A Stairway to Heaven, and Back

The Beyond, or at least a bunch of pretty clouds over New York

The Beyond, or at least a bunch of pretty clouds over New York

Whenever I publish a book, I invariably find that it ends up accompanied to market by a memoir written by an author who claims to have gone to heaven and returned. These books are very popular, so much so that there is now a name for the genre: “heaven tourism.” At one point last year, the New York Times’ combined print and ebook nonfiction list included two heaven tourism books, Heaven is for Real, at no. 1, and Proof of Heaven, at no. 15. A third, 90 Minutes in Heaven, was on the so-called extended list, at no. 16, though last month it popped back onto the Times’ paperback nonfiction list at no. 13, thanks to the release of a film by the same title. The writers of such books tend to encounter a pleasing afterlife, populated by people who had been important in their lives. If this happened to me, I would run into my childhood dentist, and he would tell me I have to start flossing.

I am not complaining about the competition posed by these books; I am marveling. I say marveling, because typically my books will have about 800 footnotes, and bibliographies with so many pages of books, magazines, memoirs, and archival references that they could be published as a separate volume, while the heaven books are based typically on one person’s account, because no one thus far has managed to accompany these travelers, at least not successfully.

Recently, one heaven tourist stepped forward and confessed that his story was a lie. The aptly named Alex Malarkey—his real name—titled his statement, “An Open Letter to LifeWay and Other Sellers, Buyers, and Marketers of Heaven Tourism, by the Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven,” according to an article posted online by the Christian Post. (LifeWay Christian Resources has since pulled all heaven tourism books from its 200 stores, citing a resolution by the Baptist Convention that members should eschew such accounts and rely instead on “the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the afterlife.”)

“I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention,” Malarkey explained. “When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth.” The nice thing is that Malarkey’s retraction will probably help get him into heaven, instead of that other place of heat and fire, and I am not talking about Hawaii.

What I’ve always wondered about is how editors determine the appropriate category in which to place heaven-tourism books. Nonfiction? Fiction? Self-delusion? The New York Times designated them nonfiction, but how was that decision made?

I understand that a new work in the heaven-tourism genre is about to come out, called, I Did Not Know There Was an ‘In-and-Out Burger’ in Heaven. It is said to be about a man named Jerry who stopped at a popular California burger drive-in and after consuming a burger and fries, and listening to a little Sha Na Na, reached for a fry that had fallen under the brake pedal and hit his head against the steering wheel so hard he fell into a coma and for a few moments was dead. He found himself in a long line back inside the burger place with Jesus just ahead of him, looking youthful and tanned. “My secret?” Jesus said. “Fish oil. And bagels with cream cheese and bacon. My cholesterol is through the roof, but you know what, I don’t care. You shouldn’t care either, by the way. You’ve got other things to worry about.” Jesus winked.

At first the editors wanted to put the book on the children’s list, but then pulled it for fear parents would object to the image of a man dying in his car while eating a favorite Sunday afternoon post-soccer treat. Next they tried to put it on the “how-to” list, but the lawyers objected that doing so would expose the newspaper to the excessive liability risk that might arise if readers decided to attempt to follow in Jerry’s footsteps, though in fact Jerry reports in his book that one of the remarkable things about heaven was that there were no footprints anywhere. There was no dog shit either, because contrary to popular belief there are no dogs in heaven. Which Jerry found startling, because there were cats, and he is allergic to cats.

The fiction list seemed a likely home, and certainly the book was selling as briskly as a fiction best-seller, buoyed by the millions of souls needing reassurance that their years of baking things for the Sunday afternoon social would have an eternal pay-off. But one editor piped up and said, “Who are we to say this is is fiction? Is the Bible fiction?”

This got everyone’s attention, and for the next two hours the editors debated whether to put Jerry’s book on the non-fiction list, or not.

“It has footnotes,” one editor said.

“But all he’s footnoting is the Bible,” said another.

“No. Actually, I see there’s also one for the line-up at the Bienvenido De Nuevo Stakes at Hialeah.”

Briefly the editors considered hiding the book and pretending that it had been lost during shipping and had never arrived at the paper. This seemed unfair, however. In the end, the book was indeed assigned to the non-fiction list, where it lingered in the No. 1 spot for five and a half years until the author of the book in the No. 2 spot suffered a psychotic break and sent Jerry on a return trip, crying out, “Say hello to Moses for me. That guy always cracked me up.”



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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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