IMAGINE YOU HAVE FOUND PARADISE. Free of smog and cellular phones, it nestles in a valley peopled with colorful natives and laced with gourmet food. And, you have a pool. Now imagine that you’re a writer and that you, naturally enough, write a book about this paradise. The book hits big: You’re famous; reviewers, interviewers, even your casual readers are dropping by. Stop imagining. You are Peter Mayle, former British advertising exec, current best-selling author and a man at the center of a minor literary controversy.
In 1987, when Mayle, 52, and his wife, Jennie, moved from Devon, England, to Ménerbes, an unspoiled French village in Provence, he figured he’d do what he had been doing: crank out a few magazine articles, write the odd children’s book and ruminate over an unwritten novel. Instead, Mayle got caught up in chronicling everyday life in his adopted village, with emphasis on the often-comic process of refurbishing the 18th-century farmhouse the couple had bought.
What emerged was A Year in Provence, a breezy mix of travelogue, culinary guide and character sketches. The book has sold 150,000 copies, spawned a sequel (Toujours Provence, now fifth on the New York Times best-seller list) and a forthcoming BBC television series. All of which has angered some other nouveaux Provençaux. “The books [do] a wonderful job of publicizing [Provence],” says British housewares magnate Sir Terence Conran, who owns a home there. “It has a spirit that Mr. Mayle is about to destroy.” The British press, in need of a summer-weight scandal, has seized upon Mayle, headlining that TOURISTS SPOIL ADMAN’S UTOPIA and writing that his Provence is a “pleasure-ground, outdoor stage and tuck-shop for the English middle classes.”
“I’ve become too popular for the British press,” Mayle rejoins. “But as soon as football season starts in England, they won’t worry about me anymore.” In fact the storm will likely pass even more quickly, because it’s overblown. While tourists often drop in on Mayle, Ménerbes draws about the same number of summer visitors that it did in pre-Mayle days.
Still, a great many of Mayle’s readers would seem to be making the trip vicariously. “There’s a fascination with the idea of giving up normal life,” Mayle says of the books’ success. “Also people are interested in what it’s like living in, rather than just visiting, a foreign country.”
Mayle experienced such expatriate life early on. Born in Surrey as the youngest of three children, Mayle and his family moved to Barbados, where his father, a Foreign Office employee, was stationed. Finishing school at 16, Peter returned to England and at 18 was hired as a trainee in Shell Oil’s London office, where he discovered he was more interested in advertising than fossil fuels. At 22, he moved to New York City as a protégé of Madison Avenue legend David Ogilvy, and by 35—after a career that had him shuttling between New York and London—he was a creative director with BBDO. Still, he felt the itch of artistic discontent. “I wanted to be independent,” he says. In 1975, after creating 48 soap commercials, then watching 47 get shot down (“Soul destroying,” he says), he chucked advertising for a writing career.
Resettled in England, Mayle and Jennie, 49, a former television producer, began vacationing in southern France. (Jennie is Mayle’s third wife; both his former wives, as well as his five children, ages 17 to 30, live in the U.S.) “We developed a passion for Provence,” says Mayle. In 1986 the couple discovered the now famous house and soon made final their flight from England.
with their renovation travails properly documented, Mayle has turned to his much-pondered novel, set, of course, in Provence. “I feel very lucky to be doing what I want to do in the place where I want to do it,” he says. “That’s as much as one can decently hope for in life.”
Unless, of course, it’s for a halt to tourists who “just happened by” chez Mayle. That too might have been avoided had Mayle heeded Jennie’s prescient warning. “I did say at the cud if would be a good idea to change names and not describe the location of the house,” she recalls. “Peter joked and said that if it were such a big success, we could always move. But I don’t want to move!”
CATHY NOLAN in Provence