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Last week, the Boston.com Book Club hosted a virtual discussion with author and “The View” co-host Sunny Hostin on her new novel, “Summer on the Bluffs.” Moderated by award-winning writer Deesha Philyaw, author of “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” our conversation covered Hostin’s writing process, the real-life places on Oak Bluffs that inspired her, why “love is at the center of everything,” and Black excellence.
Ahead, we share the top takeaways from the event, and you can also watch the full recording here.
Sunny Hostin has been summering on Oak Bluffs for many years. Every day, she takes a walk along the same seven-mile route, which winds by a home that has always caught her eye. She started imagining the people who lived in the home and what their stories might be. She wondered: If someone were to inherit a home like this, what history and secrets might they inherit, too? Later, it would become the inspiration for Chateau Laveau, which Hostin considers to be the main character of her novel.
“In my mind, love is at the center of everything,” said the author. “I wanted to explore relationships. It’s meant to be a light, beach read, but if we are exploring the lives of Black folks, it has to be nuanced; it has to be complicated. And at its center, is our love for each other.” Hostin expertly weaves together depictions of the love between family members, friends and especially Black married couples, because that kind of Black love is not showcased nor celebrated nearly enough.
Hostin is a voracious reader of nonfiction and African American history and—hearkening back to her tenure as a federal prosecutor—did thorough research when developing her characters to make sure she got every detail right.For example, she took the time to figure out what a woman like Ama, elegant and self-made, would collect and have as hobbies. Ama collects fine art by Black artists and keeps bees for the sake of sustainability. She is a beacon of Black excellence and the image of her character grew and changed as Hostin gleaned more knowledge.
Hostin’s memoir was painful for her to write, but the words came to her easily, since she was recounting her own life. This novel, however, was a different experience entirely. She was able to create her own world and have control over that world and also learned how to speak through characters. “I told my editor one day toward the end, ‘I’m freaking myself out! I’m alone at home and I’m having conversations with these people in my head,’’ said Hostin. “I was feeling weird and she said, ‘No you’ve become a writer. Your characters have become real to you,’ and I think that’s how it changed me. This, I felt, made me a writer, made me a creative.”
Hostin typically covers social justice stories as a co-host of “The View,” which can often skew heavy, and when she was looking for books that she could escape into (and one that featured successful Black women at the fore) she couldn’t find nearly enough. So she decided to write her own, despite some skepticism. She knew that there was an audience of readers anxiously awaiting a book like this one.
Every location Hostin included in the novel is a real place on the Vineyard—so you can use the novel as a guide when planning your next island getaway.
While she originally suspected it to be Perry because she too is an Afro-Latina woman married to a doctor, Hostin’s favorite character is Ama—the elegant godmother—for her complexity and her agency. The author fell in love with Ama for her unapologetic nature.
A self-proclaimed “nice Catholic girl,” Hostin didn’t plan to include any sex scenes in the novel.
“My editor said, ‘I love the pages—where’s the sex?’ And I said, ‘There’s no sex,” and she’s like, ‘It’s a beach read, they’ve got to get it on,’” said Hostin. “That was very difficult for me to write actually; I blush when I read it now.”
Hostin was pushing to dismantle the notion that Black men are a monolith. Even when just considering the differences between characters Omar (based on Hostin’s loving husband) and Carter (based on her father), readers can gain a better understanding. “Our men are so complex, and I am surrounded by strong Black beautiful men,” said the author. “I’ve got to really show the world the full picture of these Black men.”
Called the Summer Beach Series, all of the books will take place in historically Black beachfront communities. The second novel—which Hostin is about 150 pages into at the moment—will take place in Sag Harbor, New York, and the third will be set in Highland Beach, Maryland.
Hostin’s mother once told her that “we are as sick as our secrets” and the author used that piece of wisdom as a starting point for her story, giving each character a secret early on in the writing process and then expanding the plot from there.
The author will carve out a couple of hours during her busy life to just write. From 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., she heads into her office and plans to write then no matter what, even if it’s forced at times. She believes this is the best way to finally finish a book.
“It was meant to be aspirational,” said Hostin. “It’s a love letter to Black love in all its forms…I hope people will take away from it that this world exists. I hope that they will visit the Vineyard…and I hope more people are encouraged to write their stories.”
Learn more about the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival here.
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