This 2003 interview was done in the backdrop of Paulo Coelho becoming a global phenomenon. His novel, Eleven Minutes, based on the life of a sex worker was just published. Coelho, for the first time, took a strong political stand by writing an open letter to US President George Bush against the Iraq Invasion. Some questions reflect certain aspects of my personal journey at that time; including my explorations on god-as-woman, liberation theology, questions on taking an apolitical stance to life, and the suicide of a couple of friends.
Dear Paulo, this is your first interview with an Indian newspaper. You are also a best selling author in India. Please share your encounters with the Indian mind?
Dear Aby Tharakan, thank you very much for allowing me to talk to your readers. India is the richest source of inspiration that the world have, and I drank a lot from this source. But the Universe has a symbolic alphabet that can be read by anyone who dares to believe in omens.
Could you recall from your life where you felt the feminine face of God?
It was in 1992, when I was sitting inside of a grotto, in Lourdes. Since then, I try to accept my feminine side. When I write, I am a woman. I got pregnant from life, and I don’t know how the baby looks like. My pregnancy cycle lasts for two years, and 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 time comes, I sit and write. Every creative act demands a respect for mystery, and I respect the mystery, without trying to understand it.
What do you feel when readers hug you and confess in public how the book had changed their lives? Do you think there is something magical in you that can transform Paulo Coelho into a cult leader?
First and foremost, I am a writer – and a writer is always facing the challenge of a new book. This is, for me, what makes life interesting: there is always a new book to be written, which involves pain, joy, suffering, relief, feelings of a person who is alive. I don’t think why this or that happened, and I became a worldwide celebrity. I think: “Am I honest in which I am doing? Can I still talk to my soul?
The secret of the success of my books, if there is one; it is the absence of secrets. By writing Veronica, I thought about the fear we have of accepting our differences; it is a book that I wrote to my soul alone.
When I wrote “The Alchemist”, I was trying to understand my own life, and the only way that I could do it was through a metaphor. Then, the book – with no support of the press, because the media normally refuses to publish anything about an unknown writer – made its way to the readers, and the readers start to discover that we share the same questions. Little by little, the book started to travel abroad, and today is one of the best seller books of all times. But this success came slowly, based on a word-of-mouth promotion, and this gives me the sensation, the wonderful sensation that I am not alone.
You have mentioned that there is a tendency in humanity, people are becoming more spiritual, and there is a revival of forgotten traditions. At the same time, America has been using spiritual rhetoric to justify the Iraq invasion. Bush preaches like a pastor. How do you see this phenomenon? Meanwhile ‘Political Paulo’ has expressed himself through your open letter to President Bush. But even though people are becoming more spiritual, the gulf between the rich and the power is widening. How do you read this?
I don’t read, I act. I cannot change my country, or my state, or my city, or my neighborhood, but I can change my street. Start with what you can do, forget the big picture – it paralyzes you. For a writer, to be famous is very abstract, because he does not have a direct contact with the readers. Therefore, the only visible change is that I know that several doors are open, and I have to choose the good ones. For example, I choose to participate on the Rainbow Project, supporting young people whose countries are at war, as I choose to engage myself into a UNESCO program that tries to create a bridge between different cultures. And that’s why I also created the Paulo Coelho Institute, which takes care of 450 children in Rio de Janeiro. If you understand Saint Paul’s motto “sic transit Gloria mundi” (the glory of the world is transitory) you may do your best to use the success as a tool, not as an end itself. As for money, I have what I need to live a comfortable life, and this is the fruit of my work, which I am very proud of.
Your letter to President Bush has a deep sense of protest and pessimism, at the same time, Paulo the novelist is a positive inspiration to millions. Is there hope for the World?
Of course there is. Aren’t you alive? You are the world. I am the world. The world is us, not an abstract entity. If we do our deeds with generosity and responsibility, there is hope.
In an Interview with Juan Arias of El País you confessed that, “Happiness to me is very abstract, To tell you the truth, I am never happy”.
The fact that I don’t search for happiness, does not mean that unhappiness is the choice. The right choice is “joy”. Challenges, defeats, victories, excitement, never being bored by this peaceful Sunday afternoon “happiness”.
You are from the land of Liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff, Cladovis Boff and Frei Betto; from a place where the Church has affirmed its “preferential option for the poor”. As a best-selling author how far has consumerism affected you. You have to go through a corporate capitalist structure.
As Buddha said, first you have to have, then you can renounce everything. It is easy to make a chastity vow if you are impotent. Easier to make a poverty vow if you are incapable of earning money with your choice, your dream. I could buy a castle, but I bought a watermill, not because I feel guilty – I work hard – but because a watermill is close to my way of seeing life, and easier to maintain. As for my work, no publisher dares to ask me anything – I don’t see the point of “corporate capitalist structure”.
In The Alchemist you have said that you have to pay a price for the perusal of ones dream. What’s the price you paid in the journey with your dream?
A very high one. But I am glad that I paid this price for my dream, instead of paying the price of living someone else’s dreams.
You have been into an asylum twice. People like Michael Foucault have written about the power discourses that create madness. How do you see you days in the asylum?
I cannot summarize that. I wrote a whole book on my experience, “Veronica Decides to Die”. But one thing I can say: it was not a traumatic experience, to begin with. It was in my path, I had to see it as something that I must overcome, not as something I was victimized by.
If you meet a person who has a deep sense of worthlessness, who is broken, and has decided to end her life, what would you tell her?
I do believe that a person has a personal legend to fulfill. What is a personal legend? It is the reason why we are alive. We have dreams, that are not necessarily the dreams that our parents or society has for us. So, we must get rid of the idea of fulfilling what people expect us to do, and start to do what we expect from our lives.
The message in Veronica 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.