PW: How did The Five People You Meet in Heaven come into being, and why did it take six years?
Mitch Albom: After Tuesdays with Morrie I was inundated with offers to do Wednesdays with Morrie, Thursdays with Morrie, Chicken Soup with Morrie. I refused because I had said everything that I wanted to say, and just because the book was successful didn't mean that I had to go find new things to say. So, choosing not to do that kind of paralyzed me for awhile, but it also gave me a lot of time to reflect and figure out what I really wanted to do.
The inspiration for this book was a story that an uncle of mine told me. His name was Eddie and, like the character in the book, he was a grizzled, blue-collar war veteran guy. I adored him. He was the first tough guy I ever met. He was the kind of guy who would hit you in the shoulder whenever you met him and say "Howyadoin' buddy boy?" Every year around the Thanksgiving table, he told a story about the time he was rushed into the hospital for emergency heart surgery. At some point he awoke or thought he awoke and saw all his dead relatives sitting at the edge of his bed waiting for him. He would always say, "I told 'em, 'Get the hell out of here, I'm not ready for any of youse yet.' "
So I had that image, that maybe there are people waiting for you when you die. When I wrote the book, I had Eddie in my head. He died at 83 and he died thinking that he had wasted his life. He never really knew how much I loved him and how much other people loved him. I wanted to write something for people like him who felt like their days here weren't worthwhile.
PW: Did Eddie work at an amusement park?
MA: No, he worked as a cab driver, in factories, that kind of thing. I've always loved amusement parks, and I wanted to set the book in a place that would be a little magical. I also wanted Eddie to be involved with children, and what better place than an amusement park?
PW: The book shows how each of our lives is interconnected with countless other lives. This is a profound spiritual truth, and it gets expressed through the experience of this gruff guy. You seem to be making the point that you don't have to be the Dalai Lama for your life to have great meaning.
MA: That's exactly right. I felt that Morrie on a certain level didn't reach people like Eddie, because Morrie was a professor. He was a very brilliant man and the things that he said were brilliant and worldly and wise. In this book, though I didn't realize it until I was halfway into it, the protagonist is a simple man. The protagonist isn't spouting wisdom. He's having it shown to him. I wanted a man who could make people feel as if it was happening to them.
PW: What did the phenomenal success of Morrie teach you about what really matters?
MA: One of the lessons I learned from the popularity of that book is that if you do something from your heart and for the right reasons, you never know where it's going to take you. I don't want to paint myself as someone who's beyond trying to write a book to make money and sell a lot of copies—I tried that with all my previous books. With Tuesdays with Morrie, it was completely the opposite—it was just a labor of love. I wrote that book to pay Morrie's medical bills. And I've tried to keep that in mind. That's why I didn't want to write any sequels—any More Things That Morrie Said That I Forgot to Tell You. I wanted to write a story that had meaning for me, and I wanted to write from a similar kind of motivation, and in this case it's for my uncle.
PW: It certainly reads like it's written from the heart.
MA: It's a simple story, but I think those are the hardest stories to write. But it seems to serve me well when I keep it simple. Short sentences, and just tell the story and look for the moments that reverberate rather than the words. And I hope it reaches people who have someone like this in their lives and they say, "Hey, you should read this." What they're really saying is "You matter, just like this guy matters even though you didn't think you did." I think there are a lot of unhappy people in America, people who don't realize how much they touch other people on an everyday basis because we hold up this norm where if you don't make a ton of money or if you're not the best-looking person in the world, you're some kind of failure.
I've had such a flipping of my world in the last six or seven years. I used to deal with just macho athletes and high-powered attorneys and sports fans. Now, since Morrie has been out there, I've been to countless hospices and hospitals. I've been one of the last people that many people have spoken to. I've had people break down and weep in front of me talking about their loved ones because they felt a connection with what I went through. At a bookstore once I had a man grab my arm and start shaking it and tell me, "My wife died last week and the last thing we did together was read your book out loud, and touching you makes me feel closer to her."
PW: So writing Morrie was the beginning of a different kind of higher education.
MA: Sometimes I think this is Morrie's way to make me the eternal graduate student. He's probably laughing wherever he is. There are a lot of times when I feel like saying, "You should be talking to a priest or a rabbi," but I realize that it's not what you say, it's the fact that you're listening. I think the answers are inside people. They just have to have someone to talk to, to help them bring that out.
PW: Did you like writing fiction?
MA: I really did. But in the end it wasn't all that different because I've been writing stories my whole life. I'm not an investigative reporter, I'm a columnist and a feature writer and I mostly write about people and their stories, and this is a story too. In the end, storytelling is storytelling. In several countries, including Brazil, Tuesdays with Morrie was on the bestseller list under fiction. When I got down there I explained that it wasn't a novel, that it really happened, and they had to switch it to the nonfiction list.
PW: You must have ridden a few roller coasters to do this book.
MA: Oh yeah, I still have journalistic instincts and I interviewed the people who do this for a living. The history of the amusement parks and the pulleys and winches and cables are all dead-on accurate. I didn't know anything about hydraulics and seals before this, but I even went through the whole scenario of the accident to see if it could really happen.
PW: There are going to be a lot of maintenance guys taking credit for the accuracy.
MA: One story I couldn't work in that these guys told me is that it is a basic part of carnival life to scrounge around under Ferris wheels in the morning and pick up coins and stuff. I asked what was the weirdest thing they ever found, and I was told "a glass eye." You'd think someone would have noticed that that was missing.