Author Paulo Coelho thrives on extremes

"One day the shelves collapsed, and I saw all my books on the floor, and I thought, why do I have these books, to impress my friends?"

Paulo Coelho 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Paulo Coelho 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Paulo Coelho hates seeing books neglected, gathering dust on his shelves. And so he leaves most of what he reads in parks, bus stations, his local Japanese restaurant, for random readers to find. "One day the shelves in my apartment collapsed, and I saw all my books on the floor, and I thought to myself, why do I have these books, to impress my friends?" the author of "The Alchemist" said, explaining how he lugs bags of books around to give them away. "I feel a book must travel." And so the walls of Coelho's otherwise luxurious Paris apartment are lined with near-empty wooden bookcases, giving the place a strangely spare atmosphere despite the moldings, high ceilings and carefully arranged sofa cushions. The Brazilian writer is full of contradictions. With his gray beard, knowing eyes and talk of dreams and inspiration, he seems like a sage - then suddenly he's talking with glee about his global book sales. He's drawn to the ascetic life, following pilgrimage routes or wandering in the Mojave desert, yet he's an Internet addict who's in "withdrawal" without his computer. He's a talker - at ease in English and French as well as Portuguese - but every few months he goes into retreat in the countryside. "My life is extremes, I am totally connected and totally disconnected, there are these moments of retreat, and that means to be really disconnected, with nothing, just silence," he said, sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor in front of his couch. Like Coelho's past novels, his new book, "The Witch of Portobello," out May 15 in the United States, offers inspirational messages and spiritual musing wrapped up in the package of a novel. Its blend of mysticism, signs, visions and visitations will enchant some readers and leave others confused - about where the novel is going, and about what it is exactly that makes Coelho one of the world's best-selling writers across borders. He has sold about 75 million books in 150 countries and 63 languages. "The Witch of Portobello" traverses London, Transylvania, Dubai and Lebanon as it tells the story of Athena, the illegitimate daughter of a gypsy who is adopted into a rich Lebanese family. In London, where she lives as an adult, many people around her think she is a kind of priestess with special powers. As the book opens, Athena is proclaimed dead; the people who knew her recount her life in fragments, from their perspectives. A reporter becomes entranced with her, her Lebanese adoptive mother struggles to understand her, an actress views her with suspicion and bitterness. Though Athena is the "witch" of the title, "she works in a bank," Coelho says. "She goes to sell real estate ... She's a real person." The multiple viewpoints make it hard to pin Athena down - some readers will enjoy putting the puzzle together, while others will fail to get attached to the character. It's less accessible than "The Alchemist," which was a linear fable that found a wide range of readers, from former US President Bill Clinton to Madonna to author Umberto Eco. Coelho, 59, came to novel-writing after many twists and turns. When he was 18, his parents put him in a psychiatric hospital for shock treatments. "I was not the typical good student who wants to follow his father's career, so they thought I was crazy," he said. He has forgiven them, saying they were only trying to help him. In the 1970s, Coelho founded an alternative magazine and wrote music lyrics. Considered subversive by Brazil's military government at the time, he briefly went to jail. From there, Coelho says, he was snatched by paramilitaries and tortured. In 1987, he hiked a pilgrimage route between France and Spain, inspiring his first book, "The Pilgrimage." A year later came "The Alchemist," a fable about a shepherd boy on a quest. Other best sellers, including "Veronika Decides to Die" and "Eleven Minutes," followed. Coelho writes one novel every two years. In Rio de Janeiro, where he spends most of the year, he has an institute that cares for 430 poor children. He does something he calls "blitz signings" - dropping in to a city to do a signing with only a day's notice. And of course, he's on the Internet, where he has posted a third of "The Witch of Portobello" on his blog, Coelho also posts random photographs from his life - one shows him shaving. His devoted readers use the blog to pour out their feelings on topics like marriage and grief. Online, Coelho recently invited 10 readers to his annual party in Spain. People from all over the world sent him e-mails, and though he had to explain later that he wasn't paying for their plane tickets or hotels, the first 10 bidders came anyway, he says, from as far away as Venezuela and Japan. When he's not on the Internet, he's traveling, waiting for inspiration to strike. He doesn't have an idea for his next book, so he's living life to the fullest - a process he compares to "making love, trying to get pregnant." "I have to have this innocence, I have to have this excitement," he said. "I could be easily paralyzed by my success. Thank God, this is not the case."