I’m back in Italy, in the salon of the American Academy in Rome, talking with Francesca Marciano about Animal Spirit, her new story collection coming from Pantheon in June. These new stories deal with relationships: between men and women, between friends, between humans and the natural world. Marciano’s characters are at various turning points in their lives—the end of adulterous affair, the beginning of romance, the mental breakdown of a long-ago lover—and each epiphany is sparked by an encounter with an animal: a vicious seagull, a small dog on a country road, an albino Burmese python, starlings circling in the sky.
“There is something animalistic, primitive about feelings, about relationships,” Marciano says. “What is our rage? It’s animalistic. I started thinking about stories and animals kept coming up, wild animals. And when I thought about a theme for the collection, halfway through I saw it was animal spirit. Unruly with its own catalogue. There is this intelligence all around us, and we hardly see it.”
Time to note life’s circles: Marciano lived for years in Kenya, the setting for her first novel, 1998’s Rules of the Wild, which marked the beginning of her relationship with Robin Desser, who is now Random House’s editor-in-chief. “I remember sending final edits via DHL, while Francesca was camping by a remote river, and worrying if she would ever get them,” Desser tells me.
Marciano has published three novels, but her heart these days seems taken with stories. She and I first met in 2014, over her previous book, her debut story collection, The Other Language. “I love short stories,” she says. “I’m happy to wave that flag. Writing short stories is incredible gymnastics for the brain. A short story is a special form—compressed, decisive. I love the story’s need for detail.”
Nicole Aragi of Aragi Inc., Marciano’s new U.S. agent, couldn’t agree more. “I’m the queen of collections,” Aragi tells me. “There was one year when all I had were collections! I find short stories to be complete experiences. You can pack a lot into 20 pages, and Francesca is a master. She covers wide geographic and emotional territory”.
Marciano says that with Animal Spirit she’s back to life’s priorities. “These stories are mature,” she says. “Love is no longer the fuel that is driving me to write. Alternatives are what interest me. Girl meets boy doesn’t satisfy me enough. I want to investigate what brings me to the brink. It’s time to look up at the sky rather than down at the ground. Looking wider informed the book, though unconsciously. I saw the design when the collection was finished. I am in a different place in my life, more melancholic but also hopeful. The stories have painful episodes of madness, infidelity, aggression, but I am an optimist. Change is good, and it’s important to see the good side of things.”
Marciano relates this idea to the state of her city—“People criticize Rome: they see the potholes in the street; I see the beauty, the ruins”—and the state of the world. “Shit happens,” she says. “It has to happen. The world is threatened by so many things, but hope is something I’ve been thinking about.”
A true Italian and a true Roman, Marciano is also a nomad. Besides the decade in Kenya, she lived a decade in New York City, arriving when she was 21 in the 1970s; she writes in English and speaks perfectly. After Kenya, she traveled to New Mexico, and she has spent time in India as well. She recently had a residency in Chennai, where she finished up this collection.
Desser calls Animal Spirit “fully, richly voiced,” noting that “Francesca conjures worlds: Rome, a Greek island, the New Mexican desert.” She recalls learning two years ago that Marciano was getting images, characters, and ideas down on the page: “Nothing could have excited me more than to hear that. From those early sketches came the six stunning stories in Animal Spirit.”
Aragi, meanwhile, had taken on Marciano as a client in May 2017. Marciano reached out with some stories, but Aragi had read all of the previous work. They connected via Skype. “I remember wandering around with my laptop, nattering,” Aragi says. She had the manuscript for Animal Spirit in September 2017. They met that December in New York.
Desser bought U.S. rights at Pantheon in May 2019. Publicity and marketing plans include digital advertising, book club outreach, and a six-city tour covering New York City; Portland, Maine; San Francisco; Santa Fe and Taos, N.Mex.; and D.C.
The human couplings in Animal Spirit are fraught and consuming, but the animals set the stage. They are exotic, and erotic. Think about dancing with a seven-foot python wrapped around your body. And don’t forget the skimpy costume.