"MY FATHER always said that our family motto should have been 'packing and unpacking'. I've always loved to travel. I first went to Italy after I left college, and since then, I've returned for many holidays."

Five years ago, Californians Frances Mayes and her husband Ed decided to make a more permanent home in Italy and bought a derelict house in Tuscany. She has written about the experience in her first book, Under the Tuscan Sun, which has sold over half-a-million copies and, for the past six months, been in the top five of the New York Times bestseller list. It is to be published in a further nine countries.

"When the book came out, so many people said that the minute they got to Italy, they felt at home. It's very mysterious, but I feel the same. My US passport finally has a wonderful long-term Italian visa in it. Getting residency there is one of those bureaucratic nightmares. I went to the consulate in San Francisco and filled out millions of forms, but eight months later, the visa still hadn't come - they'd lost the application. So I started all over again, but this time I took my book with me and handed it over with the forms. When I went back the next day, they said: 'A miracle has happened. Your visa is ready'."

Frances teaches poetry and creative writing at San Francisco State University, which allows her a three-month vacation each summer to work on the property. She and Ed also go there just before Christmas each year to harvest olive oil from their trees. "The house had been abandoned for 30 years and it has been a lot of work but we've nearly finished its restoration. The main problem was the land, it was so overgrown. We're still trying to return it to a properly functioning farm."

Last year, Frances did the obligatory promotional expedition through 30 cities in the States. "I hadn't travelled in America for a long time and it was really fun. A lot of authors moan about 'the book tour', but I loved it. I got to go to so many places I wouldn't normally visit."

Is Frances worried that readers will descend on her hideaway a la Peter Mayle, and that they themselves will become a tourist attraction? "We had to put up a 'please do not disturb' sign because one morning, I was in the living-room in my nightgown and suddenly I saw someone peering through the window. They'd read the book and wanted a closer look. It is a natural impulse to want to see. I once went to the South of France to see where the novelist Colette grew up."

The nearby Tuscan town of Cortona, however, is delighted at the prospect of a pilgrimage heading its way. "It has never really been on the tourist route and, so far, the locals have been thrilled that someone has written a book about them."

'Under the Tuscan Sun', published by Bantam, is available in paperback for pounds 6.99.