Dan Brown knows there are literary types who pooh-pooh his special brand of thriller. But honestly, he has too many other things on his mind to worry about them, such as researching various aspects of art, history and religion and piecing together the intricate codes that have made his works bestsellers.
Besides, he likes the sort of books he writes.
“Whether you are a writer, a chef or a painter, all you have to guide you is your taste,” says the author of The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons, The Lost Symbol and most recently Inferno, an adrenaline-fueled puzzle that combines the artistic and architectural glory of Florence, Italy; Dante’s The Divine Comedy and a breakneck race against time. “All you can do is create the painting or the sculpture or the symphony you like. You can’t guess what people are going to like. You put it out there and hope people share your taste. People will like it or they won’t.
“Some readers are deeply entrenched in literary fiction or classics. They don’t care for my books. I don’t care for William Faulkner. I don’t beat up William Faulkner or people who read William Faulkner. It’s just my taste. ... I just write the book I would love to read.”
The marketplace would indicate that, whether or not they appreciate Faulkner, plenty of readers share Brown’s preferences (and, by the way, the New York Times called his last book “mind-blowing,” so take that, would-be critics). Brown, who opens the 30th anniversary edition of Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, is the author of one of the bestselling thrillers of all time ( The Da Vinci Code, which spawned a movie franchise starring Tom Hanks as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon; a script for The Lost Symbol is in the works, though Brown says a film for the more easily adapted Inferno is likely to be finished first). There are more than 200 million copies of Brown’s books in print in 52 languages. In 2005, he was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine, whose editors credited him with “keeping the publishing industry afloat” (also on the list that year: Barack Obama, LeBron James and recent Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro).
“Publishing is an interesting business,” says Jason Kaufman, the Doubleday editor who has worked with Brown for 15 years. “There are always a handful of authors who take off into the stratosphere. You can’t predict where they’ll come from or what type of book it will be. If 12 years ago you said that a novel about a character who’s an art historian and religious symbologist, who deciphered ancient codes and was a Harvard professor, would become such an unprecedented commercial success, people might’ve looked at you funny. ... I think what Dan does so well is combine unlikely elements, and he does it in such an interesting way he makes the material very accessible for a wide group of people. He just has such an innate curiosity about history and art and religion and codes.”
All those elements play vital roles in Inferno, in which Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital with an aching head wound and a bad case of amnesia. The only thing he knows: Some people seem to want him dead. Rescued by a beautiful doctor who, naturally, harbors secrets of her own, he finds himself pitted against a madman who has calculated that overpopulation will bring about the end of the world — a modern day Inferno, if you will — and he plans to do something drastic to stop it.
The keys to thwarting him lie hidden throughout Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance. And though the book leans most heavily on Dante for inspiration, the art lover in Brown couldn’t resist involving Sandro Botticelli’s famous Mappa dell’Inferno, a grotesque vision of what Dante imagined.
“I’m a very visual person,” Brown says. “A lot of the locations and artwork are really characters in the book.”
Brown, 49, had known for a long time he wanted to write about Dante’s Inferno. He came to The Divine Comedy the way many of us do: via the classroom. The Phillips Exeter Academy grad — he grew up on the campus, as his father was a math instructor there — read a “watered-down” version in Italian class and was even then amazed by its accessibility.
“It’s a very modern text for something written in the 1300s,” he says. “Of course, I love worlds that are full of symbols and religion, and The Divine Comedy is packed with both. I always try to write about something old and something new simultaneously, like combining the Vatican and antimatter. So I sort of always had my eye out for some modern twist on Inferno. The key was: How do I bring in a modern angle? How do I make it relevant to modern readers?”
The key was creating a villain who sees Dante’s Inferno not as literature but as prophecy, a zealot who believes he must destroy a big chunk of humankind to prevent its demise and provides intriguing moral complexity to the story.
“I love the gray area between right and wrong,” Brown says. “The most interesting villains are the ones you’re not sure if you should root for or against. I think it’s a great question — would you kill half of humanity to save humanity? It’s a conundrum. There’s no right answer. But the wrong answer is to do nothing, to bury your head in times of moral crisis. You can argue his methods are insane and dangerous, but someone could argue they’re the lesser of two evils.”
Examining the dilemma of combating overpopulation is serious business, but Brown, who lives with his wife in New England, also displays a wry sense of humor in the books and in real life. Check out his appearance a few weeks back on Comedy Central’s satire The Colbert Report, a grueling test for even the most quick-witted entertainers. (Before he went on, Colbert told him, “OK, just imagine that you are stuck in an elevator with a lunatic who is wrong about everything and you have to disavow him of all his illusions,” Brown says.) A good sport, the Amherst College grad stood up to the comedian’s rapid-fire lunacy and ended up enjoying himself.
Robert Langdon shares that low-key sense of humor, just as he shares Brown’s claustrophobia. In Inferno, Langdon shudders remembering the long, dark, crowded climb up the twisting staircase to the top of Florence’s Duomo. Brown is no fan of that tourist-infested climb, either: “I had to force myself to do it,” he admits. The author is “fond” of his leading man and says he hasn’t tired of his adventures just yet, though his own meticulous rewriting and editing make for a difficult process.
“He and I share profound intellectual curiosity,” Brown says. “I have a lot of different ideas for him. Writing in general is so challenging and so time-consuming that to me that’s the challenge. It’s not that I’m sick of the character. It’s the process that’s hard. ... I write every day. I mean 365 days a year. I get up at 4 a.m. even on Christmas Day. There’s a lot of trial and error. For every page I wrote I threw 10 out, and that is not an exaggeration.”