Writer Elin Hilderbrand discusses her work, her love for the Island, and how she made her dreams come true
There are few places in the country that conjure images of sun, sand and summertime more than the island of Nantucket. And it’s on this charming, timeless playground where novelist Elin Hilderbrand makes her home.
Hilderbrand, 46, is the author of a number of wildly popular romance novels that make for great beach reads. Each of her 15 novels, including Barefoot, Summerland and The Guest Cottage, is set on and around Nantucket, whether at Nantucket Memorial Airport or the swanky Nantucket Beach Club and Hotel. She has been called “the queen of the summer beach read” and earlier this year she released her latest book, The Rumor. In July, the title reached #3 on The New York Times Best Seller list and has remained in the top 15 ever since.
In a recent interview with Cape Cod LIFE magazine, Hilderbrand talked about her work, her love of Nantucket, and how she—having grown up in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, a suburban community to the north of Philadelphia—came to be living and setting all of her novels on Nantucket Island. She also talked about her 2014 diagnosis with breast cancer, and how today, she’s cancer-free.
Raised in Pennsylvania, Hilderbrand traveled extensively before settling on Nantucket. “It was love at first sight,” she says of the island. “I’ve traveled a lot, and I just knew it. When I saw Nantucket from the boat—the church steeples, the houses, the beaches—I thought of the line from John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High”, ‘. . . coming home to a place [I’d] never been before’.”
“I just loved all of it,” she adds. “The downtown, the cobblestones, the fact that there are no chain stores and the shops are independently owned. Year-rounders want to keep it that way. And there’s 50 miles of undeveloped beach.”
As a child, Hilderbrand was fortunate enough to spend carefree summers at the beach on Cape Cod with her family. Her father, Robert, and her stepmother, Judy, rented a large cottage in Brewster when Elin was 10 for their blended family of five children. The cottage had a screened-in porch, an outdoor shower, and a patio in the backyard with a large picnic table and benches. Most days were spent outdoors. For six glorious years, the Hilderbrand clan enjoyed summers full of fun and sunshine.
But these magical seasons came to an abrupt end in 1985. That year, when Elin was 16, her father was killed in a plane crash while returning home from a business trip. “He was an attorney and was doing a bond closing in Troy, Pennsylvania,” Hilderbrand recalls. “It was a two-person plane. It crashed due to the fog and darkness over Chester County Airport.” Both Robert Hilderbrand and the pilot were killed.
“My father was a magical parent,” Hilderbrand says. “None of us ever misbehaved because all we wanted was to please him. His sense of humor, his sense of fun, his all-encompassing love, and his deep emotional reservoir made him a role model for me and my siblings. He is our forever hero.” With her father’s death, Hilderbrand’s summers in the sun were over.
When she was 17, Hilderbrand worked for the summer at a factory in Pennsylvania that manufactured Halloween costumes. “That summer, I vowed that somehow, some way, I would create a life where I spent every summer at the beach,” she says. Hilderbrand also wanted to be able to support this lifestyle, and felt that writing for her profession would be an ideal fit. She went on to graduate from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and then attended the prestigious graduate fiction workshop at the University of Iowa. Following that, she worked for two years as a middle-school English teacher in New York, teaching at public schools in Queens and Westchester County.
Teaching would not be her calling forever, though. “Before I started teaching, I spent the summer on Nantucket,” Hilderbrand says, “and when I left I vowed I would come back as soon as possible.” In the summer of 1994, she made this dream come true. Hilderbrand moved to Nantucket, taking a job as a classified advertisement representative at a local newspaper. Soon she started writing, and her first novel, The Beach Club, was released in 2000 to positive reviews.
Hilderbrand says her stories are simply about people and their relationships, but they have become popular with romance readers who cannot get enough of them. “I don’t write romance on purpose,” she says. “I write about people. The ideas just come to me and usually fall into two categories: thematic, which are centered around a hotel, a bistro, a wedding, et cetera; or situational, such as something I saw on the news or on television; or centered around a relationship.”
The author says her influences include the late American author, Laurie Colwin. “She wrote a book called Family Happiness (1982) that I loved,” Hilderbrand says. “Her main character is a woman named Polly who is the most lovable woman in the world. She had a husband—and a lover. When I read that, I fell in love with all the characters. It influenced me by teaching me that when writing is done correctly, anything is possible. A character can do an awful thing, but you can still love the character. If you really love your characters, people will go with it.”
Hilderbrand has been with the publishing house, Little, Brown and Company since 2007. Prior to each four-book deal she signs with the publisher, she makes sure she has four solid ideas in mind. She writes her stories out in longhand before ever pulling out a computer. And with three active children—Maxwell, 15, Dawson, 13, and Shelby, 9—busy with school, sports and other extracurricular activities, one might wonder where she finds time to write at all. “I have to find the time,” she says. “Knowing that keeps me focused.”
In 2014, Hilderbrand faced a different kind of challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A double mastectomy followed, as did full breast reconstruction. In her recovery, she shared what she was going through with her family, her friends and her readers. “Telling everybody what was happening really helped,” she says. “Everyone was extremely supportive.” Her children even created the social media hashtag “#mamastrong,” when talking to their friends about her condition.
Ironically, in Hilderbrand’s book The Matchmaker (2014), which the author completed prior to her diagnosis, she attempted to put herself in the shoes of her character, Dabney Kimball Beech, who is diagnosed with breast cancer. In preparing for the book, the author spent many months asking herself some vital questions: What would it feel like to find out you had cancer? How would you react? Would you do things differently? Would you do things the same? Since her diagnosis last year, Hilderbrand has completed two books during her recovery. Today, she is cancer-free, feeling healthy and very busy.
In October, the author’s next book, Winter Stroll, is scheduled for release. It is a sequel to Hilderbrand’s bestselling novel, Winter Street (2014), a Christmas-themed story in which, following a tragic year, the Quinn family gathers on Nantucket for a holiday filled with surprises. In Winter Stroll, the Quinns once again return to the island and to their inn on Winter Street, ready to celebrate a great year, when drama unfolds.
This fall, Hilderbrand will tour the country to promote the new book, making appearances at bookstores and other venues in Boston, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Brooklyn. Following that, she has no plans of stopping—writing, working, or living the dreamy beach life she promised herself so many years ago. “As long as I stay focused,” she says, “writing is a great lifestyle.”