Coelho is an outspoken activist for peace and social justice, and also supports the free distribution of his work. He and his wife Christina split their time between his home city, Rio de Janeiro, and France.
In 1970, after deciding that law school was not for him, Paulo Coelho traveled through much of South America, North Africa, Mexico, and Europe. Returning to Brazil after two years, he began a successful career as a popular songwriter. In 1974 he was imprisoned for a short time by the military dictatorship then ruling in Brazil. In 1986, he experienced one of the defining moments of his life: he walked the 500-plus mile Road of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. On this ancient highway, used for centuries by pilgrims from France to get to the cathedral said to house the remains of St. James, he achieved a self-awareness and a spiritual awakening that he later described in The Pilgrimage.
In 1999 he received a Crystal Award for Artistic Achievement at the Davos Economic Forum Conference.
As part of the Brazilian rock scene, Coelho wrote song lyrics for many famous performers in Brazilian music, such as Elis Regina and Rita Lee. His most well known work was with Raul Seixas. Together they wrote such successes as "Eu nasci há dez mil anos atrás" (I was born ten thousand years ago), "Gita" and "Al Capone", amongst 60 other songs. Seixas taught Coelho the magic of communication: a complex message doesn't need to be hard to understand - the message must be as simple as possible to grasp, even though to live it is the hardest of things. As Seixas sings: "Two hands together at the same prayer" (Coisas do coração) or "The beauty of simplicity" (Eu quero mesmo).
His fascination with the spiritual quest dates back to his hippie days, when he travelled the world learning about secret societies, oriental religions and mysticism.
As he confesses in an interview to Juan Arias, during that time he was introduced to the work of controversial English mystic Aleister Crowley, which influenced his collaboration with Raul Seixas. The influence extended not only to music, but also to plans for the creation of the "Alternative Society," which was to be an anarchist community in the state of Minas Gerais based on Crowley's premise: "'Do what thou wilt' shall be the whole of the Law." The project was considered subversive by members of the Brazilian military government, which imprisoned all prospective members of the group. Coelho is reported to have been tortured during his imprisonment.
After a supernatural experience, described later in his book The Valkyries, Coelho left the society.
Later in Holland he met a person (whom he would refer to as "J" throughout The Valkyries, The Pilgrimage and his website "Warriors of Light online") who changed his life and Coelho was driven towards Christianity. He said he became member of a Catholic group called Regnus Agnus Mundi, with J as its leader. However, the existence of the group is unverified since his own works are the only source while the Latin name is unverified. In 1986 he walked along the Road of Santiago, an ancient Spanish pilgrimage and his book The Pilgrimage describes his final initiation.
The book The Alchemist has been praised by different personalities ranging from Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe to the singer Madonna, who considers it one of her favourite books. It has equally inspired many projects -- such as a musical in Japan, theatre plays in France, Belgium, USA, Turkey, Italy, Switzerland. It is also the theme of two symphonies (Italy and USA) and had its text illustrated by the French artist Moebius.
In 1982 Coelho published his first book, Hell Archives , which failed to make any kind of impact. In 1985 he contributed to the Practical Manual of Vampirism, although he later tried to take it off the shelves since he considered it "of bad quality". In 1986, Paulo Coelho made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, an experience later to be documented in his book The Pilgrimage. Another novel, Brida has been just released in English.
In the following year, Coelho published The Alchemist, which is based on Jorge Luis Borges' Tale of Two Dreamers, which in turn was based on a tale from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. Slow initial sales convinced his first publisher to drop the novel, but it went on to become one of the best-selling Brazilian books of all time. It has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide and has been translated into some 56 languages. It is also a movie-in-progress produced by Laurence Fishburne, who is a fan of Coelho.
Coelho has sold over 100 million books in over 150 countries worldwide and his works have been translated into 66 languages. He has received numerous literary awards from a variety of countries, including La Légion d'honneur (France), Grinzane Cavour (Italy). In addition, he has written Maktub, which is a collection of his best columns published in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, The Manual of the Warrior of Light, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, The Fifth Mountain, Veronika Decides to Die, The Devil and Miss Prym, Eleven Minutes, Like The Flowing River and The Valkyries. Despite the popularity of Coelho's works in Iran, his 2005 novel The Zahir was banned there, with 1,000 copies being confiscated , but a week later it appeared again in bookstores, according to his publisher Caravan. His latest book, The Witch of Portobello was released in 2006 - 2007.
He also adapted The Gift (Henry Drummond) and Love Letters of a Prophet (Khalil Gibran).
His books have appeared on bestseller lists in countries not only in Brazil but in the UK, the United States, France, Germany, Iran, Canada, Italy, Israel, Finland, Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Cuba, Poland and Lithuania. He is the all time best-selling Portuguese language author.
Coelho writes a weekly column published in more than 45 countries, including O Globo in Brazil, Aksam, a Turkish newspaper, and Freizeit, a weekly supplement published by the Austrian Kurier.