Paulo Coelho was born in 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to middle-class parents. His father, Pedro Quiema Coelho de Souza, was an engineer and his mother, Lygia, a homemaker. The family was staunchly Catholic, and Coelho attended a strict Jesuit school until he was seventeen. Although he had no encouragement from his school, early in his life Coelho decided to become a writer. His dream was not supported by his parents, to say the least. When he refused to give up literature and writing, his father twice committed his son to a mental institution. Coelho reportedly even endured many sessions of the then-popular electroshock therapy. It failed to “cure” the young writer who, shortly after his last commitment and return home, joined a theater group. Not much later, Coelho began to find work as a journalist.
Undaunted by his father’s tactics and something of a thrill seeker by nature, Coelho temporarily put his dreams of writing on hold to experience the more tangible aspects of life. One thing he found appealing was political activism, opposing the military rule of his homeland. In 1968, at age twenty-one, Coelho became enamored of hippies and their progressive political outlook. He traveled all over Latin America, continued his fledgling career in journalism, founded an alternative magazine called 2001, and began to write lyrics for rock bands. Five years later, Coelho tried his hand at comic strips. His political voice grew stronger, but when he became a member of the Alternative Society, a group dedicated to free expression, Coelho met with some of the obstacles to fulfillment that he eloquently wrote about later. He was kidnapped and tortured by a group opposed to the Alternative Society’s agenda.
The experience was unnerving for Coelho. He decided to live a life less on the edge and return to writing. But it had been a long time since he first embraced his childhood dream. It would take some time before that dream was fulfilled. In the introduction to The Alchemist, Coelho argued that one must first believe their childhood dreams are possible. Given Coelho’s past with his father, this was a tall order indeed. But fate, or as Coelho called it, the “conspiracy of the universe,” intervened.
Like his protagonist in The Alchemist, Coelho too had a vision and met a mysterious man who challenged him to fulfill his dreams. It would not an easy path. Not until 1988 was The Alchemist published, and five more years would pass until it became a phenomenal success. Coelho is now over sixty years old, and his quest for personal fulfillment has been realized. The Alchemist has sold more copies than any other book in Brazilian literary history. Coelho has since written nine more successful novels: By the River Pierda I Sat Down and Wept, The Fifth Mountain, Veronika Decides to Die, The Devil and Miss Prym, Warrior of the Light: A Manual, The Zahir, Eleven Minutes, The Witch of Portobello, and The Winner Stands Alone.