Oprah Learns the Secret to Paulo Coelho's Timeless Wisdom
Photo: George Burns
The author of one of the most popular books in this or any language, Paulo Coelho has lived the mythic journey of self-discovery he fictionalized in The Alchemist, one of Oprah's favorite spiritual guides. Now he opens up about dreams, destiny and the only thing he believes will ever make us happy.Believe it or not, it was Madonna who first introduced me to The Alchemist, in 1996. She told me during a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show that it was her favorite book—really, she went on and on about it. I thought, "Well, I've got to read the book that changed Madonna's life." So I did, and I've been dying to interview its author, Paulo Coelho, ever since.
The Alchemist is the story of a young Andalusian shepherd who, after dreaming about finding a treasure in the pyramids of Egypt, sells off his flock and embarks on a journey of courage and intuition that is a stand-in for all our journeys. The book touched me so deeply that I ended up passing it on to everyone I know, and then everyone I know passed it along to everyone they know. It's the kind of book you want to share with the whole world. And that's why it's sold more than 65 million copies since it was first published in 1988 and has been translated into more than 80 languages.
Though he doesn't consider himself a spiritual guide, Paulo Coelho has been one of my great teachers. I still keep The Alchemist beside my bed and am always meeting others who do the same. (Recently, Pharrell Williams told me that it's one of his favorite books, too.) Just after the 25th anniversary of its publication, I was honored to finally sit down with the Brazilian-born Coelho at his home in Geneva (the best word for that city is civilized, by the way—I didn't see even a speck of litter on the streets!). He welcomed me with roses, pink Champagne, and a spread of food prepared by his beloved wife, Christina Oiticica, an artist. Then we got to talking, and I was delighted to learn that the passion and conviction that led him to write this truly inspired book still guide his life today.
OPRAH: Oh, I'm so happy to be here.
PAULO: Thank you very much for coming. My God.
OPRAH: "My God" is right. I'm here with the man who wrote The Alchemist!
PAULO: But I'm not a guru.
OPRAH: I know—you're not a guru.
PAULO: No, no, no, no, no.
OPRAH: You're just an author and a teacher and a...
PAULO: An ultimate student.
OPRAH: Absolutely. So last year marked the 25th anniversary of The Alchemist. And it is truly a phenomenon. I was trying earlier today to describe it to someone—and the word I used was talisman. It has really become a talisman for a lot of people. It doesn't matter how many times I read it; I always get something else from it. Does that happen to you? Have you reread it?
PAULO: Many times. And I often have a sense of amazement: How did I write this book? Because I was not the best writer. I'm still not the best writer.
OPRAH: Is it true that you wrote it in two weeks?
PAULO: Yes. And then I wrote the title. And then I wrote the first two pages. The first sentence is "The boy's name was Santiago."
PAULO: Because I was fascinated by Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. The main character in that book is also named Santiago.
OPRAH: I wondered if you had named him after the trail in Spain, El Camino de Santiago, which you wrote about in your book The Pilgrimage.
PAULO: No, it was because of Hemingway.
OPRAH: And The Alchemist was not an instant best-seller.
PAULO: That's right. Not long after it came out, my publisher said, "It's not selling." And I said, "Give it some time," and they said, "No, no, no. This book is never going to work." But there is a sentence in the book that says, "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."
PAULO: And I thought, "I wrote this. I have to live by these words."