Author Mitch Albom pens sequel to The Five People You Meet In Heaven

Mitch Albom said that of all his books, The Five People You Meet In Heaven is the one which people most often ask for a sequel to. PHOTOS: JENNY RISHER, SPHERE

American author Mitch Albom has never written a sequel to any of his best-selling books - until now.

In 2003, he published his first novel, The Five People You Meet In Heaven, in which Eddie, an elderly maintenance worker at an amusement park, dies while trying to save a little girl from a falling cart. In heaven, he meets five people whose lives he had an impact on, or vice versa.

Fifteen years later, Albom has returned to this world with his 10th book, The Next Person You Meet In Heaven. This time, he picks up the story of Annie, the little girl Eddie saved. Now an adult, she dies in a hot-air balloon accident the day after her wedding and meets five people in heaven too - including Eddie.

The Detroit-based Albom, 60, says over the telephone that of all his books, The Five People You Meet In Heaven is the one which people most often ask for a sequel to.

"They want to know what happened to Eddie, what happened to Annie.

"I don't do the Harry Potter thing, I don't get to bring my characters back every few years to see how they're doing. So it was very pleasurable to reconnect this time with my characters, especially Eddie, who is one of my favourites." The character Eddie is based on an uncle of his, a gruff World War II veteran.

Death has long been part of Albom's books. He became a publishing phenomenon after writing Tuesdays With Morrie (1997), based on his final visits to his 78-year-old sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, whom he reconnected with when he learnt his old mentor was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

But death has been on his mind particularly in the past few years. He lost both his parents to illness - his mother in 2015 and his father last year.

In 2015, he and his wife Janine Sabino brought home a five-year-old Haitian orphan, Medjerda "Chika" Jeune, from the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage/Mission in Port-au-Prince, which he has operated since 2010.

Chika had a rare brain tumour - diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma - which could not be treated in Haiti. Albom and his wife brought her to the United States and spent the next two years pursuing treatments for her, but she died in April last year.

"That was the most difficult thing I've ever had to go through, losing a child," says Albom. He is now working on a book in memory of Chika.

He and Ms Sabino have no children of their own. He considers himself a father to the 47 children of the Haiti orphanage whom he visits every month.

When it came to making the call to bring Chika to the US, he says he did not think twice. "That's what you do when you love somebody. You don't hesitate because you know there will be grief, you think only of helping. I thought, she's my daughter. I had to take care of her."

With all this loss weighing on his mind, Albom began once more to consider the afterlife. "All that wondering about what happened next made me return to the fictional world of heaven."

He is not sure who he would meet in heaven - in his version of heaven, one's encounters are often unexpected - but he hopes one of his five people will be Prof Schwartz. "I'd like to see him again and be able to talk to him and ask, 'What do you think of what happened with your story? Did I do a good job?'"

Albom was an award-winning sports journalist with the Detroit Free Press before he turned to writing books, selling more than 39 million copies worldwide. His works have been adapted for television movies, including the Emmy Award-winning Tuesdays With Morrie (1999).

Fame, he says, has not changed his lifestyle greatly.

"I live in the same house, I drive the same car, I'm married to the same woman. The money has enabled me to do charitable things, though."

Besides the Haiti orphanage, he has founded charities such as S.A.Y. Detroit, which helps the homeless and those in need in the city.

He also launched a drive to rebuild 10 libraries in typhoon-ravaged Tacloban, the Philippines. Half have been built so far and when the 10th is finished, he plans to return to South-east Asia, including Singapore, which he last visited in 2010 to give a talk at the National Library.

Albom's works are often of an uplifting, motivational bent, although he objects to them being labelled self-help books. "Self-help books are written like a textbook - chapter one, do this, do that - and I don't do that. I just write stories. If a story can help somebody, that's great. I don't think that it deserves a label."

The effect his books have on people can seem miraculous. He recalls how a man approached him during a book signing in Chicago, grabbed his arm and started to shake and cry.

"Somebody nearby thought he was attacking me and jumped in, and the guy said, 'No, no, please understand - my wife died last week and the last thing we did was read your book together and it gave her a lot of comfort. Can I just hold on to you for a minute? I feel like if I'm touching you, I'm touching her.' After a minute, he thanked me and left."

"I have great readers who take what I write to heart."

•The Next Person You Meet In Heaven ($30.97) is available from major bookstores.

•Listen: Olivia's interview with Mitch Albom.

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