Novelist Dan Brown may not have invented the literary thriller, but his groundbreaking tour de force The Da Vinci Code -- with its irresistible mix of religion, history, art, and science -- is the gold standard for a flourishing genre.
Born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1964, Brown attended Phillips Exeter Academy (where his father taught), and graduated from Amherst with a double major in Spanish and English. After college he supported himself through teaching and enjoyed moderate success as a musician and songwriter.
Brown credits Sidney Sheldon with jump-starting his literary career. Up until 1994, his reading tastes were focused sharply on the classics. Then, on vacation in Tahiti, he stumbled on a paperback copy of Sheldon's novel The Doomsday Conspiracy. By the time he finished the book, he had decided he could do as well. There and then, he determined to try his hand at writing. His first attempt was a pseudonymously written self-help book for women co-written with his future wife Blythe Newlon. Then, in 1998, he published his first novel, Digital Fortress -- followed in swift succession by Angels and Demons and Deception Point. None the three achieved commercial success.
Then, in 2003, Brown hit the jackpot with his fourth novel, a compulsively readable thriller about a Harvard symbiologist who stumbles on an ancient conspiracy in the wake of a shocking murder in the Louvre. Combining elements from the fields of art, science, and religion, The Da Vinci Code became the biggest bestseller in publishing history, inspiring a big-budget movie adaptation and fueling interest in Brown's back list.
In addition, The Da Vinci Code became the subject of raging controversy, inspiring a spate of books by scholars and theologians who disputed several of the book's claims and accused Brown of distorting and misrepresenting religious history. The author, whose views on the subject are stated clearly on his website, remains unperturbed by the debate, proclaiming that all dialogue, even the most contentious, is powerful, positive, and healthy.
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Brown revealed the inspiration for his labyrinthine thriller during a writer's address in Concord, New Hampshire. "I was studying art history at the University of Seville (in Spain), and one morning our professor started class in a most unusual way. He showed us a slide of Da Vinci's famous painting "The Last Supper"... I had seen the painting many times, yet somehow I had never seen the strange anomalies that the professor began pointing out: a hand clutching a dagger, a disciple making a threatening gesture across the neck of another... and much to my surprise, a very obvious omission, the apparent absence on the table of the cup of Christ... The one physical object that in many ways defines that moment in history, Leonardo Da Vinci chose to omit." According to Brown, this reintroduction to an ancient masterpiece was merely "the tip of the ice burg." What followed was an in-depth explanation of clues apparent in Da Vinci's painting and his association with the Priory of Sion that set Brown on a path toward bringing The Da Vinci Code into existence.
If only all writers could enjoy this kind of success: in early 2004, all four of Brown's novels were on the New York Times Bestseller List in a single week!
In our interview with Brown, he shared some of his writing rituals:
"If I'm not at my desk by 4:00 a.m., I feel like I'm missing my most productive hours. In addition to starting early, I keep an antique hourglass on my desk and every hour break briefly to do push-ups, sit-ups, and some quick stretches. I find this helps keep the blood -- and ideas -- flowing.
"I'm also a big fan of gravity boots. Hanging upside down seems to help me solve plot challenges by shifting my entire perspective."
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In the winter of 2003, Dan Brown answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life?
Until I graduated from college, I had read almost no modern commercial fiction at all (having focused primarily on the "classics" in school). In 1994, while vacationing in Tahiti, I found an old copy of Sydney Sheldon's Doomsday Conspiracy on the beach. I read the first page...and then the next...and then the next. Several hours later, I finished the book and thought, Hey, I can do that. Upon my return, I began work on my first novel -- Digital Fortress -- which was published in 1996.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck -- Simple, suspenseful, and poignant. Better yet, the first paragraph of every chapter is a master class in writing effective description.
Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer -- I was amazed how well Archer handled the long time spans without ever losing the narrative pulse. The ultimate novel of sibling rivalry.
Plum Island by Nelson DeMille -- He remains the master of substance, wry humor, and controlled point of view.
The Bourne Identity series by Robert Ludlum -- Ludlum's early books are complex, smart, and yet still move at a lightning pace. This series got me interested in the genre of big-concept, international thrillers.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare -- I didn't understand how funny this play truly was until I became an English teacher and had to teach it. There is no wittier dialogue anywhere.
Wordplay: Ambigrams and Reflections on the Art of Ambigrams by John Langdon -- Artist and philosopher John Langdon is one of our true geniuses. His book changed the way I think about symmetry, symbols, and art.
Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter -- The 3 percent I actually understood was fascinating.
Codes Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communication by Fred Wrixon -- A phenomenal encyclopedia of the art, science, history, and philosophy of cryptology.
The Puzzle Palace by James Bamford -- Although dated, this book is still one of the most captivating inside looks at the covert world of America's premier intelligence agency.
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White -- Because who can possibly remember all the rules of grammar and punctuation?
What are some of your favorite films?
My all-time favorites would have to be Fantasia, Life Is Beautiful, Annie Hall, and Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. Of course, if you're looking for pure popcorn entertainment, you can't beat Indiana Jones or the Pink Panther series.
What types of music do you like?
I've recently become hooked on the Spanish singer Franco de Vita. I also listen to the Gypsy Kings, Enya, Sarah McLachlan, and (if I'm feeling old) the very young and talented songwriter Vanessa Carlton.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special to you?
John Steinbeck for his descriptions, Robert Ludlum for his plotting, and Shakespeare for his wordplay.
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
This will sound nerdish, but the all-time best "gift book" has to be a leather-bound copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. How can you go wrong? Of course, don't forget a magnifying glass to go with it.
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