Stories & Reflections
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>Martin Scholz_Interview with Paulo Coelho for Welt am Sonntag, Sunday 06 October 2013 (excerpts)
WELT AM SONNTAG: Next week, the world’s biggest book fair opens its doors in Frankfurt. Brazil is the guest of honour. But you as Brazil’s most successful author, won’t be attending. Why did you refuse the Ministry of Culture’s invitation?
PAULO COELHO: I am in close contact with many young authors of my country. But when it comes to officially representing Brazilian culture, unfortunately politics gets involved in a negative way. The Minister of Culture invited 70 people from Brazil to go to Frankfurt…
WaS: 70 writers.
PC: I doubt that they’re all professional writers. Of the 70 who are invited, I only know 20, the other 50 I’ve never even heard off. Presumably they’re friends of friends of friends. Nepotism. What annoys me most is, that currently there IS a new exciting literary scene in Brazil. But many of these young authors are not on the list.
WaS: Why didn’t you exert your influence as a member of the Academia?
PC: I tried my utmost to get them invited, but to no avail. So, out of respect for them, I decided not to go to Frankfurt. This was a difficult decision for various reasons. For one, because I was invited by my government. But also, because I have close ties to the Frankfurt Book Fair, especially to its director Jíƒ¼rgen Boos, who not only recognized the difficult transformation process from the printed to the digital world, but has also put it on the Book Fair’s agenda. He even initiated dozens of forums and panels for this matter. However, I will NOT come to Frankfurt despite the high esteem I have for its fair, because I simply don’t approve of the way in which Brazil represents its literature. I don’t want to pose as a Brazilian Robin Hood. But it wouldn’t feel right to be part of the official Brazilian delegation of which I don’t even know the majority and which excludes many writers that the Brazilian public knows, and that represents the new face of Brazilian literature.
WaS: This clearly upsets you.
PC: This is just one of the many points of criticism about the current Brazilian government. I supported this government and am very disappointed by it. There had been a law which allowed big companies such as Volkswagen to invest part of their taxes in cultural developments. The law was changed in such a way that henceforth, the Brazilian haute couture is sponsored through these taxes – a field which doesn’t need sponsoring at all. This is just a detail, but it’s symptomatic of what happens on a bigger scale. To me, the present Brazilian government is a disaster. Wherever I am, people always ask me what is going wrong in Brazil. The government made big promises and hasn’t kept them. That’s what’s going wrong.
WaS: Recently several hundreds of thousands of people in over 140 cities protested against corruption, mismanagement and social inequality. What is on your mind when you see all these images of street riots on the news?
PC: I am very concerned, particularly because there seems to be no end in sight. All began when they raised the bus fares. And when, after the Confederations Cup, a soccer-crazy nation like Brazil publicly admitted that we had more pressing problems in our country than to modernize our stadiums for the football world-championships that was already quite a statement. However, everyone was taken by surprise by the scope of public rage. Because Brazil had been hyped as the new boom state. The problem is that a large part of the population hasn’t been able to profit from this boom. The violence in Rio de Janeiro, is a huge problem. The governor promised to find a solution. But he hasn’t kept his promise. Sao Paulo isn’t any better. No matter where you look, the devil of corruption is looking straight back at you. In such a tense situation, raising the bus fares seems to have been the last straw to break the camel’s back. People react to things like that. With my foundation [INSTITUTO PAULO COELHO ] I have been supporting underprivileged and penniless children in the favelas for years- without ever receiving financial support or even a word of recognition from the government. I find myself in a similar situation as many fellow Brazilians. I had voted for the left-wing government, for which I had great hopes. I’ve been blind for a long time and didn’t want to see what was going wrong. And I stand by my criticism.
WaS: Under these circumstances, what do you expect from the world championships next year? Former star player Ronaldinho showed little sympathy for the demonstrators, when he said that the championships were not about building additional hospitals or streets but stadiums.
PC: That was a very stupid remark. Ronaldinho should keep his mouth shut. Of course hospitals, schools and most of all a well-functioning public transport system are far more important for a country like Brazil than football stadiums. Public transport is still a huge issue in Brazil, whose infrastructure is not only bad, but in total decay. Nevertheless, I haven’t entirely given up hope that prior to the football world championships, we’ll come to our senses and use the investments for the championships in such a way that Brazilians can still profit from them even after the games.
WaS: Forbes magazine declared you the second most influential personality on twitter after Justin Bieber. On Facebook you now have more followers than Madonna. Doesn’t it become creepy to have this steadily growing number of online devotees expecting you to endow their lives with meaning?
PC: Not at all. I like to hang out / participate in social networks, because it’s fun and I find it fulfilling. I am now connected to my readers worldwide in a way, which was not possible before social networks emerged. Let me give you an example: Book signings used to be frustrating. 200 or 300 people would be very happy, because they got an autograph from me. Many others were angry, because they had queued in vain and were sent home empty-handed, since I cannot sign books for eight hours on end.
WaS: But to send messages on twitter and Facebook to your fans in all corners of the world, every day, can be tiring, too, right?
PC: I don’t need to be online every day. And I’m not. You don’t have to write a book every day in order to consider yourself a writer, do you?
WaS: What do you tell your fellow writers who consider twitter and Blogs a waste of time?
PC: Frankly, I don’t understand their refusal. Social networks allow you to experiment with new forms of writing. I write differently, in a blog, than I would for a novel or a tweet or a Facebook post. In social networks I can discuss topics that my readers or I consider important. That doesn’t mean that all these posts have to turn into a book. But through these networks, I can reach a gigantic community, people who often don’t go to bookshops anymore and are scarcely interested in books. Because they think that books are boring. My experience is: If I publish texts in their medial environment, I can lure them towards my books. We mustn’t demonize these new forms of communication.
I also find it disconcerting, when my colleagues write: “The internet kills literature” and then publish these texts online. They write on the internet to complain about the internet. That is like being married and only talk about your wife in order to complain about her. That won’t work.
WaS: You recently shocked the publishing world with a highly unusual self-experiment. On your website, you encouraged users to download various formats and translations of your own books. For free. Yet the sales of your printed books continue to increase despite or because of these free downloads which causes a curiosity among the publishing industry that is conveniently ignored. Why has no one imitated you yet?
PC: I have no answer to that. I keep repeating myself: If you are truly an artist, then your primary goal is to get your work noticed.
WaS: Admittedly, you were a bestselling author even before the arrival of downloads – which turned out to be an interesting marketing tool booosting your sales even more.
PC: That’s what I keep hearing: Paulo Coelho can afford to allow free downloads of his books, because he’s already famous. I always vehemently disagree: I am who I am today because Ií¢â‚¬â„¢ve always taken risks, because I am open to new ideas. Many colleagues say: “I don’t give away my books for free on the internet. The wording already shows that they’ve misunderstood the core of the digital world – that sharing unites us. I cannot explain why my printed books sell better today than before my file-sharing offers. But what seems to be the case is that most readers who first downloaded a book for free, later feel a certain obligation to buy the printed book. At least the young writers don’t seem too pessimistic towards social networks anymore. Many young Brazilian writers embrace these new opportunities. To them I’m a bit of a role model. They even invented a nice nickname for me. They call me The Magician of the Nerds.
WaS: Is that a compliment?
PC: I jolly well hope so!
translated by Priya Sher