Mitch Albom's Uncommon Path to Writing Bestselling Books
My husband Ed and I with Mitch Albom
Oftentimes, a person’s career path is determined when they are very young. A child will play teacher, while a grade school student will write a poem. A freshman in high school will join the drama club, the glee club, or the debate club. These children join school activities because they have an idea of what they want to do in the future.
But Mitch Albom, who has sold 35 million books internationally (including his first book, Tuesdays With Morrie), was not like any of these children. Instead, he found his career path by accident, rather late in life. His first job was with a band.
Enrich Magazine, July 2014 issue
Since the band worked at night, his days were free. One day he entered a supermarket and was handed a free newspaper. An ad in the paper said, “If you have free time, we could use some help.” It seemed to be a perfect match.
Albom showed up at the office. He was the youngest person “by 30 years”. The others were volunteers and retired people. Albom’s first assignment was to write about parking meters.
He had never written a thing in his life – not even in high school, aside from school assignments. But he did see the movie, All The Presidents Men, (about two reporters who brought down President Nixon due to the Watergate scandal).
“So I attacked the story on parking meters in a way I felt it should be written,” he recalls. One week later his story was on the front page with his byline. “I saw my name and I saw the words and I think like most writers you fall in love when you see something that you’ve written on print,” he said.
We are seated with a group of people at the Writers Bar of Raffles Hotel, Makati, listening to Mitch Albom tell us this and many other things about his books and his life. Afterwards, he autographed books for the attendees.
What is evident throughout Albom’s talk is that Morrie Schwartz (his former professor and the subject of his first book, Tuesdays With Morrie) caused a major detour in his life from a brilliant, award winning sports writer to a bestselling novelist who specializes on writing books that stir up hope.
Albom thought his career path was set as he went on to become a successful, award winning sports writer. His life plan was to get richer, get more things, get more awards, get more fame, and then do it all again. Then one day he turned on the TV and saw his favorite teacher, Morrie Schwartz, talking about what it was like to die.
Albom felt guilty. His ambition made him forget about the teacher he was so close to in college. He called Morrie, but after the call he felt more guilty. He decided that he would visit, just once. “But Morrie was very good at guilt, and Morrie made me feel guilty.” One visit led to another, and each visit raised the author’s curiosity.
Albom realized that at 78 and afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Morrie was a happy man. By contrast Albom was 37, healthy, and less happy. He wanted a life like Morrie’s where a man can be old, dying and satisfied.
He continued to visit his teacher. He learned that Schwartz had accumulated huge bills due to his long illness. Albom decided to visit Morrie every Tuesday to work on a book. The sales would be used to pay off the bills.
The book, “Tuesdays With Morrie” was turned down many times. Publishers said the book would be boring, depressing and uninteresting. Nobody would want to read it, they said. Albom would have given up, but this was something Schwartz needed, so he kept on and three weeks before Schwartz died, they found a publisher.
The advance payment on the book paid the bills, and Albom wrote it quickly – a small, simple book, after which he would try to get back to his career as a sports writer. “But I guess God had other plans,” Albom said.
So far, those plans have reaped a literary harvest that includes The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Have a Little Faith, For One More Day, The Timekeeper, and now, The First Phone Call From Heaven. All his books became television movies, but his latest book is slated to be a full length theatre film.
After Tuesdays With Morrie, Albom was deluged with letters from readers sharing their own experiences and how the book affected their lives. This made him realize that “certain books that come from the heart can be powerful things in people’s lives.”
People would write to Albom and say the book came at a time when they really needed hope. Others said the book changed their lives. A man approached Albom and said his wife died of cancer but before she did, they read Albom’s book together out loud, and they were comforted by it.
Our copy of Tuesdays With Morrie was passed on to our mother when she had the beginnings of dementia. She liked reading it, even though she didn’t read the chapters in sequence. My mother was a wide reader before she died.
The Five People You Meet in Heaven
One reader commented on Albom’s book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which is about a man who feels he is worthless, then dies and in heaven meets five people whose lives he’d changed unawares. The reader said in his letter to Albom, “I used to think I didn’t matter, then I read that book and felt that maybe I touched a lot of people (too).”
Albom says that today his main motivation to write are his readers. He cites three lines in his book, The Timekeeper that summarizes the essence of his entire career. These lines describe a scene where a rich man wants to freeze himself so that in 500 years he’ll have another lifetime.
Father Time, who is the Timekeeper, tells the man, “you can’t do that.” When the rich man asks why, he is told, “There’s a reason God limits man’s days on earth.” The rich man persists, asking what the reason is. Father Time replies, “To make each day precious.”
Albom said, “If we could live a million years, allotting 100,000 years as a criminal and 100,000 years as a priest, it won’t matter. Things can always be put off to another day. But in knowing that time is limited, people will value it more, because each day is precious.”
Mitch Albom sings
Albom still has the music in him. He has a band with Stephen King, Amy Tan, John Grisham, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Greg Iles, Matt Groening, James McBride, Ridley Pearson and Scott Turow, all bestselling authors.
“We’re very, very bad. Really, really bad,” he says laughing. Albom plays the piano and knows some music, but the others “don’t know what a chord is, or that a chord even exists.”
They may be off key, but famous musicians like Judy Collis, John Fogarty, Bruce Springsteen and guys from the Byrds sing with them “because we are no competition.”
One singer told the band that they haven’t even reached the level of lousy yet. But Albom says as long as they are below lousy, they remain under the radar, no expectations. So they don’t aspire to be lousy.
They call themselves The Rock Bottom Remainders Band (referring to books that are unsold and given away for five cents). They get together every year to sing in one region in the US, although they have also performed in Ireland and London. “We don’t charge because that would be criminal. But we play for charity,” Albom said.
He adds that when the Rock Bottom Remainders get together, it’s amazing how little they talk about writing. Instead, “We talk about what’s that chord and what key are we in.”
Mitch Albom sings Billy Joel
Albom has adopted some Filipino ways. He referred to National Bookstore’s Founder and Head, Socorro Ramos, as “Nanay,” and said he was amazed at how she opened National Bookstore during WWII. “Who does that? Who opens a bookstore in a war?” He asked.
Albom will also visit Tacloban on Monday (as of this writing) to donate 40 boats to fishermen for their livelihood, and to donate books to 10 school libraries. He is also organizing his writer friends to donate books as well.
Morrrie Schwartz once told him, “Get involved with your community. You can’t just write checks.” Tacloban is the newest of nine other charities Albom is involved with. Truly, he likes to stir up hope -- on purpose.