I WAS not at all sure about going to interview Paulo Coelho. It’s not that I am not fascinated by Brazil’s rock-star writer, who has sold more than 150 million books and whose fans range from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Madonna. It’s just that the previous time I went to interview him, a few days after coming back from the war in Iraq in 2003, he ended up using me as the inspiration for a novel about a female war correspondent.
Then I looked at his new book: Adultery is about a middle-aged female journalist who enters into a destructive affair with a politician she interviews. Being the inspiration for that would be hard to explain to my husband.
Coelho laughs heartily, grabs my tape recorder and speaks into it. “Christina Lamb, who was the muse for my book The Zahir, is not the muse for Adultery,” he says. Fascinated by world affairs, Coelho devours news. As his wife brings us coffee, he quizzes me about Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
All this death and destruction seems very far from peaceful Geneva, where the Coelhos live in a two-storey penthouse in a large apartment building, all white walls with colourful paintings by his wife. We sit at a table on the upper floor, surrounded by big windows looking out on to trees and mountains and a terrace with a target where he practises archery.
He will be 67 next week and is dressed in his uniform of black T-shirt and black jeans, a strange rat’s tail of white hair protruding from the back of his head. His phone is nearby in case his dentist calls — even the most spiritual of writers get tooth infections. Eventually I point out that I will have to ask him some questions and he points out that he doesn’t need to give interviews — he has nearly 22 million likes on his main Facebook page and nine million Twitter followers. Even though his new book will launch in 30 countries next week, he is giving no interviews besides this one and another to an American paper.
“Publishers still don’t understand — they say to promote a book you need to travel and give interviews,” he says. “I say, ‘No, it’s a waste of time. What promotes a book is word of mouth.’ ”
He also stopped book signings because there were too many people. Were it not for the money rolling in, publishers would surely hate him. He pirates his own books through a website called Pirate Coelho, which he insists has led to more sales.
He spends far more time on social media than he does writing, posting “random videos” in which he pontificates on subjects such as the “exchange of energy” as well as messages that are seen by some as inspiration and by others as banal: for example, “The extraordinary lies in the path of ordinary people.”
“This is the future of literature,” he enthuses. “I am positive in 20 years from now people will write very short pieces like the Greeks when they used to write about philosophy.
“Attention spans are being reduced and I have to adapt if I am going to continue to be read.”
The idea for Adultery came from his followers. “The origin of this book is the Kinsey report — you remember that?” he asks. When I crumple my forehead, he laughs. “No, you think about war, not sex!” Also, my mother was still a child in 1948 when Alfred Kinsey lifted the lid on American sexual behaviour in a vast study.
“When his book was released, Americans felt this great relief — I’m not the only one to make love in this way,” says Coelho. “So I thought that now I have more than 30 million people on social communities I can do the same as Kinsey did for sex on something I consider relevant.”
He chose depression and put up a post on his site. The next day he had more than 1100 replies. “I noticed that out of these 1100 responses, 100 were discussing depression and the others were all about being betrayed. So I realised the problem is not depression; it’s adultery.”
He started going on internet forums. “I saw that many people get such an emotional reaction to someone they meet, even if it’s just a one-night stand, that they sacrifice everything, get divorced and then regret it.”
Has he been adulterous, I ask, feeling a bit awkward as his wife is just downstairs. “Of course,” he replies. “At the beginning she had two or three affairs, I guess. I had … but we never considered divorce. We were open; still are. I didn’t see the point of hiding because she knew I loved her and I knew she loved me.” Indeed he has been with his fourth wife, Christina, for 35 years. “Humans are not naturally monogamous but we adapt,” he says.
He shows me what he calls his “cell” — the downstairs room where he writes. There is a large computer on the desk and on the wall above it a map of Switzerland, an icon of the Virgin Mary and a clock. No music — “It’s too powerful, it will drive my attention away.” And no books: “I gave them all away to libraries and bought them in electronic form.”
He claims he writes books only after seeing a white feather. Astonishingly he says it took him just two or three weeks to write his latest. His assistants are instructed to refuse all invitations and almost all interview requests. He shows me his calendar for the month: “Look, nothing, nothing, nothing!” he says proudly.
Coelho’s own life is the stuff of fiction. He shows me a trailer for a Brazilian biopic that will go on general release that week. Though he was not involved, he says he is nervous of public reaction.
He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, and his father was an engineer who wanted him to follow in his footsteps or become a lawyer. But from a young age he longed to be a writer. So alarmed were his parents that when he was 17 they sent him to a mental asylum. “Not just once but three times,” he says. “They thought I was psychotic. Like now, I read a lot and I didn’t socialise.”
Doesn’t he feel angry with his parents? “Not then, not now,” he replies. “Then I understood it as a test of my willpower; now I understand it as a manifestation of love — they were trying to protect me.”
After he was freed he became a hippie. A chance meeting with Brazilian rock star Raul Seixas led to him writing lyrics. He was so successful that by the age of 25 he owned five flats. There was just one problem: Brazil’s military regime saw the songs as subversive. Coelho was arrested and tortured.
What kept him going, he says, was his belief he would be a writer. It took a long time. His turning point was a 800km pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain in 1986. “At the end I thought either I forget my dream or write a book.”
He wrote The Pilgrimage and then The Alchemist, which has sold more than 65 million copies. The first publisher printed just 900 copies and sold so few that he gave Coelho back the rights.
Gradually by word of mouth the book started selling. I notice he tweets every week that it is still on The New York Times bestseller list: 315 weeks this week. Does he still get a kick out of the numbers, I ask. “Absolutely!” he replies. “I check every week.”
Fans of the book include Bill Clinton, Julia Roberts and Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl shot by the Taliban, who had it on her bookshelf in the remote valley of Swat in Pakistan. What is it that touches so many people? “I have no answer,” he replies. “The day I have, I would try to repeat the formula, and that’s dangerous.”
He is delighted to have avoided a film of The Alchemist. “Warner has the rights,” he says. “But I think a movie kills a book. It can make a book sell for the next four weeks but no more. If I see a movie based on a book I am not going to read the book.”
He is in the happy position of not needing the money. He must be super rich, I say. “Of course!” he laughs. I wonder what he does with it. He has no children and seems to live simply — his watch is a Swatch and his only jewellery a silver serpent ring.
“I made a list of things I really enjoy,” he says. “The first is walking, which I do every day, but that’s free. Then archery, which I like because I can’t sit down and meditate and say ‘Om’ — I am not that type of person. Then the internet — I have broadband but that’s not expensive. Me and my wife don’t spend much money.”
What he doesn’t have is the respect of critics. For all his sales, his books are derided as cod philosophy full of platitudes such as “Everyone has a dark side”. He professes not to care. “I don’t take the critics seriously,” he insists. “They can say whatever they want — it’s part of the game. If I didn’t have such heavy criticism I probably wouldn’t be who I am.”
But clearly he yearns for critical acclaim, telling me that his dream is to win the Nobel. “Every single writer in the world wants the Nobel prize,” he says. “If I have one ambition, that’s it.”
As I leave, I walk through the neat Swiss streets, recognising locations of adulterous assignations in his book. Then I see he has added a posting to his Facebook page. It says: “The difficult times make us discover we are more capable than what we thought.” I don’t know if he is referring to the interview or the tooth.
– Christina Lamb
Interview with Paulo Coleho published in the Sunday Times two weeks ago.