Dan Brown has an interesting solution to solving plot challenges. The award-winning author, who has written six bestsellers that have sold a mind-boggling 200 million copies, revealed a trick he resorts to when faced with plot twists.
“I strap on my gravity shoes and hang upside down in my loft where I work,” he says. “I don’t know whether it’s because you’re getting so much oxygen to your brain or whether the world feels different, but I’ve had a lot of good ideas hanging upside down. It helps you see the world in a new way… gives you a new perspective on things and solves plot twists.”
Clearly, doing the bat act is not the only thing that has helped propel him to the top of the bestsellers list. The 50-year-old author, who is the main guest at the Sharjah International Book Fair, which runs from November 5-15, admits that he sometimes spends years doing painstaking research around the world before even writing a word.
All that hard work has paid off. His 2013 offering Inferno sold a staggering 228,961 copies in its first week on sale in the UK alone. Prior to this, The Lost Symbol stayed on The New York Times’s hardcover fiction bestseller list for 29 weeks and has 30 million copies in print worldwide. Two of his books, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, have been adapted into successful films.
Dan, who is excited about coming to Sharjah – “I’ve heard wonderful accounts of this event, which is one of the largest book fairs in the world” – believes the reason his books are so hugely popular is “I write the kind of novel that I would like to read”.
But being an author wasn’t top of Dan’s list of possible careers when he was growing up in New Hampshire, US. With musical notes often wafting through his home – his father Richard was a maths teacher and an accomplished musician and his mother, Connie, an organist – he initially wanted to take up a career as a musician. “But though I liked music, I also enjoyed books,” he says. Not having a television while growing up was a good thing too because “I read voraciously.”
Dan began writing short stories when he was five. “I used to read a lot and write, and greatly enjoyed the creative process,” he says in an exclusive interview with Friday. But the author, who was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine in 2005 for, among other things, keeping the publishing industry afloat, admits that he hadn’t read a thriller when he was young. “In fact, I had read almost no modern commercial fiction at all having focused primarily on the ‘classics’ while in school,” he says.
But in 1994, while on a vacation in Tahiti, he chanced upon a book that would change his life. “I was on the beach when I found a discarded copy of Sidney Sheldon’s The Doomsday Conspiracy. I read the first page, then the next… and then the next. Several hours later, I finished the book and thought ‘Hey, I could do that’.”
Back home he set to work on his first novel and two years later, published Digital Fortress – a book that explores the theme of government surveillance of electronically captured data on the private lives of citizens. It enjoyed moderate success and four years later, Dan followed it up with Angels & Demons – the tale of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon trying to stop a legendary secret society from destroying the Vatican City.
A year later came Deception Point. Set deep in the Arctic Circle, it explored a tale of extraterrestrial life, scientific trickery and political machinations.
Although not spectacular successes, the books were positioning Dan as a thriller writer to look out for.
Then in 2004, his fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, exploded on to the publishing world – and almost overnight Dan Brown became a household name.
The story takes off at breakneck speed after Robert Langdon stumbles on an ancient conspiracy that begins in the Louvre. The elderly curator of the museum is found murdered and near the body is a baffling cipher. Langdon’s attempt to solve the enigmatic riddle leads him on a trail of clues hidden in the artist’s works.
The book sold more than 80 million copies – Barnes & Noble termed it the biggest bestseller in publishing history – and inspired a movie with Tom Hanks in the lead,
“The inspiration for the book came while I was studying art history in Spain in 1995,” Dan says. His professor showed them The Last Supper by Da Vinci in class one day, and pointed out subtle anomalies – a hand clutching a dagger, among other things – and realising there could be more hidden symbols in the famous work of art, Dan decided to make it the plot for a novel.
He reportedly spent more than two years researching religion, symbols, art and history before getting down to writing the book.
“Part of the research is very exciting… you end up in catacombs, in chapels, and some pretty interesting places,” he says. A lot of it also involved talking “to people who are in important positions and who know a lot and who are sometimes willing to share it with you” and reading books. “For The Da Vinci Code, maybe not cover to cover, but I certainly used a couple hundred books. And that many interviews as well.”
The success of the book was phenomenal. “People came up to me and said that they had not read anything since high school or college but had now rediscovered the fun of reading,” said Dan. Not surprisingly, along with the book’s success came wealth too. This year Forbes listed him at 78 in the top 100 celebrities, with earnings at $28 million. But it hasn’t changed his life that much, he insists. “My wife and I have simple tastes. A lot of money’s going to charity.”
Having hit upon a successful formula, Dan went back to his loft and in 2009 returned with The Lost Symbol. The book created a record as the fastest-selling UK hardback, notching up 550,946 copies during its opening week. Fans queued up for hours across the world to grab a copy on launch day.
So what are a few of his favourite books of all time?
“I’ve always loved Of Mice and Men because the first paragraph of every chapter is a master class in writing effective description.
“Next is Gödel, Escher, Bach [by Douglas Hofstadter]. Although I do not fully understand it, the manner in which it connected different philosophies and art forms was inspirational to me in the creation of my character Robert Langdon – a symbologist who specialises in the entanglement and intertwining of different symbols and philosophies.
“Then there’s Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer. The ultimate novel of sibling rivalry,” he says.
So is he planning to set any of his novels in the region? “My character Robert Langdon is a specialist in Western art, symbols and religion,” says Dan. “His knowledge of Islamic theology is very limited so I do not imagine I will immerse him in this region soon.”
And has he decided on the subject of his next book?
In his typical style shrouded in secrecy, he says: “I prefer to keep the subject of my next book a secret until publication day.”