Don't be surprised if Peter Mayle commandeers a table at Brontë when he visits Joseph-Beth Booksellers this week. Don't be surprised, either, if he appears lost in conversation, enhancing the talk with a glass of Côtes-du-Rhône and, perhaps, a side dish of truffles. He's a bon vivant and an exceptional raconteur. Describing him in French, at least partially, is de rigueur.
In the mid-'80s, Mayle quit the rat race of London advertising and moved to the Provençal village of Menerbes with his wife. His goal: to write educational books for children. His discovery: great weather, fantastic food, and otherworldly wine. His talent: living well.
Since 1990, Mayle has written four novels, and he contributes to publications such as GQ, Financial Times, and Esquire. "I have no complaints, no complaints at all," says the 62-year-old Briton and author of French Lessons: Adventures With Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew, last year's gustatory tour book recently released in paperback. "It would be churlish to complain. It's been a long time coming, God knows, but it was worth the wait. I put my time in cities and offices."
Now, he doesn't even have to dress business-casual. He dresses native -- "no shoes, no socks, just a pair of shorts and a T-shirt," he says. "You couldn't do that on Madison Avenue. Well, you could do it once."
His typical schedule is in marked contrast to when he "used to move from one project to another, without too much space in between," he says. "I quite enjoy writing anyway, and it's a sort of pleasant way to spend the morning. In the afternoon, I go outside. Summer, I go by the pool. Winter, I walk the dogs. There's always a lot of gardening to do."
There's also the strenuous research that yields books like French Lessons and its predecessor, A Year in Provence, his 1990 best-seller. It basically entails "going into the café in the village and listening." He also has to consume the delicious meals he so eloquently chronicles.
French Lessons' chapters deal with such weighty issues as the annual cheese fair in Livarot, a chicken festival in Bourg-en-Bresse (which tracks the birds from squawk to death to dining table), and an auction of black truffles in Richerenches, in which the rare mushrooms sell for $300 each.
Is there food Mayle won't eat? "I once spent 10 days in Japan, where my diet consisted mainly of raw creatures and seaweed," he says. "It was a gastronomically discouraging experience for me and rather put me off any further experiments with non-French cuisine."
Recently, Mayle says, he had "an idea about a wine scam" in Provence. Fiction, however, may fall short of fact: "My inventions are going to be rather innocent in comparison to the real thing," he says. "Because all sorts of stuff goes on in there."
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