Elin Hilderbrand talks about her new novel, "28 Summers"

Sarah Gelman on June 15, 2020

Elin Hilderbrand talks about her new novel, ‘28 Summers’

For some, summers mean BBQs and road trips. But for many, summer means the arrival of a new Elin Hilderbrand novel, and that’s cause for celebration. Hilderbrand’s latest offering, 28 Summers, one of our Best Books of June, is a literary take on the movie Same Time, Next Year, and in this superfan’s opinion, it’s truly one of her best.

Hilderbrand answered our questions over email about how she’d cast the movie version of 28 Summers, why food figures so prominently in her writing, and the books she’s recommending this summer.

Sarah Gelman, Amazon Book Review: You’re such a prolific writer! You used to publish one book a year, and now you’re up to two. How did you become a two-book-a-year author, particularly when you’re so well-known in the “beach read” genre? And how do you get your ideas?

Elin Hilderbrand: The idea of writing a second book per year happened in the summer of 2013 when my publisher called to say they’d had a holiday book drop off their list and could I write a Christmas book in four weeks? I said I couldn’t—I was hip-deep at that point in writing The Matchmaker—but that I would consider adding a Christmas novel the following year. I came up with an idea for a Christmas trilogy. My publisher didn’t want a trilogy—I was unproven in the holiday market—so I just delivered one book, Winter Street, but gave it no real ending. And voila! A contract for two more Christmas books appeared. The idea for the Paradise series came to me from a letter that was sent from a Canadian fan to my home. (How she got my address, I have no idea.) She said that she’d recently discovered her husband had been having an affair for twelve years. She said: “Women in their 50s should be in the CIA. We are invisible.” I melded this idea with my desire to write a different kind of beach book, one set in the Caribbean. Anyone who has read the first two books in the Paradise series will see how these two elements form the crux of that series.

You recently posted a picture on Instagram of your family in front of the cottage that is featured in 28 Summers. What’s the story behind this cottage?

Oh, Mallory’s cottage! I woke up thinking about that cottage this morning. The cottage my kids and I took a picture in front of on Mother’s Day is located on a dirt road that leads to an unnamed beach that I used to take the kids to growing up. It was the closest beach to our house and, on summer days when the kids were at camp, I would ride my bike to that beach with my notebook and a lunch and I would write. That cottage was always in the background. I never knew who owned it and I have never seen anyone there. But it’s fairly unique because there aren’t a lot of cottages that sit directly on the south shore like that. For the sake of the novel, I had to move that cottage east a little so that it sits not only on the ocean but also on Miacomet Pond. This happens all the time in fiction. You take something real and then fictionalize it so that it fits the narrative.

For those who haven’t read 28 Summers yet, each chapter is preceded by cultural references specific to that year in history. How did you choose these specific references?

My favorite part of 28 Summers are the chapter headers that list all the things that were going on that year. I borrowed the idea from the movie Same Time, Next Year, which is the movie the novel is based on. In the movie, there are photo montages of news clips that introduce each year and I thought: I can do that, too. I went back through the news, I picked one movie, one TV show, one song, the food trends, the exercise trends, the people who died, the innovations. It was a lot of fun. The book went to press in late March. RIGHT before the final version was turned in, I was able to add COVID-19. Because I couldn’t predict the future, I had anticipated that the only thing we’d be talking about in 2020 was the election. I plan on adding George Floyd and the racial awakening we’re experiencing now to the digital version. And I’m praying there are no more major news breaks before Tuesday, June 16.

What were the challenges of writing sympathetic characters that are committing adultery?

It’s always the hardest thing. Sting (or someone like Sting, my memory is Swiss cheese) once said something like: There are two kinds of songs. One song is “I love you,” and that’s a good song. The other song is “I love you but you love someone else,” and that’s a better song. It’s very hard to write a compelling novel without people behaving badly. I generally stay away from the murderers and rapists and stick with the adulterers. The way to create sympathetic characters regardless of what bad things they do is to love them. Just love them and instill them with humanity. Mallory and Jake are good people, they’re cognizant that they’re doing something bad and they own it.

Can you cast Jake, Mallory and Ursula in the movie version of 28 Summers?

I would cast Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively as Jake and Mallory. But the role I feel most strongly about is Ursula. I see and have always seen Olivia Munn as Jake’s wife, Ursula deGournsey. Love her!

I confess that I just ordered a copy of Sarah Leah Chase’s Nantucket Open-House Cookbook, which features prominently in the book. What does this cookbook—and cooking—mean to you?

I won’t write the entire thing out here but in The World According to Garp there’s a great quote that compares cooking to writing, and to love. It ends with “cooking is what keeps a person who tries hard sane” (or something like that…!). I have long maintained that we have three chances at happiness each day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. I love to cook, I love to eat, and I am fortunate to live in a place where there are not only phenomenal restaurants of all kinds but also farmer's markets, fish markets and bakeries so I can get good, fresh ingredients and bring them home.

As a superfan, I love to see recurring characters appear in your books, such as police Chief Ed Kapenash. How do you keep track of all of your characters?

My characters live in my heart. Some stand out more than others. Chief Kapenash, by nature of being the police chief, appears in several books, including my 2021 novel, which starts with a novelist killed in a hit-and-run while jogging. I joke that my Nantucket is like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. It’s a fictional place populated by fictional people who could appear again at any time in any of my books. 28 Summers has a bunch of cameos by characters from previous books. I think my readers will get a kick out of that.

Your Acknowledgements section in this book was like reading a bonus personal essay from you. Can you talk about the nurse who inspired you to use the phrase “fill your cup”?

Grace appears in the strangest of ways. This past fall, I was slated to do a book club event at a private home in Houston. I did NOT want to go. I was at the end of a particularly brutal week of touring, the event was held at 8:30 am on a Monday, I had gotten to Houston at 1am the night before...I hold my mornings sacred normally and I felt that I had reached a point in my career where I no longer had to “do book clubs.” When I talked to the hostess, I think I must have expressed reservations and she told me there were two women driving from four hours awaymeaning they were getting up in the middle of the night to meet me. As soon as I heard that, I thought: I must go. I absolutely must go. And I met Sabina and her sister, Gloria. Sabina told me she was a Hospice Case Manager and guess what? The details she shared with me about her job went right into 28 Summers, which I was finishing that week. Sabina had to take off work to come see me and her boss told her it was fine, because Sabina should “fill her cup.” Hospice work is so emotionally draining that hospice workers are encouraged to do things that bring them joy when they’re not working. The beginning and ending of my novel shine because I went to that book group and I met Sabina and Gloria.

Thank you for being such a passionate supporter of other writers, particularly women writers. You even dedicated this book to the late Dorothea Benton Frank. What have you read recently that you loved?

Here are three books that I’ve loved so far this year—two you’ve likely heard of and one you likely haven’t: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, fabulous. Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, extraordinary. The one you might not have heard of because it’s not out until August 4th but which just might be my favorite of all is Luster by Raven Leilani. I have described it as being like The Catcher in the Rye if 'Catcher' had a black twenty-something woman as its protagonist. Raven Leilani is going to be a superstar. This novel is fresh, exciting, modern, hot and luminous.

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