I caught up with Elin Hilderbrand, bestselling author of over 20 novels including this summer’s beach read, 28 Summers. A mother of three, an avid runner, reader, and traveler, Hilderbrand grew up outside of Philadelphia. She is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has lived on Nantucket for more than twenty years.
(Spoiler Alert: I read 28 Summers in two days, it was that good! The ending made me sob in the middle of a public beach, on Nantucket nonetheless, but it was completely worth it).
Gretchen: For the last couple of decades, you have dominated a category of novels commonly referred to as “beach reads.” What led you to this particular genre?
Elin Hilderbrand: Well, that’s a good question. When I started out [as an author] I went to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which… is a very literary place. When I got there, I was somewhat out of place. My fiction was always a little bit lighter and bouncier than everybody else’s dark, very serious fiction; and it remains that way. I was absolutely miserable at Iowa, but … I realized that I could create my own therapy by writing a book that was set in Nantucket. At the very end of my time there I started writing The Beach Club, which ended up being my very first book. What you have to remember is that in 1998 beach reads … hadn’t taken off yet. I’m not going to say I was the first person to write a beach book, but it was I was at the front of it, and because I had this background in extremely literary fiction I’ve always felt like my beach reads were, a little bit more substantial. I was going to write the best book I possibly could in that genre.
GT: You discuss discipline as one of your superpowers, if you will, as a writer. Can you share a bit more about what that looks like and how it translates to your novels?
EH: Discipline is definitely my defining characteristic. I get up, I exercise for three hours, and I do it every single day. And then when that’s over, I get my notebook and I sit down and I work. I guess it’s just innate or I’ve learned this is how it has to be. I mean, when you’re a novelist… nobody’s checking on me. It would be really, really easy to say I’m taking a day off. I just don’t do it. I just don’t do it because that is how you become mediocre. I will always just strive to be better.
GT: I can only imagine the amount of pressure, especially with the precedent you have set of multiple bestsellers per year!
EH: Yes, it’s been two books a year for 7 years, and now, thankfully, that is coming to an end. So I am scaling back to one book a year starting in 2021. I’m so excited. Oh, my God, it’s going to be so easy.
GT: What makes this discipline worth it? In other words, what is your driving force as an author?
EH: I think it’s pride and self-respect and the fact that…I have however many hundreds of thousands of readers. My fans are so devoted, so, so passionate. I think it’s because I haven’t let them down, and I am not going to let them down. I have four more summer books coming out and then I’m going to retire. The reason I’m retiring is because I know that I can do four of my best books. And then there’s an endpoint where I can say I gave it my all. I went out on top. I take my readers very seriously and the work very seriously, and as I’m coming to the end of my career, I feel it’s a legacy that I leave behind on Nantucket.
GT: I know that you have worked hard to build the community around your readers, especially those who are struggling with health issues. Can you share more about that?
EH: In 2014 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I told my readers, and the reason why I told my readers is because the demographic of breast cancer is exactly the same demographic. It was the best decision I ever made. I had cards and messages…So much support, So many people who said, “We’ve been there. 12 days after my surgery, I flew to Chicago to do back-to-back events, one of which was a brown bag lunch at the Cook County Library. In the front row were two women [who] later told me that between the two of them, they’d had 36 rounds of chemo, 64 rounds of radiation. They told me: “We came here today to show you that you’re going to be fine.”
It was a teachable moment because they obviously had been way sicker than I was, and they showed up at my signing with big smiles on their faces to show This is what we do. You’re going get past this, and then you’re going do this for other women. I have taken that very seriously. Of all the many reasons why people read my books, that is the most humbling. They read them because they’re in a bad spot and they need something to bring them up. And that I have done that is all I need.
GT: You mentioned you have more books on the way. Can you share a bit about what’s next?
EH: Well, I mean, what I can say is, I have five as yet unread books. Trouble in Paradise comes out in October. Next summer’s book is called Golden Girl, again a beach book like no other. It’s about a 51-year-old writer who is killed on page one. She gets killed in a hit-and-run while she’s jogging. She goes up into the beyond…and is given three ‘nudges.’ She can influence the outcomes down below three times. So she gets to watch what’s happening with her best friend and ex-husband and three kids. And they all have secrets, she learns, while she’s watching them discover her secrets. It’s been really, really fun to write because I can blur the lines between fiction and reality.
GT: You have written 25 bestselling novels at this point and achieved great success. What are you most proud of?
EH: I have to say I’m very, very proud that I have found a way to make a living by using my brain. I don’t have a boss other than myself. I enjoy setting that example for my daughter … and my sons as well. It’s important.
GT: One of my favorite parts of my job is being able to speak to authors. I would definitely put myself in the ‘aspiring author’ category, and it’s always amazing to be able to speak to a female author who has enjoyed the kind of success that you’ve had and is so passionate about the craft. So thank you!
EH: Just keep going. Keep going. Keep going. You know Gretchen, It took me 5 books. I wrote 5 books that did not sell. Finally, my 6th novel broke out. So that is my advice for all aspiring writers. Just keep at it.