The author of ‘The Alchemist’ talks about embracing the feminine face of God, the pope, and where his soul goes when he dances.
Last fall, when I did a live online chat with the best-selling Brazilian author of “The Alchemist” and about 14 other novels, I was astounded by his sheer internationality. Talking to me in New York from his hotel in Milan, questions from his fans poured in from Egypt, Sweden, Spain, Iran. They wanted to know where he gets his ideas, what are his rituals, how they can search for their own inner treasure. And that is the amazing fame of Paulo Coelho—his books, translated into 65 languages, touch people everywhere, often deeply, with their seemingly simple spiritual messages. Critics tend to slough off his novels as simplistic—especially American critics—but readers don’t seem to care: He’s sold 85 million books (“The Alchemist” alone has sold 30 million copies) in more than 150 countries.
The surprisingly amiable, 59-year-old author went another round with me recently, calling from his home in Paris to chat about his latest book, “The Witch of Portobello,” why he loves to dance, his ambivalent Catholicism, and why it’s important to embrace love even if it makes us suffer.
How did you decide to write about a witch?
First, I was thinking about [elaborating] on the feminine side of God. Something that we don’t pay a lot of attention, at least in our civilization. The major religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, they deny somehow that God has a feminine face. However, if you go to the holy texts, you see there is this feminine presence. Second, I [wanted to] connect this subject with the visible reality, meaning what’s around us. Everything for me is sacred, beginning with earth, but also going to things made by man.
Finally, “The Witch of Portobello” is about people who dare to take some steps towards an unconventional spiritual path. And they are immediately labeled as witches–and well, witch is a word full of prejudices. The book is about that. A witch was a person who never complied with the established rules, and always tried to dare and to go beyond and to celebrate life, and to love and to have joy and pleasure while doing this.
In the book a character says, “All women are witches.” Do you mean that as a positive thing?
Yeah, absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. All women have a perception much more developed than men. So all women somehow, being repressed for so many millennia, they ended up by developing this sixth sense and contemplation and love. And this is something that we have a hard time to accept as part of our society. We try to see reality as just a physical thing and that it does not go beyond that. But what we have to do, women included, is to develop more this feminine side, meaning intuition, meaning being open to a new perception of reality which, in general, women are much more open to.
Why do you think many people are so threatened by the feminine face of God?
Because that demands that we accept more love as the only guidance in your life. And we don’t do that because we are afraid to suffer. We’re going to lose control. We’re going to be dragged to a path that we don’t know.
Why is love so hard for most of us to accept?
Because it implies suffering. You know that. And well, first, love is the most important emotion in life. And second, it is also the one that is wild, that can take us to heaven or hell. I’m not saying that love always takes you to heaven. Your life can become a nightmare. But that said, it is worth taking the risk.
There’s always a tension, in your books between losing the spiritual path in romantic human love. Is that how you see it?
Absolutely. Yes. Yeah. Which is not something to fear.
But it seems like your characters fear that quite a bit.
Yeah, because we as human beings, we do fear that. But at the end of the day—well, just relax and enjoy it because life’s like this.
And in this book music is a big factor. Do you dance?
I do. When I’m dancing I’m not thinking about anything. I am here. I am totally there. You know? And the feeling is a sensation of being away from myself. My soul dances with the angels and my body dances with my wife.
What kind of music do you dance to?
Well, my generation, we used to just—classic rock and roll. When you go to a nightclub you don’t hear this anymore. So, you just hear bang-bang, boom-boom, and I dance to this. I don’t know who’s singing. I don’t know who is performing. I just go there and I dance, because I think this is important to be emotionally well balanced. To lose control through a dance from time to time, at least once a week.
When you’re at home and you put on music—?
That is a totally different thing, yes. Because, for example, I cannot write and hear a song or music at the same time. Because then music is so strong that I will stop writing and start to listen to the music. So I cannot hear music like muzak, you know? Like this music that is always playing. No, no. Music for me, it demands full concentration.
In your work you often point to contradictions between the church’s rules and the Bible’s teachings. Do you have anything to say about a hypocrisy there?
I only can say about my religion and being a Catholic. I am a Catholic because I choose to be a Catholic. And then I go to the Mass because I choose. It is out of my free will. But then, when sometimes I see the human touch [in] the sacred rituals, you say, oh, my God, that’s not exactly what Jesus said. Jesus was much more open and—he was full of joy of living. Because he was the one who was always traveling, surrounded by women, drinking wine. You know, having fantastic conversations with his disciples.
In my church, now more than before, they are going against the natural flow of humankind. This new pope is a disaster, to put it plainly…. I’m not going to defend a pope that is against, for example, condoms. I’m not going to defend a pope that thinks that we still are in the medieval times and that the Catholic faith is the only one to be right. And then you ask, why do you consider to be Catholic if you don’t agree with this pope and many priests and bishops? I say because, well, my religion is more important than the men that are trying to guide it.
But the ritual of the Mass and the words of Christ—well, we’ll survive this pope. The Mass is a mystery. And for me, it is the most perfect ritual.
Across the world there’s increasing religious strife. How does that lead to a hunger for your books, which appeal to people across religious lines?
I don’t know why my books appeal because I write to understand myself. When I wrote “The Witch,” wow, I have all these thoughts, like a puzzle. So I have to put them together to understand the full picture. So when I write then I can see clearly myself.
I am very spontaneous in what I write. And I choose my subjects out of things that are provoking me. And then the books make the best-seller list. And why? Well, I don’t know. Probably the day that I learn this secret, I’m going to lose this spontaneity. I’m going to repeat it over and over again. And then I’m lost because the book will not be an instrument for self-discovery anymore. It will be just a product. And then it’ll be totally meaningless to me.
What are some of the ways that you get yourself kind of psychically and spiritually prepared to write? What are some of your rituals
The best way to get inspired to write—in my case—is by meeting people. When you meet people you learn, you hear. And sometimes you’re hearing yourself. You’re in front of a mirror. You’re seeing yourself better. I only write a book every two years. And I write a book in one month because the book is being written in my soul. And then, of course, I have to share my life as part of the human condition. Because you have to share. If you don’t share, you are lost.
And what about the white feather? It’s said that you wait to see a white feather before you write…
Oh, the white feather. Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is a tradition that I created myself. When I was 40, I still had not written any book. But my dream was to be a writer. So I did this pilgrimage. I walked for 56 days to Saint James Path [in Santiago, Spain]. And I said, “Oh, my God, my dream is to be a writer, but I’m always postponing.” And then I said to myself, “If I see a white feather today, that is a sign that God is giving to me that I have to write a new book.” And then I saw this white feather in a window of a shop. And since then, every second year, in January, I need to see a white feather. And the day that I see I start writing. Of course, I see white feathers every day, but in January it is that white feather. And I get a lot of white feathers from my readers in envelopes. But I need to find the white feather.
What are you working on next?
That sounds nice!
I’m in this period of doing nothing but living my life, or allowing it to go with the wind. My next white feather must be during January of 2008. And up until January, 2008, I’m doing—well, I’m living. I’m meeting people. I’m dancing. I’m doing whatever I feel like doing.
My last question: What is God to you?
God’s a verb. God is action. God is—is a verb, yes. You cannot define. When Moses asks who are you and He says, “I Am.” He does not say I am this or that or that. He just say, “I Am.” So, I think this is the best definition, you know? He is.
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