Coelho Explores Goddesses in 'Witch of Portobello'

Bestselling author Paulo Coelho's newest novel, The Witch of Portobello, explores the concept of goddess-based religion. Coehlo talks about the new book with John Ydstie.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Walk into any bookstore in the world and the odds are good, you'll find a volume by Paulo Coelho. The 60-year-old Brazilian-born author has written eight novels, two memoirs and several other volumes. He has sold nearly a hundred million books, and his works have been translated into 64 languages.

Mr. Coelho's latest book, "The Witch of Portobello," is the story of a young Romanian orphan adopted by a Lebanese couple. She opens her heart, gains intoxicating powers and becomes a controversial spiritual leader in London.

Paulo Coelho joins us on the line from Paris. Welcome to the program, Mr. Coelho.

Mr. PAULO COELHO (Author, "The Witch of Portobello"): It's a pleasure to be here.

YDSTIE: This theme of searching for your true self and opening yourself to the energies of the world is a recurring theme in your work, why is that?

Mr. COELHO: I think that this is a recurring theme in our lives since the dawn of human kind. We want to answer this classical question, who am I? So I think that most of our works are for art, or whatever we do, including science or religion, tried to answer that question.

That said, me as a writer, I also try to understand myself better, and the only way that I have to understand myself better is by sharing myself with myself, meaning, that I have to write and when I write, I understand what is inside of me in an unconscious level, then I think it is also part of the human condition to somehow divide your feelings with other people so you feel that you're not alone.

YDSTIE: In "The Witch of Portobello," the main character is named Athena and she becomes a spiritual leader in the reemergence, I guess, of the ancient goddess religion. Tell us a little more about that tradition and why you chose to focus on it in this book.

Mr. COELHO: I do believe that for many centuries, religion or the quest for the spiritual realm was linked to the male figure, so God is the father, God is the one who get to rule us. We forgot totally that above all, God is love, and love is, in my opinion, in my understanding, it is simplified because, of course, God has no sex, but love belongs to this feminine face of the Lord, of the divine energy. So "The Witch of Portobello," the main character, tries somehow to bring this love, this universal love to her life.

YDSTIE: You're a Catholic. I imagined that the Vatican probably isn't particularly pleased that one of the flock - particularly a best-selling author is celebrating the goddess in his latest book.

Mr. COELHO: That's true that - well, first of all, I am Catholic but I am not a Catholic writer. I'm a Catholic because I, myself, I need some discipline, I need the religion, I need this collective worship that our religion allows, but at the same time, I'm open to spirituality in general, and at the end of the day, I'm responsible for my acts. I cannot transfer(ph) to the priest or to the Iman if I were a Muslim, or to the rabbi if I were a Jew.

My decision is for anything that I have to do in this life. So if I see this presence of the feminine face of God around instead of trying to follow what the Catholic Church says, I should be more open.

YDSTIE: In fact, I think some scholars suggest the Virgin Mary and the veneration of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic religion is actually vestigial goddess worship.

Mr. COELHO: I totally agree. I totally agree. And I think that religion, like the Catholic Church, is a body that it is our life and changes, it does not change fast but it changes. So I would say that at the end of 2,000 years - 200 years, you will not be here, I will not be here. But somehow A, they're going to allow women to celebrate the Mass, which is forbidden today; B, they are going to allow priestess to marry, which is also forbidden, and finally, they were to understand that somehow the Virgin Mary is the manifestation - the way that we you worship the Virgin Mary is the manifestation of the feminine face of God.

YDSTIE: What do you say is - to the critics who suggest that your work is essentially new age, self-help literature?

Mr. COELHO: I think that the critics have to criticize, the writers have to write, the readers have to read, and everybody will be happy, so I'm not criticizing the critics. Whatever they say it is okay.

YDSTIE: What do your readers tell you about the impact of your work?

Mr. COELHO: They never tell me: oh my God, you've changed my life, this and that and that. They normally tell me, I could have written this book because this is what - it's beautiful in art, in literature when you somehow can get so close to your reader. So we are talking about the same subjects and then they are reflecting on the same way. My readers - and I get 400 emails for a day, my readers normally they say, well, you understand me, and I answer, you do understand me also. We are in the same level.

YDSTIE: After such a tremendous success as you've had, what motivates you to continue writing?

Mr. COELHO: Because my dream was to be a writer, so success that is a gigantic and I thank God for being so successful. My dream was to be a writer or - then a writer writes books, so I have to write books.

YDSTIE: Author Paulo Coelho joins us from Paris. His latest book is "The Witch of Portobello." Thanks so much.

Mr. COELHO: Thank you very much for your kind interview.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: I'm John Ydstie.

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