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Clutter, Crime, and Calculating Coincidence

By K. L. Romo

“Emily felt as if her life, like a disordered closet, had been suddenly emptied out, assumptions upended. What to toss? What to keep? As if she had choices.”

Emily Harlow is a terrific organizer, starting with her sock drawer. Reorganizing those socks changed her life.

The video-gone-viral of her doing it sparked joy—the only emotion that should support the decision to keep or toss. It made Emily so happy that she and her friend, Becca Jain, started their own decluttering business, with a twist—they take pictures of the discarded items to keep the memory for the owners in a digital archive. Freeze-Frame Clutter Kickers is a huge success.

In keeping with the cardinal rule of decluttering—”You’re only allowed to declutter your own shit”—Emily constantly fights the urge to get rid of her husband Frank’s collections. A compulsive yard-sale shopper, Frank’s incessant second-hand buying has caused a wedge between them. Emily’s mother had advised her to pick her battles in marriage, but “the irony of her upstairs, sorting and culling, and Frank out in the world, hunting and gathering, was not lost on her.”

But life is messy.

When Emily and Becca meet with their new client, a recent widow, to clean out her dead husband’s possessions, they discover something odd in the piles of collectible books, letters, and maps stacked with care in his storage unit. As if that assignment wasn’t enough of a challenge, Emily receives an urgent call to meet after-hours with a potential client in desperate need of help.

Ephron with books that definitely won’t hit the discard pile.

Emily arrives at the home of Quinn Newell and is surprised to find that the beautiful home in the upscale neighborhood isn’t cluttered at all; in fact, just the opposite. It’s filled with vintage collectibles that her own husband would kill for. The only thing Quinn wants to discard is a garage full of her things that her husband won’t allow into the house. Emily knows it’s odd, but she seems to click with Quinn. After a few glasses of Prosecco—Emily’s favorite—they’re even sharing drunken secrets and making jokes about how they could declutter their lives by getting rid of their husbands.

Soon, someone turns up dead.

How could Emily know that those few glasses of champagne would ensnare her in a web of secrets, lies, and murder? Emily must sort the mess she finds herself in before her life is hijacked with no way back.

The unique idea of using domestic conflict caused by collecting (or hoarding?) as the premise for her novel came to Ephron from personal experience.

When I told friends that I was writing a book about a professional organizer whose husband can’t pass a yard sale without stopping, they cracked up. Because that’s my husband,” she says. “Every Saturday morning he’s out there hunting and gathering. Once in a while he drags home something that speaks to my heart. Fortunately, he stores the rest of his treasures (except for books which live in piles all over the house) in our basement, garage, attic, and the trunk of his car.”

Although Ephron says she would “never in her wildest dreams” become a professional organizer, she admits she’s a follower of Marie Kondo’s decluttering advice.

Hallie Ephron

“How can you argue with the advice to ‘keep those things that speak to your heart’?” As long as you keep your grubby hands off my stuff. “I followed her advice and transformed my sock drawer. There was something so satisfying about turning so many oddly shaped garments into tidy little rectangles that seem to stand at attention whenever I open that drawer. No more foraging for that elusive pair of charcoal gray socks—they’re as easy to find now as a pumpernickel bagel in a tray of plain. But it does take longer to put them away.”

Ephron says her favorite piece of Kondo’s organizing advice in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is to “Treat your socks with respect.”

“Sadly (or perhaps not), you can’t fold your husband (or KonMari their stuff),” Ephron says. “For the longest time, the working title of my book was Folding Frank.”

One of Kondo’s golden rules is to discard anything that doesn’t spark joy. But how far can one go? According to Ephron, “my toilet plunger does not spark joy but I’m not getting rid of it. Ditto my eight-year-old Honda Civic, even though a new Lexus would spark joy. Life can be untidy.”

Although mainly written for entertainment, Ephron admits “I did want to write about the complicated ways we relate to stuff, what motivates people to collect, and why people have so much trouble getting rid of things.

   “One day I’m going to need it…

It reminds me of…

I’m sure it’s worth something, and one day I’ll get around to selling it…

It’s part of my collection of…

“I’d hoped that, after I put so many of the things my husband actually collects in the novel, he might be willing to part with them. No such luck.”

CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR is Ephron’s sixth novel.

Ephron recently won the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions and dedication to the New England Crime Bake, a conference for New England crime writers and readers.

“Back in 2002, the New England chapters of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime put together their first annual volunteer-run conference. It was focused on supporting crime fiction from New England authors,” she says. “The first year it was a one-day affair held in a college auditorium. Jeremiah Healy was the guest of honor. These days the conference runs three days with writer panels, agent pitching, manuscript critiques, master classes (I’m giving one this year on writing suspense), forensics speakers, and a banquet. Past guests of honor have included Robert B. Parker, Janet Evanovich, and Walter Mosley. This year it will be Ann Cleeves. It’s always a fabulous conference.”

What is Ephron’s favorite psychological thriller of all time?

“Going way back, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle made its mark. It’s creepy. A story about a family. Sisters. With an unreliable narrator long before Gone Girl. I once had a cat named Merricat, named after the main character,” she says.

Ephron also shared something ironic for a thriller writer: “I’m a big baby when it comes to reading creepy books or watching scary movies.”


K. L. Romo
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