INTERVIEW in POSTUP (October 7, 2000)
Paulo Coelho: "I am - and I hope will always be - a pilgrim".
The following questions were set out by managing editor of "Krytyka" Mykola Ryabchuk, journalist Mariana Sawka, literary editor for "Klasyka" publishers Maria Hablevych, and the translator of "The Alchemist" into Ukrainian - Victor Morozov, who also compiled the questions.
1. "The Alchemist" is the first of your novels to be translated into the Ukrainian language, and thus, the Ukrainian reader is only beginning to discover Paulo Coelho. Could you tell our readers a few things about yourself and your novels?
I am - and I hope I will always be - a pilgrim. A writer in the ancient tradition of reading the stars and maps, hearing stories from different traditions, daring to dive deep into the unknown ocean of Spirituality, and then being able to share this with other people. My books are my way of giving back something that I received in my condition of human being - not because I am a pure soul, but because this is an urge that everybody experiences.
2. In the preamble to "The Fifth Mountain", you mention that you were ready to abandon your dream (about becoming a writer) for a prestigious job at CBS, since in Brazil (as in Ukraine nowadays) "there was no way to earn a living as a writer". Could you tell us more about this period in your life? Do you think you would have continued to write if your novels did not achieve such popularity around the world?
My dictionary does not have the word "if". As I write about spirituality, I need to be totally concentrated in the decisions that I take, not in the things that could have happen, and did not. When I first decided to pay the price of my dream - to become a writer - I already knew that my mother could be right: nobody reads in Brazil, I would never be able to succeed. But I was not paralyzed by her advice, and I fought against all odds, because I needed more enthusiasm in life. There were moments that I was overcome by anxiety, or frustration, but I was wise enough to burn all my ships before engaging in my own adventure. Therefore, there was no way back.
3. Were there any moments in your life when you experienced a significant and sudden change not so much an external change, as an internal one?
It happens every day, otherwise I will see no more meaning in life. I am not the same man as yesterday, I have different doubts, challenges, etc. I don't believe in sudden changes - when they happen, they are not solid enough to stay. I believe that we are - like in alchemy - living through a subtle inner process that we are not aware of, but it is a constant destruction and reconstruction. When confronted with a particular challenge, we put in the conscious level all the skills that we unconsciously learnt. Then, we are surprised by ourselves, and this is the significant change.
4. Which writers do you consider most influential to your work?
Jorge Luis Borges (dealing with the unknown), William Blake (dealing with visions), Jorge Amado (dealing with techniques) and Henry Miller (dealing with a direct, concise style).
5. How do you react to criticism and skepticism about your work?
Writers write, critics criticize, readers read. If you reverse the rules, nothing important can be done. On the other hand, I am convinced that the way that I write is somehow new, albeit based in a very ancient storyteller tradition, and - as always - the academic system, which still dwells in the XIX century rules, is a little bit shocked.
We live in a world that gives to the writer the possibility of opening a full range of interaction with the reader. I leave empty spaces in my text, because I consider the reader to be intelligent enough to understand what I intend to say. I write "desert", but I don't explain what a desert is, and the reader has to create his own desert. Writing is an exercise of imagination for both the reader and the author.
6. The hero of your novel "The Pilgrimage" (you, perhaps?) asks Petrus, his fellow traveler, "What does magic have to do with the Catholic Church?", to which Petrus replies: "Everything". Could you please elaborate on this concept?
No. This is an explanation by itself. By being a Catholic, I believe in miracles. By believing in miracles, my world expands beyond my own limits.
7. To what extent has "The Alchemist" changed your life and to what extent has your popularity changed your life?
The Alchemist allowed me to overcome the barrier of translations, and be published all over the world, reaching different cultures. But I was able to keep a faithful readership - because I put the best of myself in each book, and this is a significant step.
As for changing my life: the success of a writer is not visible as it is for a movie of music star, so my privacy was kept. On the other hand, as my soul traveled in front of me - under the form of books - I can go to any country in the world, find my readers, and feel like I am not a stranger in a strange land.
8. Did you write "The Alchemist" with a reader in mind, or simply for yourself?
How could I? When I wrote it, I couldn't even know whether I was going to find a publisher! I wrote this book to understand my inner journey.
9. How is "The Alchemist" different from your other novels?
Every book of mine is a different one - there are no formulas.
10. Which of the legends and parables used in "The Alchemist" are most significant to you?
The backbone of the book, based in an ancient Persian legend, written by Rumi.
11. Have you found your treasure? If so, what is it?
I finally understood that the treasure is not what you find at the end of a search, but the search itself. I keep this thought in mind today, and so far I am not paralyzed by my fears.
12. From the epigraph in "The Alchemist", as it projects onto the plot and protagonists, it seems that the young man, Santiago, is an analogue of Christ-the-Man, with his two women-loves who are actually the Woman: Maria epitomizing her earthly part, Martha, the spiritual one, and Christ being the load-star, the paragon, and the spiritual leader for both. The question is: if this triangle of relationships, with its one-sided dependence, were reversed in the aspect of sexes -- that is, if the leader were to be the Woman, and the other two 'parts', the Man, would you be able to use a similar plot? Or would you invent another one to deliver the same grand message? What, then, would the plot be like?
Very intelligent question, but all the characters came spontaneously. I cannot elaborate on a book that I did not write. As for the feminine vision, I wrote another two books, "Brida" and "By the river Piedra I sat down and wept", where I explore my feminine soul.
13. Do you feel a responsibility towards devout followers of your writings, especially those who are young and impressionable, and who might go down the wrong path having "misread the signs"?
I don't underestimate my readers. I am 53, but I hope that I am still young and impressionable. I still misread the signs, but this does not impede me to follow them - and most of the time, they are correct. On the other hand, what I am sharing with my books is my experience, not my knowledge. I do feel the responsibility of putting the best of myself in every page, but my reader is intelligent enough to read it as my way of sharing my love and my companionship. A book cannot substitute life.
14. What are your impressions of Eastern Europe? What do you know or think about Ukraine? Would you be interested in visiting sometime?
I've been in Eastern Europe several times, during the Soviet regime, and after. The changes are enormous, people accepted the challenges, and this is good. In this particular item they look like us, the Brazilians: as we live under a constant crisis, we have to exercise our creativity every day. And, at the long run, this will destroy the artificial values that American culture is trying to impose on us. As for Ukraine, not only I would like to go, but I am going, in a very near future.
15. You write in Portuguese, yet the predominant literary market is one that uses the English language. How do you deal with this? How do you manage to combine creativity with commercialization?
I don't combine. I write my books, and never get involved in the editorial process. I found a person, Monica Antunes, who shared my enthusiasm, and she decided to represent me. After "The Pilgrimage" being translated into English by a retired American who spoke Portuguese and felt in love with the book, all my titles started to walk by themselves. I have Monica to take care of this, she does not report to me about business, I do not report to her about my writings.
16. Please comment about the co-existence of the two Portuguese-language literatures one in Brazil and one in Portugal. Are they in competition with each other, or do they peacefully co-exist? Which is the "center"? Which carries more prestige?
It is the same language. There is not this kind of competition. We have excellent writers, but Angola, Cabo Verde, Mozambique, East Timor, also have. We cannot keep the Portuguese literatures on the Brazil/Portugal axis.
17. Do you have any ambitions to win the Nobel Prize and what is your opinion of such prizes?
The most important prize to a writer is to have readers. After that, everything is important. If you have prizes, and are worshiped among your peers at the literary circles, but you failed in connecting with another human being through your words, than you did not fulfill your personal legend.