The Queen of the Beach Reads -June 2016
on life, love and loss
by: Lindsay Pykosz
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
There’s a reason Elin Hilderbrand has been called “Queen of the Summer Beach Read.” Wherever in the world the island author is, chances are the sand and sea are not far away.
In October she’s headed to Dubai to participate in a book festival. Then, next April, she’s taking her three children to Greece for school vacation.
Hilderbrand’s beach days actually started a little closer to Nantucket – in Brewster on Cape Cod where she and her family rented a house each July. Her upbringing was idyllic, she said, with her blended family that included her twin brother Eric, step-sister Heather, step-brother Randy and younger brother Doug.
“We did everything together,” she said. “We’d go mini-golfing, bowling, and go to Orleans and shop. We played board games. We had to go to the beach all day, every day because it was sunny. When we got to be 12 or 13 years old, we’d walk from my house to the beach. I grew up having that as my summer time and we loved it.”
Those summers came to an end when Hilderbrand turned 16. Her father Robert, an attorney, was doing a bond closing for a school district in upstate New York and was on his way home when he died in a plane crash.
“I went from having these idyllic Cape summers, and then all of a sudden my father is dead and I had to get a job,” Hilderbrand said.
Her journey to becoming a New York Times best-selling author did not happen overnight. A Philadelphia native, Hilderbrand got her first job in Collegeville, Pa., 30 miles northwest of the city, in a Halloween-costume factory. At 17, between her junior and senior years of high school, she was busy making Rambo headbands and stapling clown hats onto cardboard forms for eight hours a day.
“I was like, this is so hideously awful,” she said with a laugh.
It was then that she told herself she was going to make it big one day so she could go to the beach every day in the summer.
“I’m going to create a life for myself, so I can go,” she said.
She knew she wanted to be a writer, but wasn’t sure if she wanted to be a novelist. She also liked the idea of being a teacher, because it would give her summers off.
Her college experience brought her to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she majored in writing. Most of her peers were biochemical engineering majors or pre-med, and her classes were, in general, far easier. That gave her more free time to socialize because she wasn’t quite as stressed as everybody else.
On the eve of graduation, Hilderbrand asked one of her professors for advice.
“I asked him, ‘Should I go to grad school,
or what should I do?’ And he said, ‘You have to go out into the world and live.’”
She headed to New York City.
“I was ready for it,” Hilderbrand said. “I had been there before, but not to live.” A job at Saint Martin’s Press, which, ironically, would be the publishing house
that would one day publish her first five novels, was not a good fit. Hilderbrand left after only nine months.
She turned to teaching. Each day, Hilderbrand would take five subways to Queens where she taught 83 eighth-graders at the Louis Armstrong School (I.S. 227). She called that first year “a magical year for all of us,” and her students dove into literature that they had never read before. The following year she moved to the suburbs: Dobbs Ferry Middle School in Westchester, N.Y. where she continued to teach eighth-grade English.
The summer between her two teaching years, Hilderbrand went to Nantucket, and it was then that something clicked.
“I was like, ‘I want to go live on Nantucket. I’m going to give it a shot,’ because I was happiest on Nantucket,” she said. “I’m just going to give it a shot. I don’t want to stay in the city. I want to be a writer. So I moved to Nantucket for good in June of 1994.”
In the fall of 1994, Hilderbrand subbed at Nantucket Elementary School. Her then-boyfriend Chip Cunningham convinced her that the two should travel through Southeast Asia. When they returned, they got married in 1995 at the Chanticleer in Sconset. Then it was off again on another trip, this time to South America.
The following two summers she worked the front desk at The Inquirer and Mirror so she would have her afternoons free to write. Eventually, Hilderbrand made her way to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What should have been an exciting time to study at one of the best graduate fiction programs in the country, turned out to be just the opposite. Hilderbrand missed Nantucket, her husband and friends so much that she decided to address the issue by writing a story set on the island.
“That’s what started it all,” she said.
Thus her first book, “The Beach Club,” was born.
Cunningham, manager of Cliffside Beach Club, gave Hilderbrand a behind-the-scenes look at how an island beach club runs, which she used as a framework for her first novel. But she knew she wanted to stick to fiction because real life doesn’t provide readers with the kind of drama that fiction can, she said.
“Fiction needs a narrative drive that’s consistent, so everything you’re telling the reader plays into your narrative arc,” she said. “Real life is messy and confusing and boring, so you can’t really use that. You can use bits and pieces of real life, but you can’t say ‘now I’m going to write an exposé of what happens at the beach club’.”
At her last workshop in Iowa, Hilderbrand’s class was visited by a literary agent, Michael Carlisle, who, ironically, grew up at 75 Main St. on Nantucket. He asked Hilderbrand to send him the novel when she was finished, and told her he wanted to represent her.
In January of 1999, she sent it off and it was shopped around to different publishers in New York. After numerous rejections, St. Martin’s Press made her a $5,000 offer that she ultimately accepted.
Within two weeks of it being published in 2000, “The Beach Club” was picked as People Magazine’s “Beach Book of the Week,” and the 2,500 copies that were printed immediately sold out.
The stress of having a newborn son, Maxx, was alleviated when a second book deal for two books came her way that she simply couldn’t pass up.
She quit her job as a paralegal for Richard Loftin and wrote “Nantucket Nights” and “Summer People,” with an advance of around $120,000.
“Nantucket Nights” came out in the summer of 2002, but didn’t get the press and sales that her first novel did. “Summer People,” which came out a year later, did even worse, which left Hilderbrand discouraged. Her publisher was optimistic, however.
Another two-book deal for “The Blue Bistro” and “The Love Season” came soon after. They were released in the summers of 2005 and 2006, respectively.
“ ‘The Blue Bistro’ is my favorite of all my books,” Hilderbrand said. “It is fictionally set at The Galley, but I interviewed so many people like Seth and Angela Raynor (of The Boarding House and The Pearl), Andrea Kovalencik from Company of the Cauldron and I talked to Geoffrey and David (Silva) down at The Galley. With all of this research, it’s my favorite.”
After the release of “The Love Season,” Hilderbrand’s contract with St. Martin’s Press ended. Carlisle suggested she switch publishers, although Hilderbrand said she was reluctant. At that point, she was a mother of three – Maxx, Dawson and Shelby – and had been sitting on a book called “Barefoot.” Carlisle decided to shop it around to 10 publishers and she eventually got an offer from Little, Brown and Company.
Her career was positioned for success.
“Barefoot” was Hilderbrand’s first New York Times best-seller and shot to number two on the paperback list, where it stayed for three weeks after its release in the summer of 2007.
“I was having a drink at The Galley with my friends when they called me, and said ‘Barefoot’ is number seven. It debuted on paperback as number seven and I was crying. I could not believe it,” she said.
Hilderbrand released “A Summer Affair” in the summer of 2008 and “The Castaways” the next summer. On The Westmoor Club’s yacht Belle celebrating her 40th birthday, she got a call from her publisher to tell her that “The Castaways” debuted at number 10 on the hardback best-seller list. Fast-forward to “The Rumor,” which came out in June of last year, debuting at number three on the hardback list.
“Generally, I’m four, five or six when I’m debuted,” Hilderbrand said. “I take nothing for granted. I’m so lucky.”
For the past three years, Hilderbrand has released two books per year. Her hectic schedule has had its ups – it has given her financial success and independence and allows her to travel around the world.
But there’s also been a heavy downside. In 2015, she and Cunningham divorced, although she said they remain amicable. She also suffered a major health scare several years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she has battled successfully.
The pace of producing two books a year and major life changes has taken its toll. Hilderbrand’s been pondering what retirement would be like after she delivers
six more books.
“I may just take a year off. I need some time. My
daughter will just be getting into high school and it’s not that I’m not present for my kids, but it’s just too much. I’ll stay on Nantucket. I’m not going anywhere,” Hilderbrand said.
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2014, Hilderbrand has made a point to do things for herself. Each fall, she travels to and stays in Boston to revise her summer novel that will be released the following year. In the spring, she goes to Saint John for five weeks to strictly write, which she does in long-hand. “The advantage is I can do it laying down on the beach, or on the airplane or wherever I am,” she said.
“My work goes with me, which is convenient.”
It was on one of those trips to Saint John that Hilderbrand found a lump in her breast. Further examination discovered one tumor in her left breast and four in her right, and the need for a double mastectomy. At the time, she was preparing for the release of “The Matchmaker,” and was trying to push off the surgery, but her health took precedence over the events she had scheduled.
“ ‘The Matchmaker’ came out on June 10 and I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about the fact that my novel was about a woman who had cancer and now I’m diagnosed and how strange and awful this was,” Hilderbrand said.
A subsequent Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) infection, which almost cost Hilderbrand her life, made her realize how important every day is, and how much she appreciates living on the island that has become a vibrant character in each of her books.
“When I take my kids to school, I say to them that they have no concept of how special this place is,” she said. “Other kids go to school past Olive Garden or Target, and you have no idea how lucky you are to live in such an aesthetically beautiful place.”
Nantucket will again take center stage in her novel “Here’s to Us,” which will be released this month. Set on Hoicks Hollow Road, the story begins with the death of a famous celebrity chef. His wife and two exwives must learn to forge relationships in his absence.
“You hear all this stuff in Hollywood about the lack of strong women characters, so I wanted to write a novel that had three strong women characters who were mortal enemies at the beginning and came to some kind of a truce at the end,” Hilderbrand said.
Hilderbrand will also be releasing her third winter novel this October, called “Winter Storms.”
“This is the thing about Nantucket,” she said. “I’m certainly not the only person who feels that this is an authentic place in America and there’s nowhere else like it. I’ve heard people say that again and again. It’s the historic homes and the beautiful cobblestones, the 50 miles of beach that are not developed.” ///
Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, the island's newspaper since 1821.