Mitch Albom has succeeded in striking an important chord in all of us — the intrinsic human desire to discover what lies beyond, the need to believe that the way we conduct our lives matters and that “the end is not the end,” after all, but another beginning. These intertwined themes are evident in most of Albom’s best-selling books, which have sold more than 33 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 40 languages, each time rendered in an accessible style that belies the profound message his stories carry.
Albom spoke with the Jewish Journal about his much-anticipated novel, “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” which Publishers Weekly has hailed as “another winner from Albom.”
Jewish Journal: I’ll start our interview with the opening sentence of “The First Phone Call From Heaven”: “On the day the world received its first phone call from heaven, Tess Rafferty was unwrapping a box of tea bags.”
Your decision to marry the most extraordinary event, a phone call from heaven, with the most ordinary act of unwrapping a box of tea bags, is an authorial act of genius that immediately draws the reader into the story. Did that come to you easily or after many edits?
Mitch Albom: I could not have asked for a more precise reaction to that line — the most extraordinary thing and the most ordinary. It’s amazing how people skip right over that, and so I thank you for recognizing that. You don’t just start a book anywhere you feel like starting.
I spend a lot of time thinking how to begin my books, because it puts me in the frame of mind I want to continue from. If I don’t start well, I never land where I want to go. I spent forever trying to figure out the first line of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” because it was such a big thing in my life. By the time the paragraph was over, you knew he was dying and teaching a course on the meaning of life.
In “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” one of the themes is that miracles interweave themselves within every day of our lives. I thought it was a great juxtaposition to have that extraordinary thing (first call from heaven), with a mundane thing of life (opening a teabag). I thought, ‘OK, that works, that’s good.’ Usually, if I labor over it too long, then I have to throw it out because that means I’m forcing it. When it comes quickly, as that one did, I stick with it.
JJ: “The First Phone Call from Heaven” offers readers an added bonus, a page-turning mystery interwoven with fascinating facts about Alexander Graham Bell’s relationship with his deaf wife and how it led to the invention of the telephone. Was it difficult for you to make that leap into the realm of history and mystery?
MA: It was an accident. I was a fifth of the way into the book when I looked up how the phone was invented. The more I researched, the more fascinating the story of the telephone became. When I read that Bell’s first phone conversation was, “Come here, I want to see you,” I thought that paralleled my story.
JJ: You mention that each of your books taught you something, “both in the writing and in the reaction.” What did “The First Phone Call From Heaven” teach you?
MA: The human voice and its preciousness. My mother suffered several strokes and lost her ability to speak. Once I lost that voice, I lost the biggest part of her, the essence. So, I created this story, which was the reverse of that; you get the voice back, even if you don’t get the body.
JJ: If you could get one call from heaven, who would you like to be on the other line?
MA: I’d want it to be one of those phone calls where I could say, “Can you please pass the phone and give it to somebody else?” Because there are about 20 people I’d want to talk to.
But, the most interesting conversation would be with Morrie, because he died before one word of “Tuesdays” was written. I’ve always wondered whether he’d be happy that his words are now taught in schools all over the world.
JJ: Did you work hard to master this accessible voice that makes your stories universally loved or did this style come to you naturally, perhaps because of the columns you write?
MA: Probably a bit of both. “Tuesdays” was a unique experience, because I wrote that book to pay for Morrie’s medical bills, and I plowed right into the idea without knowing what kind of book I’d make. While Morrie was still alive, I went around New York to find a publisher. Most said no, thinking it would be boring and depressing. I said, “I know I’m learning something very special and unique,” but I didn’t have the story fully formed in my head. When somebody finally agreed to publish it, I felt like I had done what I set out to do — pay his bills.
After he died, I struggled with the beginning. Then I went to the attic and got out some of my old stuff from college. I found a stack of papers I’d turned in to Morrie; I took about eight classes with him. In the ’70s, a term paper had a specific style — didactic and stripped down. I thought that might be the way to approach writing this. Almost like a term paper. Any time I was being too maudlin or flowery, I’d edit myself. I thought, I don’t care how short it ends up, the story will tell itself. It served me well.
JJ: The transient quality of time looms large in your books. You mention that before writing “Tuesdays” you were “a harried, ambitious sportswriter who never spent five minutes thinking about mortality.” You are a sports writer, a radio host, a lyricist, pianist, producer, director, playwright and a philanthropist to boot. With all this on your plate, has your relationship with Father Time changed in the last 16 years since “Tuesdays”?
MA: The truth is, I don’t do anything full time. I still write for the newspaper, but mostly out of loyalty because they believed in me long before I was well-known. I’m happy to be a voice of the community — this is my home; this is where I live. And I’m off a few months a year from my radio program. So I’m not as impressive as you make me out to be.
I do a lot but keep things in their place and protect what’s precious to me. I get up and turn on the coffee maker, say a few prayers, come down to my little office and write. I don’t take any phone calls; I don’t read any newspapers; I don’t watch the news; I don’t turn on the television. There’s no input of any kind between that cup of coffee and the three hours of creative writing I have in me each day. Then, I come back upstairs and turn the phones back on and begin my life.
To answer the question about my relationship with time, I’m very aware of our mortality and very grateful to be alive. I don’t take any of that for granted. One common behavior of almost everybody in America is that we take time for granted. So, if my books can be a bit of a reminder of the importance of time, then maybe there’s some value to them.
JJ: Although you never portray death in a negative light in your book, I imagine it might still be difficult or depressing to write about.
MA: I don’t feel that I write about death. I use death as a reflector of life: time, family relationships, faith, finding meaning in your work and this one about miracles. So, there’s no reason for me to be depressed.
JJ: Tell us something about Mitch Albom that will surprise us.
MA: I’m a huge Elvis Presley movie fan, the early movies. They’re corny, but always happy, and reflective of an innocent time. Every now and then Elvis picks up a guitar; it’s not even plugged in, and he starts playing and it manages to work.
JJ: You were raised by observant parents, attended Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Penn. How does Judaism inform your writing?
MA: That’s an interesting question. Some of the earliest stories and storytelling I was exposed to were biblical stories with a message, as opposed to just entertaining. I must have gravitated to those stories early on. Even Yiddish proverbs always have a point about life. Almost everything that you hear through Judaism has some kind of message.
JJ: When you get to heaven, what would you like to hear God say to you?
MA: I would want to hear God say, “You were pure of heart and you did things for the right reasons.”
Dora Levy Mossanen is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novels "Harem," "Courtesan," and T"he Last Romanov," which have been translated into numerous languages. She is a regular contributor to the Jewish Journal and the Huffington Post. Her widely anticipated novel, "Scent of Butterflies," will be released in January of 2014.