Life & Culture

Mitch who? He wrote Jack Lemmon's favourite role

Mitch Albom is the best-selling novelist whose work delighted a Hollywood legend.


Mitch Albom might just be the biggest author you have never heard of. His novels have shifted 30 million copies worldwide, with his latest book, Have A Little Faith, having been a fixture in the top 20 best-seller list in the United States since it was published in September. Previous novels The Five People You Meet In Heaven and For One More Day were instant number ones on the New York Times’s bestsellers list. He is perhaps best known for Tuesdays With Morrie, a memoir about the time the author spent with his old college professor before he died.

In the UK, however, it is a different story. While The Five People You Meet in Heaven was rated number 88 by the British public in a 2007 World Book Day poll of “Books You Can’t Live Without”, the Guardian had to apologise for spelling the author’s name wrong in an article about the poll. Meanwhile, a quick survey of colleagues revealed his name was recognised by less than half of them.

“I sell millions of copies here in the UK but my books don’t burst onto the scene,” says a cheerful Albom when we meet at a London hotel. “That might have something to do with the media here. I don’t play soccer and I’m not on a reality show so my chances of coverage are slim. I actually have a pretty big audience in France, Singapore and Korea. But I’m happy to have anybody reading me. I never thought when I first started out writing I’d be selling books in other countries or other languages.”

There are two possible explanations as to why the 51-year-old writer’s work is so popular in the US while it gets a more muted reaction over here. As what he calls a “searching-for-meaning author”, his gentle, feelgood style may go down less well with a more cynical British readership.

And, as well as being a novelist, Albom is a television and newspaper sports reporter — which makes him well known to an otherwise untapped audience in the States, and does absolutely nothing for his profile among British readers who know little about American sports.

“I’m an author of ‘searching-for-meaning books’ who also happens to do sports writing,” he explains. “There was a time when a lot of people were saying I really should do one or the other. But I’m not going to do that because it fits someone’s notions of what I’m going to be. I’m glad to be a person who breaks that mould. From a financial point of view I didn’t need to do one or the other. I like the fact that I can watch a game and have a beer, then write things about what the meaning of life and faith is. A lot of people see me on TV talking about sports. Some of them might pick up these books who would never normally read a book without any sports in it. ”

Despite being a well-known sports commentator who appears regularly on the ESPN channel’s The Sports Reporters, he admits to knowing nothing about “soccer”, but counters that the British are equally ignorant of American sports. He recalls a revealing meeting with a fellow searching-for-meaning novelist also known for writing about sport.

“I did an interview in the States and Nick Hornby was over,” he says. “We were asking each other questions on sports. I asked him what he thought was an easy question: ‘Who is the most senior running back for USC and the Buffalo Bills?’. Anyone in the US could tell you that. It’s O J Simpson. Hornby said: ‘I wondered what he did before the murder.’ Then I was asked: ‘What is the biggest club team stadium in England?’. I didn’t know what a club team was. I said Wembley but I was wrong. There really is a divide between British and American sports.”

Albom grew up in New Jersey before moving to Detroit, where he now lives with his wife Janine Sabino, a singer. Marrying relatively late in life, he says his parents were pretty relaxed about the fact that she was not Jewish — which is perhaps surprising given that he his parents gave him a traditional upbringing and sent him to a Jewish school. “All Jewish parents’ aversion to you marrying out decreases as you get older,” Albom observes. “I was 37 by the time I got married. By that point, they were desperate for anyone to marry me. They adore my wife. It wasn’t that hard for us to find common ground.”

He says that they have “not been blessed with children”, but if they had been, his wife would have been happy for them to be brought up Jewish (even though she is a Catholic) as long as they had some kind of religion.

And since writing Have A Little Faith, he has reconnected with his own faith. The book tells the true story of how, at the age of 82, Albom’s family rabbi, Albert Lewis, requested that Albom write his eulogy, and follows their subsequent meetings and Albom’s consecutive involvement with a Detroit pastor who happens to be a former drug dealer and convict.

“Ten years ago I was cynical when it came to faith. I would say writing that book knocked the cynicism out of me. Rabbi Lewis used to refer to ‘our beautiful faith’ and I used to wince at that,” he says. “I felt I was being implicated, but the more I watched, and the more I saw how peaceful he was, I was won over.”

Albom says he has learned no longer to put all his faith in his work, but to spread it around to include his family and his community.

“A lot of people put their faith in the workplace,” he says. “They make that their temple. They attend regularly, they don’t miss a session. They love networking and believe their work is going to take care of them. Then they get laid off — everyone knows someone in Detroit who’s been laid off. And they are treated as if they have a disease.”

Despite this recent change of heart, is it not odd that Rabbi Lewis thought to ask Mitch Albom, a congregant he saw once a year on High Holy Days, to write his eulogy? Albom believes the rabbi, who eventually died of cancer, chose him to pen the tribute because of a mutual respect they had for one another. “He knew me very well as a child. He’d remembered stories about me that I’d long since forgotten. He watched my writing and my career. I used to always say that I learned how to write from him. He was such a great storyteller. I watched how he could hold people spellbound. I told him this so maybe he took this as a point of pride over the years.”

Rabbi Lewis is not the only one who has a fond regard for Albom. At the 2000 Emmy Awards, he was personally thanked by the Hollywood actor Jack Lemmon during his acceptance speech for the award for best actor in a television role. Lemmon had won the Emmy for playing Albom’s dying college professor in the TV version of Tuesdays With Morrie.

“When I first met Lemmon on the day I went to the set, he started to ask me questions about the movie, the disease, death,” says Albom. “At first I thought: ‘Good, he’s a motivated actor.’ After a couple of questions I thought: ‘He’s going into rather a lot of detail — there’s something the matter with him.’

“Sure enough, after the movie came out, it turned out he had cancer all the time he was making it. He just didn’t tell anybody. I think that is why the role resonated with him. He considered it his favourite. And how many great roles has he played in his life? That really was significant. I thought it was nice that Lemmon got to express a philosophy in a film. The book was a great comfort to people all over the world. Morrie changed their outlook on how to approach living and dying. That is a testament to Morrie’s wisdom.”

In brief

May 23, 1958 in New Jersey

Middle of three children. Had a traditional Jewish upbringing, attending the Akiba Hebrew Academy in New Jersey. Now lives in Detroit with wife Janine Sabino, whom he married in 1995

Author of best-sellers The Five People You Meet in Heaven, For One More Day and, most recently, Have A Little Faith. Total sales to date: 30 million worldwide. His memoir Tuesdays with Morrie was made in to an Emmy Award-winning TV movie starring Jack Lemmon and Hank Azaria. Also has a thriving career as a TV sports journalist

“It’s much better to be in a world where you feel that there’s something out there, than to think that there’s nothing there at all. It’s pretty simple.”

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