Friday, April 23, 2021

Hilary Hauck Interview - From Ashes to Song

Photo Content from Hilary Hauck 

Hilary Hauck is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in the Mindful Writers Retreat Series anthologies, the Ekphrastic Review, Balloons Lit. Journal, and the Telepoem Booth. She moved to Italy from her native UK as a young adult, where she mastered the language, learned how to cook food she can no longer eat, and won a karate championship. After meeting her husband, Hilary came to the US and drew inspiration from Pennsylvania coal history, which soon became the setting for her debut novel.

Hilary is Chair of the Festival of Books in the Alleghenies, a past president of Pennwriters, and a graduate of RULE XVI.

She lives on a small patch of woods in rural Pennsylvania with her husband, one of their three adult children, a cat with a passion for laundry, and an oversized German Shepherd called Hobbes—of the Calvin variety. Follow her at

Tell us your latest news.
In addition to the launch of my debut historical novel, FROM ASHES TO SONG, I have a short story coming out in a limited edition charity anthology, called LIKE SUNSHINE AFTER RAIN. Other authors include New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, Bram Stoker Award winners, Asimov’s Readers Award winner, and the list goes on, so it’s quite the honor.

Where were you born and where do you call home?
I grew up in the UK and spent my twenties in Italy, but Pennsylvania has been home for almost twenty years.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
The most rewarding experience by far has been the reception and support I’ve received from friends, family, and fellow writers. Even some people I haven’t seen in years have got in touch to congratulate me. It’s so uplifting, especially as writing a novel is such a long and lonely endeavor.

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream or calling to fulfill?
I’ve made up stories for as long as I can remember. When I was little I would narrate them out loud or act them out. We were fortunate to travel a lot growing up and spent many summers in Greece. Every time we’d go out on a boat, I’d be hanging off the back telling stories about the underwater kingdom where the sea fairies lived. It was quite the epic fantasy series.

I sat down to write my first novel in my teens. Writing chapter one was exhilarating. Then I stumbled across a roadblock, namely chapter two. The only direction I could think of for the story was beyond the scope of my knowledge. I decided I didn’t know enough and had to wait until I was ‘old and wise’ before I could write anything of value. Basically, I told myself I wasn’t good enough.

Can you tell us when you started FROM ASHES TO SONG, how that came about?
I started FROM ASHES TO SONG in 2008. When I hit that first roadblock as a teen, I’d decided that forty would be old and wise enough to write a book. In 2008 I turned 38, so at the time I thought I’d given myself ample time. Little did I know how long it would take me to learn to write a book other people would want to read.

This story came about thanks to a chance meeting. I’d been struggling to write a different story when I met a lady called Irene. She started telling me about her parents, Italian immigrants who’d come over in the 1910s in the heyday of the coal mines. Their story gripped me from the start. It took a few weeks for me to ask if I could write their story. She didn’t miss a beat, she said, “I’ve always thought it’d make a great novel!”

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I hope readers think about their own lives, their own dreams, and the limitations that prevent them from achieving their dreams. Some limitations come from without, but many times they come from within. The time period and life as a coal miner might appear to limit Pietro’s musical dreams, but once he finds the courage to fully connect with his gift for music, he is able to compose the most meaningful music of his life.

As authors, we have no control over what readers actually take away from our stories, but I truly hope FROM ASHES TO SONG gives someone somewhere the courage to follow their true path.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing FROM ASHES TO SONG?
I have learned so much! Probably the surprising thing is just how much work it takes to write a novel. It’s so much more than imagining a series of scenes and writing them down. There’s so much craft to learn, such as voice, point of view, character development, pacing, theme, conflict, dialogue, and so on.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I’d introduce Assunta to Victoria from THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. They both struggle with what life has thrown at them, and both have found strength through flowers. They’d probably enjoy discussing the meaning of dahlias, which suits them both entirely, because dahlias signify ‘finding inner strength’.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Life in general is extremely distracting. It takes intention and discipline to sit down every day to write. That said, the biggest single distraction was building a house. It kept me away from writing for over a year. But I love our home, so it’s only the ‘worst’ in terms of delaying my writing.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Spend time in another country, and not as part of an organized tour. There’s so much to learn. If you’ve lived in the same place your entire life, everything gets filtered through the lens of that place and time. Going to a new place, seeing people living, eating, talking, dressing, interacting differently gives you the sense that there’s more than one way to live. It’s a subtle shift in perspective, but a powerful one. It’s so much fun, too!

Best date you've ever had?
I’m not sure if I have an absolute best, but one that stands out as memorable was in London when Darryl and I were still trying to figure out where our relationship was going because we lived on different continents. We had a lovely meal and then saw Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. But what made it memorable was that it wasn’t the date we were supposed to have. The year was 2001, and Darryl had been due to fly to the UK on September 12. We’d had tickets for Les Miserables but because his flight was cancelled, I went with my mum instead. It was surreal, everyone was still shellshocked from the attacks. A deep sense of grief permeated the theater, accentuated, no doubt, by the show. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater when they were readying for battle.

What was the greatest thing you learned at school?
To read and write.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
The most life-changing event in my life was becoming a mum. The responsibility of caring for a tiny human and the feeling of profound love redirected every thought and decision. I also became terribly afraid of flying (I’ve since recovered) and of heights (I’ve only partially recovered).

What are 4 things you never leave home without?
Pen, paper, glasses, credit card.

Where is the best place in the world you’ve been?
I’ve been to so many incredible places, but I’m going with Piazza Ducale in Vigevano, Italy. It was just a short walk from my apartment. It’s stunning to look at, and an amazing place to stroll around, have a gelato, or sit down for an aperitif and good conversation with friends. There’s a constant hum of activity, something about the acoustics of all the voices reverberating off the colonnades, it’s like being in a giant living room, only outside. It’s also one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, ranked as one of the three most impressive piazzas in Italy but mostly unknown to tourists.

First Heartbreak?
I cried myself to sleep for a year. A year and a week later he asked me to get back together, but I was over it by then.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
No contest - true love with a guarantee of a heart break.

  • It took 12 years from the time I began writing to publication, the same number of years I lived in Italy.
  • The story is inspired by real people and true events. The births, deaths, and marriages are all true.
  • Taking inspiration from real people and true events didn’t make it easier to write.
  • The people who inspired the story really did run a speakeasy in their home during Prohibition.
  • The musical notes on the cover of the book were written by the real Pietro, probably in 1926.
  • I traveled to Italy with Pietro’s daughter and granddaughter as part of my research.
  • I got talking to an attendee at a Pennwriters conference in Pittsburgh and she turned out to be the great granddaughter of one of my characters.
  • In the story and in real life, the family liked to pray to St. Therese, who delivers unexpected roses to let people know everything is going to be all right. The day after Assunta’s granddaughter, Anita, died, a single rose blossomed in her yard, even though the rose bushes had long been dormant.
  • In real life, phylloxera, the disease that strikes the vineyards at the start of the story destroyed all but a handful of vines globally. There is still no cure. Today, nearly every vine in the world is grafted onto disease-resistant American rootstock. So it’s true what Nonno says in the book, “The sickness came from America, yet the cure is to graft new plants onto American roots. They gave us the disease, then they sold us a cure. It might sound like a bad business deal, ragazzo, but if you think about the science, it’s quite something.”
  • In the story, the chickens get drunk and pass out. Given up for dead, they’re plucked, only to wake up featherless. This really did happen, but to different people.
Meet the Characters
A gifted musician and a coal miner, Pietro hears life in sound. He has just composed his first music, a piece inspired by the sounds of the grape harvest, when tragedy strikes and whatever courage he’d found to compose the piece deserts him. It seems as though every time he dares to believe in his gift, he gets knocked back by loss. Only once he’s lost everything he’s ever cared about does he dig deep to find the courage to connect with his musical gift.

One of my favorite quotes in Pietro’s POV is, “He rested his thumb on a smudge of prints he’d not noticed before in the bottom right corner of the page, a remnant of miner’s fingers shuffling through the music, checking and crafting melody with the purpose of someone who dared to believe.”

Assunta has a joyful soul and a big heart. Despite Nandy’s antics, she believes she has the power to create a happy life, but life has other ideas in mind. It throws challenge after challenge and eventually she crumbles under its weight. One thing that keeps her going is growing dahlias. I love flowers, so I love this about her. But dahlias weren’t her idea. I like this quote because she’s about to plant dahlias for the first time, and because it’s an important moment between her and Mrs. Conati. 

For a lack of willpower to continue ignoring Mrs. Conati’s instructions rather than for intention, Assunta sank to her knees and began to dig, sticking the trowel in tentatively at first, then attacking it with more conviction, turning a dull and barren patch of dirt into the bed where they’d plant life. The physical effort made her feel alive for the first time since Mary wasn’t.”

Nandy is a bit of a scoundrel. He certainly wouldn’t win any husband of the year awards. As a younger man, he’d proposed to Assunta, but her parents thought she was too young to emigrate to America with him. Instead of waiting until she is older, he marries another woman when he arrives in the US. When she dies, he returns to Italy, but instead of calling for Assunta, he starts dating someone else. When he and Assunta eventually get together, he tells her he’s avoided her because he’s been too embarrassed to confess he’d married another.

He and Pietro have a complicated relationship. I really like this scene in the book, when Pietro is trying to help Nandy, who has had a few too many at the bar. The tension between them has been rising, and even though he still can’t admit it out loud, Nandy’s insecurities are getting the best of him.

Nandy let himself be led for a while, but then he stopped. Pietro tugged, but he could only steady him, not make him move. “Tell you what, musician, good man-fatutin. If anything happens to me—when it happens to me, you should be the one. Just as I decided back then on the ship.”

“Walk. You need to get home before the police throw you in the slammer.”

“No, no, no. Musician man. You’ll do it—” His voice trailed off, so Pietro had no idea what ‘it’ he’d do.

“Just move.” Pietro tugged.

Nandy began to sing. “Shhhhh! The police! I’ll leave you here.” Nandy sang louder and carried on singing the whole tug-and-drag way to his house. Pietro pushed him as far up the porch as he could, then collapsed him in a heap. He rapped three times sharply on the door, then turned, slapping his hands together to wash them of Nandy.

Italy, 1911. Pietro's life on the family vineyard is idyllic. He has at last captured the melody of the grape harvest on his clarinet and can't wait to share his composition with his grandfather, but before he can play, news arrives of a deadly disease sweeping the countryside. They have no choice but to burn the vineyard to stop its spread. The loss is too much for Pietro's grandfather, and by morning Pietro has lost two of the most precious things in his life-his grandfather and the vineyard. All he has left is his music, but a disastrous performance at his grandfather's funeral suggests that music, too, is now beyond his reach.

You can purchase From Ashes to Song at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you HILARY HAUCK for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of From Ashes to Song by Hilary Hauck.


  1. I would love to live where my ancestors lived. There are lots of choices since my genealogy has been discovered. It would be hard to choose, but I think Norway would be on the short list.