Mitch Albom Delights at George Mason University: A Chat

A chat between Carole and Chris....

Mitch Albom received a lifetime achievement at the Fall for the Book festival last night at George Mason University. Speaking to a large crowd, he wowed his audience. I know it's clich├ęd to say "I laughed, I cried" but I did both last night. His stories about how he became a writer of books was at once inspiring and hilarious. His reading excerpts brought tears to my eyes, much as his writing has done on numerous occasions. Okay, my kids would say, "Gee, it SO hard to get you to cry!" (Read heavy sarcasm here), but I noticed that I wasn't the only one blinking back tears last night.

I'm now an unabashed Mitch Albom fan, and as you'll see why in this conversation that Chris and I had the day after the event.

What struck you, Chris?

Carole, what struck me about Mitch Albom was his humanity. He seemed like a nice guy. No, he is a nice guy. He is humble, honest, and very down-to-earth. I usually detest that phrase, but it fits him perfectly. Modest. Doesn't take himself too seriously. Plus, he's funny--the stories he told! I laughed aloud and cried silently. I wonder if he's used to having a lot of red-eyed people talk with him.

Plus, how can you not like a member of the Rock-Bottom Remainders? Heck, the title of the last tour is "still younger than keith" — very fun!

Speaking of which, he said he didn't really write seriously until he was in his early 20s. Do you think his musical career aided him in the musicality of his phrases? I know you talked with him about his journalism career and how it impacted his writing.

I never thought about his musical background having an influence on his writing, but I bet you're right. I'm a huge fan of the small novel, and I think he does it so well. I was pleased that he mentioned how, when he wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, it was much briefer than his contract called for, but he really did not want to overwrite the book. He said he didn't want to dwell on the sadness by writing excessively about feelings.

I think that really summed up what I like about his writing. He allows room for the reader to feel--he creates a space for you. I have read some books, most notably Annie G. Freeman's Fabulous Traveling Funeral, and what I most HATED (don't get me started) about that book is that she left absolutely no room for the reader. She spent page after page telling me how to feel. It was painful.

Mitch, on the other hand, employs a minimal use of words, yet fully develops his characters and story line. I envy that, but I was encouraged by his answer to my question that his years as a journalist definitely has contributed to his streamlined, tight writing style as a novelist. There's hope for me yet!

Chris, when we write our collaborative novel, we'll need to be prepared for some interesting adventures on our fledgling book-signing tours. If Mitch's stories are at all typical of what a first-time novelist encounters, we're in for a lot of laughs, don't you think?

Oh, Carole, he made me laugh so much with his stories about the publication of his "small book behaving oddly," as he put it. First of all, I was disappointed but not surprised by the number of publishing companies who expected him to be writing the same thing he had up to that time: sports stories. (Didn't he say his first two novels were sports novels?) How many publishing houses turned him down?

About the big-name publishing magnate who turned him down because he thought the book wouldn't sell, he remarked, "I don't know where that guy is now. I'm sure he's found gainful employment in the food service industry."

After he found a publisher, he asked his literary agent if he would ever again be taken seriously as a sports writer after Morrie came out, and was told, "I wouldn't worry about it — nobody's gonna read it."

So he gets a publisher and sets out to write a book. He promised the publishers it would be about 350 pages. He finished the book and it wasn't exactly that long. But you know, I respect his decision to not write a longer book just because his contract called for it. He wrote a book that mattered to him, and he stuck by his guns.

I laughed about his book tour stories. Apparently a small book got an equally small tour. (Though the chairs on the Oprah show were probably bigger than the entire tour put together!) Where was that radio interview he talked about? And book reprints and distribution? May we have that sense of humor and adventure when we're on the road with our hopefully book-behaving-oddly!

His "small book behaving oddly" comment was great. Apparently when a book starts selling unexpectedly well, the publisher can't just come out and say that it is a hit because that would imply that someone did something wrong because they didn't anticipate it, so they say it's "behaving oddly."

His first print run was only 23,000 copies — that is only about 500 copies per state. Very low numbers, but he still envisioned selling them from the trunk of his car for the rest of his life.

Apparently, when you have written a book that no one expects to sell well, you don't get much of a planned book-signing tour. I particularly loved the story of the "radio station" in St. Louis that was actually in a woman's house. "You actually had to walk through her living room to get to the station," Albom related. "She did have microphones, but no stands, so she had taped them to gooseneck lamps. When we began talking I noticed that the window was open, which I know is generally avoided in radio. Sure enough, just as the interview got underway, the guy next door started mowing his lawn!"

"So, Mitch, tell us about your book."

"Well, I wrote it as a labor of MMMMMMMMMRRRRRRWWWWWRRRR!"

Every time he said something, the lawn mower drowned it out. He said that all six people who were probably listening heard a very odd interview.

As a sportswriter, Albom was turned down for Tuesdays with Morrie by 150 publishers before Doubleday reluctantly decided to take it on. After the book sold out of many, many reprintings, many of the publishers who rejected him initially wanted to talk to him about a sequel. He said it was amazing how many wanted him to do Wednesdays with Morrie, Thursdays with Morrie, Chicken Soup with Morrie. But he didn't want to do that — you have to respect that. I'm sure they were offering a great deal of money too.

Chris, when we go on Oprah someday, let's remember to have our agents arrange for smaller chairs so our feet actually touch the ground. We don't want to have them dangling like Mitch's did on his first appearance. Although, for all of his discomfort, he got a movie deal out of it.

Carole, I think it’s a great tribute to Mitch’s writing that all three of his “small” books have been made into movies--and two by Oprah. Maybe a little dangle pays off in the long run!

I often wondered how authors feel when their books are made into movies. I tend to be very critical of movies that started out as books, but Mitch was so Zen. “A movie’s a movie,” he said. “A book’s a book. A play’s a play. If it’s good as it is, it’s enough.”

I hope I can be that Zen when our movies make it to the screen (big or little). Of course, Mitch’s ability to write all three screenplays went a long way to creating that kind of Zen!

I also thought it was great that each of his books was about someone whom he admired greatly: Morrie, his mother, his Uncle Eddie. He truly believed in what he was writing — as he said, “I’ve never written something that didn’t matter to me.... If you don’t feel it in your stomach, you’re just churning it out.” (And churning is the operative word.) You really would have to believe in what you’re doing to go to 150 publishers, wouldn’t you?

His last book is the book that really got me. It also was the only book whose subject was still alive when it was published. I loved his story about that. “For the first time when I finished this book,” he said, “I could give it to [her] to read.” And when she did, her response was, “My favorite part was my pictures in the back.” As he noted, “You don’t want to miss that moment.”

He is working on a screenplay now with Adam Sandler, who wanted to buy Tuesdays before Oprah did but just didn’t--and Adam’s mom was adamant: “You should give up this silly stuff and do something like Tuesdays with Morrie!” So I guess the next best thing is to work with the author on your own project…. Did Mitch say when his next book would be out, or what it would be about?

He said that he was working on a book, but he didn’t reveal what it was about. I was intrigued by one of the audience questions: “Were you ever a nightclub singer in Crete?” He said, “Yes!” He also said that he is going to write about it someday. I’ll have to be sure and read that one.

I enjoyed his perspective on being able to enjoy his work in various forms of presentation—he has seen plays of Tuesdays with Morrie and watched the movies. He thinks it is important to value each for its own merits rather than always comparing it to the book.

Mitch Albom is an entertaining speaker, a self-effacing person to speak with, and a gifted writer with principles.

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