RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Writer Elin Hilderbrand is known in literary circles as the queen of summer. She has perfected the kind of book you can devour at the beach - or pretty much anywhere on a sunny day. She sets her stories in Nantucket, but NPR's Lynn Neary got a chance to talk with Hilderbrand in New York about her newest novel.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Elin Hilderbrand fell in love with summer as a kid. For many years, her family rented a cottage on Cape Cod. Her father set down some strict rules for his children. The most important one - if the sun was shining, they had to spend the whole day at the beach. When Hilderbrand turned 16, her father was killed in a plane crash. She spent the next summer working in a factory making Halloween costumes.
ELIN HILDERBRAND: I was folding "Rambo" headbands eight hours a day, stapling clown hats to cardboard forms. And when I was doing this, I thought to myself, I don't care what happens the rest of my life, but I'm going to find a way to spend every summer at the beach.
NEARY: Strangely enough, she found her way to that endless summer beach in Iowa. Hilderbrand got a coveted spot at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, known for nurturing the most revered literary-fiction writers. Hilderbrand hated it. She was told she would never get published. The writing workshops were competitive and stressful. The ocean was very far away.
HILDERBRAND: So I'm so miserable, and they have free therapy at Iowa. So I go to the therapy every week, and I'm telling my therapist how sad I am. And I decide that I'm going to do my own therapy, and I'm going to start writing a novel that's set on Nantucket, which I miss so desperately. And so I start writing "The Beach Club."
NEARY: Miserable though she might have been, Hilderbrand hit pay dirt when Michael Carlisle - a visiting agent looking for new talent - picked her out of the crowd. He offered to represent her and promised they'd make lots of money. Carlisle is still Hilderbrand's agent and joined her at Book Expo, the publishing industry's annual convention.
MICHAEL CARLISLE: Let's sell some books.
HILDERBRAND: OK. Or give them away - one or the other.
NEARY: Carlisle was on hand to celebrate Hilderbrand's 10th anniversary with her publisher, Little, Brown. That's when Hildebrand's career really took off. Before that, her sales were respectable. Now they're spectacular. She churns out a new summer book every year, and they regularly hit the best-seller lists. Her fans adore her. They waited in a long line to get her to sign her new book, "The Identicals."
CARLISLE: Hi, how are you?
HOPE: Hi, I'm so excited.
HILDERBRAND: Hi, you must have been here for a while.
HOPE: Yes, would you make it out to Hope (ph) please?
HOPE: Yes - love, love, love your books.
NEARY: "The Identicals" is something of a departure for Hilderbrand. Her stories are always set in Nantucket, but this one also takes place on nearby Martha's Vineyard. She got the idea for the book while she was watching a movie with her daughter.
HILDERBRAND: I knew I wanted to write a vineyard book, and I wasn't sure what form it should take. And I have an 11-year-old daughter, and we were watching "The Parent Trap." And I thought, yep, I'm going to do "The Parent Trap" on the vineyard in Nantucket.
NEARY: Hildebrand's identical twins are all grown-up, but they too switch places - mixing up their identities and leaving old rivalries and some bad habits behind. Hilderbrand says she always aims to write a book that readers can't put down.
HILDERBRAND: My books - I will say one thing - they all have a driving narrative. And you have to turn the pages. And the way you do that is to create characters that you really love and care about and put them in a fairly dire situation (laughter).
ALYSSA: Can you sign it to me?
HILDERBRAND: Alyssa (ph)?
ALYSSA: Alyssa. And then can - is it possible for me to get a picture with you?
ALYSSA: Thank you.
NEARY: Hilderbrand's book signing had a party atmosphere. There was beer for her fans and cookies.
HILDERBRAND: Would you like a cookie?
ALYSSA: I would love a...
CARLISLE: Have you read one of the....
ALYSSA: I have read all of these books.
CARLISLE: OK, so eat one.
ALYSSA: I will.
NEARY: These were not just any cookies. These cookies had the image of Hilderbrand's distinctive book covers embedded in the icing.
HILDERBRAND: I loved this. This was one of my very favorite covers. This is "Barefoot," the one that when it started it all.
NEARY: These covers were no small part of a marketing campaign that helped make Hilderbrand a best-selling author. They show photos of women relaxing on a beach under a blue sky - the ocean spreading out before them. Reagan Arthur, Hilderbrand's publisher and editor, says the images capture the feel of the books.
REAGAN ARTHUR: Visually, I think they convey what Elin's books do - you know, a sense of story and a sense of summer and an invitation.
NEARY: Arthur says she wanted to publish Hilderbrand's books because she thought she had a winning combination.
ARTHUR: And what I loved about what she was doing was that she was really marrying great storytelling with really smart, well-done writing, you know. And it's just - it's not easy. She makes it look easy, but to be able to balance those two things is very hard to find.
NEARY: Arthur's instincts were spot on. In Hilderbrand, she found an author who can consistently produce a winning book in the all-important summer book-selling season.
HILDERBRAND: Hello, you've been waiting patiently.
HILDERBRAND: OK, what is your name?
SARAH: My name is Sarah, and I work for Niagara Falls Public Library. And I'll tell you. Your summer books always are returned to the library with sand in them.
HILDERBRAND: I love that.
CARLISLE: (Laughter) That's great.
NEARY: Hilderbrand wears the title queen of summer proudly.
HILDERBRAND: Even if you're working an office in Oklahoma City, if you're reading an Elin Hilderbrand novel, you feel like you're at the beach. You feel like you're doing something summery. So it becomes a part of people's summertime rituals, which I - which - I love that. I love that.
NEARY: A few years ago, Hilderbrand began writing a series set during winter. The fourth and final book in that series comes out this fall. She's already planning another book for winter, but this one will be set in the Virgin Islands. That's where she heads when the weather gets too cold in Nantucket. Lynn Neary, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUMMER HEART'S "I WANNA GO")
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