You were a sportswriter when you wrote "Tuesdays with Morrie. But “For One More Day” is the first time you’ve depicted the sports world in your fiction. Why didn’t you ever use your sports experience before?
It’s interesting. I have always deliberately avoided writing about sports. It’s hard for Americans to accept you as more than one thing. When I wrote "Tuesdays with Morrie," it was just to pay Morrie’s medical bills, and I thought people wouldn’t take me seriously of this image of sportswriters as Oscar Madison.
So why now?
Fortunately people know me better now for "Tuesdays with Morrie" or "Five People," and I think they’ll read my books for what they are. And for “For One More Day,” I wanted to create this divide for the main character between being a daddy’s boy and a momma’s boy. I had known so many people whose only connection with their father had been sports.
I also wanted to talk about someone in middle age, someone who is already living a life of regret and memory, and I knew that story from knowing former pro athletes. It’s such a fleeting thing, sports, you know. A retired athlete’s best years are behind him. They don’t even know that that’s gonna happen until boom it’s gone. And then, all of a sudden at age 35, they have to start growing up, working a real job, like he does in the movie. And he hates it. I knew that life so well. So I said, “Well, I’ll dabble into sports.” They always say, write what you know. And I could write sports with my eyes closed.
It seems typical of you that when it came time to write sports, you didn’t write about a hero.
I was always interested in the guy who came in last. Everybody else wrote about the guy who came in first. If I went to an Olympics, I’d find someone who was eliminated in the second heat, when there wasn’t six people in the stands.
If I were a college kid who had an essay to write about the role of death in Mitch Albom’s books, what would be the right answer?
Just that I learned in writing "Tuesdays with Morrie" that people took the lessons much more seriously than if I’d written a textbook about forgiveness and money and marriage. If you have an old man who knows his days are numbered, who’s literally counting his breaths, all of a sudden, everybody’s willing to pay attention. People are willing to go with you there because they think, “I better think about that because I am gonna die one day.” And so it enables you to deal with some themes that people might otherwise not want to read about.
So death is a focusing tool. Did you have that kind of experience with death yourself that implanted this idea so strongly?
Actually I did. "Tuesdays with Morrie" was kind of a bookend experience for me. I handled death far more maturely then by facing up to it. I wasn’t so good with it the first time it entered my life, about 15 years earlier. I was a musician then, just out of college, and I had moved to New York to live with an uncle, my mother’s brother, who was like a second father to me. I lived on the floor below him. And he got pancreatic cancer. I watched him die in front of me, very quickly, and I was very bad at it. I didn’t want to see it and would just say, “Let’s not talk about that now.”
And one night about 4:00 in the morning, I got called upstairs. It was my aunt saying, “Come up. We’re gonna take Mike to the hospital and we need you to watch the kids.” He had two little kids, five and seven years old. So I went upstairs--I can still remember this like it’s happening right in front of me as I’m telling it to you--and he was yellow. I’d never seen anybody look like that. I had the sense of death looming.
But, being that young, I’d never had any experience with death. We walked to the elevator, and I knew that this might be a significant moment, but I just didn’t know what to say. He got into the elevator and I mumbled something like, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of the kids.” And then, the door closed, like in the movies, where the two doors roll together. And I never saw him again. He died hours later. I’ve always regretted how I handled that, and always wished that I could go back to that walk down the hallway and say smarter things.
That was part of the reason I went and saw Morrie as often as I did. A lot of that is in "For One More Day." It’s that idea of getting time back with somebody after you realize how much you appreciated them.
The ballplayer in this story has a pretty astounding experience with death. If you ran into an old ballplayer and he told you this story, would you believe him? Do you have any sort of notions about what waits for us after death?
Hey, when you’re the guy who wrote "Tuesdays with Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," you’re gonna hear stories. People have been told me that they’ve been visited by someone they’ve lost, or that when they almost died they saw their mother come and hold their hand and say, “It’s not your time yet.” I’ve been told about visions of Jesus, conversations with Jesus. It’s just too much for it to all be hallucinogenic or coincidental. So, yes, I do.
I truly feel that there’s something beyond here. I see it in the sparks of divinity I see inside everybody, even bad people. And I mean, we’re not here on Earth to be worm food. I have an internal belief that there is something beyond here. My hope is that it’s better and that it rewards the good that people have done and takes care of the poor, and the sick, and the suffering, who have not had a fair shake here on Earth.