Albom still surprised by success
January 26, 2005
VAIL – What does a writer do when faced with the responsibility of writing about one of the greatest writers in America? Just let the story write itself, they always say.The writing for Mitch Albom doesn’t end with a column, an essay or a best-selling book at the end of each day. Albom is a guy who replies when people send him correspondence. Sometimes it takes months. But he replies.”I try very hard to answer everything that comes to me,” said Albom, who will speak at the Marriott in Lionshead Tuesday. “It was a lot harder to do when there was no such thing as email. Now, anytime someone’s got a thought, they get it to you fast and you want to respond … .”But, let’s face it, when you’ve been deemed the best sports columnist in the country for the last 10 years, have your own radio show and have written eight books – one of which stayed on the New York Times Best Sellers list for four years straight – you get a lot of mail.”I do get to pretty much all of them,” he said. “I’m running up to six and seven months behind, but I want to get to all of them. Especially from the kids. I remember getting a letter back once from someone when I was a kid – a basketball player – and it meant something.”Albom said that much of the correspondence he’s recently received from children addresses a character identified with in his best-selling novel, “Five People You Meet in Heaven.” This is a story he said “revolves around children.” It chronicles the life and afterlife of Eddie, a character inspired by Albom’s uncle, who dies on his 83rd birthday and wakes in heaven to find five other characters who played a part in Eddie’s life and who meet him on the other side to explain it to him.
‘Still in the pinch-me phase'”Kids are amazing readers,” Albom said. “They notice things in the book I never knew were there – what characters say, or certain patterns. Kids look at death a lot differently. It’s important for them to know when they’re young that it’s OK to think about heaven. That’s how they relate to death. They lose their grandparents. They see it as something to happen to older people.” “Five People You Meet in Heaven” hit the best sellers list shortly after the four-year stint of Albom’s most famous book, “Tuesdays with Morrie.” The book is a documentary of the last five months of the life of Albom’s college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, as Schwartz slowly deteriorates from Lou Gehrig’s disease. The moving part of the book is Schwartz’s undying optimism that lasts until his final hour. Not only has the success of this book, which first hit the best sellers list in 1997, provided Albom with a whole new fan base outside of his sports readers, but the experience that inspired it has changed Albom’s life forever.”I’ve never really anticipated it or understood it,” he said of the acclaim received for “Tuesdays,” which Oprah Winfrey subsequently made into a multiple Emmy awarding-winning made-for-TV movie in 1999. “I’m still in the pinch-me phase. I don’t know if I’m reeling. I don’t want to paint it like it’s anything bad. Since the real-life experience, I’ve tried to approach life as something that’s lucky to begin with. It never was supposed to be a big book at all. I just wanted to pay my old professor’s medical expenses. My entire life has changed as a result. When people used to stop me in airports (before the release of “Tuesdays with Morrie”), they’d say, ‘Hey. Who’s winning the Super Bowl?’ Now, they’ll recognize me and say their wife died of cancer and ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ was the last book she read. So you can’t just say, ‘The 49ers,’ and keep walking.”No Wednesday follow-upDespite the monumental effect “Tuesdays” has had on Albom and the millions of people across the world who’ve read it, Albom said, “I don’t want to write ‘Wednesdays with Morrie.’ “
But profound topics such as life and death sometimes even find their way into Albom’s sports columns for the Detroit Free Press. Last week, Albom wrote about beer vendors at football stadiums and, specifically, about an incident where a vending company was sued by the family of a 7-year-old girl who was paralyzed after an accident with a drunk driver who had had too many beers at the ball game. It seems that Albom, who begins this column addressing his own experience as a 14-year-old snack vendor at a stadium, has some firsthand experience to offer on any of the subjects he writes about.But he is very leery of being viewed as an authority when it comes to moral issues – or anything else, for that matter.”If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I’m not an expert on moral values,” he said. “One of the highest moral values you should have is humility. In ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’ remember, I was the one asking the questions. I’m still asking the same ones. I know some of the stories I write raise big questions. That’s healthy. I like raising questions. I offer my answers, but they’re not ‘the’ answers. All I ask is that people ask themselves some questions of themselves. I do have great readers, though. They’re the nicest people. They’ll say things like, ‘When’s the next thing you’re going to do?’ “Affecting people in the valleyAlthough Albom doesn’t have a regular habit of making live speeches, thanks to the Vail Symposium and the Vail Valley Medical Center Foundation, he will make a special appearance Tuesday night at the Vail Marriott Mountain Resort and Spa in Lionshead. All proceeds from the event will benefit the Women’s Cancer Coalition of the Vail Valley Medical Center. Albom was surprised to hear that anyone in the valley read his column. Also, he said that while he enjoys trying, he’s no good as skiing.
When asked what his presentation would entail, Albom said he’s sympathetic to rapt audiences.”I get nervous when people get up there and tell a couple of jokes then pull out their reading glasses,” he said. “I’ve kind of found I speak off the top of my head. I’ve had some interesting things happen with ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’ and “Five People, – how I got to that. I always like it when people just tell me a story.”As to his stories, representatives of the medical center say that ticket buyers for Albom’s presentation range from high schoolers to senior citizens. Lisa Pease, development director at the medical center, said she is often reminded of passages from “Tuesdays with Morrie” and Albom’s visit holds particular worth to her and those in her field. “It has special meaning to us at the medical center and the volunteer groups that work with the Shaw Regional Cancer Center,” Pease said. “Things he’s said in his experiences with Morrie, because they have such overall meaning in all of life, I remember them all the time. Cancer and ALS have touched so many people’s lives.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado