Mitch Albom visits DC for book talk about newest novel ‘Stranger in the Lifeboat’

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Mitch Albom (Part 1)

He wrote “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”

On Tuesday night, author Mitch Albom visits D.C. for a book talk at EDCJCC.

“Theater J is doing ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ the play,” Albom told WTOP. “It’s a lovely play. I’ve seen it now for 20-plus years … and it always has a nice effect on the audience. … I think they’re actually selling tickets where you get a copy [of the book] with the ticket.”

In addition to “Morrie,” he’ll discuss his newest novel: “The Stranger in the Lifeboat.”

“There’s a luxury yacht owned by one of the richest people in the world,” Albom said. “He invites all of his rich celebrity friends and business people for a one-week excursion out in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Mysteriously, the boat explodes, it’s wiped out, [just about] everybody is killed and only 10 people are able to make it to a life raft.”

That’s when something miraculous happens under the guise of the ordinary.

“They’re in this raft for three days, nobody comes looking for them, they’re running out of food and water, there are sharks in the water,” Albom said. “Suddenly, they see this body floating in the water and they pull him into the boat. It’s this very average, nondescript guy, and one of the passengers says, ‘Thank the Lord we found you.’ He says, ‘I am the Lord.'”

The passengers are, of course, skeptical of the man’s divine claim.

“This guy claims to be God but doesn’t look the part, he doesn’t act the part,” Albom said. “They say, ‘What are you doing here?’ He says, ‘I came because you were calling me.’ … He says, ‘I can only save you if everyone in the boat believes I am who I say I am at the same time.’ It becomes a parable about help, what we believe about help coming to us.”

The idea of seeking help will hit home for readers during the pandemic.

“In the last two years of pandemic, we’ve been asking for help in a lot of ways,” Albom said. “I’ve learned in my life that when you think your prayers aren’t being answered or the universe is not responding, you wait five or ten years, look back and go, ‘Things didn’t go the way I wanted to … but that was the best thing that could have happened to me.'”

Born in New Jersey, Albom began as a sportswriter at The Detroit Free Press. He penned two nonfiction sports books, “Bo: Life, Laughs, and the Lessons of a College Football Legend” (1989) and “Fab Five: Basketball, Trash Talk, The American Dream” (1993).

“I was a very aggressive and ambitious sportswriter and sportscaster for ESPN,” Albom said. “I happened to be flipping the remote control one night and came upon ‘Nightline’ with Ted Koppel and saw my old college professor, who I had loved back at Brandeis University … on TV talking about what it was like to die of Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

His weekly visits with Morrie Schwartz became the memoir “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

“I turned it into a book to pay his medical bills,” Albom said. “When he passed away, I wrote this little book … having been changed by the time I spent with him every Tuesday and seeing what’s really important in life. I realized that a lot of things that he made important, I was not making important. … It really opened my eyes.”

The publisher initially only printed 20,000 copies, but the word of mouth was so positive that it flew off the shelves, making “Tuesdays with Morrie” the best-selling memoir ever.

“That set me on a whole different path,” Albom said. “Everywhere I got stopped in an airport, people didn’t want to talk about sports anymore. They wanted to talk about their mother who died of cancer and they read my book. … My frame of mind changed, my environment changed, my goals changed and I haven’t written a sports book since.”

His next book would be a new challenge: writing his first fiction novel.

“‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ became such a runaway success and totally unpredicted,” Albom said. “It took me six years to write anything bookwise, because I was so convinced that no matter what I wrote, it would pale in comparison. … So, I decided to go the total opposite direction and try a novel in fiction, which I’d never tried before.”

The result was the smash hit “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”

“I had this old uncle, a World War II vet who used to tell this story about this night he died on the operating table for a few seconds,” Albom said. “He remembered floating above the table, looking down at his body and saw his dead relatives waiting at the end of the bed. … I said, ‘What if they’re not your relatives, but people you had five seconds contact with?'”

His wheels started turning about the people we might meet in the afterlife.

“I started with the idea of writing a book that everybody matters,” Albom said. “People think that they don’t count or that they die without having affected the world, but everybody affects the world, even if it’s just affecting one person. Then I wrapped the whole story about an amusement park and the five people in heaven who you meet.”

He followed up with “For One More Day,” “Have a Little Faith” “The Time Keeper,” “The First Phone Call from Heaven,” “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” and “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” but his most personal was “Finding Chika” (2019).

“‘Finding Chika’ is the story of not only how I got involved in Haiti and took over an orphanage … but how you become a family accidentally late in life,” Albom said. “My wife and I adopted one of the kids when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 5. … At the end, no one could save her from this brain tumor … but it was an amazing two years.”

Today, Albom still runs the orphanage with 53 children, while “Finding Chika” serves as a full-circle journey from “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which he’ll discuss Tuesday in D.C.

“I always say ‘Finding Chika’ is kind of the bookend to ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ because it was 25 years later,” Albom said. “In one case I was sitting alongside an old, dying man who was teaching me amazing lessons about life, and in ‘Finding Chika,’ I was sitting next to a dying 7-year-old girl who taught me more about life than anybody shy of Morrie.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Mitch Albom (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation on our podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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