by Christina Lamb ( Sunday Times)
When I stepped off the Ryanair plane in the medieval town of Pau in the French Pyrenees almost two years ago to interview the multi-million-selling author Paulo Coelho, the last thing I expected was to end up as the heroine in his next book.
I had just come back from a month in Iraq — about the last time it was still reasonably safe for journalists to work there before kidnappings, executions and car bombs became regular events. A group of us had even managed to go for a picnic to Samarra on the left bank of the Tigris and climbed its famous spiral minaret, which is now a sniper post.
Perhaps for this reason my mind was not entirely on Coelho’s latest novel, Eleven Minutes, a story about sexuality, which would be the world’s bestselling book of 2003.
His publicist had told me he was living in a hotel, and I must admit that, accustomed to staying in somewhat insalubrious places as a war correspondent, I was looking forward to somewhere luxurious with lots of free bath goodies. After all Coelho is the world’s second-biggest-selling author after John Grisham.
Instead, I found him in an old-fashioned pension between a porn shop and a store selling orthopedic aids in the scruffy town of Tarbes. Coelho, a true Brazilian, explained he had moved into a hotel to simplify his life and had chosen this one because it had good heating and was near the Catholic shrine of Lourdes, where he spends every New Year’s Eve. He had two rooms, one he shared with his fourth wife also called Christina, and one for writing.
He was an entertaining interview. Dressed in black T-shirt and black jeans with a trim white beard, at 56 he looked almost priest-like but had an angel tattooed on his forearm and a naughty twinkle in his eye. It crossed my mind how odd it was that less than a week after dodging bullets in Falluja I should be sitting in a French hotel discussing orgasms and angels over tea.
Critics tend to sneer at Coelho’s books as philosophy for horoscope readers. But the public loves them. Fans include Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac, Shimon Peres, Russell Crowe and Julia Roberts. Publishers Weekly describes him as “a literary pop star”. His books have sold 60m copies at the last count in 156 countries, an astonishing feat, particularly for someone from a non-English-speaking nation.
What was his secret, I asked. “I don’t know why my books seem to touch so many people,” he replied. “If I find an answer to that I try to find a formula and if I do that my reader will notice and it will spoil the whole thing.”
Yet he told me that when he was young his parents thought his dreams of becoming a writer so crazy that they had him committed to a mental hospital. Eventually he became a successful songwriter. An inspiration for aspiring novelists, he was almost 40 when he wrote his first book. His second, The Alchemist, sold so few copies in the first year that his publishers returned the contract saying it would not sell.
This tale of an Andalusian shepherd boy on a quest for buried treasure in the pyramids, The Alchemist has gone on to sell more than 30m copies, however.
We talked about the success of his books, his two years in Notting Hill, when he would wander bookstores longing that one day his work would grace the shelves, and his first novel, which he lost in a pub on Portobello Road.
He also told me that he only started writing a new book when he saw a white feather and laughed when I asked where they came from.
For a man who is a fervent believer in magic and the occult, he was surprisingly interested in what I thought of as the real world. He had written a column opposing the war in Iraq and was fascinated to learn that I had just returned from covering it. I had been vehemently against the war myself, not believing Iraq to be a real threat but a distraction from the real war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan where I spent most of my time. But the war had been over so quickly and the stories I had heard from survivors of Saddam’s secret prisons so appalling that at that time I was beginning to think perhaps it had been the right thing to do.
Coelho was adamant it was wrong. “I fear that they are using the war on terrorism as a pretext and I find this whole doctrine of pre-emptive strike very dangerous,” he said. “Tomorrow they can use it to say, look the Brazilians are not taking proper care of the Amazon, we can’t breathe any more, so let’s invade Brazil and take over the Amazon.”
He was fascinated to learn that I had first gone to Afghanistan in the late 1980s during the Soviet occupation and that some of the people I had known then as good guys — and had travelled round with on motorbikes — had subsequently founded the Taliban and were now on America’s Most Wanted list.
Such talk of war seemed a world away from the spirituality of his books, which he once described as “fairy tales for grown-ups”, and I began to feel that the role of interviewer and interviewee had been reversed.
The next day, back in England, I was amused when a white feather drifted onto my face on the Stansted Express to London.
Coelho rarely grants interviews so I was mortified when, due to pressure of space, my subsequent article about him was severely cut and published without a photograph. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t even e-mail him to thank him. But I noticed he was right about the white feathers: suddenly, I was seeing them everywhere.
A few months later I was in Afghanistan staying at a remote firebase with American soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division searching for Osama Bin Laden. I was amused to see The Alchemist among the well-thumbed paperbacks on their bookshelves. I was there, dusty and tired from a patrol through the mountains, when I got the first e-mail from Coelho.
I replied sheepishly, apologising for the truncated article. His message came back saying sweetly that he had been surprised how short it was but he liked the beginning. He went on to say he had enjoyed my own book on Afghanistan, The Sewing Circles of Herat, so much that he had listed it as one of his Top 10 Reads on the website of Barnes & Noble, America’s biggest bookstore.
And so began an exchange of e-mails. He, from the windmill to which he had moved in France where he was writing a new book; me, usually, on the road.
Modern technology is a wonderful thing. I e-mailed him from the village near Kandahar where I stayed during the Afghan elections, or to tell him about the new cocktail bar in Kabul. He sent me messages from places like Yemen where he had never before been. I began to look forward to hearing the “You’ve got mail” ping and finding Paulo Coelho in my inbox.
Once or twice he suggested meeting, but I was always travelling, seeing little enough of my husband (who is Portuguese and is also called Paulo) and son. Besides, I was aware of how the male character in his books always refers to the seductive power of being one of the world’s bestselling writers.
Then last June, when we were in Portugal, I came back from the beach and checked my e-mails. Among the usual monotonous updates from the coalition forces in Kabul and junk offering penis enlargement there was one from Coelho with a huge attachment.
It was the Portuguese manuscript of his just completed book, The Zahir, named after a story by Borges about something that, once touched or seen, can never be forgotten. With it was a message saying: “The female character was inspired by you.”
He added that he had thought of trying to meet but I was always away so he had used my book on Afghanistan and internet research. Apparently he had got my last e-mail apologising for my tardy reply because I was away with a Nato patrol in Afghanistan, just as he was writing about his character going on just such a patrol. “So there — and in most parts — you are,” he wrote.
I was part astonished, part flattered, part alarmed. He didn’t know me. How could he have based a character on me? I felt almost naked.
Like most people, I guess, there were things in my life I would not wish to see in print. I was also worried that Coelho, like other authors, might think being a foreign correspondent is much more glamorous than it is. Yes, we get to meet presidents and see remarkable places, but we spend much of our time waiting for planes that never come and travelling on dodgy airlines like Afghanistan’s Ariana (when I complained that passengers using mobile phones in flight might interfere with the instruments, I was told: “Don’t worry, we don’t have any”).
So with some trepidation I downloaded the 304-page file and opened it. As I read the manuscript I recognised things I had told him in Tarbes, insights into my private world, as well as concerns I had discussed in my book.
The first paragraph began: “Her name is Esther; she is a war correspondent who has just returned from Iraq because of the imminent invasion of that country; she is 30 years old, married, without children.”
At least he had made me younger. It occurred to me it would have been nice if she had been beautiful or sexy, but then I remembered in his interview he said he liked to put minimal details so readers made up their own minds.
I read on. The narrator was Esther’s husband, clearly based on Coelho himself, a successful songwriter turned novelist whose hobby was archery. But Esther herself had vanished and he was devastated. So was I. I was starting to enjoy the idea that the heroine was based on me, and now here she was disappearing on page one.
In fact most of the book is about her husband’s obsessive search for the woman he called his Zahir, who filled his thoughts, driving him to madness. Most of what we learn about her is through her husband and, to be honest, she comes across as a selfish bitch who wants to go off covering wars and then return to enjoy the nice life provided by his wealth, while criticising him for not paying her enough attention.
I thought uncomfortably about the arguments I have with my own Paulo each time I return from an assignment in a hellhole where people have nothing, and how I often find it hard to relate to what seem like trivial problems back here.
It seemed uncanny to read Coelho’s words: “Whenever you’re far away, I wish you were near. I imagine the conversations we’ll have when you or I come back from a trip. I phone you to make sure everything’s all right. I need to hear your voice every day . . . But what happens when we’re together? We argue, we quarrel over nothing, one of us wants to change the other, to impose his or her view of reality.”
I was slightly concerned about his description of how Esther and her husband had met. “One day, a journalist comes to interview me. She wants to know what it’s like to have my work known all over the country but to be entirely unknown myself . . . She’s pretty, intelligent, quiet. We meet again at a party, where there’s no pressure of work, and I manage to get her into bed that same night. I fall in love, but she’s not remotely interested. When I phone, she always says she’s busy. The more she rejects me, the more interested I become.”
But here and there as the book went on I recognised bits of my life. He described Esther changing continents more often than she changed shoes, her vast network of contacts in the terrorist world and consequent fear of being followed.
She becomes obsessed with Kazakhstan, while my own passion is Afghanistan, and he talked of her feeling strongly, as I do, that people in such countries have values we have lost: “The most important thing in all human relationships is conversation, but people don’t talk any more, they don’t sit down to talk and listen. They go to the theatre, the cinema, watch television, listen to the radio, read books, but they almost never talk. If we want to change the world, we have to go back to a time when warriors would gather round a fire and tell stories.”
Esther’s description of becoming addicted to war was a little close to home: I had written in my own book about colleagues turning into war junkies and fearing doing the same. “It’s like a drug,” she says. “As long as I’m in a war zone, my life has meaning. I go for days without having a bath, I eat whatever the soldiers eat, I sleep three hours a night and wake up to the sound of gunfire. I know that at any moment someone could lob a grenade into the place where we’re sitting, and that makes me live, do you see? Really live, I mean, loving every minute, every second. There’s no room for sadness, doubts, nothing; there’s just a great love for life.”
Coelho is remarkably perceptive on how war brings out the best and worst in people. I remember telling him of my shock at seeing the looting that followed the fall of Basra, locals tossing patients out of hospital beds to seize equipment. This is how he puts it: “People from small, provincial towns where nothing ever happened and where they were always decent citizens find themselves invading museums, destroying centuries-old works of art and stealing things they don’t need.
During my interview with Coelho, when he expressed surprise at what I do, I told him that I often wonder if being a war correspondent is a form of running away from real life. When Esther first tells her husband she wants to cover wars, he tells her that she is mad, saying she already has everything a woman could want.
She replies: “I have everything, but I’m not happy. And I’m not the only one either . . . Some people appear to be happy, but they simply don’t give the matter much thought. Others make plans: I’m going to have a husband, a home, two children, a house in the country. As long as they’re busy doing that, they’re like bulls looking for the bullfighter: they react instinctively, they blunder on, with no idea where the target is. They get their car, sometimes they even get a Ferrari, and they think that’s the meaning of life, and they never question it. Yet their eyes betray the sadness that even they don’t know they carry in their soul . . .”
She goes on to say that she wants to report on wars “because I think that in time of war, men live life at the limit; after all, they could die the next day. Anyone living like that must act differently”.
It could have been me talking except for one thing — I have a son, and while I still have a hunger to see what is happening and to hear peoples stories, I have no intention of getting killed doing so.
Unlike Esther I don’t carry torn bits of bloodstained shirt of a dead soldier to give to people as a reminder that on the edge of death people think of love. Nor have I ever thought of running off with my interpreter and giving French lessons in exchange for learning how to weave carpets. But when she accepts an assignment to go on a Nato patrol in Kabul even though pregnant, it sounds rather familiar.
Astonished by what I had read, I told my mum and my husband. Far from sharing my feeling of flattery, he was highly suspicious about why another man should be writing a book on his wife. I told a few friends and they looked at me as though I was mad. I decided it was better not to mention it to anyone else.
Then Coelho e-mailed to say he was coming to London to receive an award and wanted to invite me for dinner. I suggested the Frontline Club, which seemed a suitable venue, and the Brazilian bar manager almost fainted when she realised who he was. It felt odd to be meeting a man who had not only written a book about me but in his alter ego was married to mine.
We went back to exchanging e-mails and I thought little more of it until, two weeks ago, The Zahir was launched in Brazil. It was the cover story of the country’s biggest news magazines. Suddenly journalists were trying to find out who inspired the story. Who was Coelho’s “muse”?
Soon there was a veritable “war of muses” as other women stepped forward to claim the credit. There was Cecilia Bolocco, a television presenter and former Miss Universe from Chile who married the former Argentine president Carlos Menem; an Italian actress, Valeria Golino; and an unnamed Russian fashion designer who claimed to have had an affair with the author.
Coelho responded with a statement that it was none of them. His muse, he said, was a British war correspondent from The Sunday Times who had inspired him with her “courage and sensitivity”.
I was in Zimbabwe pretending to be a tourist (it is the only way we can report on the country) when a journalist from the Portuguese daily Correio da Manha called me to say they had discovered I was Esther. There followed the most bizarre interview, as I continued to pretend on the phone that I was not a journalist in case any of Mugabe’s spies was listening.
Despite my odd behaviour, Correio da Manha “revealed” me as Coelho’s muse on its front page last Sunday. All last week I fielded phone calls from newspapers in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, South Africa, even Britain, asking how I felt being “Paulo Coelho’s muse”.
Friends started teasing me, asking if I was planning to launch a range of clothes. Once I got used to it, I decided I quite liked being a muse. But I was not quite sure what muses do. The only muses I knew about were Picasso’s Dora and Lady Amanda Harlech, whom the designer Karl Lagerfeld describes as his ideal woman. But they were more for their looks than their obsession with small wars.
I asked Coelho how a muse should behave. “Muses must be treated like fairies,” he replied, adding he had never had a muse before. I thought being a muse probably involved lying on a couch with a large box of fancy chocolates, looking pensive. I rejected the torn jeans I usually wear in favour of a floaty dress and even applied some lipstick. But being a muse is not easy if you work full time and have a five-year-old. I did not feel at all muse-like last week when my son had a tantrum in Woolworths because I would not buy him the Scooby-Doo Meets Batman DVD.
The Zahir does not even come out here till June, by which time my character will be available in an astonishing 8m copies in 83 countries and 42 languages, including Kasakh. In the meantime I have learnt that going to interview celebrity authors can be more hazardous than covering wars. They might not shoot you but they can steal your soul.
The Zahir: A Novel of Love, Longing and Obsession by Paulo Coelho published by Thorsons/HarperCollins