Mitch Albom: Mitch and kitsch

His literary cocktail of sentiment, spirituality and homespun philosophy has propelled him to the top of the US bestseller charts. Hermione Eyre meets the former journalist whose heart rules his head
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The Independent Online

The author at No 1 in the New York Times bestseller list is sitting unnoticed in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel in London. A diminutive figure, 45 years old but with boyishly black hair, he greets me with a tough-guy handshake. If I were a man he would probably whack me on the back. You can tell he was a sports journalist for 13 years - until, in 1996, his life changed completely.

He started going to visit his old college professor, who was on his deathbed, and wrote up their conversations about love, life and mortality as the book Tuesdays with Morrie (subtitle: "An old man, a young man, and life's greatest lesson"). At first, he says, it was hard finding a publisher, as the book is sui generis, somewhere between a memoir and a self-help manual. "I had a very high-grade publisher tell me I was incapable of writing a memoir," he remembers. "They said I should come back in 15 or 20 years' time when I had a better idea of the genre. Now Tuesdays is the biggest-selling memoir of all time."

You can say what you like about Albom's work - and many do - but it is very popular. He taps the same vein as the Desiderata did in the 1960s, furnishing the common reader with homespun truths, tender moments of intergenerational bonding, tears, hugs, and lessons on how to live a better life. His 2003 novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven - "All endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time..." - was described by the New York Times as "a book with genuine power to stir and comfort its readers" . Certain online magazines were less complimentary. "The Five People You Meet in Hell - Mitch Albom still peddling the same gooey crap," sniggered The Daily Closer.

Here at the Savoy, sitting opposite Albom, it does feel like there is a force field of schmaltz around the man. We have been given a plate of ickle, crustless sandwiches. The lounge pianist has started to play "I Can Sing a Rainbow" and, most disconcertingly, Mitch, it would appear, is wearing foundation. However, during the course of our conversation it becomes clear to me that he is neither a hard-headed commercialist nor a soppy fool. He has a marked tendency towards sentimentality. His favourite film is It's a Wonderful Life, but he seems modest - "People who don't normally read make an exception for my books, possibly because they're short" - unpretentious and reasonable. Oh, and the foundation was simply for a TV interview he had just done.

"Negative reviews of my books always say 'too sentimental'. I accept the word; I just don't see it as a criticism. What's everybody's favourite movie? Some old black and white, sentimental movie. What's everybody's favourite song? Something they first heard at camp when they kissed their first boyfriend. Sentiment is wherever you go. Anyway, I don't write for literary critics. They get their books free."

So Mitch Albom is rather droll, too. Another blow for his detractors. He settles into a thinking position, elbows on knees, and elaborates on whom he writes his books for. "I live in the centre of the country near Detroit, an economically depressed region with a lot of unemployment. I've lived there 20 years and I know the feelings of people and I know they count. They count just as much as someone in a loft in New York. It's insulting for critics to say otherwise."

Albom has a cosy little literary community of his own, playing in a band with Stephen King (guitar), Amy Tan (tambourine, singing) and other writers. They are inappropriately named the Rock Bottom Remainders. It can only be a matter of time, surely, before Dan Brown turns up in the percussion section. But would Mitch prefer to be in a more rarefied literary coterie? Would he like a better critical response to his work? "A critic telling me something is good isn't going to mean more to me than a woman from Nebraska coming up to me in tears, telling me that she read For One More Day [his latest novel] and it made her call her mother who she hadn't spoken to for 10 years."

It seems that Mitch's work, if it reaches you, reaches you deeply. Spiritual rather than religious, it appeals to many faiths, mixing Christian references with a conversational, almost rabbinical style (Albom himself is Jewish). "People tell me, 'A pastor was using your concept of heaven in a sermon the other day.' Maybe my books can be assimilated into any faith."

Perhaps his books fill the void left by religion in an increasingly secular society. All three of his popular novels analyse death. "Not death," he counters, "so much as mortality - and there's a difference. Mortality means you don't have for ever to work things out. You can live your life unexamined but then on the last day you're going to think: 'I've left things a little late.' That's what Tuesdays with Morrie was about, with its famous sentence, "Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live".

While Mitch was clearly never hard-boiled, he insists he used to be more cynical. "I worked on a newspaper for 13 years, after all." What changed him was an awareness of death. "I've seen people die," he tells me. "And none of their last words are ironic. Their last words are: 'I love you' ... 'Don't forget me.' They're all the same."

This is perhaps the nub of my personal problem with Albom's work. Because we all have the same dying words, doesn't that make them less interesting? Aren't platitudes the enemy of good literature? Albom disagrees. "If those are people's dying words, you can believe they are in their hearts a lot of the rest of the time as well. Those are the things that matter to people.

"Yesterday my niece who's 11 came into the bathroom while I was shaving and she brought in this origami thing she had made which spelled out: 'I love you.' I had that emotional feeling in my stomach. I've known her since she came into the world. How did that skill get into that little body? I'm glad I have these capabilities. I'd feel sorry for anyone who can't let themselves be moved." It begins to feel like he is in writerly mode, polishing one of his gleaming pearls of wisdom. Perhaps he can see the cynicism in my eyes, because he winds up: "I know Brits can be more hard-boiled than Americans, though."

'For One More Day' is published by Time Warner at £12.99

Biography: From boxing to bestseller list

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1958, Mitch Albom dabbled briefly in a number of professions after graduating from both Brandeis and Columbia universities. Before becoming an award-winning author, he had stints as an amateur boxer, nightclub singer and pianist. It wasn't until he wrote the novel Tuesdays with Morrie in 1997, however, that he rose to international prominence, after the book was featured in Oprah Winfrey's book club. After his experiences with Morrie Schwartz, the subject of the novel, Albom started a volunteer group in 1998 called A Time to Help. His most recent novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, is a New York Times bestseller, and was made into a television movie starring Jon Voight. Albom is also a member of a rock band called the Rock Bottom Remainders, whose members are all published writers.

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