The mind of Dan Brown may be a cluster of codes, but in person he appears no more mysterious than your average tennis partner. He is that smiling, sandy-haired man with the dimpled chin you know from the jacket flap of “The Da Vinci Code,” the sporty looking fellow in blazer and slacks.
After six years of letting his work do the talking — a conversation that whispered and screamed across the globe — he is back, at least briefly, to promote his new novel, “The Lost Symbol,” and to reflect on how “The Da Vinci Code” changed him from unknown thriller writer to a symbol in his own right.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he says, seated on a recent morning in a sunlit conference room at the headquarters of Random House, Inc. “It’s 95 percent wonderful. My life is much more multifaceted. My experiences havegotten to be much more interesting, the people I get to meet, the discussions I get to have.”
The book is done and he beams like a father, “so pleased this day has arrived.” His publisher has blessed “The Lost Symbol,” with a first printing of 5 million, oversized for virtually any writer except Brown, whose sales for “The Da Vinci Code” top 40 million. “The Lost Symbol” has been at or near the top of Amazon.com’s best-seller list since the novel was announced in the spring.
The long wait for his new book, he says, is mostly due to the story, “mindboggling stuff” which required time to master. In “The Lost Symbol,” protagonist Robert Langdon returns from his European adventures of “The Da Vinci Code.” He has been summoned to Washington, D.C., and is quickly caught up in a fateful race against a murderous villain to find a hidden code that supposedly unearths an ancient secret to limitless knowledge and power.
Like “The Da Vinci Code,” the new book is thriller, puzzler, research paper and travelogue. Langdon hurries about from the Library of Congress to the National Archives to the Washington Monument, a capsule of the journeys Brown took in working on the novel, traveling first class all the way, like receiving personal tours of the Library of Congress and other buildings.
“Those things wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for ‘The Da Vinci Code,’” he notes.
Library spokesman Matt Raymond confirmed that Brown had visited in April 2008 and had looked over some Bibles in the library’s collection. He also met for about 30 minutes with Librarian of Congress James Billington for a “private discussion.”
Fame’s unwonderful 5 percent is the kind that other major celebrities face: a loss of privacy that Brown says makes it impossible to tour for his new book, a heightened self-awareness that briefly, just a couple of months, he says, made it hard for him to write “The Lost Symbol.”
He was also delayed by the 2006 copyright infringement trial in which writers Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh claimed Brown’s book “appropriated the architecture” of their own work. Brown and Random House prevailed.
“That was certainly a setback, mainly because it was a distraction and all that the energy that goes into a trial is not going into your work,” he says. “The worst part of it was having someone question my integrity, publicly.”
He was attacked often for “The Da Vinci Code,” especially for alleging that Jesus and Mary Magdalene conceived a child. Scholars scorned him, and religious officials were offended, but Brown stands by his theory, finding it “makes more sense than the story I was told in church.”
Brown’s new book is centered on the Freemasons, the secretive, centuries-old fraternity that has included George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He has great respect for the Masons, especially for their policy of accepting people of all religious faiths. But he wouldn’t be surprised if someone gets angry.
“There will be a lot said, not all of it will be nice,” he says. “And I’m just kind of used to it.”
He doesn’t talk to a lot to the press, but Brown’s history is as known as most authors’ thanks in part to a mini-biography he never wished to produce — a 69-page court document submitted for the London trial.
He was born in 1964 in Exeter, N.H., and still lives near there. His father, Richard Brown, taught math at Exeter Phillips Academy. His mother, Constance Brown, was a musician. The first treasure hunts he knew were the ones his father arranged at Christmas.
Brown majored in English at Amherst College, but also liked music enough to debate after graduating whether he should write stories or songs. Choosing songs, he moved to Los Angeles and caught on with no one except for the woman who became his wife, Blythe Newlon, the director of artistic development for the National Academy of Songwriters.
As a young man, he compiled a list of “187 Men to Avoid,” which proved amusing enough for the Berkeley Publishing Group to release as a book, in 1995, under the pseudonym “Danielle Brown.” But his real breakthrough came two years earlier, on a vacation in Tahiti, when he read Sidney Sheldon’s “The Doomsday Conspiracy.”
“It held my attention, kept me turning pages, and reminded me how much fun it could be to read,” Brown wrote in his court papers. “The simplicity of the prose and the efficiency of the story line was less cumbersome than the dense novels of my schooldays, and I began to suspect that maybe I could write a ‘thriller’ of this type one day.”
He debuted in 1998 with “The Digital Fortress,” an intelligence thriller, and followed with “Deception Point” (a novel he found boring to write) and “Angels&Demons,” which introduced at least a few readers to Langdon, the Harvard professor embodied for many by Tom Hanks’ portrayals in the film versions of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons.”
His sales were poor and by 2001 he was in the same rut as so many authors — handling his own publicity and even selling books out of his car, a process that would now require a convoy of trucks.
Brown changed agents, changed publishers (from Simon&Schuster to Doubleday, a Random House imprint), changed his luck and changed the industry. “The Da Vinci Code,” published in March 2003 was an immediate hit that “just parked,” Brown says, remaining on best-seller lists for more than three years. He recalls an early sign of success — an appearance at a superstore in Washington, not longer after the book came out.
“We drove up and the store was just surrounded with people and I thought, ‘My god, there must have been a bomb scare. What are all these people?’ And my handler said, ‘Those people are here for you.’ And maybe that was the moment when I thought, ‘This is bigger than I expected.’”
Barnes&Noble Inc. fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley says she knew vaguely of Brown before “The Da Vinci Code,” but had never read him. Encouraged by a Barnes&Noble executive to try Brown’s novel, she was immediately drawn to the “breathless pace, the intrigue — the science and art were fascinating.”
“But I have to say my biggest takeaway from it was that I wanted to know more about everything he wrote about,” Hensley says. “I Googled my fingers off! It made me wish I had Robert Langdon or Dan Brown as a professor in my college years!”
Brown is far richer than he was a few years ago, but his working life remains steady, he says. He rises at 4 a.m. and writes until noon, seven days a week, even on Christmas. He is often too drained to read, so instead he will play tennis or go for a run on the beach. Mark Twain’s religious critique “Letters from the Earth” is one of the few books he has read for pleasure lately.
Brown will talk and talk about Twain, Masons, pyramids, spirituality (“a work in progress,” he says) and e-books (he reads them, and the paper kind, too), but some subjects repel as if were asked to violate a sacred oath. Ask about his next book and he will smile, in a nice way, and change the subject. Ask about politics, and he will cringe.
“The Lost Symbol” doesn’t name names, but works in criticisms of waterboarding and religious intolerance, passages that suggest the author was not a fan of the George W. Bush administration.
“The people who have read the book have told me that the timing of the book seems preordained,” he says. “And they will cite, among other references, the president (Obama) and the change in attitudes toward religion.”
Asked if the book was completed after Obama’s election, he answers, thoughtfully, yes. Asked for his opinion of Obama, hedeclines comment, for the very future of his book.
“What I’m trying to what to do in this book is send a universal message, and the second I pick a side, it just undermines everything,” he says, adding that he underwent a “transformation” from working on “The Lost Symbol.”
”(It’s) really two things. The idea that science is starting to show our true potential and that that potential is so much greater than most of us imagined. … Tangentially, I feel like we’re entering a time where prejudice, prejudice of religion in particular, will start to evaporate.”
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