A Conversation with Hilary
Q: What was your journey to publication like?
Hilary: Long and twisty! I think that’s quite standard for authors. If I had to identify the reason why, it’s because there’s so much to learn about writing, storytelling, and the business side of things. Then, once you think you’ve learned something, a whole new scenario presents itself. I truly would not be where I am today without the strong, supportive, and knowledgeable writing community of Pennwriters.
Q: What or who was the inspiration for From Ashes the Song?
Hilary: From Ashes the Song was inspired by the real lives of three Italians who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the early 1900s—Pietro, Assunta, and Nandy. Assunta’s daughter, the late Irene Smylnycky, generously shared their stories with me, and gave me her blessing to fictionalize their lives to make a more compelling novel.
It was the perfect story for me to write at that time. When I moved to Pennsylvania in 2002, one of the things that fascinated me the most was the pride people still have in their coal-mining and ethnic heritage. And though I grew up in the UK, I’d lived in Italy for over a decade before moving to the US, so I could draw on my own experiences of settling into a new culture.
Q: Who is your favorite character in the book?
Hilary: Pietro, Assunta, and Nandy all hold a truly special place in my heart, choosing one would be like picking a favorite child, so I’m going to cheat and pick a favorite minor character, Mrs. Conati. In real life, she was of great support to Assunta. She reminds me of my British ex-pat friends in Italy. All far from home, we became a pseudo family, sharing special occasions and being each other’s support system. Mrs. Conati embodies this spirit beautifully, even though she had every reason not to.
Q: Music plays a big role in your novel. Are you a musician or a music lover?
Hilary: Alas, I never learned to play a musical instrument, and while I did once win third place in a singing contest, the fact that it was billed as ‘The Worst Singer’ contest should give you a clear idea of my vocal abilities. I love listening to music, but obviously that’s scant preparation to write about the life of a gifted musician and composer.
I researched by reading and asking a musician friend a thousand questions, but Pietro ultimately saved me. He was a man of fascinating contrasts, growing up in a humble family who worked the earth, later he was a coal miner. Yet his grandfather, Nonno, taught him to write music and play the clarinet so beautifully, the whole room would stop and listen.
So instead of experiencing music as a formally trained musician might, Pietro interacts with the world around him through sound. For example, he writes his first composition in Italy by capturing the sounds of the grape harvest—women plucking grapes nimbly from stems and raining them into the stomping vat, his niece being lifted into the vat, her tiny feet popping the fruit. Later he suffers from the muffled and distorted sounds of the mine.
Q: How do you feel about launching your debut novel during a pandemic?
Hilary: I think we’ll all have stories to tell about this period. I’ll be grateful if, one day, my stories revolve around the launch of From Ashes the Song, and not about the health of my loved ones.
It wasn’t the happiest of days when I realized the inciting incident for the story was a deadly disease, albeit one that impacted grapevines, not people. Caused by a tiny insect called grape phylloxera, it swept across Europe with devasting results. Only a handful of vineyards in the whole of Europe survived, the rest to this day are European cultivars grafted onto American rootstock.
All of my expectations of the launch had to shift. Our initial publication schedule got wiped off the calendar. That enormous release party I’d dreamed about was never going to happen. And there could be no in-person talks about the coal mining days or Italo-American heritage.
But, call me an eternal optimist, I had more time to work on my next book, and to think outside the box to engage with readers in ways I might not have found without the pandemic. And when we come out on the other side of this, those in-person events will still be able to happen.
Q: What are you working on now?
Hilary: In the past few weeks I’ve submitted two short stories that will be published in anthologies in January and March, 2021, so that’s exciting. I’m also in the revision stage of a novel about a British woman who goes looking for her missing fiancé in Italy in 1964. There she connects with two other woman who’ve also lost a man they love. Called The Things We’ll Never Have, it’s all about the truths people tell themselves.