I first met bestselling author, organizer and speaker Mary Carlomagno in the seventies, when she was an adorable toddler and I an awkward adolescent. Our families belonged to the same Central Jersey pool club, where we spent long days (and the rare evening) swimming, playing and picnicking. Each day, our mothers would set up their circle of lawn chairs in a grassy corner where they could monitor our comings and goings from the picnic area to the pool. One summer, Mary’s mother Millie patiently taught me to knit and crochet.
Fast-forward forty-five years or so, when Mary and I virtually bumped into each other over at We Heart Writing, where she describes overcoming the fear of writing her first novel, BEST FRIEND FOR HIRE (Post Hill Press, June 2017).
Mary graciously agreed to take a walk down memory lane, compare organizing closets to the chaos of writing fiction, and chat about her debut novel.
PPD: I’m so happy to have you here, Mary. Let’s dive in, shall we? For my family and many others in our neighborhood, our summers revolved around the pool club. I still remember our member number (602), teen “splash parties” at twilight, and passing our coolers through the cutout in the fence to the picnic area. What do you recall about those summers?
Mary Carlomagno: I remember being carefree and just having pure fun with my friends. My favorite memories include when we would stay late enough to order pizza from Mr. Assante’s. We would wait for the pool lights to come on, and then we would wash our hair with Herbal Essences shampoo and throw on a terrycloth romper. They were simpler times and memories that lasted a lifetime!
PPD: They absolutely have. And now rompers are back in fashion! In recent years, you’ve made quite a name for yourself as an organizer. For those who may be meeting you for the first time, how did structure and organization become your passion? Did you grow up in an organized household?
Mary Carlomagno: I am very structured and organized naturally and I thought that everyone had that innate ability. As you know, growing up in a larger family, it’s important for the kids to be as organized as the parents. And my mom, as you know, was very disciplined with us and created a healthy structure. Many of the habits she taught me as a child still stick today, like being consistent with cleaning up and leaving things where you know you will find them again.
PPD: You’ve written three books about trying to live a simpler life. What is the most difficult challenge your clients face in trying to attain that goal?
Mary Carlomagno: Most of my clients struggle with the everyday buildup of kids’ homework, outgrown clothing and scheduling. I think there is a tendency today to overdo, to over-schedule and oftentimes to buy too much. Organizing is a daily ritual that must be practiced like other common routines: think exercise, eating right, walking the dog, etc…
PPD: That’s such good advice. How do you apply those organizational strategies to your writing? What does leading a ‘simple life’ mean to a writer? How do you know what to save and what to discard?
Mary Carlomagno: Writing is more about creating chaos that needs to be organized. When I write, I write in a frenzied flow, just getting the words down creatively first. I know I can go back and edit later. That’s where my organizing skills come in the most handy, because organizing is really all about editing.
PPD: I probably already know the answer to this, but when it comes to writing, are you a plotter or a ‘seat of the pants’ writer? Is your approach the same for fiction and non-fiction?
Mary Carlomagno: I approach writing as a bit of a chaos creator. I like to flow in the process, not to be too critical. It’s more important for me to get the words down and pretty them up later.
Mary Carlomagno: I had written BEST FRIEND FOR HIRE after my first book and quickly shelved it. I was afraid! My husband finally encouraged me to get the book out of hiding, after I wrote two more organizing books. I was also doing a ton of private client work and wanted to do something more creative with my writing. They say write what you know and for years, I did that. In many ways, BEST FRIEND FOR HIRE is the culmination of all my learnings up until this point as it touches on my early career in book publishing and tackles the crazy world of self-help, where I have been immersed for over ten years.
PPD: The main character in your novel is an organizer of sorts, only in this case she is organizing people. She accidentally stumbles into a career as a professional best friend, by helping friends and strangers straighten out whatever is wrong with their lives. Was that theme intentional?
Mary Carlomagno: The theme was intentional as it draws directly from personal experience! I have had many clients that do want company and someone to ‘hand-hold’ them through the process. I worked in New York City for many years and that can be a very isolating experience for some.
PPD: How does the audience for your novel differ from that of your non-fiction books? Do you have crossover fans?
Mary Carlomagno: This book has brought a new audience, including some that do not know about the non-fiction books, which has been nice! The key thing about the novel is that it be entertaining. I wanted to create a book that makes people laugh and escape for a few hours!
PPD: What’s next on the horizon?
Mary Carlomagno: I am working on selling the option to the movie for BEST FRIEND FOR HIRE. And I still do organizing spokesperson work and workshops, which will continue. I am thinking about the next step for Jesse DeSalvo as well. We usually go hand in hand!
Sounds like things are going swimmingly, Mary! It’s been delightful to reconnect, and I wish you all the best with BEST FRIEND FOR HIRE.