Habits at Home and Abroad: In Conversation with Francesca Giacco, Author of Six Days in Rome
Ordinary Story is a monthly series by Rachel Schwartzmann that features musings and conversations on one of our favorite ordinary habits: reading. In the fifteenth installment of this series, Rachel speaks with Francesca Giacco, author of Six Days in Rome, about art, attention, and traveling alone.
Francesca Giacco's debut novel, Six Days in Rome, chronicles a woman at a crossroads. The book follows an artist named Emilia, whose arrival in Rome ultimately leads her on a journey far beyond the confines of the city. As she navigates heartbreak (new and old), readers join Emilia during ordinary moments that often serve as a backdrop to private ruminations about art, family, memory, love, and identity. This is particularly resonant in Emilia's encounters with John, an American expat she meets one day near Trastevere.
While Emilia's inner life is rich, Giacco's vibrant descriptions of Rome add color and texture to her daily experiences. In this way, Six Days in Rome is a masterclass in the art of attention. As Emilia aptly muses: "Is this how these six days are going to unfold? Circling strangers, overhearing hints of their lives, imagining what the rest might resemble? Wanting to know them? Not being able to?"
Giacco herself is an advocate for appreciating the details. I spoke with the writer about art, paying attention, and traveling alone.
— Rachel Schwartzmann
What ordinary habits are prominent in your life?
Habits are interesting in my life [and] thinking about them in this way because I'm not a full-time writer. I have a day job that is a pretty demanding one. I've found a good balance, but having a series of habits or a practice is really important to me and has been as I've made writing a significant part of my life. So I can be pretty militant about how I write and what that process looks like, especially working on a long project, like a novel—I'm working on a new one now.
Militant is maybe the wrong word, but it feels apt. I'm very strict about writing a thousand words daily when I'm in the thick of a project like this. And starting something new—especially after I haven't written in a while—I kind of liken it to being in physical shape or being out of physical shape. Trying to get back into it can be kind of painful and demoralizing. [Laughs] Writing again, after not writing for a while, you sort of have to train your mind to get back into that head space. I'm very much in the thick of that now. And I'm not a morning person—I wish I were one of these people who could get up at 5:00 AM and write for two hours before I go to work, but that is not my life. So it's making time and prioritizing. That is where I am now as far as my writing practice.
I'd say the other big habit that I have is—again, I don't want to make myself sound more serious than I actually am—I try to run or be physically active three or four days a week. I live near Central Park on the Upper East Side, very close to the reservoir. I think this increased during COVID because there was so little to do, but I started running the reservoir almost daily. It's a mile and a half, not a significant distance. But I found that doing that—and at different times of the year—really gave me a sense of foundation and permanence when so much was crazy and unknown.
It sounds silly, but if you spend so much time observing the same place—you see it as the seasons change, you see the same people and dogs—you get a real sense of neighborhood and place. I found it very stabilizing in the height of when things were so surreal and even now. It's more of a mental health thing for me at this point. Sometimes it's tough to get out there, but I never regret having done it, and I would say that it really supports me creatively and just as a human being.
Attention was a big through-line for me when reading Six Days in Rome and particularly Emilia's habit of paying attention to art, life, and relationships. Early in the book, she muses that she's "always drawn to details like this, though it's hard to know if this attention is natural or if I've been taught to notice." As you were developing Emilia's character, what was the first thing you noticed about her?
A lot of things. Obviously, art is a big part of this book. Most characters are artists or creative people in one form or another, and people approach art and the artistic life in different ways. In the beginning, Emilia is a blank slate of a character, which I wanted her to be. Because exploring this experience of traveling alone, which is something I've done a lot in my life, I thought it would be interesting to frame a narrative that way—that if you're a woman traveling alone, you are sort of a blank slate to the people you meet. That's why particularly early in the novel, there are so many encounters that Emilia has with strangers. We're really able to observe her both from an interior and exterior perspective and see how she handles those interactions and how they change how she feels about herself. This trip is sort of a catalyst for her. She's dealing with a lot; she's kind of at a precipice.
But as far as what I first noticed about her, I think it might have been that blank slate element. She's someone who's very concerned with how she comes across. She's an overthinker like I am. So by putting her in this scenario, I wanted the reader to draw their own conclusions, but I thought it was an interesting dynamic to meet and figure out a character. The idea was always to see if I could replicate this experience that I've had so much when I'm traveling alone is—of course, in the present tense, I'm walking through a city—it really forces you to walk through your memories and where you are in your life at that particular moment. Because—speaking of paying attention—there's no one else there to distract you. Your time is your own. You can spend it as you like, and make your own choices.
The novel deals with many relationships of all types, romantic and familial, but I loved how you tackle what it means to be alone. There are elements of loneliness in the characters, but I think I was more drawn to the idea of showing how we can move through the world solo. What did writing the novel teach you about independence? What have you learned about traveling and writing alone?
I think there's a big difference between loneliness and being alone, and that can shift in a moment. In writing this book—and I don't want to disparage these books because they are great stories—I was thinking a lot about, Eat, Pray, Love, and Under the Tuscan Sun and these narratives where an American woman goes to Italy, she's dealing with heartbreak, and all of her problems are eventually solved because she has this transformative experience and usually meets a man. Then I realize that, in black and white, that happens in my book, too. [Laughs]
But one of the things I was trying to explore is travel and traveling alone. It can be transformative and transportive, but I think one of the things that isn't spoken about so much is it can be painful. It can force us to look at things and pay attention to things we might not. If we were with another person or a group, we might be distracted from these things. But being forced to look at them, and in the case of Italy or a country where you don't speak the language, and you're a little uncomfortable, it forces you to get to a new place. And I think that that can be really useful when thinking about independence.
There is a moment later in the book when John and Emilia aren't together anymore, and she's sort of thrust back out into Rome without the benefit of someone who speaks the language, which he does. And that was a really important moment for me because she realizes that she has to fend for herself again—but she can and will. Obviously, the people we meet and the connections we make are important and necessary, but she's able to stand on her own two feet, which I think [when] writing the trajectory of her story, I wanted to explore that. I didn't want to make it seem like her problems were being solved because it's never that easy.
The way you documented her relationship with art was complicated but so beautiful. There was one passage where you wrote: "I wish I knew how to draw potential, to confine and then let loose what that urgency looks like. That quiver we hold in our limbs, our chests, the arches of our feet, the part of us always ready to spring into action. Every time I try, it's never quite right, closer to impatience or nerves or need." I think that's so true for how so many of us are trying to make sense of or capture the world today. Did writing about Emilia's artistic practice clarify any uncertainties about your own, or were you able to achieve or explore anything through her art that hasn't come so easily to you in your writing?
It was interesting to include Instagram and social media the way that I do when it comes to Emilia. One of the things I wanted to explore is that there are so many different ways to be an artist, whether that's a visual artist, a writer, or whatever. Emilia has a very particular idea of what it is to be a successful artist. A lot of that relates to her parents and her father specifically, and she's unusual in that she comes from a family where being an artist—a successful artist—is a totally viable career path. She's seen that her whole life.
I think it ties into the fact (and I've learned this throughout my journey thus far) that the things we wish for ourselves and the way that we see our lives unfolding, even if we, on paper, get some of the things that we want—we publish a novel, we sell enough art to support ourselves—it very rarely looks like what we hoped or dreamed it would look like. And that is the case for Emilia. She, by any measure, is a successful artist, but she has a lot of trouble reconciling how she's arrived there. The kinds of paintings and the type of work she does and loves the most and feels the most connected to is not what resonates. So she's forced to deal with the fact that she's found success, but not in the way she envisioned and not in the way that certain people—like her father—might deem invaluable.
I think that speaks to independence, too, because at a certain point, you have to accept certain realities, stop trying to please certain people, and come to terms with what matters to you and what you're going to prioritize. I thought it was interesting setting that against the backdrop of a place like Rome, where obviously there's so much art everywhere—in so many different connotations—and scenes and people, especially when you think about religion that has been depicted in different ways by different artists for literally over a thousand years. So I think it speaks to what it is to be an artist and the continuing dialogue that I imagine goes on for an artist's entire life on what success looks like and what they're satisfied with.
With social media in mind, do you have any advice for those looking to cultivate a habit of noticing or paying attention, whether it pertains to their art practice or those around them? Everything's served to us so seamlessly now, so it's almost like a lost art to be able to really look.
It's an interesting time to consider that because, with the book, I'm forced to be on Instagram so much more than I otherwise would. But in very practical terms, something that I've started doing—when I'm reading or writing, or when I go to a museum, or when I really want to focus on something—is I will put my phone on mute in another room, I'll set a timer for an hour and a half or two hours, and I won't look at my phone until that time is up.
I know it sounds so prescriptive and simple. It's kind of scary because, like twenty minutes in, you're shaking for your phone, but the timer hasn't gone off yet! So I've found it to be very helpful ... because whether it's reading, writing, looking at, or watching something, I've noticed a huge difference in how I pay attention and engage with it when I have my phone versus when I don't.
Do you do that when you're traveling, too?
I try. I try to put it on airplane mode or something. Picking a period of time really helps me know I don't have the option... I know I made myself sound like an addict, but I think we all are to a certain degree now, to be honest.
I'll try it. I say that with three screens in front of me. [Laughs] But I have a lot of books around me, too. I think that counts for something.
Oh, it definitely does.
On the subject of traveling, what are some ordinary habits people should adopt if they actually spend six days in Rome?
This certainly goes for Rome—it goes for many places, and it's not a particularly original idea—but try to live like a local as much as possible, especially in Italy. I guess I'm biased, but trying to walk everywhere as much as possible, staying out of some of the main areas and—this is such a cliché—doing as the Romans do. Find your coffee place, where you want to go to have lunch. It all comes back to paying attention.
Obviously, the tourist mainstays are what they are, but I think to understand a city or a place in your own way, the more you can get off the beaten path, the better. The times I've stayed in Rome, I've stayed in neighborhoods in the center, but I've tried to stay a little bit more on the outskirts of where all the action and activity is because Italy is really a place of ritual and people do a lot of the same things every day. People love their traditions... Walking around the city, especially off the main drag, you can tell what times of day are quieter and busier.
Try to observe as much as possible—I think that's another big thing I can say about traveling alone. It forces you to pay attention to the city's habits. It forces you to look around and see what other people are doing as opposed to what your itinerary is telling you to do or what the plan might be. Of course, it's a luxury to have enough time to do that, but I think that that's a really lovely way to get a sense of where you are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.