Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Elin Hilderbrand: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I know that you and I have been conversing on Instagram about various different crazy things that are happening in life. Plus, of course, you have all of your own books to discuss as well. We have so much to talk about. I don’t even know where to start. Why don’t we talk first about Troubles in Paradise? which is your most recent book and the last of trilogy which starts off with amazing gossip. We can segue into talking about gossip from there.

Elin: Perfect. I can’t say too, too much about Troubles in Paradise because it is a book three. Just a little history as to how I came to write the Paradise series is that back in 2013, my publisher, Hachette, called and said, “We’ve had a book fall off our holiday list. Can you write a Christmas book in four weeks?” I was writing a novel called The Matchmaker which was very emotionally draining. I said, “You know what? I’m not going to stop this and write a Christmas book, but I’ll do it when I finish.” I came up with an idea for a Christmas trilogy. I know this sounds like I’m talking about something else, but I am getting to Paradise.

Zibby: It’s okay.

Elin: I came up with this idea for a Christmas trilogy. It turns out they didn’t want a trilogy. They only wanted one book. I wrote this novel, Winter Street, and gave it no ending. Immediately, a contract for the next two books appeared because they loved the premise. Then, ironically, in the summer of 2016, my editor called and said, “What do I have to do to get you to write a fourth book in the Winter Street series?” At that point, Zibby, I was finished. I didn’t want to write a fourth book in the Winter Street series, so they really had to be persuasive. I said to them, “I’d really like to write a novel or a series of novels that are set in the Virgin Islands.” That was the place where I had styled a writing retreat, time for myself in the Virgin Islands. I’d fallen in love with it. I feel like, again, Hachette was a little bit hesitant. Because I was a Nantucket author, they didn’t necessarily want a series set in the Virgin Islands, but they very desperately wanted this fourth Winter Street book, so they said yes. Then again, irony is the Paradise series has far, far, far outsold the Winter Street and has taken me to a new location. It’s been successful, so I was right. I felt vindicated I was right. The Paradise series, book one focuses on a woman in her mid-fifties named Irene Steele. On New Year’s Day, she gets a call that her husband has been killed in a helicopter crash in the Virgin Islands. Hello. She didn’t know he was in the Virgin Islands. She’s completely gobsmacked. She and her two adult sons fly down there only to find — guess what? This dude has a second life including a mistress and a child. Then it’s like, what else was going on? That takes us through to book three where I’m trying to tie up all of the mysterious loose ends in a way that is satisfying and surprising. That is where we are.

Zibby: Awesome. It’s so funny because in the beginning of book three, you open it up and you talk directly to the reader. You’re like, no, no, no, this is book three, so just put this down and go back to the beginning and read the other two books. I was like, okay.

Elin: I’m very concerned. I feel like some people maybe are like, I’ll just be opportunistic and if they buy it accidentally, oh well. I am not that person. I am the person who is like, I would like them to have pleasant reading experience where they’re reading book one, book two, and book three where it’s very clear where they are. I know that people have read book three first which just gives me agita, honestly. It makes me upset.

Zibby: That’s so funny. And you have another book coming out soon. You’ve been posting about that one. That’s exciting. It’s coming out in June.

Elin: Yes, I have a book out in June called Golden Girl, which is my summer novel. I was doing two books a year. It has been extremely stressful the last seven years. I’m going back with Golden Girl just to one book every summer. That is my new jam. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all my extra time, but I’ll find something.

Zibby: How did you even get into this? How did you become who you are today? When did you start writing so much and at this rapid pace? How did this whole thing happen?

Elin: Let’s see. How did this whole thing happen? It’s, of course, a longer story. I went to Johns Hopkins undergrad. I was a writing seminars major. A lot of people don’t think of Hopkins as a place where writers are born. However, they do have a dedicated creative writing major. Every week, I would go to a workshop. I had Steve Dixson, Madison Smartt Bell, John Barth, really great writers guiding me. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I went and I sat with Madison Bell. I said, “What do I do? Do I go to graduate school? Do I get a job?” He said, “You have to go out in the world and live, Elin. You have to have experiences. You’re twenty-two.” I moved to New York City. I lived on the Upper East Side. I worked in publishing. I hated it. I thought because I wanted to be a writer, for some reason, that publishing would be my thing. No. I hated it. I needed a job where I would have time, so I started teaching. I taught first in the New York City public schools at IS 227 in Queens. Then I got a better job teaching in Westchester County out of the city. I would commute backwards.

The summer between those two school years I wanted to get out of the city for the summer, and so I decided I would go to Nantucket. I had grown up going to Cape Cod in the summers with my family. I had been to the vineyard in college. I just felt like Nantucket was the natural third point on the triangle. I got a room in a house, fell madly in love with the island. Then after my second year of teaching, I moved back to Nantucket. I’m like, I’m going to live in Nantucket. I traveled in the offseason. I would work during the summer season and then travel. Eventually, after I felt like I had gone out and lived, I applied to the University of Iowa for graduate school and ended up getting in there, miraculously, and went to Iowa and was totally miserable. It’s a very intense place. There’s a lot of competition. I was just very unhappy. I was away from the ocean. I was out in Iowa City. It was bad. One of the ways that I made myself feel better is I started writing a novel that was set on Nantucket. That was The Beach Club.

Then in my final workshop at Iowa, my professor had his agent come. His agent said, “Which one of you lives on Nantucket?” I said, “Oh, that’s me.” It was a small-world coincidence. He said, “Stay and see me after class,” which I wasn’t even going to do because I had my U-Haul packed. I was ready to go, but I decided to. Thank goodness because Michael has been my agent for twenty-one or twenty-two years now. I told him I was working on a book set on Nantucket called The Beach Club. He said, “When you’re finished with it, send it to me,” which I did. At that point, 1999, I’m printing out the novel, sticking it in a box, and taking it to the post office. He read it. He said, “I’d like to represent you. I’m going to make you lots and lots of money.” Who doesn’t want to hear that? This is greatest words ever. He sends the book out, and it gets rejected everywhere. Finally, five months later, he calls and says he has an offer of five thousand dollars. I’m like, is five thousand dollars a lot of money? I can’t quit my job. Since it was the only offer that we had, we took it. The Beach Club was published in the summer of 2000.

Two weeks after it came out, it was People magazine’s book of the week. Immediately, my publisher ran out of copies. This was my first publisher who I think will remain nameless during this interview. I’m not sure. I was frustrated because we were without books for three weeks. This in 2000. You can’t download it on your Kindle. You cannot read it on your iPhone. The copies have to be in the stores. It sold pretty well. I ended up with a two-book deal. Those books did less well. Then I got another two-book deal. Those books did even worse. I got my own publicist for book five, a private publicist that I paid for myself. She did an excellent job. Again, I got People magazine with the picture. It was book of the week and four stars. I was so excited. Again, the publisher ran out of books. I was super frustrated at that point. My agent, same agent, said, “I think we need to switch publishers.” I had Stockholm syndrome and was in love with my captor. I’m like, “I will not switch publishers,” but he persuaded me. I went and had what I call my Cinderella day in New York and met with ten publishers and ended up settling or deciding on Little Brown. Little Brown has turned my last twenty, twenty-one books into New York Times best seller. They did that gradually, Zibby. I didn’t write Crawdads. I didn’t go right to number one. The first book I had that hit number one was Summer of ’69. It was my twenty-third novel. It was an incremental climb and a gathering of readers. It was a very careful, thoughtful process to get to the top.

Zibby: Wow, that is an amazing story. I loved that. That’s amazing. Just that you kept persisting through and kept doing what you do, that’s the greatest part. You had confidence in what you were producing. You just had to wait until everybody caught up with you.

Elin: Yeah, and I don’t think I understood the book business. I didn’t the first five books. Also, publishing was changing too. I can remember with my second book with Little Brown — it was called A Summer Affair. I had a marketing person named Miriam Parker. Now she’s at Ecco. She’s a brilliant woman. At that time, she was like, “We’re going to go to all these blogs. We’re going to get all these blogs.” I’m thinking to myself, I don’t even know what a blog is. Why are we doing this? Why is this where we’re putting our resources? She was a visionary. It came out in the summer of 2008. That was the thing to do. They were very systematic and careful, and they still are, about how they do their marketing and how they get more readers. They’re so impressive. I’m very lucky.

Zibby: That’s great. That’s really awesome. I know that reader response and how people accept and embrace your book is something that’s been really important to you. You have all these devoted fans and everything else. Then when we were communicating about the recent situation with Jane Rosen’s book on Instagram about how a moms’ group turned against her and ended up banning her from the group and canceling her book event, you were up in arms about it. I just wanted to talk to you a little about that.

Elin: I’ve only gotten to the — I’m on page forty of Jane’s book, which I’m so enjoying. I am so enjoying. I have to say, my appetite was really whetted by the fact that this group canceled her. I can’t figure out, because I’m not sure if it comes back up, but I’ve gotten to the part where the Upper East Side group is mentioned.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s it.

Elin: I’m like, was this what ?

Zibby: That was it. The whole thing is on page thirty-nine to forty. The whole rest of Eliza Starts A Rumor has nothing else to do with Upper East Side moms at all.

Elin: That cracks me up. I just feel like, wouldn’t you be excited or laugh? It was very tongue-in-cheek, I thought. I’d be interested to know if I actually know anyone. You live in New York, right, Zibby? You may know somebody in that group. I live in Nantucket. I may know somebody in that group. It felt so overt and unnecessary for them to decide to cancel the book based — especially now that I know what you’re talking about. I thought maybe there was more later in the book that was really scandalous. It’s tough. Also, it’s fiction. Jane very skillfully picks up the essence of things. I’m really, really enjoying her book. I’m also going to post about it. I may, I can’t decide, mention this scandal because I think it will encourage other people to want to read it too. People always like things that are attached to real life, which makes no sense because we are in the business of writing fiction. If it has a real-life scandal attached, so much the better. I predict big things for Jane. I’m really, really enjoying the book.

Zibby: Good. Come to our event. We’re doing an event. I can talk to you about this later. I’m going to do an event with her coming up too. Anyway, back to your books and all that. You open up Troubles in Paradise with a whole gorgeous description of the juiciness of gossip and how it’s like a mango. You debated which fruit to pick and all the rest. There is something just so irresistible about small-town gossip or even big-town gossip. New York City really, in different neighborhoods, is just as much a small town as probably Nantucket wherever you go. How do you use gossip in fiction and in your work in particular to keep the intrigue going?

Elin: Totally. I wrote a novel in — what year did it come out? — 2015 called The Rumor. My purpose with The Rumor had been — there was a lot of gossip going on on Nantucket. There’s always gossip, oh, my god. I’ve lived here twenty-six years. I’ve heard it all. I decided that I was going to write a novel called The Rumor and I was going to put every single person who gossiped on Nantucket in the book. This was my goal. This is exactly, in fact, what I did. I put everybody that gossiped in the book. However, I disguised them so much because they have to fit the narrative. I disguised everybody so well that I am the only person that knows who’s in there. No one has ever come up to me and said, I was the blah, blah, blah in your book. No one has ever said that. Also, if you’re a villainess or whatever, you often will not recognize yourself. That was very satisfying to me because I did, in fact, get to put all the gossipy people in the novel, but nobody knew it.

One of the things about being a mother — you know this. We all know this. Everybody listening to this knows this. It is a very fraught group. The gossip among the moms, it’s mind-blowing. It’s ruthless. I have graduated out of it, which I’m very, very happy to say. My children are twenty-one, eighteen, and fifteen. One of my sons is at college where gossip is no longer an issue. One of my sons is at boarding school. Because it’s sort of remote, I don’t have to worry about any of that. My daughter is fifteen. She’s my third child. I know everybody. I no longer engage in any of the gossip. I almost feel like that is something you do more with your first child and sometimes your second child. By the time you get to the third child, you’re like, you know what, I am so done. Also, with age, I feel like, is this piece of information important to me? The answer is no. I just do not engage in any local Nantucket gossip. I now say that, and I’ll probably be embroiled in a scandal next week. Over the last five or six years since the kids have been to high school, it’s been very mild. It’s something that I think you graduate out of.

Zibby: I think the thing with moms, especially first-time moms or just really — gossip is the grounds of the insecure. It’s the feeding ground. When you’re in a new situation trying to figure out what on earth you’re supposed to be doing with your kids, especially in the beginning, all you want to do is compare yourself to other people and then somehow get that little glint of, not that I’m speaking for myself, but I’ve heard, any sort of little win you can have. Oh, I heard her kid did X, Y, Z. There’s always something to make you feel better when you feel so bad. It’s not any justification for it. It’s not just that the kids are older. It’s that you’re better. You know what you’re doing, and that confidence that comes from surviving.

Elin: Right. That’s the thing. Ideally, you’re the one that has evolved. You are now self-aware. You do not need to be boosted or fed by other people’s misfortunes. I think if you evolve the right way, it’s just live and let live.

Zibby: It’s so true. What you said in the beginning was also super interesting to me. A lot of people grow up wanting to be writers. There really is something to waiting. It’s not a career you can necessarily dive into out of college and go up the ranks. You can go to adjacent careers like publishing or maybe a magazine in the olden days or something related. To just sit down and become a novelist without that wisdom or experience is really tricky. When you’re that age, you don’t want to be told that you have to go live. That’s very annoying to hear because you know what you want. Let’s say your kids now want to go be writers. What do you say to them? What does it mean to go live, really?

Elin: They have to have experiences. They have to travel. We’ve traveled with the kids. My ex-husband and I traveled extensively, lived in Australia, did a bunch of things. They’ve been all over the place. They need to go out and have experiences. They need to have jobs. They need to fall in love. They need to have their heart broken, all of those things. When I started, Zibby, I was pregnant with Max. It was twenty-one years ago. That’s when I started writing The Beach Club. What did I know about life? Not one thing, really. I hadn’t had children. I hadn’t been divorced. I hadn’t had cancer. All of the things that have happened to me over the twenty years that I’ve been doing this, in theory, should have been contributing to the richness and the nuance and emotional integrity of the writing. That’s the best-case scenario. Hopefully, it has. In theory, every book gets better. I’ve also been reading. One of the great things about you and other book influencers like you is that the way we can make ourselves better, the way every single woman can make themselves better, is to read. I definitely believe that. All of the thousands of books that I’ve read over the last twenty years have all contributed also to my work.

Zibby: It’s so true. I think the value of reading is huge. Thank you for saying that about me in particular. It’s so funny. Someone posted today, a little funny thing how she couldn’t keep up with all the details of her family group chat, but she could remember all the details in a multigenerational family saga novel that she read six years ago. I feel like I’m the same way. I can look around and be like, oh, yeah, I totally remember the characters in that book and this book. When it comes to my own life, I have these big blanks. Why do I remember all the stuff about books? It’s the weirdest thing.

Elin: We attach. We escape and we attach. One of the things that I hear a lot from my readers just because I do write escapist fiction is, I’ll hear about the terrible, worst moments of their lives. They’re in the chemo chair. Their parents are dying. They’re at the hospital. Their children have cancer, whatever. They have my book. My book allows them to escape. That is the most humbling experience. I don’t need to write the great American novel. I have no desire to do so. What I’m doing now is so fulfilling just because I’m giving people in a lot of pain, either physical or emotional, a place to go. I find value in that.

Zibby: There’s tremendous value in that. Wait, tell me briefly about your whole experience with your cancer. That sounds terrible. I know you are a breast cancer survivor. I would love to know, in terms of feeding the richness of your work, how did going through that — how did you even manage that when you’re churning out so much fiction at such a rapid pace? Did you stop writing for a while? How did you handle all that?

Elin: The writing was really my, it was my gasoline. I’m very disciplined anyway. I got sick and I just said to myself, I’m not going to stop. I’m going to stop only when it’s absolutely necessary. I was diagnosed in May of 2014. I had a book coming out, The Matchmaker. I had a book coming out on June 10th. My oncologist called. She said, “You have cancer.” You go through a lot of steps. As it turns out, I had to have a double mastectomy. I said to her, “Can we just schedule it for August and preferably after all my social obligations? I have a book coming out. It’s summer in Nantucket.” She was just like, “Elin, reality check, no. You need to have this as soon as possible.” My book came out on a Tuesday, as they do. My book came out on Tuesday, June 10th. Had the double mastectomy on the 13th. I had to cancel all these events. I did a couple events. Then I had to cancel a bunch of events. Then I said to my publicist, “Two weeks after my surgery, I’m going to start back and do a tour.” I did. Twelve days after my surgery, I flew to Chicago. I did two events in Chicago.

I tell this story. Sometimes I cry. I will recover if I cry. The first event, I was on drugs. I don’t even remember it. It was a straight signing, though. The second event was the brown bag lunch at the Cook County Library. There were a hundred women. There were two women up front that had — one had no hair. One had very short hair. At that point, I have drains in which were hidden by my dress. You have drains, which are these horrible things that come out your back. Then they collect the lymphatic fluid. It’s too awful to talk about. I was on oxy and very emotional. Everybody there knew what I had gone through. I’d been on the news. I went on with Gayle King and Norah and Charlie on CBS This Morning. The women come through my line. They say to me, “Elin, we both had double mastectomies. Together, we’ve undergone thirty-six rounds of chemo and sixty-four rounds of radiation. We came today to tell you that you’re going to be fine.” I thought to myself, okay, these women are far sicker than I am. They showed up at my book signing. They are so optimistic and so encouraging.

I really, at that point, felt like they passed me a baton which I held onto for a while. Once I was recovered — I had some bumps in the road and wasn’t really recovered until May of 2015. Then I started speaking at breast cancer events and telling that story. The good thing, I guess, about breast cancer is that the demographic, it’s my demographic of my readers as well, so there was a lot of opportunity for me to connect with other people who were just starting out. I do it all the time on my social media. People will say, my sister has breast cancer. She’s starting chemo tomorrow. I always reach out, always, if I can, personally. I’ve met a lot of really wonderful, wonderful women that way. In some sense, it was a gift, not only because of the connection it gave me with my readers, but also the gut check with what’s important. You and I talked just a little while ago about the gossip. That ceased to be important. Who cares? Nobody. What became important was what was happening with my kids and the truth in my fiction.

Zibby: Elin, you have gone through so much and are such a powerhouse. You can just tell it in the way you speak. You’re just a force. You’re so driven. It’s amazing. I’m so impressed. Were you just born this way? Do you feel like at some point this shifted, or is this just your personality in everything you do?

Elin: You know, I don’t know. I’ve always been disciplined. I do all this crazy stuff. I exercise for three hours every morning. I do that because it’s a discipline that sets up my day. I never ever skip a day. The people in my life like my ex-husband and my boyfriend now, they really hate it because, of course, it takes three hours away from my time. It’s a very important discipline for me because doing what I do, which is writing two books, now one book, a year, requires a laser focus. The time in the morning, it’s the discipline of doing something that — nobody wants to exercise for three hours. Nobody wants to exercise for five minutes. Making yourself do it is setting up a discipline. I’ve always been like that. The connection with the readers is just something that I’ve learned over twenty years. It’s a process. I could be sitting in my basement writing for myself, but it’s so gratifying to have a back-and-forth with my readers. I think they feel the love. They know that I love them very deeply.

Zibby: Wow. Amazing. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors aside from going out and living?

Elin: I think it’s just, you have to stick with it. That’s always what I say. If you’re writing a novel, you start at the beginning. You move through middle. The middle is always tough. There are lots of times when I do not know what’s coming next and it feels scary. That’s when you put the novel in a drawer and you think, I guess I’ll get to it later because I know how it ends. Everyone always knows how it starts and they know how it ends. The challenge is making yourself get through it and moving scene by scene. In a micro sense, I would say for serious writers, you must dramatize. You must have a scene in a location with dialogue and characters and a conflict. That is a scene. My novels are one scene after another after another, but at least I can pinpoint them saying, this is the scene at the beach restaurant where she drops the tray of glasses. Everybody stops. Then the owner asks if she’s on drugs. You need to have dramatization. In a larger sense, you just have to keep going until you get to the end. Then you can always go back and fix it. Wait, Zibby, you have a book coming out. When is your book coming out?

Zibby: I do. February 16th, my anthology.

Elin: Oh, my god. Can we just talk about that briefly before we part?

Zibby: Sure. Yes, I’m super excited about it. I have sixty-plus essays that authors wrote mostly during the pandemic, some a little bit before. It was going to be this whole website goop. I had this whole idea, and that did not happen. I ended up just posting them up on my website during the pandemic. Then afterwards, I was like, wait a minute, I have enough for a book. This is a book, what got published. Then I just sold it as a book. Now it’s coming out.

Elin: It’s called Moms Don’t Have Time To. Then is every essay a different ending to that sentence?

Zibby: No. This book is five different sections. Moms don’t have time to eat, workout, read, breathe, and have sex. The essays are inspired by those topics, but they’re not specifically about them. It’s a personal essay about something. Then I have another one coming out in November where I picked five different things that moms don’t have time to do.

Elin: What a great idea. I have to say, I’m sort of past it now, but it was definitely challenging where moms don’t have to write novels. That would be my essay.

Zibby: If you want to be in the next one… Not that you don’t have enough to do.

Elin: I know. That’s the thing. Moms don’t have time to do anything. I love, love, love. Make sure you send it to me.

Zibby: I will. I will absolutely send it to you. Thank you so much for coming on this show. I loved talking to you and hope to see you in real life.

Elin: I hope so. Bye, Zibby. Thank you.

Zibby: Bye, Elin. Thanks.