In a Court Filing, Dan Brown Reveals the Secrets to His Success

Dissecting the mainstream.
March 22 2006 6:10 PM

The Dan Brown Code

In a court filing, the best-selling author reveals all the secrets of a pulp novelist.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.
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Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, went on sale this week and has already hit No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list. To mark the occasion, Slate revisits Bryan Curtis’ 2006 article about witness statement in a copyright infringement case concerning his earlier novel The Da Vinci Code. As Curtis writes, the document offers numerous insights into the author’s enormous popularity and success. The piece is reprinted below.

Dan Brown, author of the mega-selling The Da Vinci Code, has brought forth his most thrilling piece of writing to date: a court document. Brown, who is being sued for copyright infringement in London by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, filed a 69-page witness statement with the British courts back in December. The London Times, the Associated Press, and other media gleefully unearthed it last week. In its textures—it is at turns snotty, contemplative, and disarmingly personal—it is clear Brown intended the brief less as a legal defense than as a literary memoir. Like the hidden ciphers the heroes of The Da Vinci Code pursue, this is the Dan Brown Code—the key to understanding the secrets of a pulp novelist.

At first glance, the document bears the giddy signatures of a Dan Brown novel. It's chopped into staccato chapters; the language is awkward ("I quite literally woke up one morning and decided to write a thriller that delved into NSA"); and its hero is a simple man who is being pursued by evil forces he doesn't quite understand. Educated at Amherst and Phillips Exeter Academy, Brown had an unusual literary awakening. He did not go the usual route, wandering into a library, bumping into Hemingway and Flaubert, and resolving right there in the stacks to become a writer. Brown resolved to become a writer when he read Sidney Sheldon's The Doomsday Conspiracy while vacationing in Tahiti. "Up until this point," he writes, "almost all of my reading had been dictated by my schooling (primarily classics like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, etc.) and I'd read almost no commercial fiction at all since the Hardy Boys as a child." The Sheldon book was a revelation, swift and merciless where Shakespeare, etc., had been slow and cumbersome. "[L]ife seemed to be trying to tell me something," Brown notes, adding, "I began to suspect that maybe I could write a 'thriller' of this type one day."

Brown has done a lot of thinking about what makes a successful Dan Brown thriller. He has found that it requires a few essential elements: some kind of shadowy force, like a secret society or government agency; a "big idea" that contains a moral "grey area"; and a treasure. The treasures in Brown's four novels have been a meteorite, anti-matter, a gold ring, and the Holy Grail. The shadowy forces have included the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei, and the National Security Agency. The big idea, if I'm reading him correctly, goes something like this: Is the Vatican good … or is it evil? Is the National Security Agency for us … or is it against us? When all of Brown's elements come together, doled out over cliffhanging chapters, with characters that exist to "move the plot along," it is like mixing the ingredients to make a cake. For example, Deception Point, Brown's third novel, is "a thriller about a meteorite discovered in the Arctic—a discovery that turns out to have profound political ramifications for an impending presidential election."

Another author might have sneered when asked to lay bare his methodology. Brown, on the other hand, appears eager to reveal every one of the secrets of the pulp novelist: "All my novels are set in 24 hours"; "All of my novels use the concept of a simple hero pulled out of his familiar world";"I intend to make Robert Langdon my primary character for years to come." My favorite secret is Brown's notion of the "thriller as academic lecture." The trick is to make your characters experts—in Brown's world, they are symbologists, cryptographers, and so forth. Then you pair them with an expert of a different discipline, making it convenient for the experts to essay to one another at some length, in the process spilling all the research you have done for your novel. (The Da Vinci Code contains dozens of loosely connected academic lectures.)I was also curious about how Brown named his protagonists. He has heroes ranging from Vittoria Vetra to Susan Fletcher—names that, in the glorious tradition of pulp writing, are either ostentatiously foreign or ridiculously dull. "I named the protagonist Robert Langdon," Brown writes of his Da Vinci and Angels & Demons hero. "I thought it was a fantastic name. It sounds very 'New England' and I like last names with two syllables …"

One can't help but feel good about Brown's portrayal here. He is his own most fully formed character—the only one not rushing off to foil some dark international conspiracy or another; the only one who is allowed to emerge in a rush of small details. For instance, we learn that Brown's writing day begins at 4 a.m. He writes seven days a week. He keeps an hourglass on his desk and, on the hour, puts aside his manuscript to perform push-ups, sit-ups, and stretches. He does not like to write in the margins of books, but his wife doesn't feel that way. He is invariably delighted by anagrams. (He was extremely delighted to discover that Heide Lange, his literary agent, had a last name could be rearranged to spell "angel.") For a while, Brown sold books out of the back of his car. Some of his recent vacation destinations have included Tahiti, Rome, and the Mayan pyramids at Chichén Itzá. He is not a pack rat. He has thrown away most of the documents from his younger days, especially from his failed songwriting career, because they were "painful reminders of years spent for naught." He wrote the outline for The Da Vinci Code in a laundry room, himself planted in a lawn chair and his manuscript balanced on an ironing board.

None of this has the slightest thing to do with plagiarism. It seems that Brown, working under the restraints of the legal system, has freed himself from an even more rigid system, that of the commercial novel. When not absorbed with shadowy conspiracies or buried treasures, his prose becomes confident and disarmingly confessional. How else to explain the decision to reveal the fact that his father hid young Dan's Christmas presents around the house, providing him with treasure maps and codes to find them? Or that he once composed a music album called Angels and Demons? Or that as a student he felt profoundly movedbya professor's description of Michelangelo's Pietà? This document is a pulp novelist's renaissance. For the first time in his life, you might say Dan Brown is trying to create literature.

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