On the five-year anniversary of 9/11, Mitch Albom the novelist, syndicated newspaper columnist, radio host, ESPN commentator, and best-selling memoirist of all time is sitting for a fast lunch over a Styrofoam container of Stouffer's lasagna in the cafeteria of the Detroit Rescue Mission downtown. He runs a charity from here and today he's dropped off some used stereo equipment for the shelter's large-screen TV but right now he's squeezing in an interview for his new book, For One More Day.
At 48, Albom is short, friendly, and extremely fit, with veins as thick as fuses running parallel down each bicep. Ever since 1997's Tuesdays With Morrie, a megaselling nonfiction account of his friendship with an old professor, he's been a brand name famous for his feel-better books. His debut novel, 2003's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, imagined an uplifting afterlife and sold 6.5 million copies in hardcover alone. Now, in a first, Starbucks is helping sell Albom's second novel, For One More Day, the story of a suicidal alcoholic granted the magical opportunity to spend ''one more day'' with his dead mother, Posey. He talked openly about his fans, his critics, and the minor scandal that blew up last year after he fabricated part of a column for the Detroit Free Press, where he's been a columnist for 21 years.
EW How did things change for you after Morrie?
MA Pretty much my whole life changed. Before the book I was basically a sportswriter, and people would come up to me at the airport and ask who was gonna win the Super Bowl. I'd say, ''The 49ers!'' and keep going. After Morrie, people would come up to me and say, ''My mother just died of cancer, and the last thing we did together was read your book.'' And so now all of a sudden I can't go, ''The 49ers!'' and keep moving. I have to stop.
EW For One More Day, like Five People, is about death. What's the interest?
MA I guess the way I'd prefer to look at it is they're really about life. But death is the mirror. Because I'm not fascinated with people dying. But then all your readers start telling you those stories, and you start to think, Where's Morrie now, and is he in heaven? And the next thing you know you're writing about heaven, and then after that book, people start coming up to you and saying, ''I read The Five People, and I really liked it, and boy, what I wouldn't give to have more time with one person.'' And somewhere along the line, I thought, ''Well, there's probably a good story there about if you had one day, how would you spend one day?''
EW How does being a newspaperman influence the simple sentences of your
MA In a newspaper, you only have so much room. It teaches you the value of getting to the point, of not pampering yourself with your glorious writing. I've always been much more interested in one powerful sentence that stays with you. That's my style.
EW What do you make of critics who call your books too sentimental or sappy?
MA Well, I've always been mystified. Since when did sentimental become a bad thing? Everybody's favorite movie is a sentimental movie It's a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz. Nobody's favorite movie is some dark, dysfunctional slasher story. Everybody's favorite song is a sentimental song. So why all of a sudden is it bad to be sentimental in books? Critics have a problem with sentimentality. Readers do not. I write for readers.
EW You don't like critics?
MA I think that sometimes critics feel that if a lot of people like it, it has to be too sentimental: ''If the masses can get it, it's not special enough.'' I don't agree. I like a Beatles song. So do millions of others. So what?
EW Your book tour is crazy 60 or 70 stops.
MA This time I said, ''Is there any way we could combine my going to different towns with charity events, and raising some money for somebody else?'' So I'm not going to that many bookstores. We're going to churches, halls.... If it works, I'll be doing good for somebody other than myself while I'm out there.
EW Do you worry that people who don't like your work might think you're just trying to make yourself look good, or be a do-gooder?
MA What's the alternative, not do anything? Look, you asked me: I'm not advertising it. It's fine by me, don't mention it.... But there's too much cynicism in the world. I'm losing my respect for it. We're gonna look back at ourselves as a generation that found irony a little too appealing, found cynicism a little too easy. For better or for worse, I've watched people die in front of me. I see how they are in the end. And they're not cynical. In the end, they wanna hold somebody's hand. And that's real to me.
EW I just want to put it in the right context because I feel like some people will be put off that you're doing this interview in a homeless shelter.
MA Oh, well, this is just where I was on Monday. If you had come tomorrow, we could be at a nice restaurant. Actually, I'm going to L.A. You could come there. I'm doing something with Ellen DeGeneres. And that'll look more like what they expect, I guess.
EW What about the mini-scandal over your column? [Here's what happened: Albom wrote a Sunday Free Press column that described how two former Michigan State players attended a Saturday game, but he wrote it on Friday, and the next day the players never showed. The Free Press printed a correction and launched a review, but didn't find other inaccuracies in Albom's past reporting.] Were you surprised by how much attention it got?
MA Sure. And the people involved with it all apologized to me afterwards, from the publisher of the paper to the guy who ran Knight Ridder. They said, We never should have made such a big deal out of it, we should've trusted you and taken it for what it was, and not turned it into a big thing.
EW Are you upset you made the mistake?
MA Well, sure. It was just careless. It was just rushed. But that's all it was. It was just a rush. These guys swore to me that they were gonna be there, and so I said, Well, they're gonna be there, so we'll just write that they were there. You shouldn't do that, you should just write [that] they planned to be there. That's all. It was just missing a word. That's it. Was it a mistake? Yeah. Should you do it? No. Do you apologize for it? Yes. Move on.
EW Back to your books. Is there a central message you want people to take away from them?
MA Probably just that we all think we have endless time. But we don't! Everyone's one phone call away from an ''I hate to tell you this, but...'' or ''You just lost such and such...'' or ''You have cancer,'' or whatever it is, and then it's too late. You can probably find this theme in all my books.
EW Given what you write about, it's kind of interesting to meet you on the anniversary of 9/11.
MA You know, what I found most resonant about Sept. 11 was the transcripts of phone calls from people who called from the planes or in the buildings, and how many of them were almost identical in their messages. I noticed those people all said, ''I called to tell you I love you.'' That's it! Is there somebody going, ''Why are you using such basic words? Can't you find some other way to say it?'' No, not at the most real moment of your life! Those are the words you're gonna use. In some ways, maybe I'm more real than my critics are.