Arts & Culture

Q & A with Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho’s novels have sold 100 million copies in 67 languages in 150 countries. In books such as The Alchemist, Coelho’s narrative engagement with questions of faith, spirituality, and identity have inspired millions. He also sits on the board of … Read More

By / March 25, 2008

Paulo Coelho’s novels have sold 100 million copies in 67 languages in 150 countries. In books such as The Alchemist, Coelho’s narrative engagement with questions of faith, spirituality, and identity have inspired millions. He also sits on the board of the Shimon Peres Institute for Peace.

In this interview, Jewcy contributor Khatchig Mouradian submitted six questions to Coelho: two from Khatchig himself, three from Jewcy’s Joey Kurtzman, and one from Maro Krikorian, a Jewcy reader and Coelho devotee from Beirut, Lebanon.

Joey Kurtzman—In the Jewish community, we have a serious problem with our religion: the large majority of young Jews do not find the religion to be spiritually insightful or appealing. Your novels are profoundly spiritual, and some Catholics have criticized you for taking unacceptable liberties with the tradition. Why do you think mainstream traditions are failing to meet the spiritual needs of modern life, and what would you recommend young ethnic Jews should do about it?

Paulo Coelho—In my opinion, the Jewish community faces the same problem Christianity faces. As a Catholic, I totally disagree with the Pope on several issues, both political and social. Benedict XVI said that “Catholicism is the ultimate truth.” Can I accept that? Of course not. He condemned the use of preservatives. Shall I follow his orders on that issue, because he is the spiritual leader of my church? No.

I think that traditional religions face this backlash because they overlook the necessity of personal faith. To follow rituals is extremely important for the cult, but religious leaders should understand our individual faith, our need for actions that truly stir the souls of the men and women. Because these institutions have been ineffective in doing this, we have been seeing a gradual disinterest in all segments of society.

I always say that religion and faith have to be thought of separately—mainly because faith is sometimes at odds with the cult. You can find this difference in other realms, including politics. We all know that laws are different from rights. We all know that certain laws may be unjust and that we have the right to oppose them if we think they are unfounded. The same goes for religion: individuals don’t accept rules that are no longer tied to their personal lives and questionings. People need meaning and only life and faith can supply this, not merely rules.

Joey Kurtzman—Along the same lines, as we try to remake our faith so that it can serve some purpose for us, how careful should we be about violating the "authenticity" of the tradition?

Paulo Coelho—First you need to be clear about the “authenticity” of tradition. In my eyes, personal faith is the beating heart of this authenticity. This is the living fabric of all religions.

True, traditions have survived many centuries and certain rituals are long-lasting. But one should not be too quick to oppose changes to the tradition. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have known changes throughout their history. Certain changes were dictated by practical reasons and others by prophets. Traditions weren’t violated but enriched and perfected. We should keep this process in mind whenever we start to question if traditions are truly being violated.

Khatchig Mouradian—In conversations with your readers, I often hear comments like, "Paulo Coelho changed my life" or "Paulo's novels have had a profound influence on me." What are your thoughts about the influence you have on your readers and what is the influence your readers have on you?

Paulo Coelho—I can’t explain why people feel the way they do after reading my books. It’s personal to them. What I can say is that all my characters are mirrors of my own soul. I’m constantly trying to understand my place in the world and I have found that literature is the best way to see myself.

I don't have a ready-made formula to apply when I embark on a new book, but my guiding principles are discipline, compassion and a sincere eagerness to understand myself.

It’s a lonely process but thanks to the internet I’ve been able to open up more and more of my experiences and thoughts to my readers.

I decided to publish ¼ of my book in my blog so that I could get to better know my readers (I have a Hebrew page, as well). I wanted them to make up their own mind about the book but also to interact with each other. This experience with them is priceless. I’ve also invited readers from my blog to a party I gave in Spain: I got to know readers to whom I’d been talking for years. I’m doing the same thing this year with another 15 readers.

Why do I do this? Because it’s pure magic. A powerful moment, when I look into the eyes of the reader, and I can see how he or she experienced my novel.

A writer is always lonely. But in that moment—which doesn't happen very often—when you see yourself in a reader’s eyes, something magical happens. Thoughts vibrate, thoughts transfer. The internet is a new way of connecting to one another.

Khatchig Mouradian—In The Alchemist, you write: “When you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Can the motivation of ordinary people really change the world?

Paulo Coelho—Some people don’t want the things they claim to want, or want things that won’t truly help them. The Universe is merely an echo of our desires, may they be constructive or destructive ones.

There is a difference between dream and obsession—the same difference that lies between a Personal Legend and a Zahir. When you follow your personal legend, you walk your path and learn from it. Your objective doesn’t blind you to the road that takes you there. On the other hand, obsession is what prevents you from admiring the teachings of life. It’s like trying to get to your objective without overcoming the obstacles.

I think that individual change is the very motor of evolution in this world. Governments and their institutions have their own inertia, which explains why some communities are left behind and their voices left unheard. These are the scenarios where ordinary people take the lead. They can, since they are individuals or small structures, adapt themselves and find new solutions.

Recently I read about Dina Abdel Wahab, who founded in Egypt the “Baby Academy” for Children with Down syndrome. She says the following about ordinary people’s role in society: “It is easier for me as an individual to take the risk and do something, than for the government to do that on a mass scale.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

Yet the actions of these people shouldn’t pass unnoticed by governments. On the contrary, governments should create a favorable environment for businesses that have social awareness in their top agenda—which can be reached through fiscal initiatives, grants, etc…

Joey Kurtzman—You are on the board of the Shimon Peres Institute for Peace. I love Israel, but I also recognize that it's easy for the dominant party to support "peace." How can we ensure that calls for "peace" in the Jewish community are not used as a means of invalidating the needs of the Palestinians?

Paulo Coelho—As Indira Gandhi once said: "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." We can all detect (Jews, Palestinians, as well as the international community) when a call for peace is simply a bluff.

The best insurance then is a call for peace that both parties will lose something, but at the end everybody will win. A deal is a deal. It may not be the better deal, the win-win situation, but nevertheless it is a deal, and must be pursued. At this very moment, the only winners are radicals on both sides, and this is not the ideal scenario.

Maro Krikorian—Tell us about one dream in your life that you would like to achieve?

My personal legend has always been to become a writer. I’m glad I can say that I’m fulfilling my dream. But this must not the interpreted as “the end of the line”—on the contrary—I have to commit everyday in order to stay in this path that I’ve chosen. One is constantly challenged—even by success. As for a dream that I still did not fulfill: to lock myself in a monastery for 3 months—with no Internet access.