,500 copies. Gradually it snowballed and then the paperback came out and sold a million copies in England, which is a lot for England. Around the world the book has sold between 5 and 6 million.

TG: When did Knopf pick up the book?

PM: I happened to know Sonny Mehta (President–Alfred A Knopf) from his days at Pan Books and we sent him ” A Year in Provence.” Another modest advance and a first printing of 15,000 copies and the same thing happened. It’s been a wonderful experience although a fluke. I had no plans at all to write that book. You must put yourself at risk of good luck.

TG: When I talk to writers who live in Paris their day often involves a morning café at a favorite spot, lunch at a bistro coin, an apèro on the terrace of a café–very much an urban rhythm. What is a typical day in Provence for Peter Mayle when he is working?

PM: I enjoy working and my wife says that I’m unbearably itchy if I haven’t got a project going. Normally I get up about 6:30 AM and take the dogs out for an hour. Our house is literally 300 yards from the Lubéron, so I never have to go on a road or have a leash. There are wonderful things to chase–wild boar, rabbits, deer, things like that. So I walk for an hour or so, think about what I’m going to write in the morning, come back have a little breakfast and I’m usually at the desk by a quarter to nine and I work without interruption until one o’clock. Then I stop and the rest of the day is devoted to lunch… and research in the afternoon that may be going to a winery or Arles or working in the garden. Then I look at what I wrote in the morning and wince and it’s time to go out for dinner or have friends in for dinner–it’s a very quiet life. I find it very agreeable.

TG: Being a London guy, an urban guy, don’t you miss the stimulation of a big city?

PM: I have to say that I’m quite a frequent visitor down at the village (Lourmarin) bar. And it’s a nice village with a lot of through traffic–lots of French tourists, German tourists. It’s an extraordinary village with three bars, three hairdressers and eleven restaurants for a village of 1,000 inhabitants. It draws people from a fairly wide radius. I have a very good friend who makes wine five minutes away. As you might imagine we have no shortage of visitors coming to stay and if we want a bit of urban flavor we can go to Aix (en-Provence) about 35 minutes away, Avignon is about 45 minutes away and Marseille is about an hour away. And Paris is only 2 1/2 hours by train.

TG: Do you go to Paris often?

PM: Quite a lot. We love it. We stay at the Hotel Montelambert just off the rue du Bac, one of those old hotel particulières that’s been redone. We’ve been staying there for about seven years now. It’s lovely. You step outside and you’re just where you want to be. There’s the rue Jacob where the antiques are, the rue du Bac that has wonderful fishmongers and butchers. We’d much rather go to Paris than any place else. And we love going to Paris in August-no Parisians. Much as I admire them in many ways they can be so… I love it in August. You’ve got enough restaurants open, enough museums, It has the feeling of a Mediterranean city. It’s very relaxed.

TG: Why do you choose to stay in the 6th (arrondissement)?

PM: I like the Left Bank better than the Right Bank. The Right Bank is very elegant and sophisticated but I like the narrowness of the streets, the little wine bars and restaurants and interesting people. I adore going to those terraces on the boulevard St. Germain and just watching people.

TG: Are you a Magoiste (Deux Magots) or Floriste (Café Flore?)

PM: I’m a Floriste but I can’t tell you why. Probably because it’s the first one we get to out of the hotel. I think that café life is the greatest free show, not quite free, show on earth. All of these people posing. They come in on their motorbikes and their sunglasses when it’s gray-so aware of being Parisian. The scarf has to be tied a certain way! I find it all very funny.

TG: Do you have a favorite bistro?

PM: I like Chez Georges just off the place des Victoires. I like Balzar, Caméléon (under new management) and Au Bon Saint-Pourçain. I also like a little Italian place, Le Cherche-Midi on the rue Cherche-Midi.

TG: When Sonny gives you a big advance where do you take your wife to dinner in Paris?

PM: I love Lucas-Carton. I also like Heléne Darose but on the whole we prefer to go to at the most, 1 star restaurants.

TG: What is your house wine?

PM: It changes with the seasons. In the winter I usually drink Domaine La Soeumade, a Cotes-du Rhone we love. And in the summer I’m a great fan of pink wine and so there’s a particularly nice pink called Domaine St André de la Figiére from the Var. And for a red I drink my friend’s wine: Constantin Chevalier, a Cotes du Lubéron. It comes from vines just three miles from our house.

TG: You’ve talked about August being your favorite time of year in Paris. What is your favorite time of year in the Lubéron?

PM: May, June, September, October and I actually like the winter because it is so quiet, very cold and your eating habits change. You have these black civets de sanglier and what is called in America, hearty wines. And one of my favorite dishes is cassoulet.

TG: How has France affected your work and life?

PM: It’s inspired it. If I didn’t have France I probably wouldn’t be able to do anything. It’s made more observant, more relaxed and I hope that comes across in my writing. It’s made me just a more peaceful guy. I’m certainly not interested in writing anything that doesn’t reflect that quality that I enjoy so much.

I now appreciate much more the smaller things in life. I’m no longer interested in the trappings of wealth. I don’t want a new car. As long as the old Peugeot works, that’s fine. We live a very simple life. We have a lovely house. We probably spend more money on veterinary fees for the dogs than anything else. My wife likes to buy a few clothes now and then but I’ve got a suit and that’s enough because I don’t have to wear it but 4 or 5 times a year. I’ve surprised myself in that I’ve become a devotee of the simple life. One of my great pleasures is going down to the village on a Friday morning, which is a market morning, where we know the fish people, the cheese people, the flower people and we always bump into friends and then going down to the café in the middle of the visit and having a couple of pops before lunch. It’s the nicest possible way to spend a morning.

TG: A very democratic environment.

PM: Oh sure. We sit down and have a drink with a guy who sweeps the streets. It’s one of those things that’s very nice in France. It truly is a democratic country. There’s no self-consciousness about it. You watch a soccer match and it doesn’t matter whether you own a chateau or can barely afford a bicycle.

TG: On page 63 of “A Good Year” you quote Uncle Henry as saying: “Nowhere else in the world can you keep busy doing so little and enjoying it so much.”

PM: That’s right. I know I’m very lucky and at least I appreciate that and I’m unbelievably contented. I know it sounds smug to say that but I’d be lying if I didn’t. It’s a great life and I’m very happy I’m living it.

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