Paulo Coelho* is a novelist — one with a new book, The Spy, a fictionalized retelling of the life of the doomed WWI era dancer and alleged spy Mata Hari, out November 22 — but to call him that is sort of missing the point. The 69-year-old Brazilian is one of those allegorically inclined authors, like Herman Hesse or Richard Bach, whom people read looking for answers to big questions as much as for style or story or character. Critics generally don’t like this stuff — it’s maybe a little squishy, a little on-the-nose. Readers eat it up: Coelho’s books have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million copies. His most famous novel, The Alchemist, is among the best-selling novels ever.
As any halfway sane person would, Coelho tends to bat away suggestions that he functions as anything more than a standard-issue novelist to his readers, or that he’s engaged in any grand self-help project. But alas, given that we were speaking over the phone shortly after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America, it only seemed natural to talk about how to get along in the world — and which heart medications to avoid.
I know that people often come to you and your work looking for answers. And I know that you always say that’s not what you’re here for. But: what now?
I know, I know, I know. But the election result was not totally unexpected, no? It’s very complicated for me to give any opinion about another country’s politics. When people do the same about Brazilian politics I’m not very happy. The thing to digest and understand, America, is that when something like this happens it’s a moment to change the culture of the times. I’m not saying that in support of Trump; I’m saying that we know the script so well. He is a black swan, and the thing about black swans is that they do appear.
I’ve seen people arguing that a Trump presidency presents new possibilities for artists, and that they should take it as a call to arms. Is that how you felt when you lived under an oppressive government in Brazil in the ’60s and ’70s?
I always kept on working. That is the only thing I did. I could’ve sat down and cried and complained that the world wasn’t fair, but no, I kept working. If there’s a lesson for you, it’s this: Don’t stop. Shall we begin the real interview now?
We’re in it, Paulo.
[Laughs] Ah, okay. Then let’s continue; let’s go!
I’m curious about why you resist people calling you a guru or self-help writer. You seem pretty comfortable giving advice, and on your book jackets and in your promotional materials, you’re clearly encouraging readers to identify your work with your life — you’re not an opaque presence. It even says on the back flap of The Spy hardcover that “Paulo Coelho’s life remains the primary source of inspiration for his books.” So what’s the resistance? “Guru” just means teacher.
I’m not a teacher either. At the moment that I’m talking to you, I’m in my apartment in Geneva, Switzerland, looking at some bamboo. And many times I’ve sat here in a communion with the bamboo. But the bamboo is not my teacher. I cannot teach anything. I can just share experiences. My work is to awaken a feeling inside, to be a catalyst. It’s a provocation. That’s it.
I’ve seen you say that before, too — that you primarily consider yourself a “provocative” writer. Can you explain that? I feel like a lot of the messages of your books — about following your destiny, and being the person you really want to be — are actually more reassuring than provocative. What reader doesn’t, on some level, think they have a greater destiny yet to be fulfilled?
But this is very provocative! When you talk about personal freedom, you are telling people to leave their comfort zone. Don’t stay there, or at the end of your life, you’re going to say, “My god, I spent all most time here sitting and doing nothing which truly mattered.” That’s what I mean by provocative in this context. I mean that I’m not writing self-help books, which seems to be something that people think. But who am I to help anyone? I only write for myself.
Well, this is interesting. One of the main critiques of your work, which also often doubles as an explanation of your success, is that it’s simple. There are lines in The Spy like “When we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost.” And The Alchemist is famously full of those kinds of sentences. I realize you’re only writing for yourself, but how do you, as the writer, know if you’re writing useful aphorisms or hollow clichés? How do you tell the difference?
You can never tell. At the end of the day, having sold more than 200 million books — and that means having reached close to 600 million readers, because every book is read on average by three people — I cannot write with all these people looking over my shoulders. The pressure would be impossible. So I just have to decide, is this sentence moving me? Is it touching me? Is it explaining what I want to talk about? It’s my heart that tells me what’s shallow or what’s deep.
Just to go back to idea of provocation again, and I don’t intend this as a criticism of your ideas, but isn’t a truly provocative book one that causes individual readers to test their thinking and feeling in such a way that they might not be comfortable with the results? Your books clearly have value for a lot of people, but I see them as far more comforting than provocative.
I understand what you’re saying, so let me try to elaborate. For example: Was Mata Hari provocative? Yes. Was she shallow? I don’t think so. She was a classic example of a woman in a world controlled by men who was trying to show that there is a different and not politically correct attitude toward life that one could live by.
I’m not sure I follow.
People may read my books and instead of feeling happy, feel frustrated because they know that there, beyond the horizon, is another continent for them. But people are stuck and can’t get there. So to be provocative is to say, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” As you probably know, I myself have been to a mental institution three times. I’ve been to jail. But I kept on walking and working because I knew what I wanted from life. So being provocative is about unveiling dreams. Then it’s up to you to decide whether you are going to move toward them or whether you’re just going to think about it.
Who do you see as being your peers?
I tend to see myself in writers like Baudelaire, people who decided to experience first and write later. But to be honest, David, today I live like a hermit. I live with my life and nobody comes to see me anymore. I did all these crazy things in my life with sex and drugs and spiritual experiences, and now it’s time to do the craziest thing of all and be isolated from the rest of the world.
Now that you’re isolated, do you still have metaphysical experiences?
Every day. The fact is, if you sit down and you listen to the silence, if you allow yourself not to be yourself but to be with this world as it is, this is a very powerful spiritual experience. Have you had anything like this, David?
Actually, it’s funny you mention that because just the other day, maybe I was overtired or stressed-out, but I was sitting down semi-meditating quietly and suddenly felt as if my head was filling with a light that could cover the whole world with love. Know what I’m talking about?
That happens to me every single day.
A lotta good it did me. Donald Trump was still elected president.
Don’t be so depressed, David. Trump will have to bend to reality. I’m right about this. I am.
You mentioned that you did a bunch of crazy things. Can you tell me a story that you haven’t publicly told before?
Like a story story?
Take the question wherever you want to take it.
I’ll tell you one that I shared with only a small group of people. The other day I went for a routine test to check my heart. The moment the test was done, the doctor said, “You’re going to die now. You have two totally blocked arteries.” I didn’t believe it. I hadn’t been feeling anything wrong. So I asked for copies of the tests and sent them to several friends who then told me to go the hospital. David, how old are you?
Do you take statins?
No. I’m healthy as a damn horse.
Good, good. Anyway, I refused to take the statins I was told to take. I thought, I’m with my wife who I’ve been with for more than half my life, I had the impossible dream of becoming a writer and I became a writer, I fought the government in Brazil, and I fought my family. So, okay, if I die, I’ll die happy. I didn’t leave any of my life’s stones unturned.
Then what happened?
The doctors put two stents in and I didn’t die. Just don’t take statins, David. The manipulation of the pharmaceutical industry is unforgivable. It’s even scarier than Donald Trump.
* This article originally misspelled Paulo Coelho’s name. We regret the error.