HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. -- HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. (AP) — Mitch Albom's best-selling memoir, "Tuesdays with Morrie," gave him the literary chops to try his hand at fiction, so it's fitting that he returns to the book's central theme — the struggle to understand one's own mortality — for his fourth novel.

"The First Phone Call From Heaven," which came out Tuesday, mines the same death-and-afterlife material that transformed Albom 16 years ago from an award-winning sports columnist into a best-selling author.

A closer look, though, shows it isn't quite like his other novels.

At 323 pages, it's about 100 pages longer than his other fictional works, and he devotes the extra space to fuller character development.

Plus, "it's a bit of a thriller," according to Albom, who said some people close to him expressed surprise he had a mystery novel in him, but he realized: "I've been writing sports my whole life, and sports is exactly that."

The book follows several residents of a fictional northern Michigan town, Coldwater, who start receiving regular Friday phone calls from deceased loved ones. (There is a real Coldwater, Mich., but it's in the south of the state.) Soon, the town is overrun by out-of-towners dead-set on getting the story (media), celebrating the phenomenon (religious zealots) or disproving it (skeptics).

"There's a fundamental question: Did this really happen or not? At the core of that question is belief," Albom said. "The book to me, if you had to pick a one-word theme, it's 'belief.'"

Albom said belief is "what gets us through life" and "carries us through terrible situations when they happen to us."

Much like the one that happened to him. A series of strokes robbed his mother of the ability to speak.

"I've not heard her voice since 2010, basically. I miss her voice something terribly," Albom said.

Morrie Schwartz's voice also is one of those Albom has lost over the years.

The 1997 chronicle of his mentor's deathbed seminars provided Albom with the springboard he has used to delve into the world of fiction.

Albom said Schwartz asked him to visit his grave periodically to continue their conversations.

"He said, 'When I'm dead, you talk. I'll listen,'" Albom said, referring to his friend's request that, despite an initial reluctance, Albom has honored.

"There's nothing creepy about it," he said of his visits to Schwartz's final resting place in Massachusetts. "I have conversations with people who have passed all the time. They don't talk back, but I sit and I talk to them myself."

Schwartz also challenged Albom to do more charitable work.

"Anybody can write a check," Albom remembers him saying.

As with the graveside chats, Albom has honored Schwartz's call for charity.

He has founded six charities in his hometown of Detroit, and since the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he has operated an orphanage in Port-Au-Prince that he visits monthly.

"I do the charity work because I should, because I can," he told The Associated Press during an interview at the medical clinic for homeless children and their mothers that he set up in the Detroit enclave of Highland Park.

Moments earlier, Albom strolled through the S.A.Y. Detroit Family Health Clinic greeting patients, doctors, nurses and others with hugs and handshakes.

One of those who received an embrace from Albom was Dr. Chad Audi, the president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries and a frequent partner of Albom's on various charitable endeavors.

Despite Albom shooing him away, Audi refused to stop singing the praises of his friend, who he said is much more hands-on than many believe.

"You will see him painting on his knees. You will see him cleaning, cuddling with the homeless people," Audi said. "He slept in their bed, literally. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be able to raise the funds ... to help those guys."

"OK, OK. Now go away," said Albom, whose critics have derisively dubbed him the "king of hope" because of the syrupy-sweet nature of his books.

Albom embraces the nickname.

"I'll take that any day," he said. "I just try to tell stories that when you're done, you feel a little hopeful.

"It's really not any more complicated than that."

___

Mike Householder can be reached at mhouseholder@ap.org and http://twitter.com/mikehouseholder

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