Person to Watch: Mitch Albom
The SJ writer tells another tale of faith and the afterlife
By Sally Friedman

It’s a rare combination: sports and the afterlife. But Oaklyn native Mitch Albom has made a career of talking about both. As a sports journalist, Albom hosts a daily radio talk show and appears regularly on ESPN. As an author, he’s sold more than 35 million books worldwide – all discussing some mysterious aspect of what happens when we die.

“I’ve always been interested in mortality issues,” he explains, “and hopefully not in a morbid way. But don’t we all wonder about that mystery of what happens next, when life as we know it ends?”

His latest novel “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” released last month, talks about what happens when phones start ringing in a small town in Michigan, with voices saying they are calling from heaven. Residents don’t know if this is a miracle or a hoax, but nonetheless, people begin flocking to the town, and a media frenzy ensues. One young boy begins carrying around a toy phone, hoping to hear from his deceased mother.

Photo-Mitch-Albom-On-Air-Radio-IMG_0837Unlike his other stories, this novel bounces between the Michigan town and a historical perspective of the invention of the telephone in 1876. Albom feels his story can have enormous impact in a world obsessed with hyper-communication.

Unusual themes are common in Albom’s books. His first novel “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” was the tale of a grizzled World War II veteran, based on the old war stories of one of his uncles.

“When older relatives would tell their stories,” he says, “the other kids would scatter and I’d sit there loving the tales of World War II told by my elderly uncles.”

Another book, “For One More Day,” was inspired by how so many people expressed great sorrow at losing a loved one and yearned for just one more chance to tell that loved one how much they meant. The plot revolved around a troubled man and his mother.

“I chose to write about my own mother, who was quite fine and quite alive at the time,” he says. “But I imagined what her loss would feel like and wanted to honor her while she was still alive.”

After the book was published, Albom’s mother had a devastating stroke. She is still living, but he has not heard her voice in three years and is grateful she was not disabled when the book was published – and made the New York Times Best Seller List.

Albom’s most popular novel, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” immortalized his beloved professor, Morrie Schwartz. Albom met weekly with Schwartz as he was dying of ALS. The professor’s indelible life lessons became part of this country’s psyche, and Albom was the messenger. Oprah Winfrey’s television movie based on the story earned four Emmy awards in 2000.

“I’ve always gravitated to older people,” Albom says. “Writing about Morrie was just so natural for me – and such an honor.”

His ideas for books come to Albom in the oddest places, he says. “In the shower. On a walk. I always carry a piece of paper with me so if an idea comes, I can grab it.” In the case of his latest book, there was no “Aha” moment, he says, he’s just grateful inspiration struck.

Albom adds that as the story unfolds in Michigan, he hopes the reader begins to see the power of believing despite a lack of proof. “Even in this high-tech world we can’t explain everything,” he says. “And maybe that’s fine.”

December 2013
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