Tuesday, 19 November 2013 14:49

Once More, With Feeling: Mitch Albom Brings His Brand of Storytelling to Grand Rapids

Written by  Kyle Austin
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Mitch Albom Mitch Albom COURTESY PHOTO

Mitch Albom
Schuler Books, 28th St.
Dec. 15, 4:30 p.m.
schulerbooks.com, (616) 942-2561

At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a British runner with a hamstring injury, collapsed only to be pulled to his feet and helped around the finish line by another man who had jumped onto the track from the stands. Most people didn't see it, because the race was only a preliminary heat, but Mitch Albom saw a story, and ran to the stadium tunnel to find it.

"I found out that it was [the runner's father]," Albom said. "He told me this wonderful story about how he had taught his son to run as a child by putting the kid's feet on top of his, almost just as he had done that day. It wasn't about anybody famous, and it wasn't about a big win or a gold medal, but I it was a story about a father and a son, and I knew everybody could relate to that."

Telling stories that engage people: it seems like a logical mission for any writer, and a simple one at that, yet no other writer working today does it quite like Albom. His acute perception of human emotion, which permeates everything he produces — journalism, novels, radio and television appearances, scripts, plays — has earned him and his work a place in the hearts of millions.

But despite all of the success, awards and accolades, Albom is still very much the same kind, genuine and patient observer who went from one New York publisher to another more than 15 years ago, trying to get a manuscript he'd titled Tuesdays with Morrie off the ground so that he could raise enough money to help pay his dying professor's medical bills.

"When Tuesdays with Morrie became a success, it looked like I was going to be able to write more books, and there was that moment when I thought, 'Gee, I don't have to stay in Detroit,' but I just sensed that thinking like that would be trouble," Albom said. "I got lucky because [the deal with Doubleday] was only for one book. If I'd been on contract, you can bet that publishers would have been telling me, 'We gotta get another one out! Give us Wednesdays with Morrie or Thursdays with Morrie,' and I would have been obligated."

Instead, Albom waited six years before publishing his next book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, just to make sure that he was writing for the right reasons and speaking from the heart. It's this kind of humble dedication to his craft and to himself that sets Albom apart from so many other creative people who have let the pressures of fame and success destroy their humanity. It's also why Albom's latest novel, The First Phone Call from Heaven, is yet another example of rich, compelling writing that stays true to the core ethos of storytelling.

"I take all of it with a grain of salt," Albom said of his success. "I always think that if my stories hit with people, it's because it's about them, not because I'm a great writer. If I can find the common denominator human emotion in the story, then I think it'll be of interest to people."

For Albom, that common denominator is often hope, and though some have criticized the author for overusing that emotion, he isn't bothered, because at the end of the day, he's just telling the story that he sees.

"From the beginning of storytelling, hope has been a kernel of every character and every story that's gone on – it's the triumph of good over evil," Albom said. "I'll never be embarrassed to write things that are characterized as hopeful. If that's the worst thing they can say about me then I'm doing way better than I thought."

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It's the most wonderful time of the year . . . to join a book club. Billed as "The book club for the rest of us," Spilled Ink gives anyone within range of a Grand Rapids Public Library branch the opportunity to connect with other readers in an attempt to discuss, ponder, probe, and enjoy a wide variety of literary offerings.

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