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LitNet Exclusive: Paulo Coelho

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  • Paulo Coelho is regarded worldwide as one of the most influential authors of his time. His books have been translated into 56 languages and are read in 150 countries. His most famous book, The Alchemist, has sold more than 27 million copies. According to the influential monthly newsletter Publishing Trends his latest novel, Eleven Minutes, was the worldwide bestseller during 2003.

    Paulo Coelho (PC) recently agreed to give Erns Grundling (EG) a telephonic interview.

    EG: Have you ever been to South Africa?

    PC: No, never, but I know the first lady of South Africa very well, Madame Mbeki, we belong to the same board, and we’ve been speaking about South Africa, and it is really my plan to go.

    EG: It’s quite amazing, you’ve sold more than 43 million copies of your books, and we have about the same number of people here in South Africa, which means that there’s a copy for each citizen. It could transform a nation!

    PC: (laughs) And if you consider also that every copy is read by three people, then you get close to 120 million, which is the population of Brazil!

    EG: So you reckon we can sort out the Southern Hemisphere?

    PC: Yes, yes! (laughs)

    EG: In the “Dedication” of your latest novel you write: “I knew that my new novel, Eleven Minutes, dealt with a subject that was harsh, difficult, shocking.” Were you frightened about the possible reaction from your readers?

    PC: I wouldn’t say “frightened”. First of all, when a writer finishes a novel, he doesn’t know whether he explained his soul or not. But in the case of Eleven Minutes, talking about such a sensitive subject as sexuality, I was not sure that I made my case, that I could explain myself. I do not write to please, I write to express myself.

    EG: How has the reaction been from your readers, especially in their personal correspondence to you?

    PC: I was impressed, it’s the book that I have had the most outstanding feedback on, and not only from women, but from men also, which is not normal, men don’t normally go to the internet to write what they think about books, it’s easier for women to share their thoughts. It seems that the book touches a nerve; the influential newsletter Publishing Trends recently announced that Eleven Minutes is the best-selling book in the world at the moment.

    EG: Why is it that men are so afraid of women nowadays? I came across it quite often in Eleven Minutes.

    PC: I think we are afraid of each other when it comes to sex, because we read so much about sex, we talk so openly about sex, we see movies and we read books; but when we are face to face with someone else, we forget our individual patterns; that we are unique. So we try to repeat other people’s patterns, according to what we seen and what we heard. So most of us are very frustrated, because we don’t accept our individuality as far as sex is concerned.

    I think that sex is a very important and a strong force of liberation. In Veronika Decides to Die there is a scene of masturbation, and the only bad reaction that I had was from some teachers in England. They said that I was betraying their students, because they’re very fond of my books and now I write about masturbation. Then of course I asked them if they don’t masturbate themselves in England, and I’m still waiting for them to answer. Of course they do! Sex is an important issue in our life and, of course, it could not be in The Alchemist or some of my other books, because the main topic of those books was not sex.

    EG: Is there any topic that you will never write about?

    PC: Writing a book depends on your perception of the world at that very moment. I never refuse to write about something that I feel. But there is one thing that I will never write about: when I was arrested in Brazil and experienced pure hatred and torture. There are enough books on that subject — it will not add anything.

    EG: Who would you say is the greatest living author, a fellow author that you really admire and whose books you enjoy reading?

    PC: Normally ... well ... every time I read a new author’s book I either hate or love it ... (pauses)

    EG:  ... Well, let me ask which books are next to your bed at the moment ...

    PC: Right now I’m reading a book by Christina Lamb, a war correspondent in Afghanistan. She interviewed me for the Sunday Times in England, and then she sent me her book. I am really enjoying it. It’s only published in English so far, I’d like to recommend it to my publisher. The name of the book is The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan. I also have by my bedside a book by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is a French philosopher, and I always have Jorge Luis Borges by my bedside, who is a writer that I really respect.

    EG: You always write at night. Do you always get so-called writer’s block, and if so, how do you cope with it?

    PC: First of all, how I cope with it Ö you need discipline. I think that writing is a way to allow yourself to go into the mystery of your soul. For example, writing Eleven Minutes was a way to discover how I feel about sex. But I don’t write all the time. I write once every two years. So every two years I sit in front of the computer and say to myself, “Right, now it is time to put all this emotional energy into a physical plan,” which is my computer. There are times that I don’t feel like sitting in front of the computer. It’s got more to do with the psychological aspect than a lack of inspiration. Sometimes you don’t want to write because you don’t want to recognise yourself in your writing. It has nothing to do with a lack of inspiration, because inspiration is always there.

    EG: We often get a lot of young authors visiting our website. What advice would you give to an aspiring author who wants to break through into the international arena?

    PC: I always get this question asked in public and in private mails. My only answer is “Write!” They sometimes think that we have some answers. I don’t think I have. I mean, how did I get my books published? I started knocking on doors for several years. My only advice is for them to write.

    EG: In one of your books you say that if someone follows his own destiny, the whole universe will conspire to help him.

    PC: Right.

    EG: But what about those people who live in extreme poverty? What’s their destiny? Has the universe given them a cold shoulder, or are there some other solutions?

    PC: Of course then the situation is much more complicated, when one deals with politics and economics. You see now, today, there was this discussion on weapons of mass destruction, whether it’s wrong or right. But if you really strive, you will overcome. Look at me, I’m from Brazil. I never thought I had the slightest chance to be published out of Brazil, but here I am. I’m a living example that the universe conspires. And of course you need to fight for your values, and then you can also start opening doors for other people. When I first started to really earn money, one of the first things I did was to start the Institute. We have close to 430 children that we look after. So I’m trying my best to solve the problem, but I am not the government. I cannot change my country, or my state, or my city, or my neighbourhood, but I can change my street.

    EG: You have met thousands of people during your travels around the globe. Is there anybody you would really like to meet?

    PC: I don’t know if you have had the chance of reading Gurdjieff’s book Encounters with Remarkable Men. It is quite an interesting book, because when I bought it I thought it would be about important people. But these encounters are with ordinary people, like someone who fixes a piano. So every day you meet someone who is remarkable; it’s all about the treasure that each one of us carries within ourselves. So, I told you I met Madame Mbeki; I meet her every year because we serve on the same foundation. She’s a remarkable person. But everybody is a remarkable person, provided that he or she is capable of implementing his or her capability, whether it is to be a waiter or a writer.

    EG: Maybe if you come and visit South Africa you could meet former president Nelson Mandela?

    PC: Oh yes, of course. He is the one person on earth that I give recognition all over the world. I think Nelson Mandela is the most important living person in the world, because he is someone totally independent, he cares about the fate of the world, and he is one of the few people that I would love to meet who I’ve never met.

    EG: You always say that inspiration for a new book is brought about by the appearance of a white feather. Is there a white feather floating in your house at the moment? Do you have any ideas for a new novel?

    PC: When there’s a white feather I think I should shut my mouth (laughs). Because I’m in the process of writing a book and you need all the energy, you can’t talk about it. Even my wife knows that I’m writing, she sees me spending hours in front of the computer. But she doesn’t dare to ask me what I’m busy writing (laughs). So there is a white feather; I’ve written about 8 000 words, so it’s only at the very beginning now.

    EG: Do you think the world will become a better place? Will the sense of magic and mystery return to people’s lives, or are we in a bit of a downward spiral?

    PC: We are at a crossroads — I really don’t know. A few years ago I saw the rise in spirituality as something that can be good or bad, as something that can push us a thousand years ahead or a thousand years behind. People are much more anxious nowadays, especially with all the talk of weapons of mass destruction. This affects our mobility; we cannot go everywhere, which means we are deprived. By the way, my most widely read text was a letter to George W Bush that was read by 250 million people, which was quite impressive — even for me (laughs).

    EG: How would you like to be remembered one day?

    As someone who died while he was alive. I’m going to be cremated and my ashes will be spread on the Santiago pilgrim’s road. But if I had an epitaph or something written on a tombstone it would be: “He died while he was alive.” Because I see so many people who die before death arrives. They consider doing everything, they breathe, they eat, they make love ... but they’ve lost their enthusiasm towards life. So I would like to be remembered as someone who died while he was alive.

    EG: Thanks for your time, Mr Coelho, and all the best with that white feather.

    PC: Thank you (laughs).

    10 February 2004

    boontoe / to the top

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