Book Talk: Mitch Albom revisits heavenly theme in new book

NEW YORK Thu Nov 28, 2013 4:04am EST

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Best-selling novelist and popular sports journalist Mitch Albom returns to a familiar theme in his new book "The First Phone Call from Heaven," exploring what people find most meaningful in life when confronted with mortality.

His latest book of fiction follows the reaction of people from a small Michigan town claiming to receive phone calls from loved ones in heaven. Sully Harding, a town resident, is skeptical and conducts his own investigation.

Albom spoke to Reuters about the significance of the human voice, Alexander Graham Bell and religion.

Q: How did you come up with the plot?

A: About the time that I was considering starting the book, my mother suffered two very bad strokes and lost the ability to speak. She is still alive and I can go sit with her, although I am not sure whether she realizes it is me. Not hearing her voice any more is striking because the first voice you hear is that of your mother. I began to realize the preciousness of the actual sound of a person's voice.

I noticed how many people, after someone dies, will not erase phone messages because they just want to hear the voice. That became the basis for my wanting to do something with the human voice. What if you got to hear it again? What kind of comfort would just the voice be? That led me to phones.

What if someone or a bunch of people get a phone call from heaven but in a limited environment? Would anyone believe that? How would the world react? I sprang off from there.

Q: How does religion influence your fiction writing?

A: I am certainly not a religious writer and do not espouse any religious beliefs. Whenever I do write stories that nudge in the area of faith or belief I try to do so in a way that is not dogmatic or particular to any one religion. Most religions have some concept of afterlife and what happens next. Those are elements in my stories.

I often get way too much credit. I am just a storyteller. The only difference is that maybe my books have a little more hope, but I am still trying to write an entertaining story without hitting anybody over the head with a message. If I don't have good characters and interesting things happening, no one is going to finish the book.

Q: Can you discuss your research behind Alexander Graham Bell and how his story weaves into the plot?

A: I had already started writing when I began to wonder how the telephone was invented and maybe there was a paragraph I could use somewhere. As I read more about the subject, I became consumed.

The background behind the telephone is incredibly emotional and almost inspirational, and I saw enormous parallels with the story I was writing.

The phone was invented out of love to find a way for Bell's deaf wife to speak. When I read about the first phone call, it contains the sentence, 'Come here I want to see you.' The original idea behind the phone was not simply talking but bringing people together, which is one of the book's underpinnings.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from the book?

A: Human voice and contact should not be taken for granted. Make sure if given a choice, be present and with somebody. Second, if something is a miracle to you, it still is a miracle. It does not matter whether science disproves it or the whole world believes otherwise. I think little miracles happen all the time.

(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Paul Simao)

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