The art of ‘the beach read’
For author Elin Hilderbrand, the art of the beach novel is very much a matter of location. Starting with where she writes. “I write my books in longhand, so I actually work on them at the beach,” Hilderbrand, who sets her bestsellers at home on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, told The Associated Press during a recent telephone interview.
“And all those elements that make for an authentic summer experience, the fetishes that go with summertime — love of that special summer place and the distinction between summer and the rest of the year — these are what I try to depict in my novels.”
The “beach read” is shorthand for disposable page-turners, but Hilderbrand and others who write them have long-held rules and standards: strong characters and narratives, and settings that are compelling and accurate.
Mary Alice Monroe, whose “Beach House for Rent” came out in June, sets her work along the South Carolina coast and calls it a “personal pet peeve” when she reads a beach story and finds mistakes in the description of the landscape.
Monroe believes the “beach read” can be more than an escape. She likes to combine stories of family, friendship or romance with her advocacy for environmentalism. “Beach House for Rent” tells of two women unexpectedly sharing a summer home and the plight of shorebirds that helps unite them.
“What encourages me to keep working is that I know I am making a difference through my books,” Monroe says. “My method when I’m writing a book is to do research and become part of the story I tell. When my readers experience something like a wounded pelican on the beach, or when they see a bird fly off, they experience it, too, because it’s authentic to my life.”
Hilderbrand’s novels include “Beautiful Day,” “Here’s To Us” and “The Matchmaker.” Her next book, scheduled for June, is called “The Identicals” and uses the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard for a family drama about identical twins who are perhaps more alike than they want to acknowledge.
Not many writers, Hilderbrand included, growing up dreaming of publishing “beach reads.” She attended the prestigious writing school at The University of Iowa and found herself among authors more likely to write the Great American Novel than the Great American Beach Novel.
“So here I am, in the middle of the country with all these hyper intellectuals, and I’m so miserable,” Hilderbrand says. “And I decided, to make myself feel better, that I’m going to write a novel set in Nantucket. So I started writing this book called ‘The Beach Club’ based on a local hotel. It wasn’t my intention write a beach novel, per se, but I just went there.
“I imagine they thought I was really silly,” she says of her fellow Iowa students. “I’m laughing all the way to the bank.”
“The Identicals,” by Elin Hilderbrand
“Beach House for Rent,” by Mary Alice Monroe