Peter and Jennie Mayle moved from Devon, England, to Provence to renovate their farmhouse in 1987. Mayle intended to work on a fiction book at the same time but found life in France slowed him down. He explained this in a long letter to his publisher who, charmed by the anecdotes of daily goings-on in Provence told him to “do another 250 pages of that.” The rest of course is history. Mayle’s book A year in Provence, published in 1989, won him a legion of fans around the world. It is credited with increasing international tourism in Provence and even for making rosé wine more popular. The beloved author was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2002 for his contribution to French culture. He sadly died in January, 2018.
Now Jennie Mayle is on a mission. She wants to introduce his works to a new generation of fans and armchair travelers. Peter’s books range from the groundbreaking “A Year in Provence” to his Caper series, which chronicles everything from vintage wine theft to unsolvable diamond heists.
Jennie was by his side and was a prominent figure in several of his books, as he single-handedly created the travel-inspired novel writing category. His timeless storytelling, set from Paris to the French Riviera, whisks us away to sun-drenched destinations with blue skies, blue seas, chilled wine, and wonderful food. Corinne Kovalsky finds out more…
How did the two of you meet?
JM: We met in London when Peter was creative director for an ad agency, and I was working for a production company. He stopped by to see my boss and I thought my God, he’s drop dead gorgeous and absolutely charming. We met again a few years later when I was running my own business. He still had the same effect on me. It was our first lunch together and I later found out that my feelings were reciprocated when he confided that he fell in love with me during our meal. I still have a plate from the restaurant that I kept as a memento.
What prompted you to move to Provence?
JM: We kind of ran away from England. We both had failed marriages, so we headed to New York for three years where Peter continued to work in advertising. He gave it up to write full-time and we decided to relocate to the south of France. We had spent time there separately over the years and we appreciated the slower pace. I think it took us about five minutes to adjust upon arrival. We absolutely loved it and never wanted to leave.
Besides the slower pace, what was the region’s appeal?
JM: Neither Peter nor I were painters, but I would have to say that it was the light. You can’t explain it really, but when you go somewhere else, you realize what you are missing. Peter’s favorite thing in life was being in Provence, sitting in the sun under an olive tree with me and our dogs, enjoying a glass of Rosé. We lived in enough places in the world to know that Provence is special.
We know he never expected “A Year in Provence” to be a bestseller, did you?
JM: Certainly not, no. I did suggest that he change the names and disguise the village, but because they were only printing 3,000 copies, he didn’t think it was necessary. And we were almost proven right. It started out very slowly. It was the first of its kind for a long time. Booksellers did not know which section to put it in, so they put it in travel, and it rather languished there. That changed when it was serialized by BBC Radio 4. The Sunday Times also excerpted one chapter each month for a year and those two promotions made the difference. It took off with readers. Since then, it has sold more than six million copies in 40 languages.
As the book’s popularity increased, how were you and Peter impacted?
JM: Fans of the book flocked to Ménerbes where we lived. They walked and cycled along the footpath behind our home and didn’t hesitate to come in for a look. I think they felt they knew Peter. We found people in our pool. Tourists drove up the driveway for autographs. At the height of the book’s fame, tour operators put up billboards in nearby towns saying their tours included a stop at our home. It was quite impossible, but we never resented it. How could we when people just adored Peter and his books.
The Caper series is great fun to read. Peter’s roguish sleuth, Sam Levitt, has a lot in common with your husband. Do you think that was intentional?
JM: I must say that I rather fancied Sam. It didn’t occur to me until sometime later that perhaps he was Peter’s alter ego. They did share much in common, but I don’t know if it was conscious on his part or not. The first book, the “Vintage Caper”, was my favorite. I absolutely loved it and can see it as a film. It was meant to be a standalone, but so many people weighed in and asked him not to kill off Sam, so the series came to life.
What do you miss most about him?
JM: (Chuckles) His sense of humor, and, of course, his affection. He was terribly affectionate. I was happy that I had our two dogs when he died because I don’t know how I would have gotten over those first six months without them. Once I got over the worst part, I felt terribly lucky. I couldn’t go on grieving knowing we’d had nearly 40 years together. Many people don’t find a love like that in their entire lives. I met my prince on the white charger. How many people can say that?
Peter Mayle’s books are available on Amazon, all online book outlets and may be ordered from bookshops.
Corinne Kovalsky is the founder of Solo Women Over 50, a website celebrating 50+ single women who believe compromise is a 4-letter word. She travels alone and well and she is of the opinion that a table for one is the perfect size as long as the sommelier is nearby.