Warrior of Light
New Idea – national weekly magazine
An interview with inspirational writer Paulo Coelho, author of the spiritual classic The Alchemist, and the new book Eleven Minutes – which outsold even Harry Potter.
The person who has inspired me more than anyone else is a Brazilian author whose fables of following your dreams, living every moment and being the best person you can be have touched the hearts of people from all countries and cultures.
Paulo Coelho is one of the bestselling writers ever – his beautiful book The Alchemist alone has sold almost 30 million copies and been translated into 56 languages. His latest, Eleven Minutes, outsold Harry Potter to be last year’s biggest selling book worldwide.
Yet he is a down to earth and humble man who says he does not have any answers, he is merely searching like anyone else.
‘I write to understand myself,’ he says. ‘I write so that I am not alone. Writing itself is a very solitary occupation, but by sharing what is in my soul I connect with so many people from all over the world. And to know they understand me means I am not alone.’
Eleven Minutes is a thought provoking story of love and sex – the darkness and light in each, the coming together of the two versus the separation. In the journey of his character Maria from innocent country girl to city prostitute he symbolises the common struggle to find the spiritual nature of sex, and her discovery of unconditional love despite or through her new profession is uplifting and universal.
‘I am Brazilian. The sacred and the profane co-exist for us. We don’t separate them. But sex is about understanding the sacredness of life, and I needed to share my vision of that,’ he says in perfect English with a melodic Latin American accent.
‘It was a hard book to write because I didn’t know how people would respond to it, because it is a confronting subject, but it was a book I have wanted to write for a long time. And it is my fastest-selling book, which is a surprise, since the subject is so sensitive. I feel joy that people have wanted to read it and have understood what I was trying to get across.’
In today’s society spiritual leaders are held up to be ‘pure’, and followers are disappointed if they display human needs or desires. Many people believe that you cannot be both spiritual and sexual.
‘Yes,’ Paulo laughs. ‘And they believe you cannot be spiritual if you eat red meat. If you have money, make love, feel joy. But the first miracle Jesus performed was to turn water into wine. He didn’t turn wine into water. He wanted people to live, to enjoy life, to love.
‘And he took suffering away. So many people think you have to suffer to find God, but that is not what he taught. All people remember of him are the last three days of his life, where he suffered. But the rest of his life was filled with joy. He travelled, he ate and drank, he found pleasure in life.’
Paulo has suffered in his life, but through his writing, through travelling, through the love of his wife Christina and through his connection with the divine he has found a way to transform it, to find hope in the darkness and a reason for most things.
When he was young his parents put him in a mental institution because he wanted to be a writer instead of following their plan for his life, which he later wrote about in Veronika Decides To Die, a book about the freedom in madness and humankind’s overwhelming desire to live against all odds.
Later he became a journalist and songwriter and was jailed and tortured by Brazil’s then-government for his ‘subversive’ writing. ‘I learnt nothing from it, only the experience of hatred,’ he says. But in The Devil and Miss Prym he explores good vs evil, the nature of man and the angel and devil within each person.
He has seen the very darkest of human nature, yet he continues to believe in goodness. That every moment we can choose to be better, to refuse to be victims and take responsibility for our own lives – that we can create a world where our dreams come true. He knows there are dark places within everyone’s soul, secret feelings of vengeance, guilt, despair. He acknowledges these shadows while inspiring people with their ability to transform the darkness into light.
His books tackle the most weighty philosophical matters – morality, humanity, spirituality – yet he writes them in a simple way, using everyday people who find within themselves the strength to do extraordinary things, the power to achieve their dreams and look within. In The Alchemist a young boy goes off in search of treasure – and finally finds it within himself.
Paulo believes in magic. That miracles happen. That everything is possible. And reading his books helps people see the magic within all things too. His power is in capturing the essence of what matters in life, of reminding us of the basic truths of existence, regardless of language, religion or culture.
‘There are no universal truths,’ he says, when I ask what it is about his books that touches so many people from so many different countries.
‘But there is a soul of the world. I’m not trying to explain the universe. I believe life is a mystery, and it is better to try to fill our lives with meaningful things than to understand it.
‘I use symbolic language because then you talk to your own soul, and other people’s souls too. In this way you can read it at different levels at different times and it will touch another part of your soul. Everyone can understand this universal language, because it is something very primeval in our soul. There is a part of everyone – whatever their cultural background – that connects with symbols.
‘If there is a message in my books it is that if you want something you have to fight for it – and then the whole universe will help you. And provided that you believe in what you are doing, you will succeed. That you have to take risks. Regardless of what happens in our lives, if we persevere, we will survive and fulfil our destiny.’
When The Alchemist was first published in Brazil it sold 900 copies. He could have given up, but he followed his own wisdom, risked everything, persevered – and it is now one of the bestselling books of all time, and about to be made into a movie by The Matrix star Laurence Fishburne. He’s not overjoyed at this prospect, but he sold the film rights at the beginning of his career, back when he couldn’t imagine people reading his books, let alone wanting to turn them into a Hollywood blockbuster.
‘I’ve read Laurence’s script, and it’s good – but what will make it to the screen, who knows? But I will buy a ticket at the cinema and then I will know if I love it or hate it,’ he shrugs.
Many of Paulo’s central characters are women, and he has a special talent for writing from their point of view, of capturing the intricacies of emotion that few men can.
‘I write to find myself, and from women one learns love in all its forms, and so I write through them. With my book Brida I needed to find my feminine side, because it is the side that loves. That book was me walking the feminine path, exploring the archetypes of the virgin, the saint, the martyr, the witch.
‘In The Pilgrimage I walked the masculine path. From men one learns discipline. There is the way of the warrior and the way of the wise man. Some people find their connection with God through meditation, but I know I grow spiritually from the way of the warrior, through action. Even when I’m not travelling, I’m doing archery, I’m gardening, I’m walking. But this is just my way, it’s different for everyone.’
His way of writing is different too. He lives every moment of his life with passion, with adventure, with magic. His days are full of symbolism and ritual. Having rediscovered his Catholic faith – while seeing that all religious paths lead to God – he goes to mass regularly and stops what he is doing at 6pm and 11pm to pray for a few moments.
And he won’t start a new book until he has found a white feather – his sign to start writing. Now, at his other home in the French mountains, he has found a white feather.
‘Now I’m just waiting,’ he laughs. ‘But soon my soul will start telling me what I need to share. All that really matters is knowing that I can share my soul with those who understand me.’
Visit Paulo Coelho’s excellent website here.