One morning in the small town of Coldwater, Michigan, the phones start ringing. The voices say they are calling from heaven. Each call is greeted differently—some with love, some with religious zeal, some with fear. The question of whether these calls are a miracle or a hoax drives Sully Harding, a grieving single father with an inquisitive and hopeful son, to uncover the truth. A page-turning mystery and a meditation on the power of connecting with a loved one you cannot see, this latest novel is a virtuosic feat of history, love, and redemption.
Nicholas Sparks is the best-selling author of several beloved novels, with over 80 million copies in print worldwide. His most recent release is The Longest Ride.
Nicholas Sparks: We first met years ago, when Tuesdays with Morrie and The Notebook were just out. What’s been the most surprising turn for your career since that day?
Mitch Albom: Pretty much everything. Tuesdays was the first nonsports thing I had done, and it was written only to pay Morrie’s medical bills. I figured I’d return to sportswriting. I never imagined novels or the audience I’ve been blessed to find. I remember you hoping The Notebook would give you more chances to write. I think you’ve done OK with that, by the way.
NS: Thanks. With this new novel, The First Phone Call from Heaven, heaven once again figures prominently—as it did in The Five People You Meet in Heaven. How do you use it differently this time?
MA: Five People mostly takes place in heaven, to teach Eddie, the protagonist, to appreciate his life on earth. First Phone Call takes place in a small town, with the idea of heaven reaching out to us down here—through the phone.
NS: You wove the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone into this novel. Do you see parallels between that and our modern-day obsession with cell phones? How did this influence your story development?
MA: People scoffed at the telephone’s invention. Yet once it was introduced, its growth was astronomical. Same thing with cell phones. I used this to show how the “once impossible” is quickly forgotten. Could the same be true about speaking to heaven?
NS: Hearing from a deceased loved one is such a powerful idea. Whom would you talk to if you had the chance? And if Morrie from Tuesdays with Morrie were one, what would you ask him?
MA: My mother is still alive, but has suffered several strokes and can’t speak. I wish I could dial to the past and engage in one of our long, impassioned, all-over-the-place talks. And Morrie? Well. He never got to read a page of Tuesdays. I’d ask if he is pleased. Am I doing OK by him? Mostly, I’d like to hear his laughter. I think we miss laughter most.
NS: This is the first novel you’ve written with a mystery/thriller element. Did that change your writing process at all? And is this how you think the world would really react—global fascination—if proof of heaven were somehow revealed?
MA: It felt quite natural to weave a mystery—perhaps from all those years’ writing sports that count down and reach a climax. And yes, I definitely think if a town today claimed to be talking to heaven, it would be on twenty-four hours a day on cable news and the Internet. Look at the Susan Boyle story. In a week, the whole world knew of her—and she just sang like an angel. Imagine talking to one!
NS: Small towns—like Coldwater in First Phone Call—often paint the backdrop of your novels. Why?
MA: I was raised in a small town—local high school, one great pizza place, everyone knowing everyone. So it’s familiar. Also, secrets in a small town are hard to keep—and often shocking when revealed. My stories are about people—and sometimes secrets. A small town is a good canvas.
NS: Now that you have so many more books than just Morrie—unlike when we first met—do you have a favorite among them?
MA: Tuesdays will always be my favored child—because it so changed my life. But storywise, Five People means a great deal, because everyone told me I was crazy—don’t write a novel. I broke every piece of advice. And people embraced the story. That’s extremely rewarding.