“Turns out Thomas Wolfe was wrong: you can go home again.”
So declared Frances Mayes, who returned to the South in 2007 to live in Hillsborough, N.C., after decades of exile in California and Italy (the latter serving as a beguiling setting for several memoirs, including “Under the Tuscan Sun”).
“It’s changed drastically, in most ways for the better,” Mayes said of the South, counting greater racial and gender equality among them. “But I feel a deep familiarity, too.”
It is the past, not the present, that fuels her new memoir, “Under Magnolia,” which poignantly recounts her upbringing in Georgia.
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Recently Mayes talked about places that played significant roles in her childhood, from her hometown, Fitzgerald, to Georgia’s verdant barrier islands. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Is there any place from your childhood you return to often?
A: That whole string of islands, the Golden Isles of Georgia, is a favorite of mine. They’re spectacular: marshes on one side, wide sandy beaches on the other. As a child I loved Jekyll Island. It was a playground for Northern robber barons, but after World War II it was largely abandoned. So there were all of these beautiful, deserted, shingled mansions, which were oddly enough called cottages. It was a mysterious place for a child to explore. Now a lot of the houses have been restored, and the Jekyll Island Club, which was private, is now a hotel. It’s a very gracious place to stay, with croquet courts, a swimming pool, enormous moss-strewn oak trees.
I absolutely love Little St. Simons Island, which is a private island, and has only one place to stay, the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island. I’d say it’s comfortably rustic, but what makes it so special is that it’s a 7-mile beach with no one on it. To paddle around in the marshes, alone — privacy is the ultimate luxury to me.
Q: You grew up in Fitzgerald. Any reason for a tourist to pass through?
A: I’m not sure if it would hold as much interest to a tourist as it does to me, but it’s nice just to ride around and see how it’s laid out. It was built by soldiers, Northern and Southern, after the War between the States, as a colony dedicated to reunifying the country. Many of the streets in the town center are named for Northern and Southern generals, and the town’s four borders are named after Southern and Northern battleships. Even the cemetery is laid out like the Battle of Gettysburg. It has one bizarre aspect: This particular breed of exotic chicken roams the town freely, which means you can’t sleep beyond 6 a.m. because they’re making so much racket.
Q: What is it about the South that drives your writing?
A: I love the primitive aspect of the landscape: the low-lying areas, the swamps, the secret flowers, the floating islands, the swamp lights. The big alligator with a little alligator on its back — that’s a primitive, almost primordial sight. Coming back to the South, I see now how the landscape is unusually strong. I think that’s why it’s produced so many writers. They feel very attached to the land, the heat, the humidity. The fact that the limestone substrata develops sink holes, that one day a house is standing, the next it’s disappeared. The power of the landscape, that it can do such things. The storytelling is an attempt to make sense of life. Eudora Welty was the first to pin that down: a sense of place. Everybody from the South senses it.
Q: Would a tourist ever be able to sense it?
A: If a tourist got close enough to the land. Go to Okefenokee Swamp. It’s beautiful, black water. Knees of cypress trees, tall and spooky looking. A watery world, neither land nor sea. There are plants that catch mosquitoes, mysterious and ambiguous things. You think you’re looking at a stick, and it suddenly raises its wings. Jump on an island, and the island starts floating.