Like many legendary sports writers before him, Mitch Albom embodies that plain-spoken but big-hearted guy you want to bear hug, then buy a beer. Not like Albom needs the favor: The sports journalist and radio host wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, a memoir about his relationship with his dying college professor that spent four years on the New York Times bestseller list and became the best-selling memoir of all time an outcome that Albom never anticipated.
"The stories that I write, people seem to be able to grab onto as their own," says Albom, who often encounters people with their own Morrie stories at his signings. "It was my story, but they read it and applied it to their own life. I just wrote it to pay Morrie's medical bills. It was more of an obligation than anything else. . . . The only way I knew I'd be able to help is if I wrote something."
Albom felt paralyzed when he realized that all people wanted for his follow-up was "Wednesdays with Morrie or Chicken Soup with Morrie. I kept saying I didn't write the book to become a self-help author, and I didn't write the book to become a guru, and I'm not gonna turn it into a franchise. That would be wrong, and I don't think Morrie would be very proud of me." Always imagining he'd create things from scratch like novels, plays or movies, Albom decided that the time was right to tackle fiction. "I figured I needed to live long enough to observe things for real before I could start making them up," he says. But halfway through the process, Albom realized that setting a novel in heaven didn't make for the easiest debut.
"It doesn't follow the old 'write what you know' axiom, does it?" Albom laughs. That long-awaited work, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, became the most successful American hardback fiction debut ever, according to albom.com, selling more than 8 million copies worldwide. His new novel, For One More Day, is another book with supernatural overtones that hit the top of the bestseller lists within a week of its October publication. It has also sold more than 45,000 copies at Starbucks across the country and once again has hit a universal chord.
"That isn't something I intend," he says. "I just write stories. I don't think a whole lot about it. I just write them to move me. I figure if I can't feel something . . . then nobody else will." The novel begins with washed-up baseball player Chuck Chick Benetto telling his life story to a sports reporter, starting from the moment he decided to kill himself. This attempt—like his former sports career, marriage, fatherhood and role as son—seemed a failure. But instead of a cowardly ending, Chick enters a dreamlike realm where he encounters his late mother and gets to share a final day with her, discovering family secrets, the reason his father abandoned the family, and finally saying all he wished he had said to her when she was alive.
Like many newspapermen-turned-novelists before him, Albom concentrates on character and storytelling and doesn't torture himself over fancy technique or plots." I guess if you're writing detective novels it's all about plot or what will happen next," he says, "but you're searching for something that gives you a shiver or brings a tear to your eye. You can't force it." Albom's favored themes of regret, forgiveness and redemption permeate his modern fables, along with the importance of caring as much about yourself on the way down as you did on the way up, and ring true with audiences young and old. But his book career almost stalled as publisher after publisher turned down the Tuesdays manuscript. One large publishing house even told Albom that he wasn't capable of writing a memoir, "that I didn't understand what a memoir was," Albom says."I never forget that nobody wanted that book."
The lessons learned writing for newspapers compact stories with emotional punch might make traditional publishers cringe, but those qualities have made Albom's titles household names. " It's hard to write short," Albom says. "People always think, they're such small books, they can't be significant. I think it's a lot harder to write short than write long." Albom has already tackled blockbuster books, made-for-television movies (the Oprah-produced, Emmy award winner Tuesdays with Morrie and the screenplay for The Five People You Meet in Heaven) and plays (the off-Broadway adaptation of Tuesdays with Morrie). He's even performed with the The Rock Bottom Remainders, a band featuring fellow writers Stephen King, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Amy Tan and Ridley Pearson. Can Hollywood be far behind?
"I've been approached to do a number of sports movies and even came close on a couple," Albom says. No doubt he'll be patient and wait for the right pitch before knocking it out of the park. "I do know how it looks," Albom says of the sports milieu he's spent much of his life describing. "And that's the key for Hollywood movies: how it looks, how it feels and what they say. I do have a lot of that knowledge and it would be silly to throw it away. "