A Conversation with Mitch Albom

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Mitch and Janine Albom attend Tuesdays with Morrie at the Cameri/Photo: Elizur Reuveni

Walk my way, and a thousand violins begin to play…the familiar melody of Misty sang from the keyboards late Friday afternoon at the Eretz Israel Museum where best-selling author, playwright, broadcaster and yes, musician Mitch Albom had just demonstrated his skills as a master storyteller. Albom visited Israel to attend the premiere of Tuesdays with Morrie, co-produced by the Cameri and Haifa Theatres, give a talk on life and faith at Tishkofet, and to celebrate the publication of his most recent book, Have a Little Faith, in Hebrew by Matar Publishing House, Albom not only found the time to play a song and give the pianist a sandwich break, but was generous enough at the end of this busy week to chat with Midnight East.

Tuesdays with Morrie is the chronicle of Albom’s conversations with Morrie Schwartz, his college professor and mentor. These meetings took place in the last months of Morrie’s life, as he was dying of ALS (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). It was their “last class” together, a lesson in life and love that has touched the hearts of millions. The stage version was co-written by Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, premiering in the US in 2002. The Cameri – Haifa Theatre production is directed by Moshe Naor and translated by Rivka Meshulah, with Yossi Gerber, Iftah Klein and Liran Saporta. The play has been nominated for a Theatre Prize as “Best Play in Translation” and Yossi Gerber has been nominated as “Best Actor in a Leading Role” for his portrayal of Morrie. The Theatre Prizes will be announced this coming Friday, May 14. 

Ayelet Dekel: You wrote the stage version for Tuesdays with Morrie, it’s not always common for a writer to write the adaptation for his own book.

Mitch Albom: I didn’t want someone to imagine how Morrie and I spoke, I would have had a hard time watching that if they started making us more eloquent than we were…

AD: When reading the book, it’s really your voice telling the story, but the play brings Morrie to life, literally, physically.

MA: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. When Tuesdays with Morrie first came out it wasn’t a book that anyone wanted to publish. It was very, very hard to find even one publisher to agree to do it. And when it first came out it wasn’t a popular book or anything, it was very slow developing so when it became popular there was suddenly a big rush of interest of doing things to capitalize on it. Everything from calendars to day planners and music inspired by, and bumper stickers and little Morrie dolls, and bracelets… ridiculous!
 
I said no to everything, and they offered a lot of money for those things but that wasn’t the reason I wrote the book and I wasn’t going to turn the book into an industry. I agreed to do to two things: one was the movie because Oprah Winfrey asked me to do it and I trusted her. I didn’t know what she was going to do. I personally thought – how can you make a movie about one guy who can’t even move? How interesting is that going to be? But I figured if anyone can do it, she can do it. The other thing I agreed to do, after several years of them asking, was the play. And the only reason I agreed to do that was because I felt that while I liked the movie and I thought the movie was well done, in order to hold people’s interest in a movie you have to develop outside story lines, it can’t just be two people talking. It’s not reasonable to expect that to work, it won’t.

I realized that a play was probably the closest approximation of what really took place because a play really is two people sitting and talking to one another and I thought – well if anything besides the book could give people an idea of what it was like to be in that room, it would be a play…I’ve had people say after they’ve seen the play, “Oh, that’s what it was like.”

AD: It was a very moving experience, watching the play.  It really is like being there.

MA: You know there were times when I was sitting there last night where I felt very much like… Yeah, I remember this, I remember sitting there. Even the way that he sat, the way Morrie sat. Yeah, that’s how it really was. We were just in a room, we were always in the same room, always the same stuff on the table: the beaker, and the urine beaker and some water and a straw because he couldn’t eat very much. I did walk in with food all the time in a bag just like that and you know, then he would take it and put it in the refrigerator until one day I went and opened the freezer and all my food was in the freezer and that’s when I realized he couldn’t eat it. So it was very close to how it actually felt, even the quiet.

AD: You mention the quiet – at one point in the play, Mitch tells Morrie, “it’s a different world in here.” The play takes us into that different world. It’s also very good at describing that other world of voice recorders and cell phones…

MA: Which you know very well.

AD: It seems like this experience was a turning point in terms of your writing – that led you into other forms – fiction, plays. Is that reflected in your personal life as well, do you find the time to enter that “different world”?

MA: Well, from where my world was – most definitely. If you looked at my world and you’d never seen it before, you would say: Wow! It’s chock full of stuff. But if you compared it to pre-Morrie… I don’t work anywhere near like I used to work, I don’t have anywhere near the jobs I used to have. 

Half my time is spent on charity work whereas none of my time was spent on charity work before that and so my quiet time is my writing time and I have that every day. I wake up in the morning and I go down and that’s the first thing I do is write. I go downstairs a little before seven, I have a cup of coffee and I sit alone in my office. Everyone in the house knows you don’t bother me during that time.

That’s when I do my writing, that’s when I do my thinking. It’s very reflective; it’s what’s enabled me to write these other books. Every book that I’ve written since has been written in those quiet hours of the morning. I don’t write any other time.

One of Morrie’s great gifts to me was recognizing you have to carve out this reflective time every day to think about yourself, think about – whatever. Not just always yourself. Ideas, the world… My books are my ideas of the world, I mean, I’m not creating science fiction, you know, they’re all stories about what I think matters in life. Sometimes they’re filled with make believe characters and sometimes they’re true stories, but they’re always things that I’m thinking about in terms of my philosophy of life, and I do that in the quiet hours that Morrie taught me to appreciate.

AD: You started out as a musician and you’re still clearly very involved with music. I remember reading that you perform with the writer’s band Rock Bottom Remainders…

MA: Still do. Oh yeah, yeah, we just got off the road two weeks ago. right before we came here, we played in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston…and the band is as bad as ever.

AD: Bad in the good sense of the word, or…

MA: Well bad in like the funny sense of the word. Musically we’re awful, but we’re funny. We have a few real musicians in the band. For the most part, people are in it because it’s …funny. Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Scott Turow, Ridely Pearson and          Stephen King. Frank McCourt was in it until he died. Most of them can barely play and they can barely sing, but it’s funny. We put on a show. People Like to see Amy Tan wearing a wig and doing some kind of song. I do an Elvis Presley impersonation.

We don’t take ourselves seriously, but it is fun to play music. If you came and heard us you’d say – oh they’re not so terrible, but we’re not very good either. We’re funny and we’re punctual – what more can you want from a band? We say 8 oclock, we mean 8 o’clock.

AD: Do you have any advice for young writers?

MA: Well, if they’re really young and want to learn how to write– read. It sounds very simple but I’m amazed at how many people just want to sit down and start writing and they don’t read. That would be as silly as someone wanting to sit down and play piano but never listening to music, you know. You can’t read enough, and you shouldn’t just read the kind of work that you want to do. Read, but if you’re a fiction writer, don’t just read fiction. Read non fiction, read newspapers, read poetry. If you’re a poet, don’t just read poetry. Surround yourself with art.

AYELET DEKEL