Zibby interviews beloved New York Times bestselling author Mitch Albom about his latest novel, THE LITTLE LIAR. Set in a coastal Greek city during the Holocaust, the book centers on Nico, an honest boy forced by Nazis to deceive Jews about their fate. The narrative spans decades, intertwining the lives of Nico, his brother, a girl named Fannie, and a Nazi officer, exploring themes of honesty, survival, revenge, and devotion. Mitch Albom discusses the historical context of the novel and his emotional writing process, emphasizing the story’s relevance to today’s era of subjective truths. This episode is great for those interested in historical fiction, the complexities of human nature, and the moral dilemmas faced during wartime.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mitch. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re here to discuss your latest novel, The Little Liar, which by the way, is my November book club pick because I am obsessed with this book and just absolutely loved it. Thank you for coming on.

Mitch Albom: Good to see you again. Thank you for the selection. Thanks for asking me to come back.

Zibby: My pleasure. Please tell listeners what your book is about.

Mitch: It’s about a little boy, eleven-year-old boy in Greece during World War II who’s never told a lie in his life. The Nazis come and invade his city, Thessaloniki, Greece. They find out that they’ve got this little honest kid who’s never told a lie in his life. They basically kidnap him and trick him into standing on the train platform and telling all the Jews who have been rounded up there that they’re going to a safe place, that there’s going to be jobs. It’s going to be good. Their families are going to be together. He believes this is true because he has no reason to suspect otherwise. They say, if you do this, then your family will be returned to you, and everything will be fine. He does this for train after train until the last train out when he sees the Nazis putting his own family on the train. He runs to join them. He’s grabbed by the Nazis. He finds out that they’re actually being sent to their death. They get sent away. He is forced to stay behind. From that moment on, this little boy who never told a lie in his life can’t speak the truth anymore. He loses the ability to say anything true. It chokes in his throat. It follows him from that point forward through the war, all the decades that follow and all the consequences that happen to him as a result of this trick and what happens when we lose the truth in our lives, which is the biggest theme of the book.

Zibby: You follow his family and what happens to them, these dual timelines. Same timeline, but dual narratives of where life separates and how it’s one small thing, where he was at the time, that he was hiding in this cabinet when the Nazis came in and took the family to, essentially, the ghetto until they were deported. He wasn’t there. What if he had been? What if he hadn’t been in that cabinet at the time? How life, especially then — not especially, but how then, it was a life-or-death timing all the time.

Mitch: He’s the central character. There’s four characters in the book that the book follows literally from 1936 all the way to the mid-eighties. It’s how they intertwine with one another. There’s him. His name is Nico. There’s his older brother, whose name is Sebastian, who’s nowhere near as honest as him but ends up getting sent to the concentration camps and blames his brother for lying to them. There’s a girl named Fannie, who’s in love with both of them. She is put on the train as well but is thrown out the window in an attempt to escape and actually spends her time during the war running away and trying to find her way back to Nico. Nico is trying to find his way back to his family. Then the fourth character is the Nazi officer who engineered all this, and how they continue to intertwine with one another during the war, after the war, in the years after, how they try to piece their lives together. They all end up coming back together in this big climactic scene at the end, which, outside of the climactic scene at the end, is very true about what happened to people during that stretch of time.

There was no such thing as forgetting what happened during that war, no such thing for Jewish victims as forgetting what they went through. Yet each of these characters has to deal with it differently. Nico just blanks it out and basically lies his way through the rest of his life. Sebastian becomes a Nazi hunter and dedicates himself to finding these people, including his brother, who he thinks is one of them. Fannie moves between the two of them trying to understand what happened to her and what happened to them. The overall theme of it is that truth is an essential part of our lives. Honesty with one another is an essential part of our lives. When we lose that and we start lying to one another, whether individuals or countries, we pay a huge price. I had no idea it was going to be as relevant today when I started it as it turned out to be. I thought it might be relevant because of the politics of the world where everybody is sort of choosing their own truth now. It’s become even more relevant, accidentally, with the timing of the release of the book.

Zibby: It’s hard to take the Holocaust and all the atrocities and the camps and everything — as a Jewish woman and just as a citizen of the world who is deeply empathetic, I have read many books and watched many movies and have immersed myself in this as part of the “never forget,” but also just out of human interest and compassion and all of that. There’s the question, how can anyone write this — what is the new take on it? How can this book do something new? Tell me how you decided to tackle this and the way you came into it and all of that.

Mitch: It’s a really good question. As a writer, I went through the very same machinations that you just expressed. I knew that at one point in my life, I wanted to set a story during World War II with the Holocaust as a backdrop. On the other hand, I didn’t want to write another Holocaust book. Not that the ones that have come before me aren’t great. They are. I didn’t want to just write something that was the Fill in the Blank of Auschwitz because somebody has done that really well prior to me. I also didn’t want to just tell a story that was set the whole time during the concentration camps and follow that familiar pattern of ghetto, concentration camp, liberation, end. First of all, there was no end with liberation of the Holocaust. That was the beginning for the people who survived. Then it was the rest of their life.

I waited years, honestly, to write this, Zibby, because I couldn’t find a story that I felt was original enough. I happened to go to, I think it was Yad Vashem in Israel on a book tour trip that I was there. I went to the museum and saw some of the testimonies of different people there. One of them was saying how they used Jewish people to lie to their own people about getting on these trains. After all, if a Nazi guard is standing there and he goes, “Get on the train,” and you think you’re going to your death, you might as well die on the platform. You might as well fight. Why did so many people not fight? They were tricked. They were lied to. To use your own people to lie to you, I thought, that’s something that I haven’t really seen. That was the germ of the idea. Then I had lived in Greece way back when in an earlier part of my life when I was a musician. I was a nightclub singer and a piano player on the islands of Greece.

Zibby: What?

Mitch: It was a whole different time. I know it’s probably hard to imagine writer. I had a whole different existence. One day, I’m going to write that book. I always knew about Greece maybe more than the average American guy who’s not Greek. A lot of people don’t realize that Greece, number one, was decimated by the Nazis the same way as other countries in Europe were. Two, the most-Jewish city in all of Europe was actually Thessaloniki. It was the only city in all of Europe that had a Jewish majority population. They were the majority. Can you imagine a city that had a majority of Jewish population having itself wiped out? There were 55-something thousand Jews there. There were 1,500 left when the Nazis were done with them. I said, all right, let me set a book in Greece. Very few Holocaust books are set there. Let me focus on the idea of truth and lies and how, sadly — it was Goebbels who said this very famous quote, or at least is attributed. A lie told once is easily seen as a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.

That’s exactly what the Nazis did by repeating the same lie over and over about whose fault Germany was and whatever and how they were just purifying the country. This was all for the good of the state and all that. Meanwhile, it was just mass murder. We live in a world like that now where people justify their action with their own truths. They just say, this is the truth, and accept it. People say, yeah, all right, that’s my truth. That’s my cable TV news station. That’s my analyst. That’s how I’m going to look at the world. The idea of there being a pure truth has disappeared in place of, I’m going to pick my truth, and I’m just going to follow that. That’s a dangerous pattern. I wanted to show how the precursor of that already happened. We already saw what the world can be like when people start to believe something that is not only not true, but is evilly not true. I thought, okay, there’s a story that at least I haven’t read before. I can start to write it. That’s how I approached it.

Zibby: Wow. The end result is it is original. It’s told in a way, also, with all the different characters and the intertwining lives and the thought-provoking nature of what you were saying in the aftermath. What happens? What are the long-term effects? There are also all these studies on children of survivors and the ripple effects of generational trauma, which is now in the news all the time. This tiptoes towards that. Not in full, but what are the lasting effects? To your point of hatred, it’s terrifying. To think that it couldn’t happen again and then things happening today, it’s all very terrifying. I feel like the scenes in your book are just incredibly prophetic. It’s very, very important, especially now, to read this book, I feel.

Mitch: First of all, I appreciate the kind words. Then I’m also getting a little scared. I don’t want my readers who are used to reading my books to feel like, oh, my god, he’s written a terrifying book.

Zibby: No, I’m terrified. I’m sorry.

Mitch: It’s something that I think about, not because you said it. Sometimes when people hear the word Holocaust or whatever, oh, that’s too hard to read. I don’t want to read it. First of all, there’s a very — sweet isn’t the right word, but engaging love story between Fannie — well, first the older brother and then Nico. She spends her whole life basically trying to find him again because he saved her life during the war. The redemption that you get from love, which is the flip side of what you were talking about, about, how do you survive something, the worst thing that you can possibly — if someone can think of something worse than what happened during the Holocaust, send it to me in a letter because I’ll write a book about it. I can’t imagine it. It’s horrific. Yet people did live. Viktor Frankl’s book and all that proves that there’s life beyond that, but what kind of life? How do you get back from that? The second half of the book is all about that, what you do with this tragedy or the result of these lies. Hopefully, if you agree with me — you read it — in the end, it has a redemptive, positive message about it. It’s not just horrific or terrible or terrifying scenes or things like that. I think you need those kinds of scenes here and there to set off the love that comes later and how beautiful that is that someone could survive that and still have the capacity to love or the capacity to be kind. Nico becomes this almost Great Gatsby kind of figure. He survives the war by lying. He actually finds his way back to a concentration camp. His family was sent to one. He was spared. Then he spends the whole war lying his way into a concentration camp trying to find his family, with tragic results.

Then he ends up in America. Where does a liar go in America? Hollywood because it’s perfect. He ends up becoming this very, very successful but reclusive movie maker, a head of a studio. Nobody really ever spends time with him or knows him. He keeps changing his name. He’s very mysterious. You don’t know what he’s really doing with his time. It just seems like all he does is make up lies. He can’t even answer if they say, what’d you have for lunch today? If he had soup, he’ll say pizza just because he can’t tell the truth. Yet all this time, there’s something going on. I don’t want to ruin the book for anybody. There’s something going on with him that is redemptive. When he gets to see Fannie again, there’s this beautiful love story. They pretend they don’t know each other because neither one wants to bring up the terrible things that have happened. I thought that that was also interesting, too, to do a love story where neither party acknowledges that they know each other, and yet they fall in love with each other. I’ve not seen that before. There’s many things besides the awful things that people went through during that time.

Zibby: Yes. I did not mean to overly emphasize. Those were just pieces of it. It was a beautiful love story. Essentially, it’s about people. It’s about people’s lives. Even if you go through something, there’s the — I did not mean to overemphasize. We have movie stars and really close friendships. Not to give things away, but the relationship of the woman with Fannie and how that stayed over time as well and just the good nature of people, the desire to help and all of that, it shines through completely. No, it is not just about that. It’s about life. It’s about what’s important to us and what it means to be a good person in the end and how that can manifest itself in so many different ways. What does it mean to be good? How do you give back and all of that? I feel like there are a lot bigger questions.

Mitch: It’s also narrated by Truth, which is something I tried once before in one of my books. A number of books ago, I wrote a book called The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto. The music was the narrator because it was a book all about a guitar player. I really liked that voice. It gave you a perspective that was different from neither the third person or the first person. In this case, Truth is the narrator of the book. Truth is constantly talking to the audience and saying, why do you abuse me the way that you do? “When the angels all gathered together and God was trying to decide whether or not to create man, Righteousness said, yes, create man. Man will be righteous. Other attributes said, yes, create man. Absolutely, create man. Only I said don’t create man because he’ll become a liar, and he’ll destroy me. What did God do? God threw me out of heaven and cast me down to earth,” which is an old parable. I didn’t invent it. It exists in various forms. I always thought that that was interesting, that Truth would be the one virtue that would say, man can’t handle me, so don’t bother. It narrates the story. I found that voice to be a really interesting character to write in because Truth obviously knows everything that really went in inside the heads and hearts of all the characters, and so it has a unique perspective to tell the story.

Zibby: Very true. It was really powerful. How did you go about writing this? Did you know Truth was going to be the narrator?

Mitch: Yeah.

Zibby: You knew from the start?

Mitch: That was from the start. There’s lines early in the book, “You can trust the story you’re about to hear. You can trust it because I’m the only thing you can trust.” I knew I wanted to include that line. When you write a book, for me — everybody does it differently. There’s anchor sentences that you know you want to say. You kind of stick them in the ground. One goes here. One goes there. Then you write in between them and find your way to them. That was one of them. The fact that a man, to be forgiven, will do anything — when I went to Salonika to research this book — there’s this big structure called the White Tower. You can’t miss it. It’s spectacular. It’s a big, round Byzantine fortress. I asked my guide, “What’s the story about that?” She told me this amazing story that, for years — it was built in the fifteenth century or something. For hundreds of years, it was a prison. They used to call it the Red Tower because there was so much bloodshed inside and outside. They used to hang people from the outside of it. People died there. Then sometime during the 1800s or whatever, it was so filthy on the outside that they wanted to paint it, but they couldn’t find anybody who wanted to do such a difficult task.

There was a prisoner inside the prison who volunteered to paint it by himself, to paint it white, on the condition that if he completed the task, they would forgive him and let him go. They agreed. He spent a year or whatever by himself painting this tower white and was finally let go. This becomes a story in the book that repeats over and over, that a man, to be forgiven, will do anything. That becomes a theme for Nico, who, deep down, can’t forgive himself for telling these lies, even though they weren’t his fault, and what he’ll do to be forgiven. I think that that’s a theme that we have in our lives as well. What will we do to make up for a sin that we realize we committed? How far will we go? Some people spend their whole lives in retribution for something that they felt that they did when they were younger. Some people who feel like they were bad parents spend their whole lives trying to be great grandparents so that they can make up for it. There’s all kinds of ways that we do that. I just thought that that story in Greece, which was such a great setting — you could just see that guy on the tower every day trying to paint thinking, if I just can finish this, I’ll be free. It plays a big part in the story.

Zibby: I didn’t realize that was true.

Mitch: Yeah, it’s a true story.

Zibby: It’s even more powerful to know that. Are there things in your life for which you’re seeking forgiveness?

Mitch: Yeah, many. Many. Also, even making up for missed opportunities. When my wife and I got married, we weren’t able to have children and sort of accepted, well, that’s the way it’s going to be. I always also felt a little bad that maybe I kind of dragged my feet when we got married. Maybe if we got married sooner, something would’ve happened differently. Then in my fifties, I ended up taking over an orphanage in Haiti quite by accident. It’s a whole other story. All of a sudden, I have all these children in my life. Now I have sixty-five at a time. We have three right upstairs here now living with us. I’ve got thirteen out in the state here in college and another sixty down in Haiti that I go visit every month. I have so many kids in my life that sometimes I wonder if I’m not doing that because it’s a bit of a make-up for an early part of my life, for something I felt that I did wrong. I hadn’t thought about that until you asked me.

I think everybody has something that they’re trying to atone for in some way, even if it really wasn’t a sin. Nico certainly does that. In fact, all three of the characters do. The only one who doesn’t is the Nazi, who continues to be the Nazi all through his life. Even his way, he’s trying to get back to what he believes is — he wants a second reich to appear and bring this all back. It also explores the idea, which a lot of people didn’t realize until Al Pacino and that gang made that show, the Nazi Hunters, that Americans did harbor Nazis and brought them over after the war. They wanted to fight the Russians and kept them here with phony names and never made them pay for their crimes because they used them as scientists to try to spy on Nazis. He’s one of them, and so a continued lie goes on and on even for him.

Zibby: I was hoping that part was not true.

Mitch: In fact, almost everything in the book is true except the characters and the way they played out. I don’t know what qualifies you as historical fiction. It seems like a very lofty word to me. I don’t think of myself as that kind of a writer. I realized both in Frankie Presto and in The Little Liar, I spent an inordinate amount of time on research making sure that all the backdrop stories were accurate, from the dates that things happened to even the little, small anecdotes, like about the White Tower or things like that. It’s all true. I don’t know if that makes it historical fiction or not, but there’s a lot of history actually in the book. I think when you’re writing about times like that, the truth is more interesting than something that I could think up. It’s like a real bell versus a plastic bell. A real bell just has a certain sound. You can ring a plastic bell or hit a synthesizer note that’s supposed to sound like a bell, but there’s something about the real ring of a bell that sounds different. There’s something about using real events but mixing them into your fictional characters that rings more true. It’s interesting that you say, I didn’t realize that was true, but it felt true in the book, right?

Zibby: Yeah.

Mitch: It actually was. That’s why.

Zibby: I thought it was just such a great story that it couldn’t be true.

Mitch: Those are the best kinds.

Zibby: That shows us so much. It ties in so well. It couldn’t be actually what happened. That’s funny. Wow. Did you ever get emotional and teary-eyed writing your way through these scenes? I don’t mean to harbor on — even the wonderful scenes, even the ones that just move you emotionally. I felt very moved.

Mitch: Yeah, I did. First of all, I’m a brother. I have a kid brother. We’ve had our share of some things that we’ve had to endure together. A brother relationship was very emotional for me to write. You had an older brother who really didn’t forgive the younger brother, but his whole anger towards him all his life was falsely based. He thought his brother was lying because he was cooperating with the Nazis. His younger brother Nico didn’t know that he was being tricked. This hatred that broils between these brothers for decades is all based on the same lie that the Nazis perpetrated. That was painful to write because a brother relationship — I have a brother who I adore. The way that they ultimately finally come together at the end was a very, very emotional scene for me. Writing that love story between a woman who is — it reminded me of the character that Diane Keaton played in Reds with John Reed. She’s in love with John Reed. She crosses Siberia to find him in a prison cell.

Fannie, in my book, sort of does the same thing. She literally comes from a little village in Austria and travels across the world to try, just on the belief that Nico is alive somewhere and that he saved her life on the banks on the Danube River in Hungary when they were shooting Jews in the head and having them fall in the river — she remembered seeing him. Then she fainted. She didn’t know what happened to him. She uses that small little sliver of a memory, and somewhere inside of her, she’s sure that he saved her and spends years searching for him only to be proven correct. When she finally sees him and they meet each other and they don’t acknowledge each other and she says to him — I’m not giving too much away. There’s a moment where she says, “Don’t you want to know my name?” He says, “It’s not necessary.” I get chills when I’m even talking about it. You create these characters. They’re deeply in love with each other, but they can’t express it. Of course, the ending, which I don’t want to go into, was very, very emotional to write. I find, Zibby, that if you’re not crying a little bit, then you’re not doing a good enough job. If I can just be so dispassionate and just write it but I expect all the readers to be moved, I’m not moved, but I expect you to be moved, that’s not going to work. If you’re not moved yourself, if you don’t feel a little chill or a little tear or something when you’re writing it, then it’s probably not very good.

Zibby: That’s very good advice. Very good advice. Mitch, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for the story, the journey, for giving hope in a dark time, honestly. Thank you for chatting about it with me.

Mitch: Thank you for spending time with me and making it your selection. I hope everybody enjoys it. It’s always great to see you. Hope we get a chance to talk again.

Zibby: You too. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Mitch: Buh-bye.

THE LITTLE LIAR by Mitch Albom

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