A decade after The Da Vinci Code was declared one of the best-selling books of all time, Dan Brown tells Hannah Stephenson how his early years as a struggling writer – when his first three novels all flopped – helped him keep a sense of perspective
The library in Dan Brown’s vast New Hampshire home must look to the outsider like a shrine to his success. The octagonal room within the former hunting lodge houses a copy of every edition of each one of his novels in every language – not including his latest, Inferno – and that’s a lot of books. The multimillionaire author, whose blockbuster thriller The Da Vinci Code remains one of the world’s best-selling novels since records began, calls the room his “Fortress of Gratitude”.
On a whistle-stop visit to the UK, the normally reclusive writer has decided to step out of the shadows to promote Inferno, inspired by Dante’s vision of hell. The fast-paced thriller is almost as exciting as the speculation it generated when translators were holed up in a bunker in Italy for nearly two months so that the novel could be published simultaneously in 11 different languages without any of its contents being revealed beforehand. “They managed to translate this book into 11 languages, published on the same day, with no leaks – that was no small feat,” says the 48-year-old clean-cut author, his wispy blond hair combed neatly into place.
Inferno, which took Brown three years to write, sees the return of his hero, Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks in the film adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. In typical page-turning style, the opening sees Langdon in hospital in Florence having been shot in the head and suffering from amnesia, with a spiky-haired female assassin in pursuit.
He escapes with the female doctor who is treating him, through passageways, museums, hidden streets and tunnels in the historical city. Later, his journey extends to Venice and Istanbul. His references to art, landmark ancient buildings, backstreets and hidden gems of the cities read like a tension-filled tourist guide.
As the plot unfolds, it emerges that a Dante-obsessed villain with a fear of “population explosion” intends to release a plague to stem the growing tide of humankind. Langdon is faced with a series of Dante-themed puzzles and codes to stop the virus being released. Brown says Inferno is his darkest book yet because it deals with a real-world problem. “It’s a problem that is quite frightening and to which there isn’t a clear solution. It came out of reading Dante’s Inferno and seeing some of the landscapes of hell, filled with writhing, starving, sick bodies. I’m also very interested in science and statistics and saw some of Dante’s Inferno as prophecy.”
It seems Brown’s own fears about overpopulation are not so far removed from those of his mad scientist villain. “We all, at some level, turn a blind eye to what’s happening because it’s so overwhelming. But I’m worried about it, as we all should be. In the past 85 years the population has tripled. All of these problems – deforestation, starvation, no clean water – people hold these up as individual problems but they are just symptoms of one problem. Overpopulation is at the core of everything that we’re struggling with on this planet.”
Brown may be one of the best-selling authors of all time – published in 52 languages with 200 million copies – but critics have given scathing reviews of Inferno.
“I see headlines and I get a sense of what the reviews are,” he says, sighing. “This book was reviewed very well in the United States, very poorly here in the UK. I feel perplexed. It’s odd. The book is selling so well here, it’s breaking records. I write the book I want to read. A lot of fans here share my taste but the critics apparently don’t.
“You wish everybody loved what you do, but they don’t. Universal acceptance is not a realistic goal and there’s not much I can do about it, so you just have to let it roll off your back and go and meet your fans.”
Indeed, Inferno was already a best-seller before it was published, thanks to pre-sales on Amazon. Yet Brown never forgets that his first three books before Da Vinci were flops, and it’s given him some perspective. “I’ve had the opposite experience, of writing three books that nobody read that I worked very hard on and felt passionately about.”
That wasn’t the only career low point he’s had. Born in New Hampshire, the son of a maths teacher and church organist, after leaving college and a short spell teaching, Brown, a gifted pianist, moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to try to become a singer/songwriter.
“I got a record deal, I sold 12 records – ten of them were to my mom. The road signs of life said, ‘Maybe you ought to do something else.’”
While struggling with the music career, he met music executive Blythe Newton, 12 years his senior, who was to become his wife. “At some point, living in Hollywood and struggling in the music industry I realised I didn’t like performing, I liked being alone and I liked the creative process, but not the performance aspect of it. I realised that writing novels was a better fit.”
But writing wasn’t an easier option. “I had two teaching jobs simultaneously with writing my first three books. I’d get up at 4am and I’d write till 8am and then I’d go teach. Then I’d ride my bike eight miles and teach some more. All I wanted to do was pay my rent and be creative. So because I had that as a goal, when The Da Vinci Code took off it was magical, wonderful, exciting and a little scary, like a dream.”
Losing some of his privacy has been a small price to pay for being a globally successful novelist, he says. “We would have people parked outside the house with cameras. We would get hundreds upon hundreds of letters a day. You have to suddenly have security and change your phone number every week. And yet, I’m very careful not to complain too loudly because I have had experience of writing a book (three books, actually) and, not only is there nobody outside your door with a camera, there’s nobody at the publishing company who knows they’ve published your book. So I’m very grateful about what’s happened to me and my wife and I just focus on what’s so wonderful about it. The good thing about being a writer is that your book is the celebrity.”
He’s currently working with Sony Pictures on the film adaptation of Inferno and he hopes Tom Hanks will star as his bachelor hero. “I’m involved in the adaptation process but I’m a novelist, I don’t know how to make movies. I’m not the kind of person who tells Ron Howard (director of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons) how to make a movie.”
He says he never envisaged that The Da Vinci Code would create as much of a stir as it did among religious groups, who were horrified that he could write a story centred on the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a son together and their descendants are still around today. “I may have been naïve,” he admits, “but I grew up in a house where we could ask questions and where there was a dialogue about religion. My mother was very religious, but if I questioned Adam and Eve or how God made the earth in seven days, the questions were welcomed.”
How have the ten years since Da Vinci been? “The decade has been surreal,” Brown reflects, “but the writing process has not changed. I still get up at four in the morning. Writing is hard work. I take it very seriously. For every one page you read in Inferno, I’ve thrown out ten.”
He could easily afford to give it all up, but there are many more Langdon books in his head. So is Langdon really Brown?
“Langdon is much more interesting and intelligent than I am,” he says, smiling.
• Inferno by Dan Brown is published by Bantam, priced £20