One of America’s favorite writers, Mitch Albom, author of best-selling books like “Tuesdays with Morrie,” “For One More Day” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” is coming to Naperville Saturday and will appear at 2 p.m. in the Wentz Concert Hall on the North Central College campus.
The Sun spoke with Albom earlier this week, where he talked about his new book, “The First Phone Call from Heaven” as well as what inspires his writings and his many philanthropic efforts.
Q: This new book deals with people who say they are getting phone calls from loved ones who have died. You also weave the story of the invention of the telephone into the story. Why did you decide to combine the two?
A: “The original story was just the first book, and it was really after I started writing that I began to look into the actual history of the telephone and found out that Alexander Graham Bell kind of invented it out of love, it was a bit of an accident. He was trying to help his wife, who was deaf, learn how to speak and he was dealing with vocal vibrations. The phone itself was sort of invented from an act of love. The very first phone call that was ever made was between him and his assistant — who was in another room — had the words, “Come here, I want to see you.” When you think about all the phone calls that have been made since, there’s always been a little element of that, you know, we’re talking on the phone, but it would be better in person. So I thought, well, this is kind of a really fascinating parallel story to the modern age of telephones where they do everything. But we’re actually speaking less to each other than we used to, doing less actual communication voice to voice. So it became an interesting parallel story, and I wove the two together.”
Q: Do you believe people speak to us from the dead?
A: “I think they do. I think a lot of people have dreams and they see people coming to them in dreams and I’ve heard enough people say, “I knew it was them” to believe that they believe it. That’s one of the top points of the book, to be honest with you, is to believe that a miracle can happen in your own mind, and you don’t have to prove it to the rest of the world.”
Q: What’s been the most illuminating experience you’d had regarding the afterlife?
A: “Well, probably the most formative one was I had an old uncle whose name was Eddie and he was a World War II vet who used to tell a story every Thanksgiving when the family got together about how he had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. They put him on the table for open heart surgery, and he remembered that his spirit rose out of his body, and that he was sort of floating over the bed. He said that he remembered at the foot of the bed seeing all of his dead relatives waiting for him. Of course he was a crusty, salty old guy and we would say, “What did you do? What did you do?” And he would say, “Get the hell out of here. I’m not ready for you yet!” And apparently he scared them right back to wherever they came from, and he went back into his body and he lived another 15 years. But as a kid, that was a story I heard all the time, and so that was my idea of what happens when you die, all the ones that you’ve lost are kind of waiting, because why would I not trust my uncle? He wouldn’t tell me stories that weren’t true. And eventually that became the basis for the book, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” which was centered around a character named Eddie.”
Q: What has influenced you to write what many regard as faith-based stories?
A: “Well, first probably I’d say that is not an accurate description, because that doesn’t respect the people who really write faith-based stories, and there are some wonderful faith-based writers. I’m not one of them. My books are maybe spiritual to some degree but I don’t preach about religion or push any particular point of view, I’m not qualified to do it. My books are just stories, and they’re often magical and they usually contain some kind of element of hope when you’re finished. But they’re not religious and they’re not even faith-based. As far as influence, to be honest, it started when I wrote “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which was a book unlike any I had written before. I was a sportswriter and then I had that experience watching my old professor die and him sort of teaching me what’s important before you die and that really turned my life around.”
Q: Tell us about your philanthropic efforts, which include seven charities and a medical clinic for homeless children.
A: “It really began with Morrie. He kind of guilted me into starting what ended up being my first charity. He said to me, “What do you do for your community? I mean, you’re successful.” I was successful then, not to the level I am now, but I was successful. And he asked what I did for my community and I said, well, if somebody asks me, I write a check. And he said, well, anybody can write a check. But you’ve been given a voice, and you need to use that voice for the good. That year I started the first charity in Detroit. It was called the Dream Fund and since then, it’s only been proven to me to be more and more true. With each book it’s kind of drawn me in more and more. Honestly, anybody who lives in Detroit who has had any kind of success feels an obligation to kind of give back.”
Q: Readers will forever identify you with the “Tuesdays with Morrie” book, much like someone like Salinger and “Catcher in the Rye” or Steinbeck and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Do you feel with each book you compete against the “Morrie” book?
A: “First of all, that’s definitely the first time anybody has put any question to me with the “Grapes of Wrath” or “The Catcher in the Rye” in it so I thank you for that. I don’t know that I deserve anywhere close to that, but I enjoyed hearing it. Both of those books for them were works of fiction. Novels are compared, but for me, “Morrie” was a real life experience, so while it was also a book, it really happened to me. I could never feel like I was competing with my own life. It was a true account about something that happened that made me into who I am, much like any seminal experience will make somebody into who they are. And so, quite the opposite of feeling like anything I do is competing with it. I feel like everything I do, I was given the opportunity to do because of that.”
Q: Do you have a favorite work of yours or is that like asking Paul McCartney what his favorite song is?
A: “I bet Paul McCartney would tell you what his favorite song is because I asked him that once and he said, “Yesterday.” But for me, probably “Morrie” is always going to be special to me. I loved Morrie and I still do, and what I learned from him and the opportunity I had. Your favorite novel is always your latest novel, so right now my favorite is “The First Phone Call from Heaven” and I really enjoyed doing it. It’s longer than anything I’ve written and it has way more characters. It’s a bit of a thriller and a mystery. And hopefully if I’ve done it right, it still provides a little inspiration and hope.”
Q: What are you working on next?
A: “I’ve got two books coming up, but I don’t exactly know when they’ll come out. One is another novel set in the music world which was my first love and I always wanted to write a book set in the music world, and I finally have a good story that I think will work. And the other is about my experiences in Haiti with all these kids after four years and that will be a non-fiction. That’s been a real eye-opening experience.”
of that country and those children and watching them grow and blossom.”