Barely 24 hours after landing in the Philippines, best-selling author Mitch Albom commented on how Filipinos love taking photos. The Michigan native was also glad to temporarily leave the freezing winter in the United States in favor of cool, sunny weather here.
The sportswriter turned novelist rose to fame in 1997 after the runaway success of his book “Tuesdays With Morrie.” This was followed by his first foray into fiction, “The Five People You Meet In Heaven”—which endeared him to Filipino readers because a girl named Tala played a key role in the story.
Mitch arrived in Manila last Wednesday to promote his latest novel, “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” about a small town in Michigan whose residents begin to receive phone calls from deceased loved ones. According to Mitch, one of the book’s themes is miracles, and one’s belief in them without requiring proof.
Though he’s eager to meet his fans (he says the Philippines is his largest fanbase outside of the United States), he also wanted this trip to give him an opportunity to raise awareness for Supertyphoon “Yolanda” survivors, hence his side trip to Tacloban on Monday.
He will be at National Book Store Glorietta on Saturday to sign books and to meet fans. He will proceed to Cebu on Sunday for another meet-and-greet.
In this interview with Super, Mitch talks about the little miracles that shaped his life, his reluctance to join social media, and how his lessons from Morrie have endured.
A fan snuck into the airport to greet you upon your arrival; does this happen to you all the time?
That’s the first time anyone got me in baggage claim from a foreign country; it’s very nice and humbling. I don’t take it for granted, I’m always pleased when someone comes up and says hi. I’m never bothered by it. I think you’re fortunate in life if people like your work and people wanna tell you that, and I can never understand anyone who says they don’t like to be bothered. First of all, it’s not a bother, it never takes more than a minute, and who doesn’t have a minute for somebody else?
I’m still amazed all these years that people know who I am, or has read anything by me. It’s stunning to me when I see a Chinese version of my book; I can’t even read my own name! It’s an incredible blessing to have that happen to you.
What stories were your uncle telling you about the Philippines that helped inspire you to write “The Five People You Meet In Heaven?”
When I was a kid, my Uncle Eddie was the toughest guy I knew. He used to say he was a nobody and I felt sorry for him because I loved him and I didn’t think he was a nobody. He used to say he never went anywhere in the world unless he got shipped there with a rifle. He said that he’d fought in the Philippines. When I used to ask him if he killed anybody in the war, he would answer, “I don’t know.”
I always thought that was a terribly sad answer, although it’s a true answer for a war in that time. In those days, they went in at night with guns and if somebody shot at them, they’d shoot back. You don’t know who you’re hurting or if you killed somebody.
I thought I would create a guy who killed somebody but didn’t know it, how tragic that would be and how doubly tragic it would be if it was a child. He ended up spending his whole life taking care of children when he had actually killed one, and he didn’t know it.
My uncle never got to read that book, but his story inspired it, not just because of the Philippines, but because he told me the only story that anyone has told me in my life about dying and coming back.
When he was in his 50s or 60s and he had a heart attack, they rushed him to the hospital. They performed surgery on him, and he said that while he was being operated on, his soul rose out of his body, and he looked down on the table and saw all of his relatives who had died before him waiting at the end of the table, and I would always say, “What did you do?” Being the kind of guy that he was, he said, “I told them, ‘Get the hell out of here! I’m not ready for any of you yet.’” He scared them back to heaven, I guess, because he came back to his body. It was that story that inspired the whole background of people waiting for you when you die, but I thought what if they’re not your relatives, what if some of them were people you affected, and that’s how it blossomed into the story that it became.
What was the experience that inspired “The First Phone Call From Heaven?”
My mom had a stroke about three and a half years ago and she lost the ability to speak—I haven’t heard her speak since. My mother’s voice was such a big part of my life, to not have that is just devastating. And I realized how we connect with one another through our voices. That’s what a phone call is—it’s nothing but a voice. You can have some great conversations on the phone as long as it’s the right voice.
My wife lost her sister right about the same time as my mom got sick in 2010 and she would not touch her cell phone because she was afraid that if she turned it on, somebody would call and would erase one of her sister’s messages that was in there, even though the messages are very mundane, like “Let’s go shopping.” Just to hear someone’s voice that way that began to inform the way I wanted to write the story.
Is there really life after death? Do you really need to prove a miracle or is it enough that it just happens to you? That’s one of the themes of the book. I believe that if you believe a miracle happened, that’s good enough.
Based on this belief, what miracles have happened to you?
So many miracles have happened to me. There are ones that are inexplicable, like when I was about 20 years old, I was driving; it was raining and a big truck was coming down the street. I had pulled out to make a turn, and he couldn’t stop because of the rain—it smashed right into me on the driver’s side, spun the car around, squashed the car. Because I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt, it knocked me across to the other side of the car and down under the dashboard where I landed. The car literally accordioned around me and the police had to come and pull me out through the window, and I didn’t even have a scratch. There was no other way to explain that other than it wasn’t my time to die.
I consider the fact that I met my wife on the day that I did a little miracle because she’s so perfectly suited for me and I wasn’t supposed to meet her. I was supposed to meet her sister, I was supposed to be on a blind date with her sister who was playing the piano at this night club, so I couldn’t really talk to her, but Janine was there, so I talked to her, and the next thing you know, I was dating her and we ended up getting married.
Why was I watching TV when Morrie came on, talking about what it was like to die? If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, I’m sure.
There are so many little moments that lead to the next moment and I just prefer to look at them as little miracles that one day I’ll understand how it all fits together.
It’s your first time here; how did this trip come about?
After “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” came out in 2003, I started to get a lot of mail from the Philippines—snail mail, e-mails. Every book that came out, more and more people from the Philippines were asking me to come. I always said it’s too far, it’s too time-committing, but when the typhoon happened here last fall, it was about the same time they were asking me to come for “The First Phone Call,” and I’d been involved with Haiti; I operate an orphanage there, I go every month and I’ve seen what happens to a country after a national disaster. Even worse, I’ve seen what happens when people forget about the natural disaster.
I looked at the timing of it, they wanted me to come in February, and I thought by then a lot of people would’ve forgotten about this typhoon, people will have moved on, and maybe I can help raise some awareness.
You just donated $5,000 to the Yellow Boat of Hope foundation. What else are you planning to do in Tacloban?
We’re going to one school library that National Book Store will be fixing up. I’m going to donate all of my books to all those libraries. I’m going to call all my friends who are well-known writers and ask them if they would contribute 10 books apiece that they’ll sign to populate the library to begin their book collections. Well-known writers from America like Stephen King, Amy Tan, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, I’m pretty sure that they’ll say OK. We’ll get all those books pledged to get these kids to start reading again.
I know it’s just a little gesture, but sometimes a small gesture inspires another small gesture. That’s all I hope that happens.
You’re pretty vocal about being old-fashioned, but you’re on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. How are you enjoying social media?
Very reluctantly. It’s not my idea. I’m constantly told by my publishers and agents, “You have to do this!” There are parts of it that are very nice—I get a lot of wonderful messages from people in the Philippines, they’re very active on social media, and that part of it I like. I don’t mind answering people. I’m happy to answer them. It’s just originating the stuff that is awkward for me. I have an uneasy relationship with it.
To be honest, if I wasn’t being pushed to do it, I wouldn’t do it at all. You won’t see me showing a lot of pictures ever of my family. Those things should be private; I try to keep my professional life in that world.
How different is your life as a sportswriter from being a novelist?
The reason why I continued to do sportswriting was that I had a whole life before “Tuesdays With Morrie.” I was at it for 15 years. I knew a lot about sports and I liked to think I was respected in that business.
There’s a lot of guys in their 30s and 40s and that’s all they know about me—they have no idea I write books. And then there’s the other end who have no idea I have a sports background.
I also have a nonsports column on Sundays about life, for people who like to read me on a weekly basis and not just wait for books to come out.
It confuses people sometimes. A lot of people in the world want you to do only one thing. For a while I felt a little bit guilty about that.
Then by accident I met Maya Angelou and I asked her, “Does anyone ever tell you that you should do just one thing?” She said, “Yes, all the time, and it’s the cruelest thing anyone can say to someone.” I asked why and she said, “It’s telling a bird not to fly.”
I never forgot that and that’s why I continue to do all these things.
Sports fans can be heated and passionate. How do you deal with the haters?
I never read the comments. I think the Internet has given birth to a lot of anger and hatred that has no place in journalism. If you ask me, if a journalist writes an article, you should not have comments after the article right there in the same space because a journalist presumably has worked to train, to earn that space. In the old days, when you wrote for the newspaper, you were in the paper because you were hired for a reason. I spent a lot of time paying my dues as a young reporter—I have to follow ethics policies, I have to follow the rules; I can’t just write whatever I want.
I finish my column and right underneath it is somebody who doesn’t have to answer to anything, or put their name on it; they can just be animalface69 and they get to comment in the same space that I do? That’s not right. There can be a place for people to comment but it should be in its own space, it should be under angrypeople.com.
I don’t dignify that kind of hatred, I don’t comment on it and you’ll never see me respond to it.
You played a version of yourself in “The Simpsons.” What was that like?
Matt Groening, one of the guys in the band, asked if I would come out and do “The Simpsons.” I didn’t know what they were gonna write about me. You go into a studio and you just record your part. It was very hard. In one of the scenes, they pick me up, throw me and I land on the sidewalk. They asked me to make the noise I would make when you land on the sidewalk. They asked me to make a grunting sound, which they made me do over and over again, you end up doing a hundred different “ugh’s,” and you feel like an idiot.
They were laughing, they probably didn’t even have the microphone on. I’ve written books that have been published all over the world, I’ve been on “Oprah,” but being on “The Simpsons” was the only thing that made any impression with my nieces and nephews. Suddenly I was cool. They were all tweeting about it. That was fun.
Do you think you’re ready to become someone else’s Morrie?
Not yet. Morrie was a great teacher before he contracted ALS. But what made him really unique was the courage and dignity that he showed in the face of impending death.
I’m not there yet, and God willing I won’t be tested just yet. I’d like to think that I might be able to grow into somebody like Morrie. But until you’re tested like that, you don’t know really know what’s inside you.
If the Lord will accept it that way, I’d like to continue to write about other people wiser than me and not have to be the one dispensing end-of-life advice, at least not for a little while yet.
For more details about Mitch’s book signing event Saturday and Sunday, visit www.nationalbookstore.com.ph. “The First Phone Call From Heaven” and his other books are available at National Book Store.