Wednesday with Mitch
Chances are, you've heard of Mitch Albom, or at least one of his hugely best-selling books, Tuesdays with Morrie or The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Or maybe you saw one of the movie versions of those books that he helped write. Or maybe you've read one of his sports books, like the biography of football coach Bo Schembechler. Or, if you live in Mitch's hometown of Detroit, you might know him as that famous ESPN guy walking around town, covering sports. Even if you don't think you know Mitch Albom, you probably do. He does a lot of philanthropy, a lot of writing, and seems to be everywhere, all the time.
Well, guess what? Today, Mitch is on mentalfloss.com! He's got an amazing new book that just came out last week called Have a Little Faith, and we were lucky to get on the phone with Mitch to talk about it for 20 minutes. But wait, there's more! We scored a couple free copies of Have a Little Faith, which we're going to give away at the end of the interview below. So be sure to read carefully, because, as you know from past Creatively Speaking contests, the answers to the questions always come from the body of the interview.
I read Have a Little Faith a couple months ago when I got my hands on a galley copy and let me tell you, it's one of his best yet. A true story, the book centers around two men: One, a pastor named Henry Covington; the other, a rabbi named Albert Lewis. One black, the other white. One poor, the other comfortable. One in Detroit, the other in New Jersey. One nearly died while doing and selling drugs, the other in the process of dying as Mitch comes to know him while writing the book. In fact, that's how the whole idea for the book came to be: Rabbi Lewis approached Mitch one day back in the late "˜90s and asked him to write the Rabbi's eulogy. "Are you dying?" Mitch asked. "Not yet"¦" said the rabbi, with a smile.
After some vacillation, Mitch agreed, even though he didn't know his rabbi very well. But just like in Tuesdays with Morrie, he started spending a lot of time with Rabbi Lewis, and, simultaneously, got involved with I am My Brother's Keeper Ministries in Detroit, helping the homeless.
What started as a simple question, "Will you write my eulogy?" turned into a journey, as Mitch rediscovered (and perhaps discovered for the first time ever) a real sense of faith in a higher power.
DI: How much did you, personally, change while writing this book?
I think all books like these are cathartic in their own way because they help you put words to your feelings. It forces you to think about the things you're doing, and also forces you to learn more, once you know that you're going to write about people, you delve even deeper into their background—their histories, their families, and things like that. My books, David, are a little different; they're not done when they're done, if you know what I mean. They sort of begin when they're done. I finished writing Tuesdays with Morrie in 1997, but the whole experience is still going on, and changes me to this day, when people feel they can come up to me and tell me about someone who is dying in their family, tell me their thoughts. Those are tough conversations and they change you.
I know that since I wrote this book, the relationships I have with people in the Christian community and in the inner-city community have changed as a result. People want to talk to me about this now, and I want to talk to them. So it's really the beginning of the process, not the end. I'll probably have a better answer for you in a couple years.
DI: When Rabbi Lewis first asked you to write the eulogy, did you know immediately there would be a book in it?
MA: No. I didn't always know. For the first five or six years, there really wasn't anything there, book-wise. I was just trying to do a favor for somebody. And trying to live up to what he asked me to do. In fact, I started visiting with Rabbi Lewis in 2000 and I wrote two other books during that time. In fact, he read the manuscripts of both of them. So, if I had been thinking there was a book there, I would have written it a lot earlier.
I really decided there was something to say when I started visiting the homeless here in Detroit. When I saw the religious elements of that, and the pastors who would come preach to them, I saw this world that was totally different from where I grew up. One was black, one was white. One was dirt poor and the other a very comfortable suburb. And it seemed like such a contrast, yet they were unified by this idea of believing in something bigger. And when Henry Covington came in the picture, I thought, well now there's a face to them—someone who symbolizes these two completely different worlds—completely different from Rabbi Lewis, but yet serene in his own way because of his faith. And I started to see how his church was falling down, Rabbi Lewis's body was falling down, and I just saw all these parallels and I thought, well, I think there's a good story there and that's when I decided there might be a book.
DI: Is there something that you do now, ritually, that keeps you connected to your faith?
MA: Pray. I would say of everything that I've changed, ritually, the most measurable thing is praying. I find myself praying when I get up and when I go to sleep. Not so much the formal Hebrew prayers from my youth, but prayers of some kind of a sense of appreciation. I have been overwhelmed by what I've seen the last few years. I have a very unusual daily life here: I wake up in a nice, suburban house with my wife, and, you know, we're okay. And then I get in the car and drive to downtown Detroit, which is falling apart. And I work down there and I go over to the church, which is falling apart—men are sleeping on floors in the kitchen, and we're scooping ice cream for guys who will tell you they haven't slept in their own bed in five years. And then, when I'm done, I get in my car and drive back and I go to sleep in my nice house in the suburbs. And I have to appeal to a higher power to understand that. In one day you've seen everything and you have to be so appreciative of what you have, after you see how bad it is for other people. More than anything else, that's what I spend my time doing. Even when I do end up going to a synagogue now, I tend to have prayers like that.
DI: You're Jewish, but you married a non-Jew, something you say you feel awkward about in the beginning as you're getting to know the rabbi better. My hunch is, you eventually made peace with this and am guessing your wife's background ultimately helped you write the book. True?
MA: Most certainly it enabled me to understand Henry's world because my wife is Christian and a pretty devout Christian. While she doesn't ever try to impose anything on me, I don't put any limits on her. And she's got a big family and we're often doing things that have to do with churches, and often the conversation is about Jesus, with her sisters and family, you can't help it. So this wasn't an alien world to me.
When I asked the rabbi, "How do you account for all these different faiths? How can they all be right? Isn't just one right, and the rest wrong by default?" He gave this example of trees. He said, "Do you believe that God made trees?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "So why didn't he make just one tree? Why did he have to make a bunch of different kinds of trees? He's God, and if he's going to call this a tree, why wouldn't they all look like this? But he made oaks and pines. Why? Because they're all varieties of God's creation. Why can't you look at faith that way?" And I thought that made a lot of sense. Why wouldn't I want to feel that way if I'm married to someone who is on a different tree?
DI: How much of the dialogue is made up? Did you record all these conversations?
MA: Almost from the beginning, yes. After Tuesday's with Morrie, I learned the value of a tape recorder. When [Rabbi Lewis] asked me to do his eulogy, and I came by to visit, I was taking notes anyhow, because I wanted to know where he grew up, you know? I was doing the whole background thing. I really didn't know very much about him at all. That's why it was so stunning that he would ask me. I mean, I knew him; I knew him for a really long time. But I'd never had a meal with him. I'd never been to his home with his family. So it was like starting from scratch. I think I did one or two sessions with a notepad, but then I thought, this is stupid, I'm not going to be able to read my notes afterwards. And he was used to working with tape recorders and all that. So I said, "Why don't we just tape our conversations?" He was fine with it. I did this with Morrie and I loved listening to our conversations later on, and I could see that I was going to enjoy being with [Rabbi Lewis], and so right from the start I recorded him. Once or twice I brought a little video camera over the years and used that, too. But for the most part it was the little tape recorder.
DI: What's your writing process like? Do you think a lot about what you're going to say, and then put it down and never touch it again or is there a lot of second-guessing?
MA: I don't write linearly. I don't just go, okay, begin, boom, boom, I'm done. I go back and look at it. In this particular book, there was a real dance, because I'm telling two stories. That's a dangerous thing to try as a writer. Sometimes when you have two stories, you don't really have one. And I had to make sure that the contrast between the two men was pronounced enough and significant enough. That it wasn't just two guys sitting and talking, which isn't going to capture the reader's attention or imagination. So it was very important to sort of contrast the two lives. One, I was sitting with an old man who was dying; the other was detailing the way in which he grew up. He gives a terrible example of how he'd put bowls of rice on the kitchen counter so the rats would go to the bowls and stay out of the refrigerator. That stood in stark contrast to this old white-haired man talking to me about faith as he was dying. So when you're dealing with things like this, there's a lot of constructing and deconstructing.
DI: What, besides the tape recorder, did you learn from your other books that helped you write this book?
MA: Just knowing the kinds of things that my readers are interested in, which are the things I'm interested in—like larger questions that resonate for everyone. I've always felt, from the first book, that I wasn't the story. I never wanted to be the story. I don't include a lot of history of me that isn't pertinent to the story. And I don't include a lot of observations on my part that have to do with me. I try to always think like the reader. I had this great opportunity to move between these two men, something the average reader isn't going to get—to back-and-forth between these two communities, these two worlds. So, what would they ask? What would they want to know? And I learned that from Tuesdays with Morrie and then Five People You Meet in Heaven, even though it was a novel, was kind of constructed the same way. There were a lot of questions in Five People You Meet in Heaven. He was always asking, What does this mean? And I tried to think like the reader. What would they want to know on these important issues of life. Having done it a few times before, it helped me construct this book.
DI: At one point in the book, you're talking with Rabbi Lewis about science and technology taking all the mystery out of life. To which the he says "There is always something they can't explain, something that created it all"¦ And no matter how far they go in the other way, to extend life, cloning"¦at some point, life is over. And then what happens?... When you come to the end, that's where God begins" "“ do you believe this to be true?
MA: I do, yes. I'm somewhat educated. I went through the whole process of trying to logically work it all out. Okay, so we now know that the sun is this; it's not a sun God, it's a bunch of gasses. We now know that the earth is this; it's not the earth God. You know? We figured it out, versus our ancestors thousands of years ago, who prayed every time the moon came out. But, we still don't know where the moon came from. We still don't know where the sun came from. We still don't know where the first atom came from. If you go back to the big bang, what started the bang? And at the other end, as the rabbi said, I don't know what happens when we're done. Nobody does. And so, I think at the very very beginning and at the very very end, that's where faith comes in. And that's where the idea of God comes in. I not only believe that, I like believing that. It makes my existence here feel a little more significant. I can understand why people might come to the conclusion that we're nothing more than worm food when we die. But that doesn't give me a lot of hope. So I choose the other way.
Win a copy of Mitch Albom's new book! Below, you'll find two questions. The answers are hiding somewhere in the interview above. Answer both questions correctly and you'll be entered into a drawing. We'll pluck two random winners from the lot and contact you for an address where we can send the book. 1) When Mitch works on a new book, does he write linearly? 2) Who put rice on the counter for the rats? Shoot us the answers via e-mail here, and please don't leave them in the comments below. Good luck!
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