His books have been translated into 56 languages, topped bestseller lists throughout the world, and scored him such celebrity fans as Julia Roberts, Bill Clinton, and Madonna; yet for Brazilian publishing phenom Paulo Colho, the road to success has been strewn with a number of obstacles, many of them rooted in his troubled past.
As a youth, Coelho was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a professional engineer. When he rebelled, expressing his intentions to become a writer, his parents had him committed to a psychiatric hospital where he was subjected to electro-shock therapy. He left home to join the 1970s countercultural revolution, experimenting with drugs, dabbling in black magic, and getting involved in Brazil's bohemian art and music scene. He teamed with rock musician Raul Seixas for an extremely successful songwriting partnership that changed the face of Brazilian pop -- and put a lot of money in Coelho's pockets. He also joined an anti-capitalist organization called the Alternative Society which attracted the attention of Brazil's military dictatorship. Marked down as a subversive, he was imprisoned and tortured.
Amazingly, Coelho survived these horrific experiences. He left the hippie lifestyle behind, went to work in the record industry, and began to write, but without much success. Then, in the mid-1980s, during a trip to Europe, he met a man, an unnamed mentor he refers to only as "J," who inducted him into Regnum Agnus Mundi, a secret society that blends Catholicism with a sort of New Age mysticism. At J's urging, Coelho journeyed across el Camino de Santiago, the legendary Spanish road traversed by pilgrims since the Middle Ages. He chronicled this life-changing, 500-mile journey -- the culmination of decades of soul-searching -- in The Pilgrimage, published in 1987.
The following year, Coelho wrote The Alchemist, the inspirational fable for which he is best known. The first edition sold so poorly the publisher decided not to reprint it. Undaunted, Coelho moved to a larger publishing house that seemed more interested in his work. When his third novel (1990's Brida) proved successful, the resulting media buzz carried The Alchemist all the way to the top of the charts. Released in the U.S. by HarperCollins in 1993, The Alchemist became a word-of-mouth sensation, turning Coelho into a cult hero.
Since then, he has gone on to create his own distinct literary brand -- an amalgam of allegory and self-help filled with spiritual themes and symbols. In his novels, memoirs, and aphoristic nonfiction, he returns time and again to the concepts of quest and transformation and has often said that writing has helped connect him to his soul. While his books have not always been reviewed favorably and have often become the subject of strong cultural and philosophical debate, there is no doubt that this self-described "pilgrim writer" has struck a chord in readers everywhere. In the 2009 edition of the Guiness Book of World Records, Coelho was named the most translated living author -- with William Shakespeare the most translated of all time!
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Few writers are able to accomplish what Coelho can in just two to four weeks -- which is how long it takes for him to write an entire novel.
Before become a bestselling novelist, Coelho was a writer of a different sort. He co-wrote more than 60 songs with Brazilian musician Raul Seixas.
Coelho is the founder of the Paulo Coelho Institute, a non-profit organization funded by his royalties that raises money for underprivileged children and the elderly in his homeland of Brazil.
In our interview with Coelho, he shared some fascinating facts about himself:
"I have been practicing archery for a long time; a bow and arrow helps me to unwind."
"In writing, I apply my feminine side and respect the mystery involved in creation."
"I love almost everything about my work, except conferences. I am too shy in front of an audience. But I love signings and having eye contact with a reader who already knows my soul."
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In the spring of 2003, Paulo Coelho answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life?
The Bible, which contains all the stories and all the guidance humankind needs.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller -- Shows how a man can write from the heart.
A Separate Reality by Carlos Castaneda -- The first time I heard about the "the way of the warrior."
Songs of Innocence by William Blake -- You don't need complications to be connected to the miracle of life.
Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges -- A masterpiece in exercising one's creativity.
The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles -- A perfect literary construct.
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado -- The best portrait of Brazil so far.
Dialogues by Plato -- Where we realize that there is nothing new under the sun.
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran -- An underrated masterpiece on dealing with human conflicts.
Fables by La Fontaine -- It seems that it is easy to understand humans when we read about animals.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- Reflects the richness of the Latin soul (and body).
Favorite films?2001 -- Kubrick
Once Upon a Time in the West -- Sergio Leone
The Exterminating Angel -- Buñuel
Day for Night -- Truffaut
Recently: The Matrix
Favorite music?Richard Wagner
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
At this moment, any book that would help me stop war and terrorism.
What are your favorite books to give as gifts?
Any one from my list of favorites (above).
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Paulo Coelho had to say:
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller -- A reflection about things that we don't dare to think about.
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges -- Magical as the sun and the moon.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake -- Lessons that must be remembered every year.
Salem's Lot by Stephen King -- A writer who will be better understood in the future.
The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb -- For understanding better the present moment.
The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma -- Accept your contradictions, accept your differences.
If it Was True by Marc Levy -- Probably the best contemporary French writer.
Plato, not Prozac by Lou Marinoff -- Intelligence and intuition overcomes everything.
Gabriela, Glove and Cinammon by Jorge Amado -- The best description of Brazil you can ever find.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- Every time you read this book, you read a different book.
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