Mitch Albom almost gave up trying to get Tuesdays with Morrie published. If the book hadn't been written with the aim of paying his former professor's medical bills, he probably would have.
The 1997 memoir is about a series of visits Albom made to his old sociology lecturer, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from motor neurone disease.
Tuesdays with Morrie is based on conversations Albom had with Schwartz as the debilitating disease robbed him of the ability to walk, speak, swallow and breathe. It covers many themes – friendship, education, the nature of human existence – framed as lessons from a dying man.
Still, publishers refused to take it on, and the rejection letters piled up.
"No one wanted it," says Albom, who had spent much of his career as a well-known sports journalist before Tuesdays with Morrie. "They said it would be boring and that no one wanted to read it."
Eventually, publishing house DoubleDay took a chance on the memoir, allowing Albom to settle Schwartz's bills before he died. The book went on to top the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, sold more than 14 million copies and was translated into 45 languages. It was also adapted for the stage and into a 1999 television film starring Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon.
Albom continued writing after the book's success. But he didn't return to non-fiction for a decade, and his second memoir, Finding Chika, was released only last year.
Albom will be in Dubai this week for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature to discuss his latest book, about a young Haitian girl Albom met at the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage.
Finding Chika mirrors the structure of Tuesdays with Morrie in that both works revolve around lessons the author learnt through friendship. Each has deeply profound and tragic subject matter, though the roles of young and old are reversed.
Finding Chika's main subject was born three days before the catastrophic Haiti earthquake in 2010. "It was a tragic event. Three per cent of Haiti's population was killed in a minute," Albom says. "Chika and her mother miraculously survived as their house – a cinderblock structure – collapsed on top of them. They slept in a sugarcane field on a bed of leaves. Three days old, and she was already tougher than most people."
Albom met the young Chika when she was admitted to the orphanage when she was only 5 years old. Her mother had died giving birth to her younger brother and what was left of her family had scattered. Chika was soon diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour. As nobody in Haiti could offer treatment, Albom took her to the US. "The doctors said she had four months to live. She survived for two years, during which we travelled the world together to find treatment," he says. "Along the way we became a family. The book is about that, about developing a bond in the most unlikely of places."
Albom says he is taking a break from writing, as Finding Chika "took a lot out of me emotionally" and now spends most of his time working on TV and film adaptations of his older works. His 2003 novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven is being turned into a TV series by Warner Bros and Fox, with Albom in place to write and executive produce the show.
Albom, who has written three works of non-fiction and six novels, says he didn't set out to become a writer. He credits "a series of good accidents" as leading him to the path he is on now. He started out as a musician, lyricist and songwriter; his dream, he says, was to become a record producer. "When it became clear that that wasn't going to work out, I volunteered to work for a newspaper in New York that gave out free copies."
Albom worked for The Queen's Tribune for six months. During that time, he found he had an aptitude for writing and the discovery inspired him to enrol at Columbia University to pursue journalism. "I wanted to write big feature pieces," he says. "I found work as a sports writer instead. And from then on, all the work I came across was in sports journalism. People would see my past writing and say 'you're a sports journalist', so it went on like that for 15 years."
Albom says he would've stayed in sports journalism if it hadn't been for Morrie and the turning point it brought to his career. He says he never expected the book to become so popular, but it threw Albom into a different world. He went from stadiums and courts to universities and hospice groups, giving talks to everyone from coaches and athletes to people suffering from motor neurone disease. "It opened my eyes to how much suffering there is in the world," he says. "It was hard to take sports seriously after that."
Albom will reflect on these experiences in Dubai. Besides his talk on Finding Chika, he will be featured in a panel that investigates the place of faith in the modern world. Others in the panel include Letters to a Young Muslim author Omar Saif Ghobash, award-winning journalist Lesley Hazleton and bestselling author of A Monk's Guide to Happiness Gelong Thubten. Both sessions will take place this Saturday.
Albom's advice to aspiring writers is simple: read. "And not just the kind of stuff you're interested in writing. Try to read whatever you can get your hands on. Be curious. Cross-learning is important."
Whether you're an aspiring romance writer or into fantasy, Albom says it doesn't matter. He suggests reading biographies, newspapers, works of fiction and non-fiction.
“You never know where you find an interesting bit of information you can use. After that, find a style you like. A sentence or a paragraph by your favourite author, and try to write your version of that sentence. When someone sets out to learn a musical instrument, they don’t start by playing originals. They learn their favourite songs and then build their skills from there.”
Mitch Albom will be part of a panel discussing the importance of faith in the modern world at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Saturday, February 8, at 11.30am. He will also be speaking about his book Finding Chika at 6pm on the same day.