Who was your inspiration for Eddie?
Eddie is based on my old uncle, whose name was Eddie. He was very much like the character in the book--he was a member of the "Greatest Generation," he fought in World War II, over in the Philippines. He was a blue-collar kind of guy--a barrel-chested, white-haired, gruff kind of fellow. He'd punch you in the arm when he said hello. Like Eddie in the book he was a blue-collar worker his whole life, and like Eddie in the book, he felt that his life was insignificant. He'd never really done anything, he'd never gone anywhere. He basically was born and died in the same place. He'd get such a big kick out of my traveling. I'd call him from an airport. I'd say, "I'm calling from Cleveland," and he'd go, "Cleveland, wow! I can't believe it!" I felt terrible that he didn't think of himself the way I thought of him. I thought he was so great, but he thought he was insignificant.
He used to tell me this story about the night he got rushed into the hospital for open-heart surgery. The night of the operation it was very touch-and-go. He remembered waking up and rising and seeing all of his dead relatives sitting on the edge of his bed. Eddie would say, "I told them get the heck out of here! I'm not ready!" And they somehow scattered, and Eddie lived a little bit longer. Growing up, I always heard that story. So when people would ask me what I thought happens when we die, I'd always say, "Well, I know there are people waiting for you because my uncle told me so." He was the closest I've known anyone to come back from that.
So when I figured out what I wanted to do after "Tuesdays with Morrie," I knew I wanted to write fiction and keep some of the themes of "Morrie." I began to think about what happens next, when a person dies. I started to weave together a story about a guy like Eddie, who is blue-collar and feels unappreciated, and maybe he goes to heaven and he meets five people who tell him one by one the ways they were connected to him, and how he was much more significant than he thought. It's sort of a wish for my uncle as much as it is a fictional story.
I wanted a backdrop that would make all the readers feel the same. It's very hard to pick a place that everybody feels the same about. If you pick the South, people who live in the South know it, but people who haven't been there don't know what you're describing. But if you pick an amusement park, everybody's gone there! It seems to evoke the same emotions in everyone: summer, innocence, childhood, the smell of popcorn and cotton candy, the sounds of those rides. I thought this would be a good backdrop to set a story about an old man because it's so much a place of innocence and childhood, so it seemed like a good contrast. I deliberately didn't say where the amusement park was, because I wanted everyone to feel like it was their amusement park.
What do you consider the main spiritual lessons of the book?
First, that we're all connected. Everybody affects everybody. We're all part of this big life force. There's a line in the book where the Blue Man, the first person Eddie meets in heaven, says, "You could no more separate one human being from another than you could separate a breeze from the wind." I think that that's true. I've learned that it's true with Morrie. There was this old guy, and he touched me, and I did something to try to pay his medical bills, and wrote this little book, and that touched somebody else, who touched somebody else. I really think that everybody is interconnected. We act like we're so different from one another but I don't think we are. Morrie used to say, 'We're more alike than we are different,' and I really believe that's true.
I guess the second spiritual lesson would be that we go through our lives with a lot of questions, particularly the kind of people I've met in the past six years [since "Morrie"] who have lost people. We ask: Why me? Why did I get sick? Why did my loved one get sick? Why did he have to die? We often die without these questions answered. We die without knowing. I always felt that if heaven is this redemptive place, and any kind of a paradise of some sort, the paradise is not necessarily going to be in the scenery. It's going to be that your questions get answered. I hope that we get our questions answered there, if heaven is indeed a place that's going to bring us something wonderful and redemptive.