How Elin Hilderbrand turned her love of Nantucket into a literary empire.
Nantucket has more than its fair share of famous writers. From David Halberstam to Russell Baker to Nathaniel Philbrick, there has never been a shortage of literary genius on the island. And yet few island authors have earned a fan base quite like Elin Hilderbrand. The New York Times bestseller has built a cottage industry producing page-turning novels set on the island. Penning each book by longhand on legal pads, Hilderbrand publishes two books every year, a bewildering pace for even the most prolific author. Despite her success, Hilderbrand says she still has much more to conquer and stories to tell.
HILDERBRAND: My first summer on Nantucket was in 1993. I was writing my first “novel” that never saw the light of day. At that time, I was living in Manhattan and that’s where the novel was set — because in the nineties, all the big literary books were set in Manhattan. It was the era of Jay McInerney. My novel was called Girl Stuff and it was horrible. Thankfully, it’s gone forever. I could never have guessed at that time how important Nantucket would become to me and how it would come to define and inspire my writing career.
N MAGAZINE: Your breakthrough appeared to happen relatively quickly with The Beach Club?
HILDERBRAND: The Beach Club was my first published novel, but my breakout novel was my sixth book, Barefoot, which was published in 2007. My first five novels, published by St. Martin’s, were solidly mid-list, selling in the four figures. Back then, I had to pay for my own travel when I had an event where only a handful of people would show up. It was demoralizing. When my contract ended, my agent, Michael Carlisle—who grew up summering in his family’s home at 75 Main Street—insisted that we shop Barefoot around. I ended up at Little, Brown, and my life completely changed. They are responsible for my “Hilder-branding.” I remember in my first months at Little, Brown, the publisher, Michael Pietsch, said, “We are going to bring Elin Hilderbrand to the world.” I thought that was hyperbole. But they made it their mission to get me to the top and last summer, my novel Summer of ’69 debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
N MAGAZINE: You’ve attained a level of literary success that most writers don’t even dream about. What’s at the heart of your books that appeals to so many?
HILDERBRAND: Two things: One is the portrayal of the uniquely American summertime that we have here on Nantucket. Two is flawed characters with humanity. They do terrible things but we love them anyway.
N MAGAZINE: Would your novels be as successful without being set on Nantucket?
HILDERBRAND: Nantucket brings the long beach days, the outdoor showers, the farm truck selling tomatoes and bouquets of flowers on cobblestoned Main Street. It’s a summertime fantasy that most people can only dream of (or read about). Would my novels be successful without Nantucket? No.
N MAGAZINE: Do you base some of your characters off of people on the island? And if so, have you ever had a bad reaction from someone who recognized themselves in one of your books?
HILDERBRAND: Never, ever. Fiction is crafted to make narrative sense, and for this reason, real life and real people don’t fit. The notable exception is when I wrote my novel The Rumor. I was so sick of the rumor mill on Nantucket that I set out to write about it and include every single person who gossips on this island in the book. I did—but I had to change the “real people” so much to fit into the story that the only person who knows who they actually are…is me. And nobody has ever approached me to say they were upset about how they were portrayed
in my book.
N MAGAZINE: What’s a misconception some people have about you or about your work?
HILDERBRAND: Because my books have been characterized as “beach reads,” people think they’re “fluff” or even “trashy.” This used to bother me, but in recent years, the word people have chosen to use to describe my work is “escapist.” And that’s a word I embrace. The reader escapes to Nantucket, escapes into the lives (and troubles) of my characters. And who among us doesn’t need an escape these days. My readers are 93 percent female. My guess is that most men find them too “girly” or “feminine.” But I promise, if you like good fiction, no matter what
your gender, you will get sucked into one of my books.
HILDERBRAND: Back in 2014, the owners of the Nantucket Hotel & Resort, Mark and Gwenn Snider, approached me to see if I would be willing to do an Elin Hilderbrand fan weekend. I said, “Okay, but no one will come.” We sold out in four days. I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer that year, and I had a huge complication that required multiple surgeries that fall. I had a surgery two days before the weekend, so I was on Oxy the whole time, but I showed up and that was all that mattered. The weekend was a success. I’m thrilled to say it has only grown from there. This past January’s weekend was positively epic!
N MAGAZINE: Indeed, those weekends give a boost to the local economy during a time when it needs it most. Was that by design?
HILDERBRAND: When we started the Elin Hilderbrand weekend, we had no idea the economic impact it would provide. Wow, have we learned! The women who come to the weekend come to experience and to spend (and, many of them, to drink). I think it was year two or year three when the owners of island businesses started thanking me. For the past three years we’ve had nights that take place at island restaurants and a shop-n-sip that takes the attendees through downtown on Saturday afternoon. The Sniders and I have made it a mission that the weekend be good for Nantucket as a whole. And I always feel I must point out: I do not get paid one penny for doing it. It’s a labor of love for my fans and for the island that has given me everything I have.
N MAGAZINE: Local businesses are going to need support now more than ever before. Do you have any ideas on how to give them a boost in the wake of the coronavirus?
HILDERBRAND: I am personally donating to the Nantucket Food Pantry and to the Food, Fuel and Rental Assistance Program because I worry greatly for the most vulnerable among us. All I can hope is that, in a larger sense, my books will bring visitors when we are once again ready for them. My readers tend to come in the shoulder season. I’ll often get a call from Rocky Fox at the Chicken Box saying he has a group of women from Kansas at the bar and can I please swing by? I’ll do anything for Rocky.
N MAGAZINE: Given the circumstances we find ourselves in today with the coronavirus, have you found yourself pondering any unexpected story ideas for the future?
HILDERBRAND: I have no plans for a coronavirus storyline. I feel oversaturated with news about the virus and it’s only been a month…
N MAGAZINE: Are there any other literary genres that you’d be interested in trying your hand at?
HILDERBRAND: I’m thinking about a long-con thriller set out in Pocomo—like The Talented Mr. Ripley—but I’m not sure I can pull it off. I’m friends with James Patterson and have toyed with asking him to write it with me. We’ll see.
N MAGAZINE: You’ve experienced your fair share of trauma and tragedy in your life. How has writing served as a catharsis?
HILDERBRAND: When I was undergoing treatment for cancer, writing gave me something to do, some- thing to focus on. It was my normal. I didn’t have to think of myself as a person with cancer. I could just be myself: a writer on deadline as always, who also happened to be undergoing treatment for cancer. I used to take my legal pads to my appointments at Mass General and write while I was waiting for my medical oncologist (Dr. Steve Isakoff—he’s a wonderful doctor and now a friend, but he always runs late!).
HILDERBRAND: My dealings with Hollywood thus far have been frustrating. The deal at Hulu for three books fell through. I think the best way to put it is: they just weren’t that into me. That script is brilliant (written by André and Maria Jacquemetton of Mad Men) but has hit the dead letter office. I have a script for The Perfect Couple that is being developed by Side Car Entertainment. It was slated to go to Fox, but then Fox got a show in about Martha’s Vineyard that they went with instead, so that script is being packaged and shopped around. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time. I’m just trying to be both patient and hopeful. I have two projects that are in development that I can’t even talk about. The good thing for me is I have a lot of material.
N MAGAZINE: 28 Summers comes out this month. What can you tell us about this next book? What should your fans look forward to?
HILDERBRAND: 28 Summers is my favorite of any book I’ve ever written. It’s a reimagining of the classic play/movie Same Time, Next Year. A couple meets on Nantucket in the summer of 1993 and then meets every summer up until 2020. The twist: The man is married to a woman who is running for president in this year’s election. The book has lots of great pop culture references from the past three decades, and there are cameo appearances by characters from my other books. People who have lived or summered on Nantucket for the past twenty-seven years will like the references to the way things “used to be.”
N MAGAZINE: What goals are still on your docket?
HILDERBRAND: The last thing I’d like to do before I retire is see one of my novels make it to the screen—big or little, I’m not picky. When or if that happens, I will make sure that the Nantucket we know and love is represented authentically. No one cares about the character and the history and the rich, textured fabric of this island more than I do. I am 100 percent Team Nantucket.
N MAGAZINE: How is Nantucket’s literary community different than what you encounter elsewhere?
HILDERBRAND: I can’t stress enough how special and extraordinary Nantucket is, how authentic, how singular. I’m writing (and living) in a place that people dream their whole lives of visiting. Those qualities extend to the Nantucket Book Festival. I’ve been to many a book festival across the country—Savannah, Miami, Winston-Salem—and with all due respect to those festivals, the Nantucket festival stands head and shoulders above. I’ m biased, I know, but I give the NBF an A-plus and it’s been that way since the very first year.