It’s 8:30 on a recent evening and Mitch Albom is stretched out on the sofa in his Detroit home, watching Pete’s Dragon with an 8-year-old boy named Knox, who is curled up beside him under a blanket, chattering away as the movie unfolds.
A half hour later, Knox — who lives in an orphanage Albom runs in Haiti but has been quarantining with the author and his wife Janine since shortly after arriving in the U.S. in February for medical treatment — is fast asleep in his bedroom.
“Knox been the light of our household, giving us hugs, laughs and joy,” Albom, 61, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. “I keep thinking how much tougher our existence would be if we didn’t have this little 8-year-old shining a light on everything.”
It’s this precious connection between Knox and Albom that’s at the heart of his new serialized novel Human Touch — which the Tuesdays With Morrie author is writing to raise money for an inner-city coronavirus testing center he created.
“The coronavirus has been really, really rough here,” says Albom, who has raised over $450,000 from his pay-what-you-want book. “But we’ve been able to test hundreds of people already at our site.”
Albom and Knox at home in Detroit.
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Published chapter by chapter in written and audio format, then released each Friday on Albom’s website (mitchalbom.com), the book follows the lives of four families in a small Michigan town as the coronavirus rampages across the nation — and a young boy whose inexplicable immunity to the virus may hold an answer to the crisis.
Albom was inspired to model the book’s hero after his pint-sized houseguest.
“Knox has been a hero for us,” says the sportswriter, whose books have sold over 39 million copies. “So I wanted to create a character who does the same thing for everybody else.”
The idea behind Human Touch began to unfold in February, when Albom surmised it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus pandemic hit Detroit.
“I knew it was going to be bad here,” says Albom, who teamed up with several local low-income medical clinics to put plans together for a testing center.
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Albom figured he could raise funds with an online novel and began formulating the plot and characters for the story.
When Michigan’s shelter-in-place order was issued on March 24, Knox moved in with Albom and his wife — and the couple quickly found themselves smitten with the energetic little boy, who weeks earlier began medical treatments for his severely injured left arm and leg.
“He’s the most delightful, upbeat, positive child I’ve ever encountered in my life,” says Albom. “He’s got a happy dance for literally everything.”
Although he’s never written a book in real time before (“It goes against the grain,” he says, “of how I usually write, constantly re-editing my words”), Albom has grown to love the process.
His favorite part is on Friday afternoon when Knox sits in his lap and records his character’s dialogue for the audiobook.
“I whisper in his ear and tell him what to say and he’s so good,” says Albom. “I’m afraid he’s going to be asking for an agent soon.”
As of Thursday, Michigan has has 52,988 cases and 5,060 deaths attributed to the coronavirus, while Wayne County — where Detroit is located — accounts for 19,432 cases and 2,284 deaths, according to a New York Times database.
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