Dan Brown: 'I sit down in the dark in my pyjamas and write'

Liz Thomson
Opinion - Books Tuesday, 4th November 2014

In Sharjah, where he is installed on the entire 18th floor of the Hilton, Dan Brown talks to Liz Thomson.

Between royal engagements in Sharjah and a quick tour of UAE bookshops, Dan Brown sat down for a rare meeting with the press. The author of The Da Vinci Code is guest of honour at the Sharjah International Book Fair and will be present at tomorrow's official opening ceremony, hosted by HH Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohamed Al Qasimi and in the presence of his daughter, Sheikha Bodour, the award-winning publisher of Kalimat.

Brown, who is accompanied in Sharjah by his UK editor, Bill Scott-Kerr of Transworld, and his agent, Heide Lange of Greenburger Associates in New York, is en route to India, where he will deliver the annual Penguin Lecture in Mumbai, thus following in the footsteps of such esteemed thinkers as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, historian Ramachandra Guha and the Dalai Lama. He joked that perhaps he would not have accepted the invitation had he known what big shoes he had to fill.

Nevertheless, he was looking forward to going to India, a country he last visited at 18, and was enjoying his first visit to the UAE. His only previous visit to the Muslim world had been to Istanbul in the course of research. As to whether he would set a novel in the region - as Jeffery Deaver did with his 007 outing - he wouldn't be drawn.

Brown, whose most recent novel is Inferno, had arrived early the previous morning and had been feted that evening with a private dinner at the home of Sheikha Bodour, when guests included Jon Malinowski and Janet Fritsch of the American Collective, Ingram Chairman and CEO John Ingram, the Publishers Association's Emma House, and IPA President-elect Richard Charkin, who felt compelled to borrow a tie for the occasion. It was, by all accounts, a warm and convivial evening, with His Highness dropping by for petits fours. Guests were invited into the capacious garage, there to view a variety of fancy cars owned by the Sheikha's husband, among them a rare Porsche. Both Brown and Ingram were hoping they might be able to see the Sheikh's own collection of horsepower - his celebrated Arabians. In any event, Brown was off to meet His Highness for lunch immediately following our interview.

What was it like being "Dan Brown"? It did feel different, admitted Brown, who once had aspirations to be a pop star. The singer-songwriter and pianist released two CDs on his own label before it was fashionable to do so - Dan Brown in 1993 and, the following year, Angels and Demons, which would eventually be used at the title of his third novel, published in 2000. Neither album was a success (he has no wish to re-release them), and Brown and his wife relocated from Hollywood back to New Hampshire, where he began working as an English teacher at his alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy.

He also began writing. In retrospect, his debut novel Digital Fortress can be seen as very much ahead of its time, for it was essentially about a world that would be revealed a decade later by Edward Snowden. So no, Brown wasn't surprised by those revelations, and expected there to be more to come. The spying game was "more and more relentless. It was only a matter of time befeore it call came out". Digital Fortress is now being made into an ABC mini-series.

For the first three novels, Brown went round the country selling copies where he could from the trunk of his beat-up VW. His wife would fix the radio shows and the bookstore appearances - "sometimes only one person showed up and they didn't buy a book". He praised his publishers, Doubleday, for keeping the faith.

Then in 2003 came The Da Vinci Code. Brown, while a great re-writer, had tended not to bother with the galleys, but he did read the proof of this one. Doubleday printed 10,000 of them - more copies than his previous three books had sold in total, he said. He had a vague sense that he was on to something. He and his wife repaired to a cabin in Costa Rica for a spot of R&R. There was no contact with the outside world, and every day he'd drive 10 miles to an internet cafe. The emails he downloaded seemed encouraging, but he told his wife he wasn't sure what to make of them.

He was on tour on the West Coast, Portland or Seattle, he's can't remember which, when he walked in to the lobby of his hotel. "The concierge said he had a fax for me and he hoped I'd understand it. There was just one character on it - 1. I was top of the New York Times bestsellers."

The Da Vinci Code was about to become a phenomenon, "the right book at the right time", drawing on an interest in signs and symbols that began in childhood with his mathametician father. As "Dan Brown" he became for a while "very self-aware", inhibited from writing the next sentence. "After a month or two I realised I just had to keep doing what I'd always done before. The day always starts with a blank sheet of paper."

With all his success - 200m books in 52 languages - Brown still rises at 4am and writes till noon, pretty much wherever he is. He turns down most invitations, because he believes his first duty is to his readers and his publishers - and that means "sitting down in the dark in my pyjamas" and engaging daily with that blank sheet and writing and rewriting (his wife never reads anything before the fifth draft) until he's finished.

As to his forthcoming novel, he would not be drawn, save to say it once again featured Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, each of whose outings gave Brown "three or four more ideas". He was not sure whether he'd be able to write them all, but he would certainly give it his best shot.