Elin Hilderbrand Steps Into New Waters After Retiring From Writing Beach Reads (Exclusive)

The bestselling author, known for her Nantucket-based novels, published her final summer book, ‘Swan Song,’ on June 11

<p>Beowulf Sheehan; 2024 Hachette Book Group, Inc.</p> Elin Hilderbrand and the cover of

Beowulf Sheehan; 2024 Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Elin Hilderbrand and the cover of 'Swan Song'

At the June 11 book signing for author Elin Hilderbrand’s new novel, Swan Song, the line of devoted readers, who call themselves the "Hilderbabes," wraps around Books and Greetings in Northvale, NJ. The majority of the event’s attendees are women of all ages, all waiting in anticipation of the author who has long been a meaningful part of their own lives.

“My first book, I read on my 50th birthday on a ferry to Nantucket,” one fan tells PEOPLE of Hilderbrand’s novels. “I was like, ‘This is it for me. I love it.’”

“I save [Hilderbrand’s books] for the summers,” another reader says. “That's the only time I read them, because I feel like they just transport me to Nantucket … If you read one of her books, you've gotten a grasp of a lot of them.”

For Hilderbrand, who arrives at the event dressed in a striped, sunset-esque dress — it’s a tradition for each of her book signings to have a theme color — this new novel is both bittersweet and something of a relief. After writing 27 books based on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, Swan Song, out now, is the last of Hilderbrand's summer-themed novels before she steps away from the genre.

“My retirement, really, is for them,” Hilderbrand, 54, tells PEOPLE, of her fans. “I never want anybody to pick up my book and say, ‘It just wasn't as good as the last one.’ That is not going to happen. I've been watching a lot of people's careers and it's so important how you dismount.”

A beachy beginning

<p>Paul Marotta/Getty</p> Elin Hilderbrand

Paul Marotta/Getty

Elin Hilderbrand

Hilderbrand still remembers the first time she saw Nantucket. It was 1993, and she was on the ferry into town for a visit. People began to stir on the top deck, and as the author looked out onto the water, she saw the island’s two church steeples and sailboats in the harbor come into view. It was infatuation at first sight.

“I was like, ‘I love it here,’” she recalls. “‘I love it here, and I'm never leaving.’”

At the time, Hilderbrand, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was living in New York. Soon, she would quit her job in book publishing and follow a childhood love of writing (she won Best Author of her second grade class) to study at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Hilderbrand still remembers her first published pieces as budding writer — her debut publication, a short story called "Misdirection" in Seventeen Magazine, brought in $800.

Related: PEOPLE Picks the Best Elin Hilderbrand Books to Dip into This Summer

“The rest, it just didn't end up being that easy,” she says. Her 2000 debut novel, The Beach Club, boosted by a mention in PEOPLE, sold out its first run of 2,500 copies, but success came more gradually with her other titles. Her first #1 New York Times bestseller was the 2019 historical fiction novel Summer of ‘69.

As a local on Nantucket, where she moved permanently in 1994, Hilderbrand often references real places, and runs into readers on the daily. Pulling fiction from fact, however, is a delicate dance. Her novel, The Rumor, was inspired by a real experience. When Hilderbrand went to receive a biopsy prior to a breast cancer diagnosis (she is now cancer free, per her website), someone saw her at the hospital. Rumors spread about her having cancer before she even got her results, Hilderbrand says.

"I'm like, 'Okay, I'm writing a novel about all these people who gossip and I'm going to put all these real gossippers in the book, which I did," she says. "But you have to change them so much so that they fit the narrative, [so] that nobody knew who they were except for me."

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When she can, Hilderbrand writes her drafts longhand by the ocean. She didn’t change anything about her process for Swan Song – less out of superstition and more out of knowing what works.

“Every book, successively for the last four or five years, has gotten harder for me to write, because Nantucket is small and I have to have fresh takes,” she says. “And it's hard to get fresh takes on number 27.” The novel, which chronicles the arrival of a mysterious couple on Nantucket, brings back some of Hilderbrand’s most beloved characters for one last adventure on the island. Though Hilderbrand ended her Nantucket novels on her own terms, it was still an emotional milestone.

“I was okay until I wrote the last chapter,” she says. “I cried, and then every time I read it, I cried.”

Stepping into fresh waters

<p>Elin Hilderbrand/Instagram</p> Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand/Instagram

Elin Hilderbrand

For such a longtime literary icon, it’s only natural that Hilderbrand is turning her sights on becoming a book influencer — both through social media, where she often takes to Instagram to promote new authors, and on her podcast, Books, Beach & Beyond, which she cohosts with Nantucket Book Foundation president Tim Ehrenberg.

“I never wanted the listener to feel like they had to go read a book,” Hilderbrand says of the podcast. “I wanted it to be a person [who] they've already read the books.” To date, Hilderbrand has chatted with everyone from Colleen Hoover to Jake Tapper on the program. Sarah Jessica Parker, a dedicated reader who launched her book imprint, SJP Lit, in 2022, recently kicked off season two.

Related: PEOPLE's Best Books of June 2024: Hotly-Anticipated Catherine Newman and Claire Lombardo Novels and More Must-Reads

Hilderbrand, a mother of three, is also writing a book series with her daughter, Shelby. The novels are set in an academy, based upon the boarding school that Shelby attended. Both mother and daughter were fascinated by some of the school’s traditions, including an annual dance that Hilderbrand describes as more akin to a rave.

“At some point in her second semester of her first year, I'm like, ‘We are writing a book about this,’” Hilderbrand says. The two brainstormed characters together, as well as “a universe that's not unlike the Hotel Nantucket.” Hilderbrand recently finished a draft of the first book, and is sending it to Shelby so she can rewrite the dialogue.

“I'm in a new genre world here,’” Hilderbrand says. “It does not sound even remotely realistic if you're not just using the language that the kids use.”

“My kind of novel matters”

<p>Elin Hilderbrand/Instagram</p> Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand/Instagram

Elin Hilderbrand

Long ago dubbed the “Queen of the Beach Read,” the forthcoming novel series marks a new period in Hilderbrand's career. The author admits that she’s had some quibbles with how the beach read genre, and her Nantucket novels in particular, have been received over the years.

“The [words] ‘easy’ and ‘breezy’ or ‘easy breezy’ just drive me crazy,” she says. “I know what they mean. They mean it's not dark, it's not depressing, it's not gritty … It might not even be construed as important, but if you don't connect with the characters, you're not going to turn the pages.”

Related: Here's What Your Favorite Authors are Reading This Summer (Exclusive)

Hilderbrand, who prefers to read literary fiction in her free time, takes the tools she learned in graduate school and applies them to a beach setting. It’s the reason why her stories are both an escape and, occasionally, an emotional reading experience. Amongst the sun and sand, her characters face death, illness and other tough life factors.

Because of this, Hilderbrand has had many meaningful interactions with fans over the years. A mother whose daughter was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting told Hilderbrand that her novels got her through that difficult period. A woman revealed that she was reading the author’s 2017 novel, The Identicals, to her aunt when she died from breast cancer in hospice care. Hilderbrand even carries a letter in her bag from a reader who kept her novels close after experiencing multiple miscarriages and postpartum depression, and who was later inspired to join a book club.

“My books got her back out into the world,” Hilderbrand says. “I read that [letter] because it's so inspiring, but it's also proof that my kind of novel matters, and it has purpose and it has value.”

Looking toward the horizon

<p>Beowulf Sheehan</p> Elin Hilderbrand

Beowulf Sheehan

Elin Hilderbrand

As she welcomes fans in the children’s section of Books and Greetings — taking pictures, complimenting summer outfits and giving her own thanks right back — Hilderbrand is indeed at the end of an era. It’s striking to hear the stories her readers share with her as they come up to her table to have their books signed, and to witness the subtle (and occasionally outright) sadness of one last summer novel event together.

“People have been bringing me presents, which they always sort of brought me presents, but now [they bring] retirement cards, which is so funny because I feel so young,” the author says.

Related: PEOPLE’s Most-Anticipated Summer Books: Best Beach Reads, Thrillers, Fiction, YA and More

But Hilderbrand isn't leaving the Hilderbabes behind just yet. Following her book tour, she will hold weekly signings at Mitchell’s Book Corner on Nantucket throughout the fall for her local devotees. So many show up, however, that the author has had to cap each signing at 135 tickets, in order for her to get out on time. The author is paring down her other events too, like her famous Bucket List weekends, where she joins readers around the island to explore the setting of her books.

“As soon as I get home on June 21, the summer should be very mellow,” the author says. “I do some fun things with my friends and with the kids.” In addition to some much-needed rest, she's also looking forward to the long-awaited TV adaptation of her 2018 novel, The Perfect Couple. The show is set to head to Netflix before the end of the year, and stars Nicole Kidman and Liev Schreiber.

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For Hilderbrand, this last book is also an opportunity to reflect. She thinks back on words of wisdom given to her by a college professor before graduation.

“He said, ‘You got to go out in the world and live,’” she says. “And it is that advice that I give people, and it is that advice that has served me.”

Swan Song is now available, wherever books are sold.

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