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The Dan Brown Enigma
The Biography of the World's Greatest Thriller Writer
By Graham A. Thomas
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Graham A. Thomas
All rights reserved.
JUST THE FACTS
Failure was not an option. For the longest time he stared at the blank screen in front of him; around him lay the books and papers he was using for his research. He and his wife had been through them all. Now was the moment of truth: the time to start writing.
He'd written three books so far, all well received but flops at the booksellers. Yet in his heart and his soul he knew they were good. This was what he was meant to do, wasn't it? He'd even had his eureka moment which had showed him writing was his true calling. But they hadn't sold. His music career in L.A. hadn't worked out either, so now his fourth novel just had to work. The pressure was on. If this book didn't sell then he'd be back teaching again. He knew he couldn't face that.
He felt the pressure keenly and he felt the failure deeply as well. It was now or never. He and his wife had travelled to Europe twice and investigated the Louvre museum in Paris as thoroughly as they could. He'd read countless books on religion and the Sacred Feminine. He stared at the keys knowing that they would not move by themselves. He looked at the headset that he used for dictating and which freed him to move around his little cottage. Now was not the time for that technology. Now he had to start typing.
The cursor blinked. He touched a key on the keyboard and the letter appeared on the screen. What was his big idea for this book? Though it wasn't yet completely clear he knew it would come to him. This one just had to work.
And indeed it did. The book in question was The Da Vinci Code and the man behind it was Daniel Gerhard Brown – Dan Brown.
Brown has said he is a very private person, so to know the man we need to look at how he writes, because there must be something special about a man who has probably sold more books than any other writer.
How does he do it? Is it the fact that he hangs upside down in his anti-gravity boots two or three times a day? 'You're hanging upside down and you're seeing the world through a different lens and I think you think differently,' Brown said. 'I may be crazy but I've solved a bunch of good problems upside down.'
To spend as much time as Brown does on researching his books – The Lost Symbol took six years – he must have an abiding passion in what he is researching. 'If you are researching secret societies, abstruse science or all things ancient, it could take a lot of extra time,' Brown remarked. 'All things arcane interest me.'
But before we delve deeper let's look at some basic facts about the man. He was born on 22 June 1964, in Exeter, New Hampshire in the United States. He is the eldest of three children and his father, Richard G. Brown, taught mathematics until he retired in 1982. Both his mother and father are musicians and singers, having served as church choirmasters and his mother as a church organist in the Episcopalian faith in which he grew up.
As a child, his home life was filled with puzzles, mysteries and secrets where codes and ciphers, created by his parents, were used to set up intricate challenges. As a boy he would spend many happy hours working out anagrams and completing difficult crossword puzzles. On family holidays he and his two younger siblings would go on treasure hunts devised by his father. At Christmas, instead of finding gifts under the tree, the children would take part in a treasure hunt for gifts throughout the house and sometimes through the town. Indeed, Chapter 23 of The Da Vinci Code was inspired by one of these childhood treasure hunts.
Brown's high school years were spent at Phillips Exeter Academy, which gave him a real grounding for his life. To show how much this school meant to him, Brown made his main character, Robert Langdon, a graduate of Phillips Exeter.
After high school Brown went to Amherst College, where he studied art history and writing among other subjects. Here he was a student of visiting novelist Alan Lelchuk, sang in the Amherst Glee Club and was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. In 1985 he attended the University of Seville in Spain, where he was enrolled as an art history student. The following year he graduated from Amherst.
Once he'd left college Brown attempted a career in music. Using synthesisers he first recorded and produced a children's cassette, Synth Animals, that featured synthesised animal noises. It sold a few hundred copies.
Deciding to move on to the adult market, he formed his own record company and produced his first album, Perspective, but that too sold only a few hundred copies. Undaunted, Brown moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to pursue a career in music. His goal was to be a singer-songwriter and he taught classes at Beverly Hills Preparatory School to support himself while he did so.
His life changed when he joined the National Academy of Songwriters. He attended many different events held by the Academy and at one of them he met Blythe Newlon. Twelve years older than Brown, she was the Director of Artist Development for the Academy at the time.
The two quickly formed a bond and she helped to promote Brown's musical projects. Although it was not officially part of her job, she set up promotional events, wrote and sent out press releases and put him in contact with key people who could help him in his musical career. While this was going on the pair formed a relationship they kept quiet from their friends and associates. It only came to light when Brown moved back to New Hampshire and Blythe went with him.
The aspiring singer-songwriter released his first CD, Dan Brown, in 1993 and followed that up with Angels & Demons the following year. Now his wife, Blythe was thanked in the liner notes for being his co-producer, co-writer 'significant other and therapist'.
Back home in New Hampshire, Brown took up teaching English at his alma mater, Phillips Exeter, and also taught Spanish at Lincoln Akerman School to sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
But all this time Dan Brown had been writing. 'In school I read all the classics through high school and university, and as a kid it was the Hardy Boys, but I never read any adult thrillers,' he says. 'I assumed adults read classics. But when I went on holiday to Tahiti I found a copy of Sydney Sheldon's Doomsday Conspiracy and thought, "Wow, this is fast-paced and fun and interesting, and maybe I can do something like that.'"
Thus inspired, Brown began work on Digital Fortress, a thriller set in Spain and Maryland. The book was published in 1998 but before that he and his wife co-wrote the humour book 187 Men to Avoid: A Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman. It was under the pseudonym Danielle Brown but the copyright is attributed to Dan Brown.
In 1996 Brown gave up teaching to become a full-time writer. He wrote two more thrillers, Deception Point and Angels & Demons, before hitting the big time with The Da Vinci Code.
These are the basic facts. Now let's dig a little deeper.CHAPTER 2
WHO IS DAN BROWN?
Some of us find our miracles in the pages of Holy Scripture and some of us find our miracles in the pages of Scientific American.
Dan Brown is an enigma, a very private man. Little is known about him and what makes him tick, other than what he himself has revealed. He is fascinated by puzzles, treasure hunts and all things arcane, which is apt since piecing together the facts of his life is like going on a treasure hunt for clues that reveal a little bit more about him.
Brown's father, Richard G. Brown, taught mathematics at Phillips Exeter Academy and wrote a bestselling series of textbooks – the first was entitled Advanced Mathematics: Precalculus with Discrete Mathematics and Data Analysis, which is still considered an important tool for teaching advanced mathematics. Indeed, he was honoured by President George H. W. Bush in 1989 when he received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching.
Both Brown's parents were creative. Both have been church choirmasters and members of a Symphony Chorus that toured the US and Europe. His mother, Connie, has a master's degree in sacred music and was a professional church organist, while his father sings and acts in musical theatre. 'This love of music, like many things my parents loved, was inherited by me. When I was at Amherst I was very interested in music composition and creative writing. I also loved languages.'
The Brown family lived on campus and young Dan – the eldest of three children, with brother Gregory and sister Valerie – grew up in an atmosphere of academia. Brown, however, had a very interesting childhood because he did not spend his time staring at the TV. The family didn't have one. 'I had a dog and we lived up in the White Mountains in the summer and I had no friends up there and I would go and play hide-and-seek with my dog and probably had some imaginary friends. They have since left and I spend my life now with a lot of other imaginary friends.'
His life was also filled with secrets, puzzles and treasure hunts. Codes and ciphers were the order of the day as they tied into the mathematics, music and languages that were part of the work of his parents. He would spend hours working on crosswords or trying to devise anagrams. On holidays, the three children would go on treasure hunts created by their father to keep them occupied. As already stated, at Christmas, rather than just ripping open their presents in the usual way, the Brown kids would be foraging throughout the house and outside, following treasure maps drawn up by their father to find out where their gifts were hidden. The clues would include limericks or mathematical puzzles leading the kids to the next clue. 'And so, for me, at a young age, treasure hunts were always exciting,' Brown said.
Clearly this was something that has stayed with him, because at their core each of his novels is a treasure hunt: the protagonist is following a series of clues to figure out the mystery and save the day.
Writing came early to Brown. He was just five years old when he wrote his first book, The Giraffe, The Pig and the Pants On Fire. 'I dictated it to my mum and I did all the illustrations,' he recalled.
When Brown was nine years old he went to Washington D.C. with his parents and was fascinated by its museums. What he saw there also stuck with him and as he grew up his interest in art and architecture also grew. This fascination for the country's capital would later show itself in the backdrop for The Lost Symbol.
Science and religion were bedfellows in the Brown household and as he grew up young Dan was torn between the two. 'I was lost from day one,' he said. 'Where science offered exciting proofs of its claims, religion was a lot more demanding, constantly wanting me to accept everything on faith. Faith takes a fair amount of effort, especially for a young child in an imperfect world. So as a boy I graduated towards the solid foundations of science but the further I progressed, the mushier the ground started to get.'
Brown, who was raised Episcopalian, was very religious as a child but around the ninth grade he began to look beyond religion, studying astronomy, cosmology and the origins of the universe. When he tackled a church minister about the contradiction between science saying there was an explosion known as the Big Bang and the Bible saying God made the earth in seven days, and asked which was right, the response was a letdown: 'Nice boys don't ask that question.' That was the point when a light bulb went on in Brown's head and he decided the Bible was not logical. He gravitated away from religion to science, which made far more sense to him.
Except it didn't. The more he studied science, the more he saw that: 'Physics becomes metaphysics and numbers become imaginary numbers. You start to say, "Oh, there is an order and a spiritual aspect to science."' This interplay fascinated Brown and drew him to Leonardo da Vinci, a man who also believed that science and religion complemented each other. It was an interest that would eventually play a big part in The Da Vinci Code.
As a child the Brown family lived on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy but by the time Brown attended the school there the family was living off campus on Nelson Drive in Exeter and Brown was a day student studying English and Spanish among other things. 'While at Phillips Exeter and [later] Amherst College, I pursued advanced writing courses and was published in school literary magazines,' he explained. 'At Exeter, I chose creative writing as my senior project. At Amherst, I applied for and was accepted to a special writing course with visiting novelist Alan Lelchuk.'
Brown also managed to get on to two exchange programmes, both for Spain. The first time was a two-month world tour with the Amherst College Glee Club in the summer of 1983 that brought him face to face with some of the great architecture and cultures of Europe. He fell in love with Spain when he first arrived and managed to get back again a few years later. After graduating from Amherst College, he decided that Spain was the place he wanted to be, so in 1987 he left New Hampshire for the sunny climes of Seville, where he spent the summer studying an art history course at that city's university.
'This art course covered the entire history of World Art, from the Egyptians to Jackson Pollock,' Brown recalled. 'The professor's slide presentations included images ranging from the pyramids, religious icons, renaissance painting and sculpture, all the way through to the pop artists of modem times.'
These studies opened Brown's eyes to the idea of art as communication between the artist and the beholder, and he discovered a new language of symbols and metaphor. He could suddenly see the hidden meanings in Picasso's Guernica and its violent images have stayed with him ever since. 'The course covered many other works that resonated with me as a young man, including the horror of Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son and the bizarre anamorphic sexual nightmares of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.'
Brown discovered, too, that there were dark qualities to Da Vinci's The Last Supper, which inspired him to find out about that painting and Da Vinci himself. He recalled: 'I remember the professor pointing out things I hadn't seen before, including a disembodied hand clutching a dagger and a disciple making a threatening gesture across the throat of another.'
It was not just the art course that influenced Brown greatly but the country of Spain as well. Years after taking that course, the architecture and streets of Spain became the backdrop for much of the action in his first novel, Digital Fortress.CHAPTER 3
Over the course of the ten years after college, I wrote and produced four albums of original music. I met my wife, Blythe, through the National Academy of Songwriters, where she was the Director of Artist Development. Blythe, like me, loved art. She also was a very talented painter. Despite the Academy's best efforts to promote me, my music career never really took off.
Although Brown had been writing since he was a child, it was music that beckoned when he graduated from Amherst College in May 1986. He'd been taking piano lessons since he was 10 and now he wanted a shot at writing music. 'I had two loves,' he said, 'writing fiction and writing music.'
Singing with the Amherst College Glee Club enabled him to sign up for a world tour which took a few months and covered more than a dozen countries. 'I would never have seen those countries otherwise,' he said. 'It was amazing.' Indeed, this exposure to new cultures was the most important part of the trip for him.
Brown doesn't do anything by halves. When he graduated from Amherst College he decided to make his mark on the world of pop music, and stayed in Exeter to teach himself the basics of composing and recording music. He could have gone totally unprepared to the West Coast with a dream, as many people do. But he didn't. His education had prepared him to be confident enough to try all kinds of things and to be a well-rounded individual who could be competent at almost anything. So Brown purchased some recording gear, bought a synthesiser and set out to become a singer-songwriter.
Excerpted from The Dan Brown Enigma by Graham A. Thomas. Copyright © 2011 Graham A. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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