Dan Brown ’86 writes to his own taste, which a whole lot of people just happen to share. 

Interview by Professor Rick Griffiths

Dan Brown is not merely a best-selling novelist. His books have sold 200 million copies and appeared in 52 languages, making him one of the most successful authors of all time. Among his volumes are four that feature protagonist Robert Langdon, including 2003’s The Da Vinci Code and his latest, Inferno.

In a recent talk in Johnson Chapel, Brown spoke about his writing and mentioned a new music composition by his brother, Gregory W. Brown ’98, that is based on a Catholic mass but replaces sacred texts with writings of Charles Darwin. “So,” said the novelist, whose Da Vinci Code drew criticism from the Catholic Church, “I suspect the Vatican may be banging on our door yet again.”

Professor of Classics and Women’s and Gender Studies Rick Griffiths interviewed Brown about such topics as Dante’s vision of hell, writing reluctant heroes and playing cat and mouse with bloggers.

Why did you center your new Robert Langdon novel on Dante’s Inferno?

On some level Dante called to me as something new and fresh. Yet the Divine Comedy is so filled with symbolism and religion that it felt like solid ground and familiar territory for Langdon. I first read a watered-down version of Inferno in Italian class in high school. I remember thinking it felt so modern for something written in the 1300s. It felt startlingly relevant to modern life. The Bible does not say much about hell; it talks about hell in ethereal terms. Classical mythology talks about hell, but also not specifically. It wasn’t until Dante that we had a codified, structured, vivid vision of hell. In some ways, Dante invented our modern vision of hell.

Now that you’ve lived with Dante as a colleague, rival, inspiration—as your Virgil—what do you see in him that you did not see before?

What I didn’t recall from reading Dante originally was this idea of contrapasso, that our life on earth and the sins we commit are relevant to the punishments we feel in hell. So, if you are an adulterer on earth—well, guess what? In hell they’ve got something devised for you that’s appropriate to that. The punishment fits the crime.

But your Inferno takes on issues—population explosion, bioterrorism—that get beyond Dante’s kind of individual responsibility.

One of my challenges in writing novels is to take something ancient and make it relevant—for example, to fuse antimatter with the Vatican’s stance on science. In Inferno I came up with the idea of making the villain a skilled genetic engineer who is a Dante fanatic and a Dante scholar. He feels that Dante’s vision of hell is not so much history as it is prophecy. He becomes obsessed with this idea that Dante’s vision of a crowded, dark, hot world of sin and starvation is where we’re headed if we’re not careful.

Is that why so much of the book is about fertility control?

I have a sincere concern about world population and an understanding that the situation is so dire and the mathematics so frightening that whatever solution we find will be drastic. It won’t just be people handing out condoms. Mother Nature will find a way to trim the herd; if we don’t, she will. Seventy percent of the world population lives within 30 miles of the coast, and sea levels are rising fast—an interesting statistic. In this novel, Zobrist, the villain—or hero, depending on whose side you’re on—argues in favor of finding a humane, painless way to handle the situation as a species rather than constantly being in conflict with our planet.

Brown atop Piazzale Michelangelo, overlooking Florence, Italy

Brown atop Piazzale Michelangelo, overlooking Florence, Italy. Two prominent sites from his latest novel are visible in the background: the spire of Palazzo Vecchio and the dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Brown was a Spanish major at Amherst. Photo by Claudio Sforza.

How did you become interested in codes and puzzle-solving?

My dad is a math teacher and mathematician and wrote textbooks on mathematics. When I was a kid, on Christmas morning when we came down there were no presents under the tree. There was just an envelope. We would open it, and it would be a code. My sister and I would decipher the code. It would be a riddle or something that would point to another location in the house. We’d run to that location, maybe the refrigerator, open it up, and there’s another envelope, with another code. These codes could be mathematical or they could be pictures. And eventually, by the time we got through the whole house and back to the Christmas tree, all our presents had magically appeared. I grew up feeling like codes are fun. The concept of the treasure hunt is one of the oldest forms of storytelling.

There’s the quest for the Golden Fleece, the quest for the Fountain of Youth.

And in both of those, the quest is the story. That’s the same model I used for The Da Vinci Code. The value of the quest is not actually in finding that grail; it’s in what you learn in the process of trying to find the Grail, or the Golden Fleece, or the Fountain of Youth, or whatever it is.

You’ve set extraordinary chase scenes in the ceilings and bowels of buildings. That’s very Dante-like. Do you build models of the buildings?

I was in every space that I wrote about in Florence, Venice and Istanbul. After The Da Vinci Code, I was given access to places that—I’m not naïve—I wouldn’t have had access to before. I get letters from curators saying, “Come to Prague—we have an entire plot for you here.” Here’s the irony: I am always trying to write in secret. I don’t want people to know what I’m writing about. So I will go to Venice and be interested in St. Mark’s Cathedral, yet I can’t spend all my time there and ask all my questions about exactly what it is I want to write about, so half the questions I’m asking and half the places I’m going have nothing to do with the book. I take copious notes about things that I know are totally irrelevant. And sure enough, I end up seeing on a blog that somebody at the museum knows exactly what my next novel is. So it’s a little bit of a game of cat and mouse.

Are you ever tempted to go into the blogosphere and correct misinformation anonymously?

I was told a long time ago never to pay attention to your critics or your fans, because you lose both ways. If you read that somebody loves what you’re doing, you become lazy and complacent, and if you read that somebody hates what you’re doing, you can become insecure and hesitant.

How do you hold people’s attention for hundreds of pages, over complicated plots?

Writing thrillers is a lot like writing music. (I am a failed musician.) A symphony is about structure, theme, tempo, pacing and ambience; all these things are critical to writing a novel. Writing is about creating tension and release. Can they stop this virus? What does this code mean? Are they going to get away? If I’ve done my job well, these individual bits of tension will pull a reader through the entire book.

You do monumental outlines for these plots. Do you build outlines from the beginning or the end?

My outline for Inferno was about 100 pages. I never start an outline without knowing the ending: You’ve got to have something to aim at. Of course, that ending may shift. It’s like building a house: You have a plan, but as you start to get into the nitty-gritty, you might say, “This wall shouldn’t be there.” But you can’t start building until you know the foundation is solid.

Your Inferno is very much about the ambiguities of evil and very hard on the morally neutral. Your hero gets called into things; he doesn’t go looking for trouble.

You of all people know that the reluctant hero is one of the great archetypes of classic mythology.

Your characters—the heroes, the villains, the helpers—cross categories quite a bit.

I like that gray area between right and wrong. I think it’s interesting when characters do the right thing for the wrong reason and even more interesting when they do the wrong thing for the right reason. Zobrist is trying to save the world. We might argue that releasing a virus, like he does, may not be the best way to do it. Yet you can argue that his heart is in the right place. Cruella De Vil made coats out of Dalmatian puppies. It doesn’t get much worse than that. I would never write a character that evil.

What books caught your imagination as a child or college student?

Aside from reading a ton of children’s books—everything from Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry all the way up through the Hardy Boys—once I started high school and college, I only read classics. I loved Shakespeare and loved reading in foreign languages—I wasn’t very good at it, but I enjoyed it. At Amherst I read a lot of Borges and García Márquez. After college I was in Tahiti, of all places, and found on a beach a copy of a modern thriller. I really hadn’t read one; I didn’t know the genre existed. This was a very light book by Sidney Sheldon—I mean the lightest of light. I read it and I thought, “Oh my God, this is the Hardy Boys for adults.” I started consuming that kind of literature—the whole Bourne series, a lot of different writers—and decided I wanted to try to fuse the thriller genre with something more classical: more paintings, fewer guns.

But you’ve said you read almost no fiction. Why not?

I read almost exclusively nonfiction because for me it feels more connected to the modern world. I read crazy stuff: Ray Kurzweil, math books, Stephen Hawking, books on population control. Those feel relevant to me. What I hope to do in my books is to write something that feels like a thriller but also feels relevant to real life.

Who is your imagined reader?

As simplistic as this may sound, I write the book that I find interesting, that I find exciting. I’m writing to my own taste. I choose symbols and codes, or plots and locations, that I myself would want to read about. And then I just hope that people share my taste. Obviously you wish everybody loved what you do. That’s just not the way it is.

The standard advice for aspiring writers is to write what you know. What’s your advice?

The most helpful thing that I could’ve been told as a young writer is to choose a topic that I was conflicted about, or that terrified me, or that I’d always wanted to know about. Part of keeping readers interested is conveying passion, and it’s hard to muster passion for a topic about which you feel indifferent.

Have you ever started a project and found it’s a dead end?

Sure. I never get anything right the first time. On my keyboard all the keys look fine except for the Delete key. The D is gone. It’s just smudged off from hitting it so much. I’ve never started a novel that I didn’t finish, but I’ve started many, many threads of plot, or characters, or openings that I’ve discarded. The opening hundred pages of The Lost Symbol were at one point totally different. For every one page that I write, there are 10 pages that I throw out.

This article is adapted from an interview for Amherst Reads, the college’s online book club. Inferno was the Amherst Reads featured book for September.