Before The Alchemist launched him to worldwide fame, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho experienced a bumpy writing career. 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 parent’s wishes and enrolled in law school, but dropped 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. He could have easily made a career of his job, but a trip to Spain pointed him down a different path.
This turning point in Coelho’s writing career came in 1982, when he walked Spain’s road of Santiago de Compostela, or the Way of Saint James, an important medieval Christian pilgrimage route. During the walk, Coelho had 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, U.S. publisher HarperCollins decided to print The Alchemist, starting with a print run of 50,000 copies. Though that number was significant at the time, it did not compare to the astounding success the book would eventually have. Since its U.S. publication, The Alchemist has won the Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author. It has been translated into 67 languages, has sold over 65 million copies throughout the world, and has won several international awards, including the United Kingdom’s 2004 Nielsen Gold Book Award, France’s Grand Prix Litteraire Elle in 1995, and Germany’s 2002 Corine International Award for fiction.
The unprecedented success of The Alchemist launched Coelho to international literary fame and, in some circles, notoriety. He has won celebrity fans from Bill Clinton, to Will Smith, to Madonna, and has written more than twenty 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.
Clear connections exist between the story of The Alchemist and Coelho’s own life story. Just like Santiago, a comfortable shepherd who decided to abandon everything to pursue a dream, Coelho lived comfortably as a songwriter when he decided to give up everything to pursue his dream of writing. Just as Santiago suffered many setbacks and temptations during his journey to Egypt’s pyramids, Coelho suffered a number of setbacks, including the disappointing reception of The Pilgrimage and the initial failure of The Alchemist, and experienced material temptations arising from his financial success as a songwriter. Yet, just like Santiago, Coelho remained focused on his dream, eventually achieving literary success beyond his expectation. Interestingly, Coelho didn’t gain fame and financial success as an author until well after writing The Alchemist. Although Coelho’s subsequent success more than validates the lesson he communicates through the story of Santiago’s journey, success such as Santiago finds in The Alchemist was something Coelho had yet to attain at the time he wrote the book.