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PETER MAYLE : Bonjour, Provence


Peter Mayle was a successful advertising executive in both his native England and New York City. In 1975, he quit advertising to concentrate on a writing career. Then in 1986, he and his second wife, Jennie, decided to leave the rat race of London behind for the good life in Provence in the South of France.

The couple bought a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the Luberon Valley. But they didn't actually find peace and quiet. Instead, they discovered 96 mph mistrals (winter winds), shady truffle dealings, dead foxes on their doorstep, goat races through town, bizarre town folk, an endless stream of visitors from England and numerous workmen renovating their house.

Mayle turned his experiences into the 1989 bestseller "A Year in Provence." In 1991, he published a sequel, "Toujour Provence."

"A Year in Provence" is now a miniseries, premiering Sunday on cable's Arts & Entertainment Network. John Thaw ("Inspector Morse") and Lindsay Duncan star as the Mayles. The series will air in four parts--one in each quarter of 1993--in conjunction with the four seasons. First up is "Winter."

During a brief, recent visit to Los Angeles, Mayle talked about his life in Provence with Times Staff Writer Susan King.

Are you surprised at the success of "A Year in Provence" and its sequel "Toujour Provence"?

Deeply astonished (laughs).

My wife and I always wanted to live (in Provence). We went on vacation there and eventually we made the plunge and sold up in England and bought up in France. I went over there with sort of honest intentions of writing a novel, because I thought that was what writers ought to do in the South of France--peace, quiet and tranquillity and the great novel would emerge.

There was always noise going on in the house. For a long time we had builders and it was very, very difficult to concentrate on anything else other than the little activities that were going on around me, which I found quite fascinating. My literary agent in London would call from time to time to say, "How is it going?" He was the one actually who said, "It could be that someone might be interested in reading about all of this domestic carnage that is going on. Would you like to write about it?" I said it is easy because I am here and they are just passing in front of me every day. I will write a couple of chapters. He liked them and he took them to a publisher. I think they printed about 3,000 copies. It had terrific word of mouth and he reprinted and reprinted and reprinted it.

Then the (London) Sunday Times picked it up to serialize it. They ran a piece every month for 12 months.

Don't you think one of the reasons the book has been so popular is because you and your wife did what a lot of people only dream of doing?

I think there is an element of escapism in it. So many people say, "I have got a decent job, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life in an office." They have a romantic view of the South of France, which I indeed had too. They think it is all sunshine and bottles of wine. So there is that element of wanting to see what it is really like and if someone can actually do it.

(The book) touched some sort of nerve, which may have been helped by the recession because times were hard in England. They still are. There was no sex, no violence, no gratuitous shopping, and it was one of those things that people felt comfortable with on a wet, cold winter's night in London. It was probably nice to read.

It must be exciting to have the book transformed into a miniseries?

It is rather weird, actually. It is very strange because there were two sets of us. The BBC rented a house which is very, very similar to our house. So Jenny and I were conducting our lives and then 10 miles up the road, (actors) John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan were conducting our lives, but in retrospect. It was an odd experience.

Did you think about adapting the script yourself?

No, I didn't. I love writing books and I think writing for television is so different. What I love about writing books is that I can do it by myself. When the book is finished it is finished, whereas with finishing a script it is just the beginning of the process. I do very much enjoy periods of solitary endeavor where I can do what I want.

I read in several articles printed in London papers that the citizens of Provence were actually upset at the book because tourists have invaded the region. Is this true?

The Sunday Times first did a story (stating) the success of the book was going to mean an invasion of tourists in Provence, and therefore, the author of the book will be guilty of spoiling Provence. I was sitting (in Provence) all the time and still do, and I know it is not true. But other papers picked up on the same story and sent teams of reporters and photographers down. They had believed what they had read in the Sunday Times and had come down determined to find (something) like Disneyland in Provence and busloads of people lined up outside our house.

We had a lot of people. There were people who read the book and came down on vacation. ... It got to the stage where it was very difficult to know if one was going to have the day to one's self or not. But in the end they were very sympathetic people.

"A Year in Provence: Winter" airs Sunday at 5 and 9 p.m. and Saturday at 10 a.m. on A&E.

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