Writing her next chapter

Elin Hilderbrand has a life anyone would envy. She has written 21 novels — the most recent of which, this past summer’s “The Perfect Couple,” marks her first foray into murder mysteries. Her books, which have led her to be described as “the queen of the beach reads,” are set on the vacation isle of Nantucket, where for a quarter century she’s made a life of writing at the beach; picnics at Eel Point with her three children, now teenagers; running; and singing “Home, Sweet Home” at The Club Car restaurant’s piano bar. Could anything be more idyllic?

But four years ago, she received a diagnosis that shocked her. “I’m still shocked,” she says. Hilderbrand had four tumors in her right breast and one in her left.

“I never thought it was possible I was sick,” says the author, who will tell her story at the Susan G. Komen New England “More Than Pink” Luncheon Nov. 28 in Darien — an event for which WAG is a co-sponsor. “I was a runner I was a healthy eater….I was blindsided.”

It never occurred to her, however, to do anything but go forward. “I was so busy, writing two books a year and raising three children, who were 13, 11 and 8 at the time.”

On June 25, 2014 — 12 days after her double mastectomy at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston — she was in Chicago for two events, “with drugs and drains in place.

“I wasn’t going to be too sick to go. The rest of the stuff I just powered through. Fortunately, I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation.”

She did, however, get a MRSA infection in her left reconstructed breast, which necessitated the implant’s removal and a lopsided feel for three months until the breast could be reconstructed again. All told, it was a year out of a life that has since been cancer-free. Hilderbrand credits the team at Mass General, which she says was “so good, so professional, so cultured and educated,” along with her children’s nanny and friends.

And perhaps one thing more — the inexorability of deadlines. “I’d love to say writing is an escape, but this is my job. I wasn’t going to let cancer interfere with my life. I had to get a book done. I had to see that my kids were all right.”

Hilderbrand slowed her running. Otherwise, she went on. Still, she acknowledges, “I look back and say, ‘How did I do that?’”

Indeed, her life is so full that she doesn’t write at a particular time of day but whenever she can in longhand, later transferring her prose to a computer. When she’s not writing, she’s reading for her writing. Right now, she’s deep into research for her first work of historical fiction — “Summer of ’69” — a coming-of-age tale told in part from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old girl whose brother goes off to the Vietnam War.

The story of her breast cancer journey remains a constant. “I feel a responsibility (to share it) since I’m something of a public figure,” she says. So she has appeared at events for Mass General, Susan G. Komen, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Hers, she says, is a message of hope.

“As much as cancer takes away, it gives you something and that is a new appreciation for life.”

The Susan G. Komen New England “More Than Pink” Luncheon will be held Nov. 28 at The Water’s Edge at Giovanni’s in Darien. For more, visit komenluncheon.org. And for more on Erin Hilderbrand, visit elinhilderbrand.net.

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