Few novels in recent history have created quite the stir that Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code did upon its publication in 2003. Both praised for its readability and ingenuity and lambasted as blasphemous, this modern day murder mystery surrounding secret messages hidden in mast painter Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous works became widely read, pondered, and analyzed. So, it may only be natural that one might believe that Spanish author Javier Sierra's The Secret Supper is just another post-Da Vinci Code clone. However, both the writer and the critics prove that this simply is not the case.
Sierra has had a lifelong fascination with travel, writing, and revealing history's most confounding mysteries. According to Sierra's web site, it was he who located the highly controversial map of Piri Reis in Turkey, which supposedly offers "definitive proof" that Christopher Columbus was not the first person to navigate a route to the New World. Sierra also embarked on a quest for the Lost Inca Gold in Peru. He has explored strange phenomena surrounding the ancient sect of the Knights Templar in his 2000 novel Las Puertas Templarias (The Templar Doors) and Napoleon's bizarre night alone in the Great Pyramid at Giza in El Secreto Egipcio de Napoleon (Napoleon's Egyptian Secret, 2002). Now he is using his exploratory acumen to shed further light on the secrets behind the real Da Vinci code.
In The Secret Supper, Sierra takes us back to the late 15th century when Leonardo Da Vinci was very much alive and stirring up controversy amongst his contemporaries after church officials discovered subversive codes in his painting "The Last Supper." What follows is a church investigation led by Father Agostino Leyre regarding Da Vinci's intentions behind the mysterious messages he scattered in this world-renowned work of sacred art. While this plot may easily be mistaken for its more famous predecessor, Sierra had wholly different intentions in writing The Secret Supper than Dan Brown had when writing his novel. "A few pages of [The Da Vinci Code] were enough to resuscitate an enigma on which I had been already working for more than two years," Sierra said of The Secret Supper on his web site. "A mystery that, far from being solved in The Da Vinci Code, merited an exploration it had yet to receive... To accomplish this, one would have to manage something very important that the Dan Brown had never attempted: to enter the mind of Leonardo."
Sierra attempted to achieve this by setting forth on a globe-trotting journey to unveil the real meaning behind "The Last Supper." The discoveries that the author made during his treks to Paris, Milan, Rome, Florence, and the Tuscan village of Da Vinci formed the basis of The Secret Supper. "I started the field research of the book in 2001, before the publication of Brown's bestseller," Sierra said. "That was good for my work because I was able to consult files and places that today are crowded by readers of the Code."
Impressively, Sierra's own take on the mysteries swirling around Da Vinci's legacy have not been overshadowed by the imposing reputation cast by The Da Vinci Code. The Secret Supper has received wide critical acclaim from such sources as Publishers Weekly, The Guardian, and Kirkus Reviews, which went as far as to say that "Sierra is a more sophisticated writer than Dan Brown, and he offers fresh perspective on the Renaissance mind."
Apparently, it is neither the opinions of the critics nor those of his readers that are most prominently on Sierra's mind. "It took me three years to discover [the secrets behind ‘The Last Supper'], Sierra explained on his web site. "The same number of years that Leonardo took to create his version of ‘The Last Supper.' But before letting the world know his secret, even in the form of a novel, I wanted to ask him permission at his tomb... Whether Leonardo granted it to me or not, readers will now be able to judge for themselves."
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Sierra has not limited his explorations of the unknown to the printed page. In 2004, he created and directed his very own television program for Telemadrid called El otro lado de la realidad (The Other Side of Reality).
While many kids were spending their teenage years bored in journalism class, Sierra was tackling a full-blown career in journalism. At the age of 16, he was writing articles for the Spanish press; at 18 he was a co-founder of an international magazine called Año Cero (Year Zero).
Some interesting outtakes from our interveiw with Sierra:
"I love those little details in a book that you can check for yourself. I always travel with a notebook where I write down those pieces of information that could be useful to complete a sequence in my books. If you want to play this game, I invite you to check those ‘little facts' included in The Secret Supper. Every café mentioned in my books exists; any house, façade, cemetery or park, also. It is always enjoyable when you can rediscover these little ‘secrets'!"
"In an eventual future life, I would like to be a musician. As with literature, music possesses an invisible energy that you can transform into something real. And that's just magic!"
"One of my favorite places to visit are old bookshops. It is a strange pleasure to smell those old volumes, and to know that I could find a treasure ‘buried' between them. From my early childhood, I always regarded books as ‘treasure maps,' and in a way, they are. They can bring you to remote cultures and exotic countries without your ever having to leave your armchair."
"One of my favorite hobbies is to visit sacred places around the world. They always attract me like a magnet. It doesn´t matter if they are sacred places of Christians, Muslims, Hebrews, ancient Greeks or modern sects. It is not a question of faith, and it is not just curiosity. I can't explain it, but I ‘know' I must visit them. In a way, doing so I feel like Sir Parcival searching for the Holy Grail. And this act of searching for the sacred is a very powerful tool for writing."
"I love receiving correspondence. I do not refer to e-mails, but to classic posted letters. My father worked as a postman many years, and I discovered with him the strange pleasure of sending a message and waiting impatiently for an answer."
"For me, the place where I live is extremely important. I chose a city on the Mediterranean coast because the sea provides me serenity. For seventeen years I lived in Madrid, with the sea more than three hundred kilometres away, and that was not good for my mind, believe me!"
"And just one secret: when relaxed, I like to draw comic-like stories. I have a great collection of them in my files."
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In the spring of 2006, Javier Sierra took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
When I was fourteen, I read a Spanish besteller entitled Caballo de Troya (The Trojan Horse). It was a novel written by Juan José Benítez in such a believable style that, from its very first pages, you accept that the book was telling the truth about a NASA secret project to launch a time machine to the time of Christ. I read that book twice, and I was so fascinated by its argument that I decided to become a writer to tell such marvellous stories.
Soon afterwards arrived classical authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne and Agatha Christie.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Orion Mystery by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert -- This nonfiction book taught me how to understand the Ancient Egyptian's mind, and to discover how important the stars were for them.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown -- Because this book created a worldwide interest in subjects that have been of interest to me for many years.
Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral by Louis Charpentier -- This book revealed the astronomical alignments of the famous French cathedral and inspired one of my first novels and several of my favourite travels in Europe. Years later, I had the honor of writing a prologue for the new edition.
The Eight by Katherine Neville -- I love the way Neville mixed contemporary stories with ancient ones, like the French Revolution.
The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier -- Their wide research on historical mysteries uncovered a complete universe to me. In their pages I learned how influential occultism has been in modern world.
The Golden Bough by J. G. Frazer -- An astounding treatise on comparative religions around the world. This is one of the greatest anthropological studies of all time.
El escarabajo verde (The Green Beetle) by Philipp Vandenberg -- This novel, which has not yet been translated into English, is in my opinion one of those "perfect literary machines" published in the 20th century. Everything in it works like in a Swiss clock.
En busca del Unicornio (In Search of the Unicorn) by Juan Eslava Galán -- Although this title is not yet available in English, it is a wonderful novel about how myths influenced the history of Europe.
Gods, Graves and Scholars by C. W. Ceram -- His description of the discovery of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun still makes me wonder if one day I could work as an archaeologist in Luxor.
Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken -- This controversial bestseller from the 1970s convinced me how fascinating ancient history can be. I read it when I was only twelve.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I must admit that I am from the Star Wars generation. The first time I went to a cinema was to enjoy "Chapter IV" and I became really impressed. Later on, I loved epic films like the Indiana Jones series, or the first two films of the Harry Potter series. But I also really appreciate good sci-fi movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and even lesser-known movies of the ‘70s, like Capricorn One. I love the way Hollywood made us dream with magic!
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
It depends of the subject of my book. When I wrote my first novel, The Lady in Blue, which was about certain Indian legends of the American Southwest, I needed some music from Hopi and Navajo tribes to create a proper working atmosphere. After a couple of weeks driving throughout New Mexico and Arizona, I found some beautiful mixes between local rhythms and Vangelis-like sounds. And they inspired me!
The "miracle" of finding the right music happened again when I discovered a CD called "Mozart in Egypt" while working for my third novel, Napoleon's Egyptian Secret. It happened once again during my work on The Secret Supper. This time, it was a special CD edition of music played with instruments designed by Leonardo himself and built by a group of Spanish musicians.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
For sure, Reading Pictures by Alberto Manguel. He is the translator of The Secret Supper, and just when he finished his work I discovered this title. By an incredible coincidence, the subject of his book (published in 2000) has many points in common with the argument of my own novel.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books with fine reproductions of ancient maps, or old-fashioned archaeological engravings from the Yucatán or the Nile. I find that these kind of books are like passports to other places and times.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Lots of notes and books! I usually delay a lot the moment of writing. Before starting a new project, I need to buy a nice notebook in which to write ideas, thoughts, and lists of books to consult, as well as to add news clippings and even pictures. It is like creating a "treasure box" that I can open every time I need something new for my novel.
What are you working on now?
I am working simultaneously on two different books: a nonfiction one about the mysteries surrounding the discovery of America in the fifteenth century, and a novel about Jerusalem. But, as you know, things could change....
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It has taken me almost a decade to be considered a good writer in my own country. This was because in Europe, critics are not as open to new writers as they are in America. But after my first good reviews, my books soon became available to an increasing number of readers, librarians and booksellers. And I enjoy receiving their comments and feel their enthusiasm for my researches and stories.
But I must confess that the best decision of my career was to search for a literary agent. She changed it all. It happened after a discussion with one of my publishers. At that time, I had published two books with him. When I sent him the manuscript of my third novel, I explained to him my conviction that my book was a good thriller and probably it would be a bestseller. But he didn't believe it could happen and refused to design a marketing campaign for the book. After that disapointing decision, and after creating by myself my own marketing campaign and pushing the book to the bestseller lists, I looked for an agent. And I found a wonderful one, Antonia Kerrigan, who has helped me a lot since then.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
There are many excellent writers in Spain ready to be discovered by English speaking readers. But I am sure that in years to come, names like Rafael Ábalos, Juan Eslava Galán and David Zurdo will be translated into English and appreciated by everyone.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
My personal law is "to write only about what you love to read." If you do so, you will never fail in the selection of a story to tell to your readers. Of course, it is very important to hear your own voice and to feel comfortable with your own style.
A good way to enter in the literary world is to write short tales. Try as many styles as possible and after some months of work, you will be able to decide which of them are the best. There you will find your own way. It is very important to be authentic with yourself.
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