Mitch Albom tells Rosamund Burton about the inspiration for his latest book, Have a Little Faith .
A short fit-looking man with black hair, wearing a black sweat shirt and black trousers walks towards me and shakes my hand. When he discovers the machine in the business centre of the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney produces ‘real coffee’ he asks if I would like one, and fills two paper beakers.
‘I drink this stuff all day,’ he admits with a smile.
This is Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays With Morrie , the story of his meetings every Tuesday with his college professor, Morrie Schwatz, in the four months before Morrie died. It is the most successful memoir ever published and spent four years on the New York Times bestseller list. Mitch wrote Tuesdays With Morrie to help pay Morrie’s medical bills.
‘I knew exactly how much they cost, and that was basically all I asked for from the publishers,’ he says. Initially, the response he received was negative. He was told the book was ‘boring’, ‘depressing’ and, as a sports journalist he was incapable of writing a memoir.
A couple of years after Tuesdays With Morrie was published Mitch Albom returned to the town in New Jersey where he grew up to do a talk on the memoir. It was then that Albert Lewis, the 82-year-old rabbi, who Mitch calls the Reb and has known all his life, asked him to do his eulogy. At the time he never considered that the meetings he was to have with Albert Lewis over the next eight years would be the topic of a book.
‘Hearing the wisdom from an old man who was dying seemed way too close to Tuesdays with Morrie . And at the time the last thing I wanted to do was anything that was even close to Tuesdays with Morrie because there was so much pressure from the publishing world to do exactly that.’
Instead, he wrote his first novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which was published in 2004, then a second novel in 2006 entitled One More Day , both of which were bestsellers, and, like Tuesdays with Morrie , were made into films. To date his books have sold over 28 million copies and been translated into 42 languages.
Mitch began to think he could make an interesting book about his friendship with the Reb after he met Henry Covington. Henry is an African-American pastor of a poor church in inner-city Detroit. The Reb, on the other hand, was a white rabbi in a wealthy suburb. Mitch began to think about the way faith holds the men together. Have a Little Faith cuts between the life of Henry Covington and Albert Lewis in the final years of his life. In both cases the reader sees the power of faith in these men’s lives.
When I ask how writing it has affected Mitch Albom’s own faith, he replies: ‘I’ve had the cynicism knocked out of me.’
In the first five minutes of meeting Mitch, Henry Covington told him he has been in jail for man slaughter and had been a drug dealer as well as an addict. Initially, Mitch found it hard to believe that someone could change to totally trusting and believing in God. But then he describes seeing Henry praising God from the pulpit on Sundays, as snow falls through the hole in the church’s roof and the congregation huddle together in a makeshift plastic tent, and also seeing him during the week driving through Detroit delivering food to the homeless.
Mitch Albom has certainly changed the nature of a book tour. He has been talking at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and churches. In Australia his events include a talk at a synagogue, a Baptist church and the Uniting Church’s Loaves and Fishes Free Restaurant in Sydney’s suburb of Ashfield, which provides over 900 meals a day for the homeless.
The snow falling through the roof of the church was the catalyst for Mitch Albom to set up the Hole in the Roof Foundation, to raise money to restore it. Now that’s done, the foundation works to raise money for the restoration of any building for homeless. The foundation has just raised $70,000 for an orphanage in Haiti which suffered severe damage during the earthquake, and this month Mitch Albom is heading there with a team of carpenters and builders from Detroit, to carry out the work.
Mitch Albom is a man dealing with whatever crops up in his life in the best way he can, and he allows himself to go wherever that takes him, which so far has been to some very interesting places.
‘Hope you enjoyed the coffee,’ he calls out, as I leave.