Paulo Coelho: You Ask The Questions

(Such as: how does it feel to know that your words have had such a profound effect on people's lives? And do you take your own advice?)
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The Independent Online

Paulo Coelho, 56, is one of the world's best-selling living writers. Born in Rio de Janeiro, he attended law school there but abandoned his studies in 1970 to travel the world. After a brief period of imprisonment in 1974 for alleged subversive activities against the Brazilian government, he worked for five years for the record companies Polygram and CBS. His novels, including The Alchemist, Veronika Decides to Die and The Devil and Miss Prym, have sold more than 43 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 56 languages. He lives with his wife Christina in Rio de Janeiro.

The Alchemist has been described as a book that can change the reader's life. What has changed your life?
Jim Hathaway, Norwich

More than anything else, my life was changed by my pilgrimage to the Spanish town Santiago de Compostela in 1986. It was at the end of this journey that I decided to pay the price of my dream: to become a writer.

What inspired you to write The Alchemist? And did you ever imagine it would have such a huge impact?
Cara Lowsley, by e-mail

The book was inspired by a classic tale by the Iranian poet, Rumi - I used it as the backbone for my book. The Alchemist is a book that I wrote to my soul alone. When I wrote it, I was trying to understand my own life. Then, the book - with no support from the press, because the media normally refuses to publish anything about an unknown writer - made its way to the readers and the readers started to discover that they shared the same questions as me.

Little by little, the book started to travel abroad. But its success came slowly, based on word-of-mouth promotion, and this gives me the sensation, the wonderful sensation, that I am not alone.

What do you remember about the time you spent in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager? Do you feel that it harmed you?
Clare Sankey, Southampton

Even after going through some very difficult experiences in my life, such as being in a lunatic asylum, or being arrested by the right-wing military that ruled Brazil, I never saw myself as a victim, but as someone who was living the adventure of being alive.

What is your favourite fairy tale?
Harriet Stuart, Edinburgh

It is a Brazilian one, about a ghost with one leg who appears only when we are on the verge of falling asleep.

What effect does being Brazilian have on your writing?
Sharon Parr, London

The main characteristic of Brazilian people is that we have destroyed the wall that separates emotions from facts. We are in a constant crisis, but this helps us to rethink our lives, and in the end we will be more prepared to face the challenges of the future, because we are facing the challenges of the present.

A reviewer on described The Alchemist as "an almost childish, over-extended pop psychology session". How do you react to that?
Em Warn, Great Yarmouth

I write books. Reviewers write reviews.

At a fictional dinner party, who would be your ideal guests (alive or dead)?
Jackie Stickland, by e-mail

I would invite Nelson Mandela, Madonna, John Lennon, Elton John, Oscar Wilde and Laurence Fishburne.

How does it feel to know that your words have had such a profound effect on so many people's lives?
Tom Elford, Brighton

For a writer, this is a very abstract thought. At the moment, I am in the French countryside in a village of 200 people. But when I see someone reading my books, I feel that I am not alone, that we share the same questions and challenges.

You were highly critical recently of the US and UK invasion of Iraq. Do you worry that any such political stance may alienate a proportion of your readers?
Niall Gallagher, London

You must stand up for things that you consider to be right, even if you have to pay a price.

How powerful is the world that a story creates for the reader?
Monica Fall, Woking

I do believe that everyone has a personal legend to fulfil. 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 doing what we expect from our lives.

Many writers help me in understanding the following: you are unique and you have to accept yourself as you are, instead of trying to repeat other people's destinies or patterns. The definition of insanity is to behave like someone 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.

Since The Alchemist is supposed to restore the reader's faith in life and love, have you considered writing a self-help book based on The Alchemist and making a mint?
Mike Anderson, Chichester

The Alchemist was not supposed to restore faith, but to make me understand my own journey.

One of your books, Veronika Decides to Die, tells the story of a young woman's attempted suicide. Have you ever decided to die? And do you believe in life after death?
Patrick Falzon, York

The day I was born, like everybody else, I understood that I am going to die. Therefore, why speed up the moment? And yes, I do believe in life after death.

How do the demands of being a modern writer work alongside the ancient truths that you seem to follow?
Owen Fitkin, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Solomon said, three thousand years ago: "There is nothing new under the sun." A writer tries to translate to his/her generation the same questions that we have had since the dawn of humankind. I do believe that questions are much more interesting than answers. Instead of truths, I try to find interesting questions to provoke me.

Where do you find the sources for your stories?
Kira Smith, Birmingham

In my daily life.

Has your life always been as neat a morality tale as your stories?
Ben Renton, Reading

I am not the politically correct type. I make my mistakes, and the same goes for the characters in my books.

Who is your favourite British author?
Liz Owen, Leicester


In The Alchemist you advise readers to "follow their heart". Do you take your own advice?
Greg Everett, by e-mail

Let me clarify something: I don't give advice. The Alchemist suggests that the shepherd boy should follow his heart. Having said that, I do follow my intuition. Sometimes I get hurt, but then the wounds heal, the heart continues to beat and that is what makes life interesting.

Paulo Coelho's new novel, 'Eleven Minutes', is published by HarperCollins in hardback at £14.99. 'The Alchemist' is out now in paperback at £7.99