Sitting down with the DiMarcos feels a little like staring at a lit match: they’ve been struck by something that’s ignited them, they’re passionate about speaking truth and they’re full of potential. We recently sat down with Hayley, Michael (and their sweet little daughter) to discuss the journey that brought them together and to where they’re headed…
Family Christian: We like to begin our interviews with a little background. Where are the two of you from and how did you meet?
Hayley DiMarco: We’re both actually from Oregon, but we met when I was living in Nashville and he was living in Washington state. We met on the internet.
FC: Through a service?
Michael DiMarco: Yes, hotchristianwives.com (laughs).
Michael: Yes, but don’t give them free advertising—until they write us a check (laughing).
Hayley: Yes, so we both grew up there and then he started working and moved to Bellingham. And I went to work for Thomas Nelson in Nashville. I started there just as a lowly sales person, helping in the sales department, and then started working on their teen brand. That’s when the Extreme Teen Bible and all of that stuff was just starting. This is kind of an interesting story because it started selling really well. Ya’ll up here really liked it. And the buyers up here were like “What else do you have for teens?” So all of the publishers at Nelson, seven of them, started to get together around a table, and I was there, and they started talking. And I said, “We should create a brand.” And they said, “Oh that’s interesting.” And then I said, “I want to be the brand manager.” And they said, “What’s that?” because they had literally never heard of it.
Michael: Which is subtext for “you’re hired.” Before Hayley got to Nelson, she was with Nike in Portland, helping them create sales tools and stuff like that, so they listened to her.
Hayley: Yes, so that is what I came from, it was what I was trained in. So I wrote up a job description and showed it to them. They said “That sounds good. Why don’t you do it?” So then I became the brand manager for the Teen Extreme for Jesus brand. And we did pretty well. After two years, we sold $9 million worth of product (just in that brand). So that was pretty successful and it let people know who I was a little bit. So then I was looking at a lot of the content and thought some of the products that were coming through could use a little help. So I started rewriting some of this stuff and pretty soon started writing it and it started selling better than the other product that we had for teens. And so I thought maybe I should start doing this on my own; maybe I should go out and write exclusively.
Hayley: So I left and I shopped eight titles, which was kind of shocking to go out and say “I want to write eight books.” And so every published looked at me like “What? We’ll do one of them.” But Baker said, “We’ll take them all.” So I said, “Let’s go!” And that stared with Dateable, and it just kind of took off. And so right when Dateable was launching, we met on the internet. I always joke to everybody, but I did a kind of “executive” search. And some people look at me like I’m a dangerous woman, and some people admire me. I wanted someone that would work with me. I didn’t want to see him in the morning and at night, I wanted him all day.
Michael: This is a cold, calculated love (laughing). She couldn’t pay well; the salary was affection and a promise to grow in her cooking skills.
Hayley: So I saw his profile and he was working for Logos Bibles Software, he was speaking, he was traveling. I was like “Oh, he could travel with me.” He was writing. He had an active blog. And so that was kind of how it all came to be and how we met online.
FC: So Michael, you were in Bellingham at this time?
Michael: Yes, I was working for Logos Bible Software – traveling around, making presentations at seminaries and pastors’ conferences and churches, training ministry leaders like Kay Arthur at Precept and her crew [on] how to use the Bible study tools for their research and writing as a time saver and things like that. So, I was traveling 10-15,000 air miles per year and Nashville was one of my ports of call. So I actually signed up for the whole Christian dating service as just kind of a joke—a joke between me and God because I felt like I had lived a pretty wild life in my twenties and into my early thirties. I was finally good with not dating anyone and living for Christ through my job, but felt convicted. I didn’t want to, but I felt God was leading me to look for someone that was a believer and was living out their faith for the first time in my life. So, I thought as a joke, I would joke with God and I signed up for a free 7 day trial for the service. And I was amazed that I didn’t do anything and all these nice Christian women started emailing me. I was like, “Whoa!” I wasn’t ready for that. But I got all these matches and they were all like 50, 60% match. And on the eighth day of my seven-day trial, I get an email with an 83% match, and that was Hayley. And so God’s sense of humor returned to me, and I had to pay to contact [her].
Hayley: But I was [still] in my free trial. I never had to pay!
Michael: Yes, she was still in her free trial, so we overlapped within fourteen days at least. Because I did a lot of work with Precept, that’s how we got to meet. Had a horrible first date—it wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t good. I decided to dump all of my past on our first date just as a big disclaimer.
Hayley: Which didn’t bother me... I didn’t care about any of his sordid past. But I just cared that he didn’t let me talk. He talked the whole time! (laughing)
Michael: Well, I had a lot to get out and a short amount of time. Our second date was actually at ICRS (Internation Christian Retailing Show) when she was promoting Dateable in Orlando in 2003. That’s why we’ve been back to ICRS every year. Not so much to have meetings, but just as an anniversary. (There’s something about Kerusso t-shirts...) We got married New Year’s Day 2004. I was still working for Logos, but now I was commuting from Nashville. She was very sneaky. I was like a frog in a frying pan. I was keeping Hungry Planet stuff separate. That was hers. I had my deal. And she would bring me book cover comps from the publisher and say, “I don’t think I like this,” or would just play the damsel in distress thing with writing, editorial, branding.
Hayley: I wasn’t playing. I just needed your help.
Michael: What? You weren’t playing me? Miss Executive Search? (laughing) So, I ended up quitting my job with Logos and tackling the branding, marketing and design side of things, and then she drew me into the writing side.
FC: So, do you either of you have Christian upbringing?
Hayley: We were Lutheran, if we were anything. We went [to church] for Christmas and Easter. I always loved Jesus. I think I went to VBS and stuff like that, so I always loved Jesus and believed he was the Son of God and all that. But I went to a Catholic high school and they taught me a lot what you had to do to be saved, and I couldn’t do it. I had to be too perfect. So by the time I was in college, I was sad because I didn’t think I was saved.
Michael: Immersed in moralism.
Hayley: Right. So I was driving limousines in Portland…
Michael: Oh wait, wait, wait. Before you get to that, you have to tell them about the weekly evangelist…
Hayley: Yes, okay, so literally every weekend I would watch Jimmy Swaggart… all through high school and college and [I would] accept Christ every weekend. I thought I had to do it every weekend, because during the week I would mess up. I wasn’t a bad kid. I wasn’t doing drugs. I just wasn’t perfect. And I wanted to be perfect, so I just kept accepting Christ. By the end of college, I was like, “Ugh, I’ve been doing this for like eight years and I still don’t fell like anything has changed.” So I was driving limousines and I decided I was going to get a little more wild, which to me was cussing and stuff. I was thinking of drinking, but I had one drink. So this boy I liked that was a limo driver said to me—because I told him I was a Christian—he said, “If you’re a Christian why do you cuss like a sailor?” And I said, “I just figure if I’m going to hell I might as well have fun on the way.” And he was like, “What? What are you talking about?” And he said a weird statement which probably doesn’t relate to what I was thinking, but he said, “Don’t you know that once you’re saved, you’re always saved?” I must have told him about Jimmy Swaggart. And I was like, “What?” And he had an old Bible that had writing all over it, and he opened it up and showed me Romans 10:9, “If you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth, you will be saved.” I stood up and I put my hands on my hips and I screamed, “What? You’ve got to be kidding me! I am 27 years old and no one has told me this?” I’d been begging people to tell me this. If I had just known that, my life would have been different. And that was it. That was my conversion. That was my acceptance. That was it. So he gave me the Bible and said, “Here, you need this,” and he laughed. I read it from cover to cover in three months. I lost my job at the limo place because I was leading Bible studies and converting everyone. And the owner was a Jew. He used to come and talk to me and say, “What are you doing?” and I’d say, “The Bible says this, this, and this.” I’m telling everyone. And he’d say, “Just a minute,” and he’d call his rabbi. He’d come back and tell me and I’d say, “No, no. The rabbi’s wrong,” and I’d show him in scripture. And he’d go back and talk to the rabbi and pretty soon he just said, “I’ve got to lay you off,” and he got rid of me. That was the point where I decided I’m going to tell the world this because they need to know. I shouldn’t have had to wait so long. I’ve got to tell them. And that was the fire behind having a teen brand because that was around the age where I was lost. I have to tell these guys. They want to know. I know they want to know. Who doesn’t want to know? They all do whether they know it or not.
Michael: I was raised in an old school religious home too—Catholic. For me, it was all about being a good boy. My mom wanted me to be Pope and I liked girls too much so that wasn’t going to happen… (With a side-eye toward his daughter) and someday we’ll have a child that I will truly love (laughs). I’m just dreaming. But it could happen.
Daughter: It already did happen. (Punches Michael in the stomach)
Michael: Obviously, we home school because we’re so good with kids. Aren’t we!? (laughs) So, that’s how I was raised. I was raised to be a good boy. I was the youngest of six kids in an Italian-Irish family. No passion, no temper. I grew up trying to be a good boy. Instead of watching Jimmy Swaggart every weekend, I went to a Young Life group just because all the cute girls went to Young Life. (Daughter laughs) So uh, not many filters in our house. So there was a brief gospel presentation with crazy singing and a skit. It was probably the worst gospel presentation ever, but it made sense. And I said, “Oh, personal relationship with Jesus, that’s something I haven’t heard at church,” and I thought, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” And literally in like ten seconds, bow your head and everybody pray. And it was just kind of a quick prayer to get to the snacks. I prayed the “magic prayer,” and then I went and had snacks. I really didn’t tell anybody, but then started attending a Baptist church in Eugene—a great church. The college pastor there at the time is still there after like twenty-five years. Unfortunately, kind of like Hayley going to college and not processing the gospel right, I just saw it as [just changing from] a Catholic to a protestant moralism, “Well now I’ve gotta practice this, do everything right while I had a personal relationship. And living that kind of moralism leads to destruction and weakness. So in college I basically lived a double life. I said one thing but lived another until right after I turned thirty-two. It was in my early thirties that my life had devolved into a secret life. Part of the secret private life was gambling. It was where I went to escape the life that I had come to hate in public. It involved me getting arrested from work for stealing. And it was in a jail cell where there was an old, tattered—it was so cliché… I love God’s sense of humor because just like the dating story, I looked at this old, tattered Bible sitting there, and I’m just like, “Really, God? Really? I don’t want to have one of these cliché moments. I don’t want to have a Chuck Colson moment.” So I pulled it out, opened the Bible and it opened up right to 2 Corinthians 5:17 “Therefore if any man is in Christ he is a new creation. The old is past away. Behold, the new has come.” So the cool thing was, from right there, I knew I was a new creation. I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t striving to be perfect. So, for me, that was totally new. And so within six months, I basically said, “I want a job where I can learn more about God and His Word. So within four months, I had an entry level job. I went from making really good money in my prior career to getting an entry level, hourly customer service job at Logos Bible Software answering phones and technical questions because I got a free copy of their scholarly library that was worth like six hundred bucks for their Greek and Hebrew tools. I did that during the day, and then I studied at night and they moved me up to doing what I did when I met Hayley. It’s been incredible.
FC: Let’s talk about Hungry Planet. What is it? Hayley, you started it first, right?
Hayley: Yes. It started with me when I was at Nelson as I kind of “assessed” the state of youth publishing. I felt like it was a little bit anemic. I thought, I can either stay here at Nelson and build this brand or if I left, yeah I want to write, but maybe I can get out and help other authors, publishers and stores even. So I came up with this idea of Hungry Planet that would be just kind of a—I don’t know what I was calling it at the time—but, I started contracting to help ministries and publishers and anyone who wanted help reaching that audience that we had started to reach so well. I was looking for authors that might not get a voice because they wrote for teens, which wasn’t a huge market at the time. And so that was the beginning of it and at the time I worked a few initial titles like Dateable. Since then, when Michael has come on, everything was in the beginning of changing and it’s kind of just morphed. He can tell you a little about that.
FC: So the premise behind it was basically to help build awareness, or it was more of a gathering place for those authors?
Hayley: No, I wanted to build an awareness. I wanted to build a category. I felt that when you walked into a store, there were so few titles to choose from. And a lot of them were adult titles with “for kids” stamped on there.
Michael: Or stuff that looked like it was designed in 1992. There are other quality titles that come out in the youth category, but they tend to gravitate toward either the student/teen edition. Like Not a Fan Teen Edition. Great book and it’s selling really well, but once again it wasn’t created specifically for teens from its genesis. And that’s what we’ve wanted to do. The other titles that have been good and have succeeded in the marketplace are generally personality driven or amazing story driven. Not amazing story-telling, but for instance an amazing testimony like Bethany Hamilton. Great content. Great story. Very touching story of God at work in her life through tragedy. But that’s pretty much what you have there, and you don’t really have any authors or content creators that are dedicating their lives to creating content just for that market. Well, there are a few. But to answer your question about Hungry Planet, I think that I would explain it as there’s the content creation side and then there’s the B to B side, which is consulting with churches, businesses, publishers, retailers or ministries about connecting to youth through the written word and visual stuff. Like, I consulted as a marketing consultant for Teen Mania for six months for their Acquire the Fire tours and things like that, so even teen ministries that seem to have it figured out, if they hit kind of a rough patch, we’ll come in and do that. Even titling and branding, David Kinnaman’s latest book You Lost Me, I titled that book for him. He has a pretty funny blog post about going through the titling with the publisher and me calling him and saying, “Hey, I have a title for your book.” He hated it, and he was like, “then I loved it.” So it’s kind of two-fold. We want to do more on the consulting side and helping ministries and retailers and publishers, but the funny thing is we found that it’s a chicken and egg sort of thing. There’s not a lot of market for it. Or it’s a smaller category. But on the content side, we’re proving that it can be profitable, it can be successful. We had five of the top ten on the July CBA bestseller’s list. We’ve got the top three, and five of the top ten, and two in the top fifty of all Christian titles with Devotions for the God Girl and Devotions for the God Guy. So, we’re doing it, but the thing is we don’t want to have all of that success to ourselves. It’s an important category. At times we feel like we’re Don Quixote, charging at the windmill—literary reference—but it’s a worthy pursuit, and all the while our readers are aging out of the teen years. Not emotionally, but physically (laughing). So, we are doing more and more adult titles now.
FC: Great segue. So now that your original core age-group has begun to grow up, how has that transition gone? Are you strategically writing for those aging into adulthood, or are you just feeling like God is moving you in that direction?
Michael: Strategically we made the decision a couple of years ago to start writing all of our youth books so that adults could read them. So, number one, we did that. There are men’s groups and women’s groups at churches that are going through God Guy and God Girl because they bought it for their son or daughter and started to read it as a good parent will, to look at the content. And they’re like, “Oh, this is good.” So, like, Hayley’s going to speak at a church where their women have been going through Devotions for The God Girl as their daily devotion. We intentionally did that because we dipped into the waters of the adult market a few years back and what we kind of already suspected is true, it’s way more competitive there. The funny thing is in the adult market, it’s all based on platform. Like whom you’ve heard of. There’s good storytelling, there’s good writing there, but most of it is “Who has a big church? “Who has a radio ministry?” And we don’t have that. Even through social media, if you remove all of the duplicates between all of our Facebook and Twitter followers, we’re probably looking at a reach of 500. Literally! (Laughing) If we were coming out with a book right now with no backlist and go to a publisher they’d say, “Well, it’s a really good idea and yeah, it’s a needed topic, but you’ve got no platform.” It’d be like, “Are you a youth pastor anywhere?” “No.” “Okay, well how many Twitter followers do you have?” “Well, I’ve got about 400 or so and I think some of them are just spam that follow me, or they confuse me with some psychologist in New York named Michael DiMarco.” So, literally, our success has been based on—and this is why we’re huge fans of Christian retail is because you all get us, we think, and put our books on the shelves and a lot of times they’re face-out. We try and create books that sell themselves, but in the Christian Living section, that’s a huge area to not have a platform. So what we decided was, “Okay, in order to keep doing books that we believe in and the topics we believe in, we’re going to start our youth books so that adults can read them.” So that way we can reach adults through the books that we sell in the youth department. Now we’re starting to see some movement and Die Young has been a good indicator of that because, it isn’t selling at the same rate as God Girl and God Guy, it had a really good launch. So we’ll see if it has legs, but that’s the intentionality that we’ve gone through.
FC: So let’s talk a little bit about Die Young. What’s the premise behind it, the thought process?
Michael: (To Hayley) Do you want to talk about the human laboratory?
FC: To preface this, we should say that the videos that you guys did…
Michael: They’re bad, aren’t they?
FC: No, ha! There are moments where you guys share some rather vulnerable things.
Hayley: There’s a lot that goes into our books, but that’s kind of where our books come from. We allow our life to be a petri dish for God. Our life explodes a lot. We have a lot of explosions, and in each one of those we’ll talk it out as far as, “What is God trying to teach us in this individually?” So Die Young came from that concept that we are two human beings who are going to clash, and what God wants us to do is die to ourselves. Not to keep the argument going. Not be comforted. Maybe sometimes we don’t even work it out, but the impetus behind the book was just this notion that if you can die to yourself, there’s no longer anything that can harm you, nothing can attack you, nothing can destroy you—because you’re just living for Him, and He cannot be destroyed or stopped. We’ve just had to work that out in our marriage because when we were first married, as we say in the book, I bought plates at the dollar store and threw them against the wall to get rid of my anger, and he got a punching bag. We didn’t know what to do. We were living for ourselves. That’s the average American, we live for ourselves.
Michael: The whole thing of ‘deny yourself and pick up your cross daily and follow Me.’ Picking up the cross is not a triumphant visualization. It’s not a ‘pick up your overnight bag because we’re going on an adventure.’ It’s a death march. And that’s what we’re called to do. We’re asked to joyfully do that as well, that it’s a joyful act to die to ourselves. A three-letter version of the word self is sin—that self is steeped with sin. One of the confirming books that I have to give a shout out to, that didn’t breathe into this book but was confirming that we were onto something when we were conceptualizing and started to write was when David Platt’s Radical came out. I had met David when he was still at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in their homiletics department when I was traveling with Logos Bible Software. When I saw that book come out and that it actually resonated with people, I was like, “Okay, so there is hope for this” because we really feel like the concept of dying to self, dying young, which means dying to yourself anytime before your actual physical death, is young. So if you’re 77 and you’ve decided then to die to self, that’s young enough. We felt like this was the underpinning, the foundational principle underneath everything that David was writing about in that book. Without dying to self, why would you go? Why would you care about unreached people groups? Why would you care about that instead of the American dream? It’s a death to ourselves and our self interests that really gives life to the Great Commission.
FC: As you guys write books, are you writing them as a result of change in your own life or are you writing them because you are seeking change?
Hayley: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s because we’ve seen something. It’s like, you can see through the ice. I can see a little light and so we start to research and study the topic because we’ve experienced it, even momentarily perhaps.
Michael: I think it’s a three-stage thing. We’ve discovered some need for it; we’ve exercised some mastery of the topic. And then once we exercise that mastery and we’ve done the biblical research on the topic and also the internal, spiritual research, we realize we don’t have this mastered at all. We’re so far away from it. It’s like, “Oh there’s this problem, here’s the solution.” And it really is a solution, but then in finding the solution, we realize we’re nowhere near close enough to dying to ourselves, nowhere near close to unstuffing our life of the idols in our life and things like that. So it’s like that progression that Paul takes in the New Testament in his epistles—chronologically he calls himself the least of all apostles, and then the least of all brothers or believers, and his last reference that’s similar to that is when he calls himself the worst of all sinners. And so, did he backslide through all of this? No, he just has a greater realization of his sin and a greater realization of his need for Christ and the gospel. So I think that breathes into how we write our books. Like, the worst part is doing interviews on Die Young. We already did that. We already wrote that. Now we have to dig this up again. (laughs)
FC: So in your process of going through life right now, whether it’s at a conference or Hungry Planet or writing a book or seeing a book launched, you guys have the ability to not only speak to the church, at least here in the west, maybe outside the U.S. as well. What do you guys think about the church right now?
Michael: I don’t know if I have a public answer for this. That’s an interesting question. Platt wrote a lot about the American dream. I think his observations regarding our love and pursuit of the American dream are spot on. But I would go from that sniper position to maybe more of an atomic bomb position. I think it’s not just the dream, but specifically for the U.S., it’s our feelings of entitlement to the pursuit of happiness which is etched in our founding documents that is wholly un-Biblical. I think every Christian should have a declaration of dependence, not independence. I think the church would be smart – and I’m giving this out for the public domain, some pastor, some other author can write it, I don’t have any problem with that – I think we need a declaration of dependence on Christ. We should not be entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I think we all should declare our dependence of death of self, servant hood, not liberty, a bond servant to Christ, who bought and purchased us with His blood. So we belong to Him. We don’t belong to ourselves. And the pursuit of holiness, instead of the pursuit of happiness. That’s our underpinning as far as all of us as Christians should be pursuing. The most common thing we see within churches is muscle memory to the contrary, but a heart that resonates with this idea. I think when people hear these ideas, they’re like, “Yes, that resonates.” We have a culture that has created muscle memory to the contrary. We visit a lot of churches. With the disclaimer that this might not be the right heart, we might be at fault here, but one of the first things I personally, I think Hayley does as well, is when we walk into a church, we say, “Where are the prostitutes and tax collectors?” And if we see those in a church, that encourages us. And I’m saying figuratively, not like they have a section cordoned off with signage, near the narthex. I think we have slipped into “church as country club” mentality or social club. I think the church is doing a really good job of taking care of our own and a lousy job at defining who “our own” is. Lousy is probably too strong of a word for print—a less than stellar job.
FC: Ok, one last question. What artists do you listen to? What kind of music, Hayley, are you listening to?
Hayley: I prefer worship music. I like Kari Jobe, she’s my favorite.
Michael: An unknown band out of Buna, Texas, (like tuna spelled with a B), called the Micah Tyler Band. I think local radio is giving them some play down there. They’re really good. They’re working on their first studio album right now up in Nashville where we’re at. Great guys.
FC: And you? (Speaking to Michael) Who are you listening to?
Hayley: He’s eclectic.
Michael: I tend to listen to artists that come up in the news for whatever reason. I tend to listen to people that I know personally, like the Micah Tyler band because I know the guys and I know their hearts, so there’s a connection there. I listen to a lot of old stuff from when I was growing up like when Robin Gibb died, I had Pandora on and had the Bee Gees channel streaming. In living in Nashville, I listen to a lot of country music. We were listening to 70s and 80s music on XM driving up from Nashville.
FC: Well, we can’t say enough good about what you are doing for your genre and the Kingdom. We really appreciate the time you’ve taken to sit down with us today. Here’s to many great books and years to come!