In a minute, we'll get to the new book and the new movie deal but first, let's clear up the matter of where exactly Peter Mayle, the best-selling author of "A Year in Provence" and "Toujours Provence," currently resides.
Is it true that the Pied Piper of Provence, the British expatriate whose last five blockbuster books have celebrated the glories of living in the south of France, is now residing in the east of Long Island? That he has abandoned -- after stirring up the desire in millions of us to pick up and move to Provence -- the charming, remote village of Menerbes for the ever-so-chic village of Amagansett in the Hamptons?
Peter Mayle, in Baltimore to plug his new book, thinks before he answers. Sitting in Donna's cafe at the Baltimore Museum of Art, preparing to take a trip upstairs to see his beloved France through the eyes of such painters as Matisse and Cezanne, he places his elegant navy-blue blazer on the back of a chair and takes a sip of double espresso. Then: "Well, yes," he says, finally. "But my wife and I are going back to France next week to see if we can find another house to replace the house we were in for seven years. Which finally is sold. Last December, I think -- to a very nice French couple. He has a job with a bank in Singapore, and they're going to retire there, down in Provence."
Although it was sold only six months ago, the fact is that it has been at least two years since Mayle and his third wife, Jennie, moved out of the 200-year-old stone cottage he lovingly and famously restored. Some published reports say they left the area as early as 1993. Mayle, however, is uncertain of just when they departed Provence.
"Oh, no, I don't think it was '93," Mayle says amiably. "I think it was '95. Or '94. I'm not sure. But we have bought a place in Long Island, and what we're hoping to do is spend four months a year here and the rest of the time in France."
By now, the amazing success story of Peter Mayle is the stuff of legend. It is a tale that gives hope to aspiring writers as well as those who daydream of leaving behind their dreary 9-to-5 jobs for the freedom of a new, unstructured life.
In 1986, at the age of 47, Mayle, a British-born former advertising executive and writer of children's books (he is the father of five grown children), made the decision to permanently exchange the damp chill of England for the glorious sun of Provence. With only enough money to last for six months, he planned to support himself by cranking out magazine articles and, perhaps, a children's book. Most of his time, however, was to be devoted to writing his first novel.
As it turned out, the novel became his third book, replaced instead by "A Year in Provence," the non-fiction chronicle of everyday life in his adopted French village. Published first in England in 1989, the book has been translated into almost 20 languages and became an international best-seller. A successful sequel ("Toujours Provence") followed and so did a British television series based on his life in Provence.
All of which made Monsieur Mayle a very, very wealthy nouveau Provencal. (His Long Island property, which he describes as "quite big," is said to be worth something in the neighborhood of $2 million.) And, less happily, it made him a celebrity whose home was easy to find: Its location, as well as the names of the cafes he frequented and the villagers he saw daily, was described quite clearly in his first two non-fiction books.
Millions of readers fell in love with his descriptions of the area and the whole idea that such a life-change was possible; so much so that many of them planned their vacations around a visit to Provence. And, not so incidentally, to Mayle's house in Provence.
It is, he says, the reason why he and Jennie decided to sell it.
"We had people coming up the drive from Japan, from Australia, from Germany, from Sweden, from England, from America. At the beginning, it was really quite exciting... Then it just increased in volume until we were getting four, five, six visits a day."
The final straw came, he says, when he was sitting down with friends for a Sunday lunch and heard some splashing sounds coming from his pool. "When I went round to see what was going on, it was a couple of Italians with a video camera in the pool. They were taking photographs of each other with our house in the background."
He sighs, a polite sigh that reflects his polite, genial nature. "Well, I just didn't want to deal with these visitations for the rest of my life," says Mayle unapologetically. "And it was just impossible to get away from it."
He should have listened to his wife, he says, who warned him before publication of "A Year in Provence" that it might be a good idea to change names and to leave out the exact location of their house.
"Well, she was quite right," Mayle says now in a wry voice, his blue eyes twinkling behind wire-rimmed glasses. "But my view about it at that time was that it was never going to be that widespread a book. And the other thing is I was anxious for it to ring true."
After the phenomenal success of his first two non-fiction books, Mayle turned to fiction. But fiction that had a familiar ring. His first novel, "Hotel Pastis" (subtitle: "A Novel of Provence") features as its protagonist one Simon Shaw, a British advertising executive who quits the ad biz and moves to, you guessed it, Provence. It became a best-seller.
Novel No. 2 is titled "A Dog's Life" and tells the story of an abandoned dog adopted by an English family in Provence. Its real-life counterpart is an abandoned dog adopted by the Mayles in Provence. It was a best-seller.
Novel No. 3 -- the just-published "Anything Considered" -- tells the story of an expatriate Brit who leaves his career in film production to become a house-sitter in the tiny French village of Saint-Martin. The novel is described by Publishers Weekly as a "wryly humorous thriller heavily larded with local color and gastronomic adventures." Booklist calls it "Entrancing Would have been a perfect vehicle for Cary Grant."
Which, by the say, is precisely what went through Mayle's mind when he was writing the book. "About halfway through I thought, 'This could make a terrific movie.' It's the sort of thing I like to go and see. Which is Cary Grant in 'To Catch a Thief' or 'North by Northwest.' "
As luck would have it, filmmaker Stanley Jaffe had the same idea; he bought the movie rights to "Anything Considered." The screenplay is being written now -- but not by Mayle. "I don't have that skill, that discipline to write a screenplay," he says. "I also don't really want to go back and write the same thing over."
Of course, there are those who would say that he already is writing the same theme over and over: British businessman leaves rat-race behind to move to south of France where the food and wine is to die for. Peter Mayle, his millions of readers will be happy to know, doesn't plan to change his style in future books.
"I won't write the same theme but I'll certainly write the same background," he says. "I love France. There's so much there in terms of landscape and characters." He stops and shrugs -- the perfect Gallic shrug -- then suggests a new theme for his next book. "How about 'A Year in East Hampton?" he asks, laughing.
'95 percent inconvenience'
Still, for all his love of France, he says he would not be comfortable going back to the area of Provence -- specifically to the village of Menerbes -- where he lived for seven years. "I wouldn't want to go back there and be a sort of local landmark," he says. "That would make me very uncomfortable. That's against my nature. It's lovely to have your book well-known but it's not so lovely if you're well-known. By and large, I think celebrity is about 95 percent inconvenience and 5 percent fun."
A number of published accounts suggest that the villagers of Menerbes also would prefer that Mayle did not return to their small part of Provence. Some of the locals are on record as describing his characterizations of them as unflattering and overblown. Mayle laughs, but not unkindly, at some of their accusations: that the dog in the local bar is not as matted as Mayle describes him; that the bar itself is not "an interior decorator's nightmare"; that the cafe's proprietor is not as "gruff" as Mayle writes.
Mayle laughs again. "Yes, the cafe owner is upset because I decribed him as being brusque. Which he is. It's not a terrible thing to say. So he's not a great fan of mine. On the other hand, I heard not long ago that if you look behind the bar there are copies of the book for sale."
So: What advice would he give someone who moves to a small village -- say, in France -- and then decides to write about it, using the actual names and locations of local people and places?
This time Peter Mayle only smiles. "I would say, 'Good luck.' " A pause. "And think twice."
Pub Date: 6/25/96