Interview with Elin Hilderbrand

Posted by Goodreads on June 6, 2016
Elin Hilderbrand knows what her readers love, and every year the queen of the "better beach read" (her words) delivers: breezy summer books peopled by vibrant characters navigating the fallout from bad choices, secrets, family dysfunction, love, loss, and illness. All 17 of her novels are set on Hilderbrand's beloved Nantucket, the tony, secluded island she has called home for 23 years, and all are shot through with a delicious warmth and affection for both people and place (fans say her books are the closest thing to feeling the New England sand between your toes). In her latest, Here's to Us, the bestselling author returns to one of her favorite topics—food and wine—via her main character, Deacon Thorpe, a bad boy celebrity chef whose sudden death forces his three wives (two ex, one estranged) and children to unite for a painful weekend of power struggles, revelations, and farewells. (Hilderbrand even includes four of Deacon's mouth-watering recipes—Fluffy White Champagne Cake, anyone?) The novel, told from numerous perspectives, tackles grief, addiction, adultery, race, and parenting, adhering to Hilderbrand's adage that "novels aren't interesting if everybody is happy and faithful and well-behaved." The author, whose books include The Rumor and The Blue Bistro as well as a Christmas trilogy, tells Goodreads how her recent battle with breast cancer affected her writing and reveals plans to take some Nantucketers to the Caribbean.

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Goodreads: Here's to Us focuses on Deacon Thorpe and the three women he married: Laurel, his high school sweetheart; Belinda, the Hollywood diva who stole him; and Scarlett, the former nanny. Can you talk about your inspiration for the book?

Elin Hilderbrand: I wanted to write a novel that had three women characters because it's such an interesting dynamic, sort of harkening back to my novel Barefoot, which also had three women characters. Only in this case I didn't want it to be a female buddy novel. I wanted it to be three women who really and truly hated each other. And then I thought, what would be the reason for that? So I decided to have some kind of celebrity, and I wasn't sure what kind, who had been married to these three women and the three of them absolutely loathe each other. And because I love the world of food and wine and restaurants, I decided my protagonist would be a celebrity chef, and so that led to the whole story line of the restaurant, and I wanted him to be a complicated, troubled person. I didn't have all of this in the forefront of my mind initially, but as I was writing, Deacon Thorpe developed for me, and the novel took shape and the women developed and changed and their relationships changed, and we ended up with what I think is a pretty dramatic but ultimately heartwarming story about how feelings can change about the person you hate the most.

GR: Had you been thinking about the theme of forgiveness, or did that come after you'd set up the characters and the plot?

EH: I feel like all of my novels to some extent are about forgiveness. If you look at The Rumor or The Matchmaker, they have characters doing truly horrible things, such as Eddie in The Rumor, who's running a prostitution ring. Yet my job as a novelist is to make him if not likable, then at least human and sympathetic in some respects. And the same with Dabney in The Matchmaker, who is having an affair even though her husband is by all accounts an awesome guy. You have to justify really bad behavior and come to a place of forgiveness, and that is a favorite theme of mine. Otherwise novels aren't interesting if everybody is happy and faithful and well-behaved. You need to have behavior that inspires drama. So I love good people behaving badly and then ultimately coming to a place of peace.

GR: There's a rich cast of characters in Here's to Us, and yet you manage to give us all of their backstories without slowing down the plot. That must take some planning. Do you outline the book very carefully before you start?

EH: You know, it's funny because I don't. I start with the characters, but even then they're relatively unformed and I discover them as the pages flow. It was fairly late when I decided to add the backstory of Deacon's life, and I felt like that backstory really added texture and depth to what happens in the present day. Those are almost my favorite scenes, the ones where Deacon is there.

GR: Were any characters inspired by anyone in real life?

EH: Not really. And they have all changed so much. I wanted Laurel to be the high school sweetheart and everybody's favorite, and with Belinda, I was sort of thinking of Nicole Kidman because she had been married and then adopted kids and then gone on to have other children and moved out of Hollywood. So that was a teensy bit the template, although there are lots of original bits about Belinda as well. And Scarlett is just the nanny, and how many times have we seen that—the man running away with the nanny? I wanted to riff on something that people would recognize but have it be more complicated and more interesting.

GR: Can you talk about the inclusion of Deacon's recipes?

EH: I am a devoted food and wine person, and once I'd figured out Deacon was going to be a chef, I turned to two of the food people in my life. One is Jessica Merchant, a food blogger from Pennsylvania, and I asked if she would be interested in writing two recipes for a novel I was going to write about a chef. So she gave me (Deacon's trademark) Clams Casino dip and the cake, and then I actually wrote the plot around those recipes. The other two recipes are from a Nantucket food writer I've loved since I first started cooking, Sarah Leah Chase. I gave her the plot, and she gave me the last two recipes to fit into the novel. So it was two opposite processes—Jessica gave me recipes before I wrote the book, and then I went to Sarah with the plot—but both experiences were equally great and the recipes are totally delicious.

GR: Food has a central role in the book, bringing people together—or dividing them. Deacon's first two wives are both food lovers and contrast with Scarlett, who is terrified of food.

EH: Yes. I think there are two kinds of people—those who live to eat and those who eat to live. Obviously Scarlett eats to live, while Belinda and Laurel really appreciate the ingredients and the preparation and the love that Deacon puts into his food. I also think it's interesting, or a good thing, to celebrate women eating because so often in our culture everyone wants to be thin, and I think that you can miss out on one of the great joys of being alive, that you get to eat three times a day.

GR: Deacon and Belinda's adopted daughter Angie is aboriginal. Why did you choose that background for her?

EH: I've been to Perth, Australia, six times, and I feel like I'm a smidge Australian myself, so I wanted to have a character who originated there. I also really enjoyed having a person of color in the book, and I feel like she has some interesting insights about being on Nantucket. On the one hand she has grown up there and hence feels very at home, and yet she also has these thoughts of not quite fitting in. The fact that she's adopted and that Deacon has two other birth children, those things resonate against each other. And very clearly she was the closest child to him, and I loved that aspect as well.

GR: You're known as the queen of the summer beach read, yet your novels deal with quite heavy themes. How would you describe your books?

EH: People sometimes ask if I resent the fact that I've been pigeonholed as a "summer read" or "beach read," and the answer is no. For me, that's a sales platform, and if people are going to buy my books to read on the beach, that's great. I live in a summer beach resort. But Nantucket as an island is a lot more complicated than that. And my books are more complicated than that. So what I'm striving for is not anything that needs to be decoded or will take a lot of brain power but something that is better than your average fluffy beach read and is more serious, with more complicated characters. When I read, I am looking for narrative drive. I want to care about the characters, and I want the plot to move along. Nobody wants to read about a bunch of rich, perfect Nantucketers. They want complicated, flawed people they can relate to, so that is what I try to provide: a better beach read.

GR: Goodreads member Rachel asks, "How did you decide you wanted to become a writer, and how old were you when you wrote your first book?"

EH: I was seven, so it wasn't really something I decided. I feel it was something that was always inside me. When I was in second grade, my teacher gave me a "top author" award. When I got it, I said to myself, "That's right. I'm an author." I never wanted to be anything else. My parents were incredibly supportive. When I was in high school, they sent me to a writing camp, and then I taught at a writing camp at Duke. At college I majored in writing seminars, and then I went to the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop. I always wanted to be a writer, and I was going to do it whether or not I ever got published.

GR: You went to Cape Cod with your family as a child. At what point did you decide you wanted that summer beach experience each year?

EH: We went to the Cape from the time I was ten until the summer I turned 16, and then a few months later my father died. He was an attorney, and he was killed in a plane crash. The following summer I worked at a costume factory making Halloween costumes, and it was eight hours a day of complete misery and so mindless, I had nothing to think about. So I decided I was never going to do this again, and my life goal was to spend every summer at the beach. I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I started my career teaching, and then I had the summer off in between years of teaching, and I came up to Nantucket and I got here and said, I am never leaving. So I went back to New York and I taught the last year, and then I moved up here, and I've been here 23 years.

GR: What is it about Nantucket that you love so much?

EH: There's no other place like it, and in some sense it is the standard-bearer for New England summertime. It's got architectural integrity. The downtown is historically preserved. There are no chain stores or neon signs. There are cobblestoned streets and whaling captains' homes and enormous oak trees. And there are 50 miles of pristine beach, so the entire perimeter of the island is wild and gorgeous and undeveloped, and it's all open to the public, which I love. It's just a unique, beautiful, safe, clean, tasteful environment.

GR: What's your average writing day like? Is it true you write longhand in legal notepads?

EH: I do. I've got three kids, so I try to get three hours a day of composing in and then some editing. Then I take two long periods to work by myself, one in the spring when I go to St. John for five weeks and one in the fall when I'm revising and I go to Boston and work around the clock. Other than that, when I have the kids—I'm divorced—I work when I can. I'm not picky about my work conditions. I've worked at the baseball field or when my daughter's in dance rehearsal. I bring my work with me everywhere because I never know when I'm going to have five or ten minutes.

GR: Goodreads member Daphne asks, "Of all your characters, which is your favorite and why?"

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EH: One of my favorite characters is Deacon. I love him, and the reason I love him isn't because he's sexy or good-looking or a great chef. I love him because of that little boy we meet at the beginning of the novel who knows his father is leaving and feels this incredible sadness. And then Dabney Kimball Beech from The Matchmaker is one of my very favorites. And I just loved writing Eddie Pancik's character in The Rumor; it gave me such nervous delight.

GR: Would you ever write a book not set on Nantucket?

EH: Yes, I would eventually love to write a series set in the Virgin Islands because I've been going to St. John for five years now, and down the road, in four or five years, I'd love to write another trilogy. My Christmas books are in a trilogy, and I would love to write another with some Nantucket transplanted characters, but living in the Virgin Islands.

GR: Who are some of your favorite writers?

EH: My favorite writers are Jane Smiley, Richard Russo, Lorrie Moore, Anna Quindlen. The best books I've read in the last calendar year include The Clasp by Sloane Crosley. I loved Laurie Colwin. Her novels about New York are some of my favorite books of all time. And I love a western Australian writer called Tim Winton. He's probably my all-time-favorite writer, and nobody knows who he is, but he's an absolute genius.

GR: You were diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, and you're now in remission. Has that experience affected your writing?

EH: I was writing The Rumor when I was sick, and at the very end, when Eddie gets caught, I was at a real low point. It was after I'd been diagnosed and treated and I was better, but then I got a horrible, life-threatening infection in my left breast and had to be helicoptered to Boston and operated on immediately, and I lost my left breast again. At that point I was so depressed, but at the same time I was grateful I was alive. And at the end of The Rumor, when Eddie is being carted off to jail, he has this moment of grace where he thinks, "I am so lucky," because when my daughters were born, one nearly died, but she made it, and I'm so grateful, I'm going to choose to focus on what I have. And that moment was a direct correlation to where I was with my disease. In general I wouldn't say it really influenced Here's to Us, only in that gratitude and forgiveness and kindness are always at the forefront of my mind when I'm writing.

GR: Goodreads member Jennifer asks, "Do you plan to include some personal aspects of your breast cancer journey in one of your future books?"

EH: I think so. But at this point it's still too close. I just started speaking for breast cancer organizations across the country, and that's what I'm doing right now. I had toyed with putting a character with breast cancer in the new book I'm writing, and I decided that I'm not going to because I want to get some perspective on it. But in the future I think I will.

GR: Do people come up to you at events and ask you about your experiences with cancer?

EH: Yes, they do, actually. And I've had some really nice emails from my doctors. I dedicated The Rumor to my surgeon, and I mentioned my oncologist in the acknowledgements. Both wrote me and said, "You do not realize how many patients come in and say, 'You operated on Elin Hilderbrand? You treated Elin Hilderbrand? You must be great because she dedicated her book to you.' " And how much better these women feel because they have the same doctor that I had, and I dedicated my book to them. It's a sad thing, or it's a fact of life, but the breast cancer demographic and my reader demographic are exactly the same: I'm writing for women, basically, between 25 and 65, and that's who gets breast cancer, so there's a ton of overlap. But I'm so glad that my experience was good and that I'm healthy and I'm able to sing the praises of how I was treated.

GR: Do you think there's any way you could ever run out of ideas for books?

EH: Yes, I do. I have sort of a self-imposed retirement in my mind. I probably have five or six more Nantucket-based books in my head, and then I'll possibly pursue this St. John trilogy, and then I'll take a break in 2020 or shortly thereafter. Whether or not it's a permanent retirement, I don't know. But I'm not going to write 18 more books. I want to stop before I get to the point of desperation, where I'm like "Gosh, I really don't know what to write about." I don't want to have watered-down novels, and I feel that Nantucket, it's a small place, the stories could tend to repeat themselves, and I don't want that to happen.

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Judy (new)

Judy One of my favorite authors!!

message 2: by nora (new)

nora I just came back from a trip to cape cod, and a quick boat ride out to Nantucket. I had to see where Elin hildebrand wrote about. I felt like I already knew the island from her books, and it was magical walking around the downtown area and the the cobblestone streets. She put Nantucket on my bucket list, was happy to fulfill it, wished I could have met her at a coffee shop, that would have been really nice! Nantucket is as she describes it. I am happy now that I have been there.

message 3: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Blanchard I live on the Upper Cape and so I love to read Elins' books as it is so close to home. She captures the island like no one else can. You feel as if you are there with her. I would love to meet her one day.

message 4: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Campbell I could not love Elin Hilderbrand's books more! I love how she weaves her stories and that, by the end of every novel, you feel like you know and love every character. I am always the first to pre-order her new novels - I can't wait to read "Here's to Us"

message 5: by Barbara (new)

Barbara White An inspiring lady!

message 6: by Dixie (new)

Dixie I am in my 80s and come to Cape Cod for Summer's with my daughter and her family., and I hope Elin will find out how interesting we are when she gets to this age and uses that as a subject. I read her books toget in the island mood, and yes, they are more than a "beach book".

message 7: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Goehrig I used to bring my children to Nantucket every summer from our home in CT. They have families of their own now, and we all live in the West. Elin Hilderbrand's books bring me back to my favorite place and many happy memories.

message 8: by Linda (new)

Linda I am 70 and I don't think I started reading Elin until I was past 65. I have spent every summer of my life in Gloucester, MA another quaint NE town. Nantucket is on my bucket list. Anyway, looking forward to her new reading Hears to Us.

message 9: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Baillie Love all the books i have so far read. Please keep well.

message 10: by Kristi (new)

Kristi Thetford nora wrote: "I just came back from a trip to cape cod, and a quick boat ride out to Nantucket. I had to see where Elin hildebrand wrote about. I felt like I already knew the island from her books, and it was ma..."

I dream of doing this!!!!!!

message 11: by PASTOR (new)

PASTOR STEPHEN Thanks and Amen

message 12: by Michael (new)

Michael Pienaar Michael

message 13: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Nice interview. We actually have a few things in common. All the best. Good luck and keep writing.

message 14: by Ryan (new)

Ryan Stabile I really like this very detailed interview. Who conducts these interviews, anyway?

message 15: by Denise (new)

Denise Pandemic 2020.......
Fabulous opportunity to reread ALL of Elin’s books!!! So enjoying this!!!

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