Tuesdays with Morrie, the moving story of a teacher, his wisdom and his death, has more than 5 million copies in print in 31 languages. TIME talked with the author in New York City
Q. Your book has been a smash hit for three years. Has it been enjoyable for you?
A. I don't know if enjoyable is the word I would use. I've had an enlightening time. I've had a life-changing time. I'm a much different person now than I was before this book came out.
Q. What's it like to meet the public?
A. People who meet me who have read the book feel that they have a personal connection to me--to tell me their woes, their illnesses, the people they have lost in their life. Or they want to know more about some of the wisdom that Morrie had. Sometimes they mistake me for Morrie. They'll call me Morrie. They'll hold me to extremely high standards of behavior. It's almost like being held to clerical types of standards sometimes. And I never was that good a person. I would like to aspire to be, but sometimes I have to remind people that I was the guy sitting on the other side of the bed. Morrie was the wise old man; I was trying to learn from him.
Q. In what ways have you changed?
A. I certainly have become more patient with people. I've become better at listening to people's sad stories, and maybe even having something to say that's of some value. When I first began, I was overwhelmed. I was hearing about so many people dying. I didn't know what to say. I would just listen and say "I'm sorry," and then feel inadequate. But a lot of times, I've learned, what people really want is somebody to talk to. They want to know that somebody else has gone through it. They want to know that there's a little light at the end of the tunnel. That changes you.
Q. What's wrong with our attitudes about older people?
A. When Morrie was at his weakest and his most helpless, that's when he had the most to offer. But there were people who came to visit him, and he needed help urinating. He couldn't even get up. So he'd say, Will you hold the beaker? And they'd freak out. Maybe they'd do it or maybe they'd say no, but they wouldn't come back. Instead of seeing him as a guy who was facing death and had all this wisdom, it would be, He's the guy I have to hold the beaker for. Well, you're missing out on a great thing there. You guys have got to get past what you think is disgusting and what you think you can't do. I'm not sure how capable our generation is going to be. A lot of us are way too selfish to do that. But we're going to face it, like it or not.
Q. Why do you think Tuesdays with Morrie has been so successful?
A. I roll it around in my head. We all lose somebody we care about and want to find some comforting way of dealing with it, something that will give us a little closure, a little peace. When Morrie says, "Death ends a life, but not a relationship," that's the thing that comes back over and over. We say, "That's what I've been looking for."
Q. Will you write more about Morrie?