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The Alchemist | Study Guide

Paulo Coelho

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Author Biography

Learn more about Paulo Coelho’s life and the personal experiences that inspired his novel The Alchemist in Course Hero’s video study guide.

Paulo Coelho | Biography


Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 24, 1947, Paulo Coelho wanted to be a writer from a young age. His devout Catholic parents, however, discouraged him from pursuing a writing career due to the uncertainty of the profession. Coelho rebelled against his parents and Jesuit schoolteachers, and at certain points he contemplated suicide. His parents committed him to a psychiatric facility when he was 17. There he underwent electroshock therapy and other treatments. He spent additional time in psychiatric wards during his young adulthood.

Coelho later enrolled in law school but dropped out to write and play music, travel the world, experiment with drugs, and participate in the evolving Brazilian rock-and-roll scene. Jailed for political activism, he was tortured in prison.

In 1986 he embarked on a 500-mile trek across parts of Europe to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the end point of a famous pilgrimage route followed by Christians since the Middle Ages. The experience inspired Coelho to renew his faith in Christianity and to write his first book, The Pilgrimage, which was published in 1987. In 1988 he published The Alchemist, which explores a similar search for spiritual and self-enlightenment through the process of a long and arduous journey. It is worth noting that Coelho chose for his protagonist the name Santiago, meaning Saint James, the patron saint of Spain. The name derives from the Spanish words santo (saint) and Yago, an early Spanish form of the name James.

Initially, The Alchemist sold very few copies, and its original publisher let it go out of print. Coelho, however, believed in his story and managed to convince Brazil's top publisher to give it another shot. With this publication (in 1989), the book became an enormous hit, selling more than 65 million copies and appearing on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 315 weeks. The Alchemist also set a Guinness World Record for its translation into 80 languages, more than any other work by a living author.

Since the success of The Alchemist, Coelho has continued to write and publish, posting regularly to a personal blog and across social media. In 2010 Forbes named Coelho the second most influential celebrity on Twitter.

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