Paulo Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1947. As a teen, Coelho, who admits he was hostile and isolated at the time, told his parents he wanted to be a writer. The untraditional career path, coupled with his behavior, led his parents to commit Coelho to a mental hospital three separate times. After this period, he relented to his parents’ wishes and enrolled in law school only to drop out after one year and became a globetrotting hippie through the ’60s and ’70s. During this time, Coelho published the unsuccessful Hell Archives (1982) and contributed to the Practical Manual of Vampirism (1985), but he mostly immersed himself in the drug culture and penned song lyrics for Brazilian pop stars such as Elis Regina, Rita Lee, and Raul Seixas. Despite his lack of success writing books, Coelho made good money as a lyricist.
A turning point in Coelho’s writing career arrived in 1982, when he walked Spain’s road of Santiago de Compostela, an important medieval Christian pilgrimage route. Coelho experienced a spiritual awakening that he chronicled in his second novel, The Pilgrimage (1987). The book had little impact, but Coelho became determined to make a career as a writer. Coelho found his concept for his next book, The Alchemist (1988), in a 1935 short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges called “Tale of Two Dreamers.” Like The Alchemist, Borges’ short story revolves around two dreamers in search of treasure. Coelho sold his book to a tiny Brazilian publishing house, which printed a miniscule first edition of 900 copies and decided not to reprint afterward.
The Alchemist achieved commercial success only after Coelho found a bigger publisher, Rocco, to publish his next book, Brida (1990). Brida received good press coverage in Brazil, and Coelho’s newfound popularity launched The Alchemist to the top of the Brazilian bestseller list. In 1993, HarperCollins decided to publish The Alchemist, starting with a print run of 50,000 copies for the U.S market. A significant number at the time, it did not compare to the astounding success the book would eventually achieve. The Alchemist holds the Guinness World Record as the most-translated book by a living author. It has sold over 65 million copies throughout the world in 67 languages.
The unprecedented success of The Alchemist launched Coelho to international literary fame and, in some circles, notoriety. He has won celebrity fans such as Bill Clinton, Will Smith, and Madonna, and has written more than 20 commercially successful books since The Alchemist, many of which have been inspired by his own life experiences. Despite Coelho’s success, he has his fair share of detractors. Several writers and critics, including the Brazilian critic Mario Maestri, accuse him of producing mass-market self-help fables disguised as literature. Coelho has also distinguished himself by his willingness to share his books over the Internet for free. His American publisher caught him pirating his own books over several popular torrent sites and forced him to stop the practice. In return, the publisher allowed each of his new books to be available on its website for one month after being released in stores.