When Elin Hilderbrand was 16, her dad died in a plane crash.
That next summer, she had a job in a factory that made Halloween costumes. As she worked, she grieved: Her father, of course, but also the golden summers she’d spent with him on Cape Cod, those long weeks away from her home in suburban Philadelphia that felt like something out of a storybook. Folding knock-offs of Rambo’s red headband and stapling clown hats onto cardboard forms, she dreamed of somehow escaping back into those dream-like memories.
She didn’t know it then, but what she needed was, well, an Elin Hilderbrand book, a nearly 30-strong oeuvre of almost entirely Nantucket-set novels that reliably open a portal for readers into a world of old-money yacht clubs and cutoff jeans, first loves and old secrets, surfers off sandy coves and sticky floors at dive bars such as Nantucket’s iconic Chicken Box.
It would take several years – and an epiphany in a campus therapist’s office at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop – for Hilderbrand to find her (bestselling, deeply-invested-fanbase-generating) literary calling.
“I was so miserable in Iowa,” says Hilderbrand, who had made her way back to Nantucket after college before moving to the Midwest for graduate school. “The program was so competitive, and my kind of writing wasn’t really appreciated. It was a little lighter, and had more surface energy than other people’s writing. I kept getting crushed in workshops.”
Each week, she’d go to a free counselling session, laden with misery and homesickness. One day, the therapist turned to her and said, “I think it’s clear what you must do.” Hilderbrand thought she was going to tell her to pack it in and go home. Instead, she told her to start writing about Nantucket, because that was obviously where her heart is.
And so she did. In her second year at Iowa, Hilderbrand wrote a novel called The Beach Club, set on the island in the summertime. It just so happened that in her very last workshop, a literary agent who’d grown up on the ritziest street in Nantucket was there, and asked her to send him a finished draft.
“He called me and he was like, ‘I love this. I want to represent you. I’m going to make you lots of money,’ ” says Hilderbrand. “Who doesn’t want to hear that? We ended up selling that book for $5,000, which was not a lot, but it got me published.”
Since her debut was published in 2000, Hilderbrand has published at least one – often more – books a year. Come summertime, she’s an omnipresent name on bestseller lists, her brand of island escapism a brand of its own, extending to “Elin Hilderbrand” tours of Nantucket.
“I’m very, very hesitant to say I created the beach read,” says Hilderbrand, “but there was no tradition of summer reads at that point.”
Here, The Globe chats to Hilderbrand about high-school loves, why she writes and finally hitting No. 1 on the bestseller list after 23 books.
You’re known as “the queen of the beach read.” What’s your relationship to that term? Because there is a context where that term is used pejoratively.
I have chosen over the course of my career to see it as a positive, and this is why: I’ve been doing it for so long that I’ve heard from so many readers who are like, “My father was dying, and I was at the hospital. I had your book, and it took me some place happier.” Or, “I was diagnosed with cancer, sitting in the chemo chair and I read a stack of your books.” People use them as escapes during the worst times of their lives. I’m not sure that Dostoyevsky felt that way, or he got those letters. People who can’t afford to come to Nantucket, or have a beach-vacation period, are able, for 15 bucks on Amazon, to get a piece of Nantucket that they can keep with them.
What’s fascinating about your books is that they’re not really what they seem. When you actually read one, there’s so much depth and insight into human behaviour.
And that’s why they’re very popular, and why people say I’m the queen. I have that literary background which is character-focused, and I get very deep in my characters. There are topics where I’m like, that is too dark – I don’t write about psychopaths, I’m not doing serial killers or incest – but almost everything else is up for grabs. I’m consistently trying to come up with very specific drama, and that’s another hallmark of my novels.
Your books are juicy, substantive stories about vibrant people who are not always 28 years old. Is that representation – the idea that life doesn’t end when you turn 30 – important to you?
When my first novel came out, I had a six-month-old. When I wrote it, I didn’t have any children. Now I’m 54, and I’ve lived through a bunch of stuff. My emotional well is way deeper. In theory, your writing should get better because you know so much more than when you were 30 years old. I tend to write in the demographic in the moment in which I find myself.
Living in the same place where you’ve created this whole fantasy world, does the fictional landscape ever overlay the real one for you?
I can never do it justice. Do I ever sit in a restaurant and think, “Oh, this is where I set this scene?” Every once in a while, but most of the time I’m just enjoying it. I did get to the Chicken Box once this summer, and I was just so in the moment of being there and listening to the very same band that I put in my novel. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m a character in my book!” I always try to be present. I know I only have so much time in this life, and the more time I spend on this island, the happier I’m going to be.
Summer of ‘69 was your first book to debut at No. 1. Was that a milestone you’d been working toward?
It was my 23rd book. It took years and years and years! My first five novels, I was with St. Martin’s Press, and they underpublished me. I’m not placing any blame. They just didn’t really know what they had. The “beach read” was new, and they didn’t capitalize on it. When I went to Little Brown, that’s when my career took off. The publisher at the time said, “We’re going to bring Elin Hilderbrand to the world,” and I thought, “Now there’s some hyperbole.”
But that’s exactly what they did, every year. Barefoot, I think, debuted at No. 18. The next year, it hit in paperback and got to No. 2 in the paperback list for three weeks, and it was on the list for 26 weeks. That was a huge deal. That’s more of the Colleen Hoover-ish thing you see now. Then The Castaways came out, and it debuted at No. 10, I think, and then it was a slow march to the top. In 2017, I’d written The Identicals, and John Grisham had a book out. They told me, “Elin, you’re not going to hit No. 1 because Grisham is selling.” The next year was super hard because it was The Perfect Couple – which is now being made into a Netflix series – and my own publishers were publishing Bill Clinton and James Patterson, and they were like, “That’s going to get to No. 1.” That felt bad because it felt like they were picking favourites. I understand it now, but at the time I was a little chafed.
In 2019, the whole focus was Summer of ‘69. It was the year I turned 50, and it was the book I wrote for my twin brother and my mom. It was super sentimental and important. The book I had to beat was Where the Crawdads Sing, which at that time had been at No. 1 for, like, 40 weeks. I had a big event in Rhode Island with 400 people the night it would be announced, and I told my publicist, “Do not tell me until this event is over.” And when it was, she turned to me and said, “You’re No. 1.” I cried. It was so gratifying, because it felt like it wasn’t a fluke, because I had earned it by that point.