An exclusive interview with JJ Marsh
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1947, Paulo Coelho chose his career early. As a teenager, he decided he would become a writer. And he did. But it took a while. Escaping a mental institution three times after being committed by his parents, dropping out of law school and becoming a travelling hippie, gaining respect as a songwriter, and being arrested and tortured by the military regime all came first.
He was forty years old when he experienced an epiphany on the Santiago de Compostela Trail, which led to his book, The Pilgrimage. The following year, 1988, he wrote The Alchemist, which has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 71 languages. He has published 29 books, including The Devil and Miss Prym, Veronika Decides to Die, and Eleven Minutes, and sold over 100 millions copies of his work. His latest, Aleph, came out in English in September this year.
Paulo is an outspoken activist for peace and social justice, and also supports the free distribution of his work. He and his wife Christina split their time between Rio de Janeiro, and France.
Your books concern ordinary people, individuals who do or experience something extraordinary. How do you feel about the culture of celebrity?
There are two questions in one. As for the first part: everybody may experience the extraordinary at any given moment in life – if he or she knows where to go, and it paying attention to what is happening. St John illustrates the most frustrating facet of the human condition: our persistent desire for that which is unattainable that we carry in our soul.
But the fact that you know your dreams is not enough. You have to think how to manifest your dreams and be brave enough to pay the price of it. You have to learn how to own your mistakes; otherwise your mistakes own you. I think that the only advice that I can give is this: nurture intuition instead of seeking for literary rules. Tell a story instead of trying to impress your peers with style and grammatical exercises. It’s more important to keep on questioning than to find answers.
As for the second part of your question: I wrote an entire book about the culture of celebrity (The Winner Stands Alone). But if I have to summarize it, I would say: the trap of celebrity is when you start behaving that you are what people think you are. From this moment on, you are lost.
How far do your experiences as a songwriter influence your writing?
By writing lyrics to songs, I learned how to be direct without being superficial.
Someone recently told me that Veronika Decides To Die should be compulsory reading for all teenagers. Do you agree?
No. The message in Veronika Decides To Die is that: dare to be different. You are unique, and you have to accept you as you are, instead of trying to repeat other people’s destinies or patterns. Insanity is to behave like someone that you are not. Normality is the capacity to express your feelings. From the moment that you don’t fear to share your heart, you are a free person. You can speak the truth. And this is the beauty of truth: whether it is bad or good, it is liberating.
However, this must be a choice, and the book (either Veronika or any other book on this subject) must reach the reader when he/she is ready to face the challenges that come with freedom.
The meditations on the Seven Deadly Sins, to accompany The Witch of Portobello, references many different faiths and moral systems. How much can we learn from an open mind towards other beliefs?
People who accept that God is more than rules and commandments, and try to dwell into the adoration of beauty and passion, this feminine energy, are called “witches”. But in fact, this is a person that is capable of letting intuition take hold of his/her actions, who communes with the environment, who isn’t afraid of facing challenges.
Recently I was reading Karen Armstrong’s book on the Prophet (Muhammad, Harper Collins), and there is a part that she mentions: “each recitation began with the invocation: In the name of Allah, the Compassionate (al-Rahman), and the Merciful (al-Rahim)…the divine names Al-Rahman and al-Rahim are not only grammatically feminine, but related etymologically to the word for womb.”
I am not an expert in Arabic etymology, but I believe that Mrs. Armstrong is. The Witch of Portobello explores this Compassion and this Mercy, as I see from my perspective. I felt the need to question why society had tried to lock away the feminine side. The character of Athena, with her freedom and courage, was my way to tackle this subject and to unveil the shackles of dogma.
I think, that despite all the fanaticisms, we are seeing the beginning of an era where feminine values, such as generosity and tolerance, are surfacing again.
Which, in your view, is the worst of the Deadly Sins? Why?
Envy. I don’t think I need to elaborate.
Most writers try to protect their work being distributed for free. But I was delighted to discover you actively sought to share files with your readers via the Internet. Why?
In the former Soviet Union, in the late 1950s and 60s, many books that questioned the political system began to be circulated privately in mimeographed form. Their authors never earned a penny in royalties. On the contrary, they were persecuted, denounced in the official press, and sent into exile in the notorious Siberian gulags. Yet still they continued to write.
Why? Because they needed to share what they were feeling. From the Gospels to political manifestos, literature has allowed ideas to travel and even to change the world.
I have nothing against people earning money from their books; that’s how I make my living.
But look at what’s happening now: the publishing industry is trying to have laws brought in against ‘intellectual piracy’. Depending on the country, the ‘pirate’ – that is, the person disseminating art on the Internet – could end up in jail.
And how do I feel about this? As an author, I should be defending ‘intellectual property’, but I’m not. In 1999, when I was first published in Russia (with a print-run of 3,000), the country was suffering a severe paper shortage. By chance, I discovered a ‘pirate’ edition of The Alchemist and posted it on my web page. A year later, when the crisis was resolved, I sold 10,000 copies of the print edition. By 2002, I had sold a million copies in Russia, and I have now sold 12 million.
When I travelled across Russia by train, I met several people who told me that they had first discovered my work through the ‘pirated’ edition I posted on my website. Nowadays, I run a ‘Pirate Coelho’ website, giving links to any books of mine that are available on file-sharing sites. And my sales continue to grow – nearly 140 million. When you’ve eaten an orange, you have to go back to the shop to buy another. In that case, it makes sense to pay on the spot. With an object of art, you’re not buying paper, ink, paintbrush, canvas or musical notes, but the idea born out of a combination of those products.
‘Pirating’ can act as an introduction to an artist’s work. If you like his or her idea, then you will want to have it in your house; a good idea doesn’t need protection.
As a representative of the UN, involved with UNESCO campaigns including combatting violence against woman, a supporter of Amnesty International and the founder of your own Paulo Coelho Institute, do you see yourself as a political person?
One of the few bridges left intact today is the cultural one, and at the moment nobody is capable of understanding each other because there are a lot of prejudices going on around the world. When people talk about the clashes of civilizations, I think it is just an invention of the media. I don’t think there are any clashes. I may not understand the political system or economics, but I understand things through stories. And by extension, every artist is a political person.
As for the Paulo Coelho Institute: the social situation here in Brazil is complicated; the disparity between the rich and the poor is very big. The Brazilian government is powerless with regard to the social situation of Brazil. But I have to resist the temptation to name those responsible for it and apportion blame solely on our government. Politicians are concerned mostly only about special things and lose sight of their real tasks, especially their election promises. As a Brazilian, I am also responsible for the situation in my country. That’s why I try to support children in Rio de Janeiro with my Paulo Coelho Foundation. I cannot change or improve Brazil, but I can help the people in my surroundings.
You’re often quoted as saying you write with only one reader in mind – yourself. In Aleph, you take the reader with you on a very personal journey. How did that affect the writing of this book?
Writing is magic. Pure magic. A powerful moment, when I look into my soul, even if it’s only for ten seconds, and I can have a glimpse of my dark and bright sides Thoughts vibrate, thoughts transfer to my fingers. I never in my life had this blank screen syndrome. All I need to do is to get rid of the notion of time.
And this is the central idea of Aleph. While writing it, I was describing an experience that took place four years ago, and understanding it for the first time. When I finished and published the book, the reader could understand that this magic may be manifested in anything we do in life.
What would be your English translation of the word saudades?
Portuguese speaking people used to be proud that this word has no translation. But I believe it has. It can be “to long for”, or in a specific case, to be “home sick”, etc. And to make it simpler, I would say: “to miss (something or someone)”.
Interviews often show more of the interviewer than the interviewee. What question(s) would you want to ask our readers, all of whom are writers?
Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public. Are you taking off your clothes?