How an epiphany on pilgrimage transformed Coelho from drugged-up hippie to modern-day prophet
When it comes to the world's most influential people, Twitter is as good a barometer as any. Justin Bieber has the most followers in the world but, instead of Lady Gaga or Madonna taking second place, that honour goes to a Brazilian mystic who, to his legion followers, is a modern-day prophet.
Paulo Coelho's bestselling The Alchemist (65 million sales and counting), an inspirational fable about a shepherd's journey, is a kind of bible for those seeking spiritual enlightenment in the secular 21st Century.
Coelho came to writing late in life, after an epiphany he had whilst walking the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in 1986. Until then, he had worked as a songwriter, having spent the 1960s and 1970s as a travelling, drugged-up hippie.
When he answers the phone in his Geneva home, where he lives half the year, I tell him who I am and why I am calling.
"I know," he replies omnisciently. I can't help but imagine a Yoda-like figure, eyes squeezed shut in transcendental bliss, sitting upon a lofty perch somewhere above Lake Geneva.
Coelho has just published his 15th book, Aleph, which deals with a crisis of faith he had at the age of 59.
"There is a moment in our lives when we know that things have stopped," he says sagely over the wires. "I was hyper-successful as a writer in 2006, I was with the woman I love, I lived in a place that I really enjoyed, but something was missing," he says, his heavily accented English lubricated with the oil of an oft-told story.
"I know I have a gigantic power because you can't touch the lives of 400 million people otherwise."
He extrapolates that for every book he has sold, three or four people have read it. "So I started questioning my role in life."
Coelho says his success is a 'mystery' to him but one that he respects. It is surprising that having touched so many readers with his spiritual musings he should suffer such doubts.
"It's strange because faith is something you can lose. You go to bed and wake up and it's gone. Routine kills everything," he says.
Why then are so many people trapped in routines, I wonder? "Because we feel like we are safe when nothing is changing but at the end of the day you are slowly dying. Everyone realises routine is not a good choice because nothing is safe. Nothing is safe."
That's a nice idea but what about people with responsibilities, jobs and children and negative equity? They might find it more difficult to step outside of what Coelho calls their 'safety box'.
"I don't think it's very difficult," he says. "It's just fine-tuning our life. I had to pay a very high price for stepping out of routine. I'm from the middle class. My parents wanted me to follow their dreams, not my dreams. You can blame your husband, wife, children, parents but you only need the one thing -- a single act of courage."
With that, our conversation concludes and Coelho returns to his meditation (or so I imagine), leaving me to briefly contemplate the courageous smashing of safety boxes before, inevitably, returning to my pressing routine.