“Do we recognize when our prayers are being answered if it doesn’t come in the form that we wanted?” Mitch Albom, bestselling author of Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, returns to talk with Zibby about his latest novel, The Stranger in the Lifeboat, and why he wanted a thriller about God lost at sea. The two also discuss the many lessons we learn as we age, what they would ask God if he was on the podcast, and how the ways that Mitch’s faith has changed throughout his life shaped the big conversations had in the novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mitch. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Stranger in the Lifeboat: A Novel.

Mitch Albom: Thanks. Thanks for having me. It’s nice to be back.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners a little bit about this book that takes place on sea and land and the news and all the rest? How did you come up with this idea? You’ve written so many books at this point. Why this book? Why now?

Mitch: Let me start with the first part of that about setting the stage for the book. In the movie trailer version, it’s basically, an empty life raft floats up on a Caribbean island a year after a terrible explosion at sea. This life raft is from that boat. A police inspector finds it. He discovers a notebook that’s hidden inside a packet. It was believed that everybody died on this big explosion of this luxury yacht. As it turns out as he takes this notebook and reads the account of it, apparently, some people survived. There was this luxury yacht owned by one of the richest men in the world. He had this big soirée on it with some of the most important people in the world for a whole week. It inexplicably exploded. Only ten people survived the crash. They found their way to a lifeboat. Half of them were the rich guests, including the rich guy who owned the boat. Half of them were the workers who supported the rich guy. There’s a dog in the room.

Zibby: Sorry, my dog just walks in by herself.

Mitch: Dog’s not in the book, but makes for a nice interruption. So these ten people are on the life raft. Three days go by. Nobody’s coming for them, no helicopters, no other boats. They’re running out of food. They’re out of water. They’re desperate. They’re calling out for help. Suddenly, they see a body floating in the ocean. They pull it into the life raft. It’s this young guy, kind of nondescript, average-looking guy. They pepper him with questions. He doesn’t speak. Finally, one of the women in the boat says, “Thank the Lord we found you.” He says, “I am the Lord.” That’s basically the premise of the book. Then everything that happens from that point forward in the lifeboat as the days go by and things start happening that are mysterious or not and whether people really believe this guy or whether he’s just somebody who’s crazy — they say, “What are you doing here?” He says, “Weren’t you calling me? I came because you called me.” They say, “Are you going to save us?” He says, “I can only save you if everybody in this lifeboat believes I am who I say I am at the same time.” It becomes an allegory for our beliefs.

To answer the second part of your question, I wrote it because it seems that in my life, a lot of times when I thought I was asking for help or wanted something to happen, it doesn’t happen, but something else happened. Then years later, I kind of realized that the thing that actually happened that I didn’t think had anything to do with what I was asking for became the answer to my prayers. It’s a bit of a question of, do we recognize when our prayers are actually being answered if it doesn’t come in the form of exactly the answer that we wanted? This guy is not who you would think God was. As I say, he looks more like a surfer guy. He doesn’t have flowing robes. He doesn’t have a beard. He does a lot of weird things. He falls asleep a lot. He’s hungry. Yet the question of, could he really be the answer to their prayers? is what haunts them as the days pass on and things get more desperate on the lifeboat.

Zibby: It’s such an interesting way to develop all the characters on the boat. What do they do when they come across something that shouldn’t make sense, doesn’t make sense? They all are so skeptical at first. Who believes? Who doesn’t? Why? Then of course, you delve into each of their backstories, which informs how they feel about that one extra element on the boat. What’s an example of one of those times for you where you wished for something but then something else came in its place?

Mitch: There are many examples. I could go back to Tuesdays with Morrie when I was a very ambitious, hardworking sportscaster and sportswriter who really just was interested in my career. All I really wanted was another level of my career and get to another level doing more and more. Suddenly, this old professor that’s dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, I kind of get guilted into going to visit him. Then he asked me to come back. Then I come back. I end up taking one day a week out of my life and going to visit, which at the beginning, at the time, was not what I was looking for in my life. It was a little bit, oh, my god, now I got to travel to Boston every week. Yet when I look back on it, that was the best thing that ever could’ve happened to me. It stopped me from going that direction for the rest of my life and thinking all that matters is your next accomplishment and your next paycheck, and of course, opened a literary career to me that I never could’ve imagined. Here I thought it was taking away from my career and my career path. It ended up being the best thing that could’ve happened to it. There are many examples for me like that. I won’t bore you with all of them.

The other most significant one, to me, is that my wife and I never had children. We wanted children, but we got married late. For whatever reason, I was dragging my feet on it. It didn’t happen. It always was sort of a regret. Then you kind of say, why didn’t it work for us, God? We wanted to. No answer. Then about ten years, twelve, fifteen years later, I end up in Haiti after the earthquake and through a series of weird circumstances, end up taking over an orphanage, not so much because of children, but just because I thought I needed to do it because it was going to go under otherwise. Next thing I know, my wife and I have fifty-three children. They’re the dominant thing in our life. That’s my biggest part of my life right now, is operating that orphanage. I’m there every month. I’ve got more kids than I ever could’ve imagined. I didn’t know at the time that that was kind of an answer to that prayer that had been sitting there for a little while, but it certainly is now. It’s those kinds of things that informed me to create a story where it makes the reader wonder as they’re reading it, well, is this real or isn’t this real? and then takes that into their own lives and says, maybe this is actually the answer to my prayer and I just don’t realize. I have many examples in my own life.

Zibby: I don’t find this boring at all. I’m interested in your life. That’s why I talking to you, so don’t think you’re boring me. I think that’s part of the wisdom of getting older. You realize all the times in your past that you were the most upset. Now you see. You can look back and see that, okay, that was horrible in the moment, but it led to this or that or whatever, even insignificant things like a house I bid on once or something silly. It’s like, then that wouldn’t have led to this, that. It all makes sense later, but never in the moment.

Mitch: You’re right about that. You have to live a certain amount of time in order to understand that. I find as I get older, my writing is more about things that I now have realized and learned than it was when I was younger where it was more about the questions that I had and I was kind of imagining the answers were. In Morrie’s case, Morrie was giving me the answers. Have a little faith. Other people were giving me the answers. Now I’m reaching an age where I’m starting to feel like I’ve been blessed to have seen some of the answers. It’s my obligation to share them with the younger audiences and whatever and say, look, this is what you realize when you get a little older. This is a perfect example of that.

Zibby: Even though you learn these things and you want to share, I feel like it’s like yelling into the ocean. You can yell as loud as you want, but no one’s necessarily going to hear it. I feel like you have to be in a certain headspace. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I think it’s one thing to tell people, but until they live it, they don’t fully understand. You can say, yeah, yeah, I know you’re upset now, it’s all going to work out. They’re like, uh-huh, okay.

Mitch: That’s a really good observation. My way around that is to make it into a story. If I did nothing but lecture about it, you’re right, nobody wants to hear it. Nobody listens. If you engage people in a story, and a gripping one — I was always fascinated by sea survival stories. First of all, it’s the last way I want to die. I would be terrible at this. That’s why it was a little bit like facing your fear because that’s the worst way for me to die, would be stuck in a life raft in the middle of the ocean. You don’t know if you’re going to be eaten by a shark. You don’t know if you’re going to drown. You don’t know if you’re just going to wither away slowly and then die under the — no protection, anything like that. Yet it’s a gripping story. I’ve always loved Cast Away and Life of Pi and any movie where people were stuck out there and have to figure out how to survive. If you make a story like that where people don’t even realize what they’re reading, they think it’s an adventure story and a thriller story, then by the end, you’ve kind of snuck that little message in there. You hook them. They don’t want to give up on the story. That’s a good way to get a message across without seeming like you’re lecturing.

Zibby: Good point. Very good point, yes. The stories stay with them, and then the characters.

Mitch: You hope.

Zibby: You hope. The power of storytelling rivals nothing else. That’s for sure. There was one part in The Stranger in the Lifeboat that sort of reminded me when we last spoke about Finding Chika and her sad, terrible medical odyssey that you went through and the loss. I’m still so sorry about that and what you and your wife went through and all of it. I maybe was projecting onto this scene, but anyway, I just wanted to read it. “When LeFleur pulled up to his office, he was thinking about Ram and the notebook he had hidden and the pages he’d –” Well, I don’t want to give anything away. “I can only do that when you believe who I say I am. LeFleur had balked at that part. He’d stopped relying on God right after his daughter died. There was no place in his mind for a benevolent force in the universe that wasn’t benevolent when it came to a four-year-old. Praying was a waste. Church was a waste. Even worse, it was a weakness, a crutch that let you dump your misfortune on some make-believe scale that would balance when you died and reached a better heaven. What crap. The way LeFleur saw it now, you either ran from a volcano or you stayed and shook a fist at it.” Tell me about that section.

Mitch: My wife and I did lose a child. For those people who don’t know, as I said, I operate an orphanage in Haiti. I’m there every month. This is going on twelve years. It’s a huge part of my life. The kids there are a huge part of my life. One of them, who was named Chika, came to us when she was three years old after her mother died giving birth to a baby brother. She was funny and bossy and loud. Everybody was amused by her until, when she was five, she developed a brain tumor. We took her to America thinking that the doctors there would obviously take care of her. It’s American medicine. We can fix anything. Then we found out that it was an incurable brain tumor. They told us she would be dead in four months. They wanted us to just take her back to Haiti and let her die quietly there. We refused to do that. I knew how tough a kid she was. We said, if she’ll fight, we’ll fight. It ended up, we had nearly two years with her, not four months. We became a family. She never went back home to Haiti. She stayed with us. We traveled around the world trying to find a cure. She really pulled us together in a way that we had — again, as I said before, you want children. You don’t think that a brain tumor in one of your children in an orphanage is somehow going to lead to you becoming a family, but it absolutely did. One of the worst things that ever could’ve happened to her was one of the best things that ended up happening to us.

Of course, when she died, my wife and I went a little bit of a different route. That’s kind of what happens in the book. LeFleur, who is the inspector who finds the notebook, he and his wife lost a child in the book. His wife found solace in religion, as my wife did. She was always faithful beforehand. She just stayed faithful. She believed that she was in God’s hands and all that. Me, I got angry. Although I am a person of faith in terms of that I believe, I don’t mind arguing with God when I don’t think it’s fair. I just didn’t think it was fair. It’s one thing if something happens to you. You keep trying to figure out, what did I do wrong to have this affliction? A five-year-old child, what could she have possibly — she was born three days before an earthquake. She survived an earthquake when she was three days old. She survived her mother dying in the bed where her baby brother was born. She survived being in an orphanage. Then she has to have a brain tumor and you have to take her at age seven? I felt a lot of those things that I wrote. What kind of benevolent God isn’t benevolent to a five-year-old? What kind of God needs a child so badly that he has to rip her from Earth? I did look at a lot of that stuff as sort of silly until enough time passed that you’re able to put it into a perspective. You lose your anger.

You’re very smart. That’s why I love doing your podcast. You pick up on a lot of things. There’s a moment in the book that you probably, no doubt, know where one of the key characters asks “God,” the guy who says he’s God — again, I’m not saying he is or he isn’t, by the way folks. You’re going to have to read the book to find out what that — there’s way more to it. His wife died and he says, “Why did you take my wife?” He’s crying. This man who claims to be the Lord says, “Look, I love you, all of you. I don’t do things to hurt you. I know that you cry when you lose a loved one, but I can assure you the loved one who died is not crying.” If you believe in heaven or you believe that there’s something that comes after this, then you believe that too. I think I came to sort of feel that a little bit more about Chika. We’re crying because she’s not here, but she’s not crying. I put that in the book, a lot of those emotions. You wait your whole life to have a conversation with God. If you could have God on your podcast, if he gave you five minutes and not half an hour, what would be the questions you would ask? I tried to put them in the mouths of the characters so that it becomes a little bit of a treatise on, here’s God’s answer to your most popular questions. That was one of them. Why do you let people die? I thought that that answer would be the answer that would comfort me, so I put it in the character in the book.

Zibby: Gosh, now my mind is racing of what I would ask God on this podcast.

Mitch: What would you ask?

Zibby: What have you been reading lately? No. What are you working on now? Why all the suffering? Why is it all necessary? Why allow all that to happen? Death is one thing. Death, to say I understand, of course, I don’t really understand, but okay, on or off switch. The pain, why pain? Why so much pain?

Mitch: There’s a moment there where one of the characters in the boat says to the God character — I won’t say who. I’m trying, like you said, of the book. This is a very suspenseful, thriller kind of book. You don’t want to give away too much. One of the characters takes his own life out there at sea. Benji, the lead character who’s talking to the Lord character, says to him, “How did you let that happen? You were right here. Why did you let him end his life?” The man who claims to be God says, “I start things. Man ends them.” That’s kind of an answer to your question. If you believe in God or the universe or whatever, you can accept the fact that we have everything here on this planet to make a perfect world, but we choose to screw it up. God doesn’t start wars. We start wars. God doesn’t invent guns. We invent guns. God doesn’t have us spending our time playing video games instead of all working on a cure for cancer. We choose to do that. God starts things. Man ends them or ruins them. Free will, if you believe that, is what allows things that you’re saying to happen, not God. That’s why I asked you, what questions would you ask? I bet most of the questions that most people have for God, unless they’re really small and esoteric, I kind of address in this book. This is my Conversations with God book, but it’s not that kind of format. It’s a thriller story out in the ocean that just happens to answer those same questions.

Zibby: Yes, very clever. I don’t know why I even remember this now that we’re talking about it. When I was seven, eight years old, I had this same realization, that God made the world perfect. Now all we have to do is make it perfect for ourselves. I remember my mom was like, “That’s amazing.” We took this big cardboard from one of my dad’s dry clean shirts or something. She wrote it out big in bubble letters for me. Then we framed it. It’s true. It’s like, okay, here’s what you have. Make what you will of this. That sounds so simplistic, and yet maybe that’s it. I don’t know.

Mitch: What happened to that thing? You still have it?

Zibby: I literally have not thought about that in thirty years or something. I’m going to call my mom.

Mitch: Probably, in the garage somewhere.

Zibby: It’s definitely not in a garage. It’s definitely gone, but I did have it for a long time. Wrestling with these questions in any format, on a boat, reading a book, this is the stuff that makes life really meaningful. What are we doing? Essentially, it comes down to the basics. What are we doing here? Why are we doing it? What is the point of all this?

Mitch: I think most of my books wrestle with that question in some way, shape, or form ever since Tuesdays with Morrie. Five People You Meet in Heaven‘s that way. For One More Day is that way. They’re the questions that we wrestle with but in story form. I like reading books that when I’m done, not only have I been entertained by it, but I think about it. I think about the issues that were raised by the book or the lessons that might be taught by the book. Those were always books that I gravitated towards. I don’t find myself that interested in stories about characters who just are contemplating their angst. It doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t inspire you at the end. They might be beautifully written. I acknowledge that they’re beautifully written. There are many people who love books like that, which is great and fine. Everybody picks their thing. My personal preference is always to come out a little uplifted by a book and thinking about something. I aspire to write books like that myself. Whether I succeed or not is up to the reader, but that’s the direction I try to go in. That’s what I tried to do with The Stranger in the Lifeboat.

Zibby: Is there one you read lately that fits the bill, aside from all your books, when you’re like, oh, this is a classic example?

Mitch: The one I always go back to is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which is a story about an old pastor who is writing a farewell letter to his very young son because he married a woman who was much younger and had a boy. He just goes through his life. It’s the story of his life and story of the things that he had. There are so many underline-able passages that are true about life that I find myself remembering and saying, yes, that was true. That was such a true sentence. It doesn’t just apply to the book. It applies to life. I could read that book ten times over and still find new stuff in it. Yet I’m sure she wasn’t writing — I don’t know. I would love to talk to her. Maybe you have.

Zibby: I haven’t, but now I should.

Mitch: I don’t think she was writing to preach. I just think that those lessons came in the course of the story. That’s what I try to do in my stories too.

Zibby: Do you believe there is something next?

Mitch: Yeah, I do, but the next question is always, what? Everybody thinks I have some kind of answer for that because I wrote a book called The Five People You Meet in Heaven. It became a popular book. Now there are people who think that I have some kind of insight into what actually goes on. I have to sometimes remind people that was a work of fiction. I didn’t go do some research, go to heaven, come back, and say, okay, this is what it’s . Honestly, the reason why isn’t so much that I have proof of it. Although, I do have the story that my uncle told me which inspired The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Eddie, in that book — it’s a long time ago, if anybody remembers it. They made a movie out of it. He’s this grizzled old war veteran. That was based on my Uncle Eddie who was exactly that age, was grizzled, fought in World War II, all that stuff, but had a near-death experience where he died for a couple seconds on an operating table while they were trying to revive him of a heart issue. Years later, he said that he remembered lifting out of his body and floating above the bed and seeing all the people working on him. Then he said he saw all of his dead relatives waiting at the edge of the bed for him. Of course, as a kid, you always say, “What’d you do, Uncle Ed? What’d you do?” He was a crusty old guy. He said, “What’d I do? I told them, get the hell out of here, I’m not ready for yet.” Apparently, he scared them right back to heaven, went back into his body. Then he lived another ten or fifteen years.

That story informed me a lot about what comes next because he’s not some self-help author. He’s not somebody I don’t know. How do I know what their reason is for coming up with it? He’s somebody I loved and trusted. If he said that that’s what he saw, then I believe that that’s what he saw. I learned that story as a kid. I think it’s always been in my brain that there must be something afterwards because Uncle Eddie saw it. He was a witness. That’s all you really need, is one witness to tell you that you trust. You go, okay, I’m going with that. I think I’ve always believed in something afterwards. In my heart, I want to believe it. I don’t want to believe that our existence and all the things that we feel and everything we’ve done — the way the world interacts with one another is just so amazing, how one person influences another. One thing that happens half a world away affects you over here. That that’s suddenly nothingness and there’s nothing beyond, between my heart wanting it and my Uncle Eddie telling me about it, yes, I do believe that there’s something next.

Zibby: Yay for Uncle Eddie. Another bad thing that ended up with something good, the operating table. There you go.

Mitch: Right. That’s what I think.

Zibby: I recently interviewed Laura Lynne Jackson who wrote Signs. She’s a medium and everything. I’ve started to believe more. This sounds woo-woo, so I’ll stop, but it was pretty amazing. On the podcast, she literally got i touch with my grandmother. It was really crazy. I’m like, if anybody’s bursting their way in here, just let me know. She’s like, actually, there is. Your grandmother’s being very pushy. I was like, yeah, that sounds about right. It was crazy. She actually said she was coming that day for some sort of special anniversary. I was like, no, today’s not an anniversary of any kind. Sorry. I’m thinking, well, whatever. Then later that day, my mom drops off this box. It turns out it’s my grandmother’s ashes. Isn’t that crazy?

Mitch: Oh, wow.

Zibby: I can’t believe I’m even telling you this story. It was crazy. I believe. I am a convert, I think. I didn’t used to. Maybe because I’m getting older, I choose to believe it too. It makes me feel better.

Mitch: Getting older will do that to you.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. I’m like, all right, there’s no harm in believing. It’s only going to make my life better. Anyway, Stranger in the Lifeboat, out now. Do you have another book next that’s already slated to come out?

Mitch: I do, actually. It’s one of the rare times that we had — when I say we, I mean myself and my publisher — had discussed what we’re going to do for the next few years. There were a couple books that I was contemplating doing. We discussed, let’s do this one first and the other one, so I do have another thing. It’s a historical novel that is set — it spans a lot of years, but it begins during the Holocaust with an incident that I saw somebody talking about at the Yad Vashem museum in Israel when I went there, the Holocaust Museum, where they talked about how, when they were rounding up the Jewish people to put them on the trains that would take them to the concentration camps, they would get a Jewish person who was trustworthy to be on the platform and tell the people, these trains are good. They’re taking us out of town to safety. Get on. Get on. Get on. Obviously, if it was a Nazi guard, you wouldn’t believe them. They forced someone of their own people to lie like that. I won’t go into much more than that. It begins there with that lie and the person who had to tell that lie and then takes off from there. It’s going to be a little bit different. It’ll still have a lot of interesting life lesson kind of stuff. I’ve always been, I don’t want to say interested — it almost seems macabre to say that. I’ve been aware of the Holocaust and its consequences all my life and have known many people who survived it and the effects that it’s had. I thought setting a story in there would be something I would do at some point in the course of my life. It looks like that might be the next one. Then again, by tomorrow, I could have a different idea.

Zibby: I won’t hold you to it.

Mitch: Hopefully, I’ll be back in a couple years talking about that.

Zibby: I can’t wait. Hopefully, God will have made an appearance on my show by then and I can tell you what happened.

Mitch: So how’d it go?

Zibby: I know I asked you this last time. You get asked all the time. I’ll just say it anyway. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Mitch: Not sure what I said last time, but I imagine it’s fairly close. You need to read. There was an incident that took place in my life when I was very young that has informed me a lot about how to approach questions like that in any field. I’ll share it with you for whatever it’s worth. Perhaps, it’s worth something to your listeners. I was actually a security guard for Pinkerton in New York City as I was a musician trying to make way. I made my money, not very much money, working for Pinkerton as a security guard. Since I’m hardly an imposing person, I don’t know why the hell they hired me because I couldn’t protect anything.

Zibby: I was sort of thinking that, but I wasn’t going to say anything.

Mitch: Really? Security guard? What are you protecting? Anyhow, along the way, I got assigned — somehow, I ended up with this photographer. I cannot remember his name now, but he was very big at the time. Not Scavullo, but somebody along that same level. I got talking to him. I told him I was into music. I asked him about, “How did you get so good at photography? What did somebody tell you when you were young?” I was young. I was asking a similar question. By this point, he was well into his fifties, sixties. He said, “When I was just starting out, I took some photos. I got my work together. I sent them off to the best photographer of the day with no idea if he would ever respond to me. I wrote the question that you just asked me. What do I need to do to become a great photographer? A few weeks later, I got them back with a note. The guy actually responded to me. He wrote, I can tell from your photographs you have mastered the basics of photography. Now go out and surround yourself with the best literature, the best music, the best art, and everything else will take care of itself.” I believe that that’s true.

If you want to be a great writer, not only read, but watch plays. Watch movies. Go to concerts. Immerse yourself in all the arts. It will infuse you. The rest does take care of itself. Yeah, you can lay out a lot of patterns and study this book and use this and do this exercise and all that. You can find that along the way. The one thing that people sometimes don’t do is — they think in order to become a great writer, you just need to sit and write, and sit and write, and sit and write. That’s not true. If you’re not observing, if you’re not bringing in input, you’re not going to have anything to write. You can master verbs and adverbs and adjectives and the construction of a sentence all you want, but what are you saying? You need to fill your gas tank with something worthwhile saying and an artistic way of saying it before you can start using all the technical craft that you have mastered. I said to him, “So he didn’t tell you, get this camera or get that lens?” He said, “No, he just said, surround yourself with these things, and everything else will take care of itself.” I think that’s accurate for almost any form of art that you want to go into. That’s probably the best advice I can share.

Zibby: That is great advice. Live your life. Get the inputs. Don’t write unless you have something to say, essentially.

Mitch: That’s easier said than done.

Zibby: Amazing. Mitch, thank you so much for coming back on. Lots of thought-provoking things in this discussion and, of course, in your book. Thank you for taking the time.

Mitch: Thank you. I appreciate you talking about the book. I thank everybody who was listening. Zibby, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, as always. I hope to see you again, maybe in a couple years if that book comes to fruition.

Zibby: I’ll probably be right here, hopefully with a few steps under my belt by then. Take care. Buh-bye.

Mitch: Thanks. Bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts