Stories & Reflections
This is the story of Athena, or Sherine, to give her the name she was baptised with. Her life is pieced together through a series of recorded interviews with those people who knew her well or hardly at all – parents, colleagues, teachers, friends, acquaintances, her ex-husband.
The novel unravels Athena’s mysterious beginnings, via an orphanage in Romania, to a childhood in Beirut. When war breaks out, her adoptive family move with her to London, where a dramatic turn of events occurs…
Athena, who has been dubbed ‘the Witch of Portobello’ for her seeming powers of prophecy, disappears dramatically, leaving those who knew her to solve the mystery of her life and abrupt departure.
Q. How would you sum up the central theme of your latest novel The Witch of Portobello?
A. It’s difficult to sum up a book, but I would say that it revolves around the awakening of the female energy in both men and women.
Q. Which is the difference between feminine energy and masculine energy? Why do we have to awaken our feminine side? What’s wrong with our masculine side?
A. Both energies are necessary; we need to be compassionate and implacable. Christ consecrated these two: the energy of bread, that is solid, and the energy of wine, that adapts itself. Sometimes is it not the sword that brakes the stone but the patience of water.
Q. Is there something new in this novel that you haven’t done before?
A. The style is different: it is made of testimonies from people that got to know the main character, Athena. Also, it’s the first time that a main character of mine has a child. This is the first novel where children appear.
Q. Did the idea of the novel spring from real life?
A. Yes, in October 2005, I met in Transylvania a roman stewardess that inspired me the story of Athena. She told me how she had been adopted by an Austrian family and about her gypsy roots. Of course, she was the starting point of the novel; many aspects came from a myriad of situations and people I met along the way. I’m also portrayed in this character.
Q. You deal with very delicate issues in this book, such as prejudice, religious intolerance and dogma. Aren’t you afraid of being excommunicated from the Catholic Church with this novel? After all you defend the idea that God is the Great Mother.
A. I’m not afraid of that. I go every year to a Benedictine retreat in Austria, called Melk. There I spoke to abbot Buckhard about catholic tradition and, during our talks, the issue of women’s exclusion came up. He told me that the Benedictine have prayers dedicated to the Goddess-Mother. In 200 years I believe that feminine divinity will no longer be a taboo.
Q. One of the questionings that keep on recurring in this book is Athena’s need to live with her “empty spaces”. Does Paulo Coelho have “empty spaces”?
A. Of course I do. Who doesn’t? The whole problem is not about having empty spaces, but about admitting that they exist. Today’s society is so preoccupied about coherence that many get trapped in the misconception that all is explainable. Society tries to convince us that we have to be completely transparent, not only to world but to ourselves. There is where the danger lies. It’s necessary to admit that some things can’t be grasped, that our empty spaces exist and that we have to respect and honour the mystery. I would say that Athena is my feminine side.
Q. Do you believe in witches?
A. Of course I do. Unfortunately the word “witch” has still many prejudices. To me, a witch is a woman that is capable of letting her intuition take hold of her actions, that communes with her environment, that isn’t afraid of facing challenges. In my latest novel, I precisely talk about the prejudice that modern witches face in modern society.
Q. What about the fear of being different?
A. In all my books I approach this issue. In all my writings I talk about the importance of accepting one’s differences. Since my childhood, I’ve been drawn to it. It was very important to me to accept my differences.
Q. Isn’t harder to accept other people’s differences?
A. Indeed, it is more difficult to accept other people’s differences, but it’s also very complicated to accept one’s own. The reason for this is that there are always prejudices; there are always misunderstandings. There’s a whole system consolidated that doesn’t want to change, that doesn’t want people to change. Now, we are seeing that this system is starting to evolve thanks to people like Athena. She’s the prototype, a sort of icon of these courageous people that face society and question it’s values.
Q. Why are people so afraid of change?
A. If you don’t change, the world will change you. Only vampires don’t change. To change is necessary, but if you don’t allow it, you will nevertheless succumb to it… Tragedies, hardships will always present themselves and you will be forced to adapt yourself.
Q. One of the themes of your book is dissatisfaction…
A. The world revolves because of this. See the example of children, which are closer to the essence of life. Are they satisfied? Never. I believe that we all preserve in our core this child that is always curious about the outer world.
Q. Are you satisfied?
A. No, of course not. I’m the typical example of a person that is never satisfied.
Q. Do you know what the book is about before writing it?
A. I never take notes and never know where the book will lead me. It would be extremely uninteresting if I had the whole plot in my head.Actually in the Witch of Portobello, the conclusion came to me during the night. I woke up with the idea in my head, immediately wrote it in my pc and worked on it for the next days.
Q. Your book ends on February 25th 2006, exactly at 19:47. British punctuality?
A. When I finished the book, I looked at the clock in my computer and saw the time 19:47. I was mesmerised by this since I was born in 1947. That’s why I wrote it down in my manuscript.
You see I let myself be guided by signs. Signs are the language of God and they will take you where you have to be taken.
It’s a personal language that you develop throughout life.
Q. What is important?
A. You never know. You can only unravel it during the journey. It all starts with a sign that takes you from a point to the next. Or makes you think about an action you’re about to take.
Q. In what do you believe?
A. I believe in dreams, in man and in the goddess.
Q. You dedicate your book to S.F.X. Who is he?
A. A man that left everything to go after his dream, in a very young age. Well, I took much longer to follow my dream. I was nearly 40 when I decided to be guided by my dream. I had the courage once I made the pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella.
Q. How was the experience of making literature through your blog?
A. Amazing. The experience of making available 1/3 of my book in Spanish & Portuguese enabled my readers to judge by themselves the value of the book. This direct contact is, in my view, the best bet for literature.
The first chapter will be on-line on: 21.2.07
Any message about any chapter can be left in the “readers’ corner” post.