‘I thought I’d be as famous as Ian Fleming’ Madonna adores him, his book sold 65 million. So why Paulo Coelho never recognised?
The Alchemist is
Madonna says his book changed her life. Will Smith and Julia Roberts agree. Oprah Winfrey keeps a copy by her bed. But Paulo Coelho brushes it all away with a sweep of his hand. ‘This is very moving, to see all these people trying to help me, but for the sake of sales it does nothing.’
Yet Coelho, 71, has sold 65 million copies of The Alchemist, a deceptively simple story of a shepherd boy who crosses the desert in search of treasure, only to find it back where he started.
The book is far more famous than its author, so who is this Brazilian with the white goatee and the chain-smoking habit? Event has come to his home by Lake Geneva to find out.
Is it hard to keep track of all these famous fans when you’ve sold books in 170 countries and been translated into 81 languages? ‘I was in a park the other day and I saw a lady reading my book,’ says Coelho. ‘I said, “I’m the author.” She said, “No you are not!” She could not believe that an author as famous as me could walk around like a normal person. People fantasise that I live in a castle surrounded by bodyguards.’
The woman in the park was reading The Alchemist, of course. The book was a flop when it was first published in Brazil 30 years ago, but then it was translated into English and became a huge success.
The story is shot through with magical symbolism and the message that you can have or be anything you want, as long as you want it enough and dare to act on your dream. Coelho insists his own life proves that it is true. ‘I’m not the alchemist – I’m the shepherd.’
Paulo Coelho de Souza had a troubled childhood in Rio de Janeiro, with strict Catholic parents who didn’t understand his desire to be a writer. He started law school but dropped out to do what the character of ‘Paulo’ does in his new novel Hippie: travel Europe, meet a girl in Amsterdam and get on a Magic Bus to Kathmandu. ‘I wanted to write it because of the state of the world, which has become totally polarised. Good and evil. This drives me crazy. As hippies we used to value important things like food, travelling, contacting eye to eye. There’s this giant leap backwards – borders everywhere. When we arrived with hair down to our shoulders it was so friendly. It’s not like that any more. Hippie is a philosophy: simplify your life, trust yourself as a human being, be open to connection.’
Coelho became a songwriter in the early Seventies, with great success. ‘It was like you go to a casino, you buy some chips, and all of a sudden you win a lot of money.’
But the Brazilian government saw him as a subversive, locked Coelho up and tortured him with electric shocks. After his release he worked as an actor and director while recovering and did not begin to write until taking the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 1986. That was when he realised he should pursue his dream, writing first a book called The Pilgrimage and then The Alchemist.
I assume the game-changer came when the US President Bill Clinton was photographed with a copy in 1999, but Coelho denies it. ‘I remembered that Ian Fleming had become famous because John F Kennedy liked to read James Bond and I thought, “The same thing is going to happen to me.” But it had no effect. Zero. Word of mouth is the holy grail for the writer.’
People want answers and they think Coelho has them, which is why he’s one of the most popular authors alive, having sold 225 million books worldwide. His writings say that the answers lie within us, but today he adds, ‘Even within us, we’re a mystery to ourselves.’
Madonna would be horrified, I say. But the writer, who refuses to be anybody’s guru, just laughs. ‘Hippie’ by Paulo Coelho is published by Hutchinson, £14.99 41
Madonna – The Alchemist changed her life