Listening to Mitch Albom tell a story is like reading from a page in his New York Times best-seller “Tuesdays with Morrie”: He speaks in a descriptive, telling tongue that takes you directly to the place he is talking about.
Albom recently hopped on the phone to discuss “Morrie”; the 15th anniversary of his first novel, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”; and an upcoming speaking tour, “Unscripted: A Celebratory Evening with Mitch Albom.”
The five-city tour and coincides with the release of a sequel to “Heaven,” called, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven.”
Albom, 60, talked about his latest book and his experiences in media over the course of four decades.
Q: What initially got you into writing?
A: I was a late bloomer to writing. I was a musician for most of my younger life and even my early professional life. I never really wrote anything. I didn’t write for my school newspapers or any of that kind of stuff. I was in New York and I was a musician at night and was looking for something to do during the days. I volunteered at a local newspaper in Queens, New York, because they said they needed help. It was a free position. I had never really written any journalism before but I wrote my first story and found I had some aptitude for it. And I’ve slowly been in writing ever since.
Q: You do radio, television, plays, music and more. What medium is your favorite?
A: I would say that writing is still my favorite thing to do — to just sit by myself with a blank screen in front of me and try to create something just one on one with the page. It is still a great challenge to me. It really is the embodiment of creating something from whole cloth. When I sit by a piano, I can just put my hands down on the keys and I’ll get something. When I’m on radio or television and they roll the camera, you’re already there, you can just start speaking. In writing, nothing happens until your brain starts diving into those waters of taking an idea to a concept, a concept to a character, a character to a story, a story to your fingertips and your fingertips to the keys and coming on to the screen that way. There’s still something magical about that after all this time.
Q: Did you always anticipate branching out from sportswriting? Or did “Tuesdays with Morrie” lead you down that direction?
A: I never envisioned branching out from sportswriting and I never envisioned being much of a book writer in my younger years. “Tuesdays with Morrie” kind of led me by the nose right out of sportswriting and right into a whole different world that I had never imagined. I only wrote “Tuesdays with Morrie” to pay my old professor’s medical bills. It was hard to find a publisher that even wanted to publish the book. I just did it so that we could get the money to pay his bills and I was definitely planning to return to my life as a sportswriter and have “Tuesdays with Morrie” be an aberration on my otherwise sports-filled resume. Then life happened. Life apparently had different plans. And so did that book.
Q: What is your favorite thing about writing about sports? What is your least favorite?
A: My favorite thing is to be able to capture in words the excitement, the drama, the agony. All the things that happen with a sporting event where it comes to a finish. Especially if I can do that in a sport that people hadn’t heard of before. I’ve written stories about the dog sled race, or about the Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, or traveling with a minor league baseball team on the busses for a week. There’s so much already done about the NFL, Major League Baseball. There’s hardly any new stories there and access is so limited. Some of the most fun things I did were when I was with the U.S. luge team and running around from one track to another in an icy, little ski resort in Europe. When you get a chance to bring that thrill of competition to people through your words and through something they maybe haven’t seen before, it’s fun.
The least favorite part is interacting with modern-day athletes who act as if the media is there to carry their bags for them. And very young athletes, especially, who really have no history or appreciation of what sports journalism has been and the days when sports journalists were the only way readers around the world found out about things. To account for the attitude that people have towards it now, especially young athletes who just think Twitter is the beginning and the end of journalism-that is definitely my least favorite part of the business.
Q: How are you able to inspire/touch so many people with novels that revolve around death, a naturally-grim subject?
A: Well, I don’t agree with that. I don’t really think I write about death. I always say if you take the average thriller or cop story, more people die in 50 pages in one of those books than ever die in any of mine. Blood. Guts. Gore. I don’t do anything like that. I use death to reflect back on life. But I found as a writer and as a human being we tend to not want to think about what’s really important in life until we accept the fact that it’s not going to go on forever. For example, I always reference “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I love that movie. Most people would not describe “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a movie about death, right? But right from the beginning, he jumps off a bridge and tries to end his life. It’s only through the angels showing Jimmy Stewart what the world would be like without him that you get to the conclusion that is embodied in the title “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I look at my books the same way. There’s usually a death involved in them, often at the beginning. But it’s usually one death and that death is used to illuminate life. And I think the reception that I’ve had from readers around the world is because of the fact that when they read my books they all are reminded that yes, we are all mortal. And yes, all of us are going to face one thing in common — we all are going to reach our end. So, what can we learn about how to enhance the experience while we’re here living? What are we missing? Why aren’t we happier? What do we overlook? What do we not want to say when we get to the end about how we led our lives? What regrets do we not want to have? For me, I only write about death to get people’s attention. But once I’ve got it, I really write about life. And I’m inspired by doing that.
Q: Who do you think will be the first person you meet in heaven?
A: You’re making a big assumption there [Albom laughs]. Let’s just see if I can get there first and we’ll see who I meet. Amongst the people I’d like to see again would certainly be Morrie because so much of my life was tied to his when all is said and done. He affected me so much and then I was able to tell his story and he affected a lot of other people, too. So I’d love to be able to ask him “What do you think about what happened? Isn’t it amazing people are reading your words in China, and in Sweden, and in South Africa? And they’re teaching your philosophies in places that you’ve never even set foot and you didn’t know about until after you died?” I always remind people that Morrie never read one word of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” So the ripple effect of what one man can have, even when he’s not around to read it or see it himself, is incredible. So amongst the people I’d love to meet in heaven, he would certainly be one.
Q: Who is your favorite real or fictional character you’ve written about?
A: Real … that’s not fair. The men that I’ve written about in my two non-fiction books, I hold them all in such high esteem. I couldn’t compare [them]. Of the characters that I’ve created for fiction, I would have to say Eddie, who was my first fictional character. He appeared in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and that was my first novel. I’m always going to have a sentimental spot for him. He makes an appearance in the new book — “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven.” That’s been very strange and delightful in its own way to me that I got to write about him again. It’s the first time in my career that I’ve ever written a sequel of any kind. All my books have been one-offs. I’ve never got to revisit any characters. For the first time, I get to go back to something I created fifteen years ago and say “Where would he be at this stage? What would he be saying now? How can I weave him in?” He plays an integral part in “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven.” He’s the backbone of it. He’s not only my favorite the first time around, but now I get to have my favorite in a second book.
Q: What was your real-life Uncle Eddie like?
A: The character is based on him. My real-life uncle was a World War II vet, like Eddie in the book. He was grizzled with a squat body, a barrel chest, white whiskers — like the character in the book. He fought in World War II, like the character in the book. He died when he was 83, like the character in the book. And he used to think that he was a nobody, and a nothing and he hadn’t done anything in his life, also like the character in the book. Where they diverge is that my uncle didn’t die trying to save a little girl from an accident at an amusement park. But, he would of. If he was that guy, and he worked at an amusement park, that would have been the way he went out. He was very brave and very selfless. One of the reasons I enjoy writing Eddie so much is that I get to sort of picture the way he looked and hear the way he sounded when I write him. [Albom imitates Eddie with a gravelly voice] “I never done nothin’. I’m a nobody.” When I write the character I almost always have a smile on my face because I’m sort of bringing him back to life. The two Eddies are definitely connected to one another.
Q: What can people expect from “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven”?
A: The new book picks up years after [“The Five People You Meet in Heaven”]. The first book was centered around Eddie saving the life of a little girl at an amusement park by pushing her out of the way from a falling cart from a power-drop ride. He pushes her at the last second and she’s saved but he lands on the platform instead and the cart crushes him and he dies. So, this is the story of what happened to the little girl. I’ve always been fascinated by people who survive traumatic things. People who survive plane crashes, kids who survive fires, people who are lost at sea and somehow survive and come back. How does that change their perspective? What does that do to them? In this case, the little girl, whose name is Annie, she was saved but did lose her hand in the accident. A piece of metal came flying off and severed her hand and they had to surgically reattach it. From that point forward, even though she blacked out the whole event and she could never remember what actually took place, she knew she was different. And this hand, that always had scars on it and didn’t quite function the same way as the other one, was a constant reminder that she was different and over the years it made her feel as if she had made some kind of mistake. Deep down, she always felt like she was making mistake after mistake after mistake. As we learn her life, we see that in her mind she did make a lot of mistakes. The book takes us from the start of it when she is getting married and finally feels “OK, I’m going to do one right thing” and she and her husband go for a balloon ride at sunrise the night after they’re married. There’s a terrible accident with the balloon, it’s a novice pilot, and the balloon crashes to earth and explodes. She and her husband are both tossed from the basket. He’s in danger of dying and he can’t breathe, both of his lungs are gone. She decides to give him one of her lungs. On the operating table, she dies and she goes to heaven. And like Eddie, she goes to heaven with a question in her mind — “Was I successful? Did my husband live?” And she doesn’t know. Just like Eddie didn’t know either. The book then follows her journey through heaven, trying to find out the answer to her question. Along the way, one of the five people that she meets is Eddie. She gets to find out what happened to her and why she has always felt like she made mistakes.
The first book was about a guy who thought he didn’t matter in life and found out that he did. And this book is about the girl that he saved who thought all she did was make mistakes in her life. When she gets to heaven, she finds out that there really is no such thing as mistakes. There’s kind of a reason for all these things that happen and that’s what is illuminated for her. In many ways it’s a parallel story, but yet it’s a completely different story. It’s a young female character who dies, as opposed to an old male character. There are parts of it that are polar opposites, yet story-wise its structure is the same. It was really fun for me to revisit that idea of who do you meet next, who do you meet next, who do you meet next.
Q: What is new in the 15th anniversary edition of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”?
A: I wrote and reflected back on what happened in the 15 years since I wrote my first novel and why that book resonated so much with me and with other people. At the time, nobody wanted me to write a novel. I had written non-fiction up to that point exclusively and I was coming off a non-fiction book that ended up becoming a very big best-seller. The publishers, almost all of them, said to me “We really want to publish your next book, but only if it’s non-fiction. You should do what you did before.” I didn’t want to do what I had done before. To me, I had the greatest experience I could imagine with a non-fiction book and any other subject that I would pick would probably pale in comparison or be held up against “Tuesdays with Morrie.” I didn’t want to put myself or any subject through that. So I said “Well, maybe now is the time to try to write a novel.” And so many people told me “Don’t, don’t, don’t. That’s a mistake that non-fiction writers make all the time. They think they can be a novelist. You can’t, you can’t.” But, they also said you can’t to me about writing “Tuesdays with Morrie” the first time. A lot of people said “You’re a sportswriter. You can’t write a book like that.” I had already heard you can’t. I had heard it multiple, multiple times. This time I was smart enough to ignore it and create a novel. I think I reflected back on that in the 15th anniversary edition that I’m so glad that I took the plunge of creating characters because it has given me a career. Most of my books since then have been novels.
Q: What can people expect at “Unscripted: A Celebratory Evening with Mitch Albom”?
A: They’re going to hear a story about what John Lennon said — “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making plans.” That basically has been the story of my life. I thought I was heading one direction and life had a whole different set of plans for me. How I ended up playing music in bars in New York City at two o’clock in the morning to talking about the meaning of life halfway around the world is the story I want to tell.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
For tickets and more info about Mitch Albom’s “Unscripted” event in Boca Raton, go to