Mitch Albom sells big ideas in simple tales

The bestselling author talks to Alice Johnson about his new book, The Time Keeper, and what makes him tick.
The Time Keeper is Mitch Albom's ninth book. The author is also a sports journalist and lives in Detroit in the US.
The Time Keeper is Mitch Albom's ninth book. The author is also a sports journalist and lives in Detroit in the US.

Mitch Albom catapulted to fame after the release of his breakthrough book, Tuesdays with Morrie, in 1997. The small volume, which chronicled Albom's discussions about life and death with his former sociology professor, has sold more than 14 million copies and has been translated into 41 languages. He followed this up in 2003 with his first fiction novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which also went on to sell millions.

But Albom, 54, is not only an international bestselling author, he's also a top sports journalist in his hometown, Detroit, as well as the head of charity organisations. This month sees the release of his ninth book, The Time Keeper, a fable about the first man on Earth to count the hours.

What's the main message of The Time Keeper?

In this day and age where everybody wants more time and to be more efficient and to live longer, I don't think we always realise the real value of time and the fact that it is limited precisely so we have to try to make each day precious. The message in The Time Keeper is that, instead of counting all the time in the day, you might be better off trying to make each minute count towards having more richer experiences.

How do you translate concepts such as time into fiction – what's the process?

You start with what is essentially a large idea. In Tuesdays with Morrie, you sort of talk about the meaning of life when you die, and in The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it's sort of about the afterlife and your purpose in life. These are such ponderous topics that the best way to deal with them is through a simple, fairy-tale sort of style.

You're also a sports journalist. How did you become a novelist?

Well, with great difficulty – it's a tightwire act sometimes. Before I ever wrote any novels or books of any significance, I was a sports writer and what it really enabled me to do is connect with my community. I still live here in Detroit. I haven't moved, I haven't changed the house that I have lived in since before I wrote any of these books. I'm still sitting in the same house where I'm with my wife and the same neighbours. I just felt that if I gave that up I would be giving up a big connection to my community.

Do you feel like it's a sort of double life?

Yes, especially with the kind of books that I write – a lot of them deal with the meaning of life and the meaning of time. And then, on the other hand, you're writing about baseball games. I think it is a bit of a double life, but I think it is also part of the balance of life. I'll also be – and I was yesterday, actually – in a locker room with a bunch of other guys, standing next to a 22-year-old football player, talking to him about what he did. It's a good way of keeping your ego in check, too.

Do you think you will eventually get tired of writing about sports?

Sports writing is, and should be, a young person's business. I'm getting a little grey around the edges for it now. When I started, a lot of the players were older than me; certainly the coaches were older than me. Now, I'm older than the coaches. It gets harder and harder to relate to 20-year-old multimillionaires. It's hard to speak their language and hard to understand their concerns, and I might not be the best person to chronicle all this anymore.

Tell us about your charities – how were they set up?

In the late 1990s I started my first charity, the Dream Fund, which was to help kids who were underprivileged to study the arts and go to college on part-scholarships. Then it just kind of snowballed from there and I got involved with the homeless in 2006. I've started a number of charities here in Detroit to try to deal with homelessness on different levels – from providing people with homes and jobs to taking care of them.

Then I got involved with Haiti a few years ago when the earthquake happened – again, I didn't know it was going to become what it did, but it's probably the most consuming thing I do. We took over operations of an orphanage down there, and now I go every month for about four days to help operate it, admit children and oversee the programme. It's the most rewarding work I've ever done. I'll write a book about it at some point.

The Time Keeper (Little, Brown) is out now

Published: September 18, 2012 04:00 AM


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