Everything good that’s ever happened to Mitch Albom happened in Detroit.
Or so the best-selling author of books like Tuesdays With Morrie says. He’s likely to talk about that next month at Florida Atlantic University, when he joins the lineup for the fifth annual Palm Beach Books Festival.
The one-day festival, set for March 16 at FAU’s University Theatre, will feature best-selling writers such as Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) and Tayari Jones (An American Marriage), as well as Palm Beach resident James Patterson, whose recent thriller, The President Is Missing, was written with former President Bill Clinton.
The festival was founded in 2015 by former newspaper reporter and West Palm Beach author Lois Cahall. “We promote cultural awareness of the published author by bringing in New York Times-best-selling, and household-name writers,” Cahall said in a prepared statement. “We hope to sustain literacy with our students, educators, and librarians.”
The first panel will start at 10 a.m. and will include Jones and Idra Novey (Ways to Disappear). Their conversation will be moderated by Leigh Haber, books editor for Oprah Magazine. Orlean, who has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992, will be featured in the second panel at 11 a.m., moderated by Christopher Bonanos, city editor for New York magazine.
The third panel is at 12:15 p.m. and features Patterson. The moderator will be Rob Scheer, founder of Comfort Cases, which advocates for youth in foster care. Up at 2 p.m. is “Big Bens! Authors in Conversation,” with Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and Ben Bradlee Jr., whose book is called The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.
The final panel of the day starts at 3:20 p.m. and features Albom, author of six consecutive No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, including Tuesdays with Morrie. He has recently completed his latest work, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven, the sequel to his best-selling 2003 book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
Albom began his career as a pianist, performing in Europe and America. He became a journalist by accident, volunteering his skills at the Queens Tribune, a weekly paper in New York City.
He went on to be an award-winning sports journalist at the Detroit Free Press and the host of a daily radio show. He has also penned award-winning TV films, stage plays, screenplays, a nationally syndicated newspaper column and a musical.
Albom’s books have collectively sold more than 39 million copies in 42 languages.
In addition to his literary endeavors, Albom founded and oversees a number of charities, including S.A.Y. Detroit, a consortium of nine different charitable operations; created a nonprofit dessert shop and food product line to fund programs for Detroit’s neediest citizens; and operates an orphanage for 47 kids in Haiti.
Here are some edited excerpts of a conversation Palm Beach ArtsPaper had with Albom:
PBAP: What will you talk about at the Palm Beach Book Festival?
Albom: I’ll tell some funny stories and talk about my career. I’m living proof of John Lennon’s adage, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” I started my career as a musician with no expectations of ever becoming an author, let alone a successful author and being invited to Palm Beach to talk about my work.
I was busy making other plans and none of them involved winding up in Palm Beach talking about books.
The theme of The Five People You Meet in Heaven is that are lives are connected in ways we don’t yet understand. When you get to heaven, all that is explained to you and that’s what makes it heaven. You will see the connections and understand how you were living the life you were supposed to live, even if you didn’t understand it at the time.
PBAP: Where do you get your inspiration?
Albom: I’ve never had writer’s block. Quite the contrary: I hope God grants me enough time to write all the books I have in my head. I have so many more I want to do.
PBAP: Your 2009 book, Have a Little Faith, explores the idea of losing belief and finding it again. How does your faith manifest itself in your life?
Albom: Faith guides a lot of my charitable acts and decisions and how I deal with loss. If you don’t have faith, you will have a difficult time finding comfort.
PBAP: You have said 60 percent of your life is devoted to your charitable endeavors. What does your charitable work mean to you?
Albom: It’s only fitting that my current ambitions are spent helping others a majority of the time. It’s perfectly fine; I made work a priority for many years. It’s nothing special, many people do it, and this is what I choose to do with my life now. I’m perfectly happy.[Albom runs the Have Faith Haiti Mission and Orphanage, which houses 47 orphans. Four of these children, including one named Chika Jeune, came to Detroit for medical treatment and two others are attending college.]
PBAP: What do you know now that you wish you knew 20 years ago?
Albom: I really know firsthand how precious children are and how much I revel in them and my relationships with them. Twenty years ago when I got married, it wasn’t high on my list. We never had our own biological kids. In life’s funny way, now I’m raising 47 kids and loving every minute of it. It’s such a big part of my life.
PBAP: Does luck play a role in your success?
Albom: I prefer to talk about destiny. I believe there is a reason for circumstances to happen the way they did. Initially, I wasn’t so happy about becoming a writer, because I had to give up my musical life, which had been my first love.
I always intended to be a musician, but when I finally got there it didn’t happen. I wasn’t succeeding. That’s when I volunteered for the local newspaper just for something to do. It was nice to be welcomed. They’d call me: are you coming in today? It wasn’t even about the writing. It was more about belonging.
That’s how I found my career in writing. Looking back, I see that was the best thing to happen to me. So, I don’t see it so much as luck, but a path that I didn’t understand at the time, but in retrospect, I see it was meant to be.
Later, I was working for the Sun-Sentinel and they promoted me from feature writer to columnist. I tried to negotiate a three-year contract and they refused. One month later, I was offered a job at the Detroit Free Press and took it. That’s where I met my wife, got married, launched my career and established my charities. Everything good happened to me in Detroit. That’s destiny.
PBAP: We have to ask: When you get to heaven, who would you most like to see?
Albom: You’re making a big assumption (that I’ll get to heaven). But, seriously, I would like to see Morrie (Schwartz, his sociology professor at Brandeis University and the subject of Tuesdays with Morrie) again. I would ask him what he thinks of everything that has transpired. I have always been curious as to what he would make of this.
Of course, I’d hope to see my parents, and see Chika come running towards me. [Chika died of a brain tumor in 2017.] That would mean the world to me.
And, like the premise of the two books, which shows how we’re all connected, I’d like to meet some people I didn’t know and see if I had an influence on them and vice versa. I’d like to have made a positive effect to a stranger.
For additional information, visit palmbeachbookfestival.com or call 561-297-2595. Tickets for the full day are $85 and can be purchased at fauevents.com or by calling 561-297-6124. Free parking is included with admission, and lunch will be for sale at the event.