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Peter Mayle on Fleeing Rat Race

Writer Peter Mayle was at first reluctant to be interviewed about money. A former British advertising executive, he sold his share of the business to write for a living.

In 1990, his best seller, the nonfiction A Year in Provence, described his experiences living in the South of France, discovering a more pastoral way of life and the local gastronomic delicacies. His June release, Encore Provence, revisits that region.

Here, Mayle talks with Majorie Backman about giving up his slot in corporate rat race to travel and write. He also discloses that his novels do cover financial topics and shares his ideas on what life must have been like when "everybody had horses."

I understand money is not your everyday preoccupation.

Well, the greatest thing about it - about having it - is you can forget about it. But that's probably not a sound financial principle. I've just been terribly lucky in that I've happened to make some money doing something I like, rather than making money to do something I like, which may be a reverse.

Have you learned any important lessons about money from anyone?

When I was very young in London, I had a bank account, which didn't have a great deal in it. I should think at least every three months the bank manager would call me up and threaten to strangle me because I had no money, and I was writing checks.

And he called me in one day, and he said, "I've only got one thing to say to you, young man: If you haven't got it, you can't spend it."

It was one of those sort of fairly obvious, pithy remarks that has stuck with me, and I've always had a horror of debt ever since. It is probably not a very sophisticated thing because most people apparently seem to live on huge amounts of debt because that's a clever financial way to live.

What has changed about the role that money plays in our lives?

People talk about it a lot more. It seems to be much more important. You get the impression that money is regarded as an end to itself, just being rich, which of course it isn't. There are plenty of miserable millionaires all over the place.

The great thing about having money is that you can actually just get on with your life and not have to think about paying the bills or crouch over The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times and look at the stock figures and things like that. That bores me rigid.

You had worked in the advertising world, which is pretty closely allied with the business world, and you left. That's a theme repeated in the novel Anything Considered and Hotel Patis. What is the attraction of leaving the business world?

It's independence. I don't have a boss. Well, I have a boss: the public. If the public doesn't buy my books, I would be out of a job.

But essentially, I can live where I want to live. I can choose what I want to work on. I can choose the hours I work. I can choose hether I want to wear a suit and a tie or a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. I am my own boss.

I was quite happy in advertising. I was making very good money. But I thought, I don't want to work for anybody else. I want to work for myself.

What I wanted to work on happened to be writing, rather than starting a business or anything like that. And I've just been terribly lucky to fall into something that has worked.

Mind you, there were many years when I wondered whether I was going to or not because we had about 10 years of relative ... well, "frugality" probably would be the way to describe it. But it was certainly a great step down from the money and the standard of living that I'd had in advertising.

The very idea of A Year in Provence - picking up and leaving your old life and going to live in a beautiful [place] like Provence - what do you think it says to your readership about their own busy lives, immersed with moneymaking activities? Why do you think it has been so popular?

I think it's got a lot to do with a desire - either conscious or unconscious - to escape. A lot of people actually love going in to work, and working on Wall Street and making a great deal of money.

But I think there are an awful lot of people who do a job because they have to do a job, and what they're really doing is earning money to enjoy with their family or to retire or whatever. They don't do the job for the joy of doing the job.

I think for people like that, it may well have been a book that encouraged them to believe that it was possible just to say, "To hell with it. I'm throwing all my ties and my attaché case away, and I'm going to do something else."

There's a profound body of discontent in the developed nations, in the executive class. And there are people batting their guts to make extra money and to make their bonuses and to make their quotas and their forecasts.

They may drive to work in a slightly bigger car, or they may have a slightly bigger house, but they never have any time to enjoy any of these things. I think the great thing that I found down in Provence was that people had a lot of time.

One thing that occurred to me when I was reading A Year in Provence - do you have a certain nostalgia for an age that is past, sort of the pre-industrial society when more people worked as farmers?

Oh, I think life was much more pleasant, if you happened to be on the pleasant end of it then. I think the pace of life when everybody had horses must have been very agreeable, much less noisy.

There was something very calmig about working with nature because there's nothing much you can do about it. You know, you can't change the seasons. You can't make it a sunny day or a rainy day or whatever.

It teaches you to be fairly philosophical. And I see the people down here in France - they seem to be a very happy lot, really. They're not anxious to get a bigger car or go to the Caribbean or have a second home or to go skiing.

Many of them - the older ones - certainly are content. I think that's a wonderful thing to be able to achieve because it seems to be increasingly rare nowadays.

I noticed that there is this money theme in some of your work. In the novel Anything Considered, a man is between careers. He's approached to do a scam and pose as someone else. The crime involves money - so that someone can avoid taxes.

The lengths that people will go to to get money is something that I find, as a writer, quite interesting. I'm just not particularly interested in the wholehearted acquisition of it.

In other words, somebody once said to me, "If you ever want to make money, work close to where money is passing." You know, work in a bank or work on Wall Street. And as much as it would be fascinating to do that for a couple of weeks, I don't think I could stand it for much longer.

But it is one of the great motivating forces if you're writing a novel. There's love, sex, ambition, religion, greed. Money is one of the top 10 motivations.

I do know something about the motivational force that money can exert on normally quite nice people. Human behavior is interesting to me, as it is to every writer, I think. It's one of those things that naturally crops up because it is such a part of modern life and, indeed, has always been.

What has been your biggest money mistake?

You could say getting out of advertising was a big money mistake because if I'd stayed - I got out when I was 35 - if I'd stayed in until I was 40, I would have made several million dollars, which I didn't.

You think of the times when you said, "Well, I can't afford to buy that apartment or to buy that house because it's just too much." Five years later,you look at it and you think, "Gee, I could have had that." You know, those sort of retrospective bargains.

On the other hand, that's what I wanted to do. I haven't regretted it. And you know, I haven't made any other financial mistakes, because it's only very recently I've had any money to make them with.

Do you have any advice for a young person today about money? What do you tell your kids about money?

What I tell them is there are only two reasons to work hard in life: one is for fun, one is for money. And make sure that you pick one of those two options. But, ideally, work in something that delivers both.

Written by Marjorie Backman, a copy editor for

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