Nothing's lost on Dan Brown as long-awaited 'Symbol' arrives
Master-of-the-cliffhanger Dan Brown has followed The Da Vinci Code with The Lost Symbol, another thriller starring Harvard professor Robert Langdon.
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's thriller to be released Tuesday — his first since 2003's The Da Vinci Code— includes a scene that Brown says came from his own life.
In the new novel, Brown's recurring hero, Harvard professor Robert Langdon, is recognized by a fan who tells him: "My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused! You do enjoy putting the fox in the henhouse!"
Langdon, who in Brown's fiction writes non-fiction books about symbols and religion, replies, "Scandal wasn't really my intention."
Is that a reference to Da Vinci, which has sold 80 million copies worldwide, and was driven by the idea that the Vatican covered up Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene?
"Of course," Brown says and laughs.
Three years ago, facing a British copyright infringement suit over The Da Vinci Code (decided in his favor), Brown says a woman recognized him, and used that phrase: "Putting the fox in the henhouse."
He replied the way Langdon does in the novel. But if scandal isn't his intention, what is?
"To mix facts into a fictional setting and get readers to ask questions about what they believe. But to make it fun to read. Someone said it's like eating vegetables that taste like ice cream. That's a little simplistic."
Brown's thrillers are anything but simplistic. The Lost Symbol, a 509-page puzzle, is set in modern-day Washington, D.C.
It's driven by a Masonic legend: hidden in the nation's capital is a map or portal that leads to a body of secret knowledge, that as Langdon puts it, "allegedly enables its practitioners to access powerful abilities that lie dormant in the human mind."
The map may not literally be a map. And for much of the novel, it's not clear what's real and what's metaphorical symbolism.
But with a first printing of 5 million copies, there's no doubt that Symbol promises to be the publishing event of 2009.
Brown says he knew he had to do two things to appeal to his fans: "They had to immediately know they were back in Langdon's world, but that the story was fresh."
Langdon is a professor of "symbology." (Brown says there's no such academic field. "The closest is symbiotics.") He becomes entangled in a search for a madman who has kidnapped Langdon's mentor, Peter Solomon, director of the Smithsonian Institution.
The madman offers clues, starting with Solomon's severed hand, left on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda. His fingertips, tattooed with Masonic symbols, point up to the ceiling and an actual 1865 painting of George Washington as a god.
Washington, like most of the Founding Fathers, was a member of the Freemasons, the secretive and mysterious fraternal order.
Citing national security, the CIA gets involved for reasons that aren't explained until Chapter 117.
(Brown likes short chapters that end with cliffhangers: "I respect my readers. Whatever is there makes the book move.")
More clues are found throughout Washington, including Melencolia I, a 1514 engraving by Albrecht Dürer in the National Gallery. As Langdon explains, "The symbolism in Melencolia I is so complex it makes Leonardo da Vinci look overt."
A childhood curiosity
Brown, 45, has been intrigued by the Masons since his childhood in Exeter, N.H., where his father taught at Phillips Exeter prep school: "Their lodge was above the theater, and the shades were always drawn."
Much of the pre-publication speculation about the novel assumed it would be critical of the Masons, in the way that many saw Da Vinci as an attack on the Catholic hierarchy.
But that's not the case. "It's a reverent look at their philosophy," Brown says. "I'm more interested in what they believe than all their rituals and conspiracy theories about them. That's in the novel, but it's discredited."
Brown, a former singer/songwriter, studied writing as a student at Amherst College, but became a novelist almost by accident. In 1994, he was on vacation in Tahiti, where he read a discarded copy of Sidney Sheldon's The Doomsday Conspiracy.
"As a student I had read the classics, but I didn't know there were novels like that: The Hardy Boys for adults. It was light, fun but interesting. I decided to try something like that," he says.
His first three thrillers sold modestly until his fourth, The Da Vinci Code, became an overnight sensation. That, in turn, made best sellers of his earlier books.
He says he hasn't read any of about 40 books that analyze or debunk DaVinci, or JesusDecoded.com, a site set up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to rebut what it sees as inaccuracies in The Da Vinci Code.
"I'm not surprised. I've always said there's room for different opinions. Controversy is a good thing when it gets people thinking and talking."
His own religious beliefs are a "work in progress." He was raised an Episcopalian but doesn't attend church. "My spirituality is a private thing. I spend part of every day thinking about religion, spirituality and God — maybe more than people who go to church. By Sunday, I'm pretty tired."
He says he's not nearly as smart as Langdon, who first appeared in Brown's 2000 novel, Angels & Demons. (Tom Hanks played Langdon in the movies of Da Vinci and Angels.)
He may have created Langdon but "those little quips of his that refer to some obscure fact from the 13th century just roll off his tongue. It takes me a day or two to write one."
And that, he says, explains what he's been doing in the six years since his last novel became a publishing phenomenon.
The lawsuit and movies were distractions, but mostly, "I had a lot to learn and read and get my head around and to reveal it in a fictional chase. "
A house in New Hampshire
His only research assistant is his wife, Blythe. They're finishing what Brown calls one of his few extravagances since hitting it big: a new house in the woods of New Hampshire.
Part of it is a 100-year-old hunting lodge. A new addition is "the kind of house Langdon would love. It's filled with secret tunnels, revolving bookcases, and codes and symbols built into the interior woodwork."
It has a library Brown calls "The Fortress of Gratitude," filled with a copy of every edition of his five novels that have been published in 51 languages.
Last week, he gave a tour to Today's Matt Lauer, who Brown says agreed not to disclose the house's location. The segment is scheduled to air this morning.
In his new novel, Brown writes of his hero: "Ever since his experiences in Europe over the last several years, Langdon's unwanted celebrity had made him a magnet for nut cases."
Is that true for Brown?
"On some level. I've met some wonderful people. It's not all nut cases, but there's been concerns and issues with security. It's not all puppies and rainbows."
His writing style, which makes heavy uses of italics and ellipses, has been mocked by some critics as formulaic.
Brown shrugs and says, "Some critics say I don't write like William Shakespeare or William Faulkner, and they're right. I write in a modern, efficient style that serves only the story."
Italics, he says, are "underrated," especially when conveying what characters are thinking: "The best part of a novel is the interior dialogue that you don't get in a movie or in actual life."
And ellipses? "Underrated. Minds don't work in periods and commas."
He says he's "maniacal about controlling the point of view of my characters." His stories are told in shifting third-person, with no omnipresent narrator. "Since one character doesn't know what someone else knows, the author can withhold evidence fairly and build suspense."
His next novel?
"I know what it is. I don't know when. And that's all I'm saying."
RESEARCH BEHIND THE SCENES
In his research for The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown says he got unusual access to all but one of the landmarks in or near Washington, D.C., that figure into his novel:
• The exception: James Sanborn's massive metal sculpture Kryptos (Greek for "hidden") at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. It includes nearly 2,000 letters organized into a baffling code. Brown said he worked from photos. In the novel, he writes, "Kryptos was art ... but it was also an enigma."
• New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg took Brown and his wife to the outdoor skywalk that encircles the pinnacle of the U.S. Capitol Dome. "It was absolutely terrifying," says Brown, who shares a sense of claustrophobia and fear of heights with his fictional hero, Robert Langdon.
• Brown toured House of the Temple, a Masonic replica of a pre-Christian temple in downtown Washington. He says he went on the public tour and "beyond," thanks to an unnamed Mason. "I went in a hat and glasses and with a notebook." The novel describes it as a replica of "the temple of King Mausolus, the original mausoleum ... a place to be taken after death" that "looked like someone had built a pyramid on top of Rome's Pantheon."