As publishing propositions go, this one was fairly straightforward.
Take “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” Mitch Albom’s best-selling spiritual fable, and update it by sending five new people into the afterlife. The result: a sequel built on a market-tested idea.
“It definitely gives us a hook in the world of book publishing and marketing and trying to rise above the noise,” said Karen Rinaldi, Mr. Albom’s editor at HarperCollins.
While the sequel has potential for big business, Mr. Albom said his reason for writing it is personal. He called the book his way of processing the past three years, when he experienced the deaths of both his parents and a 7-year-old Haitian orphan he had come to view as his child.
Of all his novels, “Five People” is the one readers ask him about the most. “I hear people saying, ‘You said it was the first stage of heaven—what’s the second?’” he said.
With “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” out on Tuesday, Mr. Albom tries to answer that question, putting the same fictional twist on religious faith that made the original a hit 15 years ago.
The sequel centers on 30-year-old newlywed Annie, entering heaven after a hot-air balloon accident. As with the 2003 novel, the five people waiting for her reveal their influence over her life in ways she hadn’t realized.
One of them is Eddie, an amusement-park maintenance worker who died rescuing her from a broken ride in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” For Eddie, Annie becomes “the next person” of the sequel’s title.
‘ I think that you will get to see the people that you loved and be with them again, and I think that they will be able to unlock some of the secrets and things you didn’t know about. ’
Mr. Albom, whose books have sold more than 39 million copies, said he hasn’t ruled out another stage of heaven—and a third book in the franchise.
When the author, who is Jewish, was asked why he chooses nominally Christian characters for his “Heaven” books, he paused. “As opposed to?” he asked. He said he hadn’t thought about the characters’ religions while he was writing the novels, which both are prefaced with reminders that the works are fiction.
The 60-year-old Detroit writer, whose nearly unlined face is framed by a cap of brown hair, has appeared at corporate gatherings, religious venues and other stops on the speaking circuit thanks partly to the mass appeal of his first “Heaven” book.
The original “Heaven” followed “Tuesdays with Morrie,” his 1997 nonfiction best-seller that examined mortality and the meaning of life. His longtime agent David Black recalled that publishers were unsure what to think when they learned that Mr. Albom, a writer for the Detroit Free Press, wanted to write fiction for his high-stakes follow-up. The novel, which tapped into the “Morrie” fan base, became a best-seller. (Mr. Albom’s writing continues to appear in the Detroit Free Press, including a recent column on Brett Kavanaugh.)
Asked to explain the success of the first “Heaven” book, Bob Miller, the former Hyperion publisher who championed it, pointed in part to its title, which neatly answered the question of what happens when you die. “It is one of the great titles of all time,” he said.
The sequel is published by HarperCollins, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp .
Mr. Albom has dedicated “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven” to Chika Jeune, an orphan from Haiti who was diagnosed with a brain tumor and came to Detroit in 2015 to live under the care of the author and his wife. Mr. Albom, who travels frequently to Port-au-Prince to run an orphanage there, embarked on an international quest to find a treatment for the girl’s disease in the months that followed. Chika died in April 2017. The couple has no biological or adopted children.
The new book deals tangentially with the death of a child when a character in the afterlife is reunited with a lost baby. “I think the line is, ‘She felt utterly complete and utterly vacant, which is what having and losing a child is like,’ and that’s exactly how I feel,” Mr. Albom said. “I’ve never been more fulfilled in my life and I’ve never felt more empty in my life.”
He said he admits every child to the orphanage himself and decides who to turn away based on need. “You have to play Solomon,” he said, adding that the 10 or 15 children who are rejected for each one admitted “haunt my memories for a long time.”
The writer, who also founded S.A.Y. Detroit, an umbrella group for nine charitable operations in the city, said he would pay for the higher educations of the orphanage’s 47 children. He said he hopes they attend college in the U.S. and return to Haiti to do good there.
Though his personal faith offers no universally accepted view of heaven, Mr. Albom himself believes in the afterlife. “I think it’s somewhat like I’ve described,” he said. “I think that you will get to see the people that you loved and be with them again, and I think that they will be able to unlock some of the secrets and things you didn’t know about.”
Write to Ellen Gamerman at firstname.lastname@example.org