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...