The creative process must be revered as a spiritual search, says Paulo Coelho, one of the world’s best-known authors. His quest straddled the conventional pilgrimage and hippiedom. But the answer was to be found in a basic humanity and social entrepreneurship, he tells Bachi Karkaria
Where do get your spiritual underpinnings? How much of this influences the way you are and the way you write? How much of Paulo Coelho, the man, and Paulo Coelho, the writer, can be attributed to your Roman Catholic upbringing?
I grew up, like almost all Brazilians, in a strictly Catholic family. Later, at the age of rebellion, I doubted Catholicism, and felt that I must try something new. Then I became a hippie. During this time, I travelled a lot, met people of different backgrounds, and learnt different paths to come closer to spirituality. After I did a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I returned to the Catholic faith – just because it is in my blood, not because it is the best religion. I am a Catholic, but I don’t think you can put God in a church.
In the end, all religions tend to point to the same light. In between the light and us, sometimes there are too many rules. Some of these rules are important, other should not blind us or diminish the intensity of this light, the soul of the world.
You write a book once every three years. Do you spend the intervening time on researching the book or doing other things? For instance, how long did you take to pick up all the details of the film and fashion world which make your latest, The Winner Stands Alone, almost a work of faction?
Regarding the creative process, I only allow myself to write every two years because I feel that I’ve gathered enough emotional energy to come up with a story. Every time that I write a new book, I am experiencing the sensations of death and rebirth. When I write, I am a woman. I get pregnant from life, and I don’t know what the baby will look like.
My pregnancy cycle is what takes two years. During this time I don’t take notes, I don’t make plans. The only thing that I know is that life put inside me a seed that will grow when time comes. Then, when the time comes, I sit and write. Every creative act demands a respect for mystery, and I respect the mystery, without trying to understand it. For my latest book, The Winner Stands Alone, I was inspired by the Cannes Film Festival that I attend every year. There I had the possibility to understand the “behind-the-scenes” mechanism of the movie and fashion industries.
You’ve described yourself as an “internet junkie”. Is that a hip term or just New Age egotism?
An internet junkie is neither a hip term of a new age egotistical thing – it’s just a realization. I spend hours in front of the computer surfing the web and chatting with friends and readers.
To what do you attribute the huge success of The
Alchemist? (At 67 languages, it holds the Guinness record for being the world’s mosttranslated book). Given this,
are you weighed down by its baggage?
I really don't know why my characters are so popular in different parts of the world and in different cultures. I don’t have a ready-made formula to apply when I embark on a new book, but I’m always controlled by many elements: discipline, compassion and a sincere eagerness to understand myself. When I start a new book, I try to approach myself from a different angle. In The Alchemist, for example, I was trying to explain to myself what writing meant to me. The way I found to do this was through a metaphor. In Eleven Minutes, I started with the question of why sexuality is considered one of the major issues in life. But I had my doubts. And that’s why the hero asks if it's true that the world could revolve around 11 minutes. In The Zahir, there is a kind of a snapshot of my present moment as a famous writer. In The Winner Stands Alone, I wanted to explore the world of fashion and unravel why we tend to adopt dreams that are not our own so easily.
What difference does a book, even one that has sold millions of copies and is the most
translated, make to the
scheme of things?
First, I think you should define “the scheme of things” — what for you is the scheme of things.
For me, the scheme of things is to share my soul through writing. Books have always made a lot of difference in my world. They set me free when all those around me said that life had to be in a certain way and not in another. They enabled me to dream when all around me was trying to lure me to the great illusion of “security”.
For some people, music holds this sacred place, for others, medicine or gardening or cooking or religion… At the end of the day, the great scheme of things is the consequence of every individual choice.
In India, even mainstream
media is obsessed with celebrity culture, and the public, while pretending to be
snobbish about it, laps it up.
What does this say about a
society more interested in the divorce of a distant singer
called Madonna than in the
poverty it sees under its nose? Do you think “celebrification” is seen as part of a nation’s
entry into the Big League?
I am not here to judge the priorities of any given society. What I don’t understand in your question is the correlation between “celebrification” and “Big League Nations”. I don’t see how buying gossip magazines may raise the GDP of a country…
Furthermore, I don’t subscribe to the view that there are “Big League Nations” and “Minor League ones”. I grant that there are huge disparities but I think there is also an international community (despite the constant effort of the media to diminish this reality) that thinks and operates beyond this simplistic way of seeing the world. Not mentioning the string of social entrepreneurs that actively work towards a better equilibrium inside their societies.
Rio de Janeiro, like many big Indian cities, is undergoing
major change, physical and
social. Which of these disturbs you and which do you
In today’s world, disparities cross every single city (may it be in Brazil, India, the US or Europe). So in regards to the changes we see in all great cities of the world, I would say that:
• What disturbs me the most is the violence — which is the consequence of a profound rift in society: when those who are at its base are denied their intrinsic dignity.
• What I celebrate is the constant battle of the warriors of light that work without rest to shorten the disparities.
I met in the 90’s a mother and a daughter who were taking care of underprivileged children in a slum next to my house in Rio. They firmly believed that by granting these children chances they were changing the spiralling-down dynamic of poverty. I decided to join them in their fight to bring hope and change to these children and their families. The project today, called Solar Meninos da Luz, grants to more than 450 children education and many extra-curricular activities.
I think that changes start at the individual level and slowly tend to gain a social one: at my level, I’m trying to make a difference and this in my eyes, is reason enough for celebration.