Author Dan Brown is a friendly, normal guy — not the type you'd expect to have created the dark world of "The Da Vinci Code." The book, published in 2003, has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide, and the 2006 movie starring Tom Hanks grossed over $758 million. It also generated enormous controversy: Catholic Church leaders denounced its heretical slant and negative portrayal of Opus Dei, a conservative Roman Catholic group. Now, after six-and-a-half years, Brown's newest novel, "The Lost Symbol," comes out on Tuesday.
Brown, 45, still seems surprised that his book started such a frenzy. He grew up on the campus of a New England boarding school, where his father taught math; his mother was a musician. After failing to make it as a singer-songwriter, he decided to write fiction and had only modest success until "The Da Vinci Code," his fourth novel. "The Lost Symbol" brings back Harvard University symbology professor Robert Langdon, this time prowling the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
Q: How did the success of "The Da Vinci Code" affect your next book?
A: I was already writing "The Lost Symbol" when I started to realize "The Da Vinci Code" would be big. The thing that happened to me and must happen to any writer who's had success is that I temporarily became very self-aware. Instead of writing and saying, "This is what the character does," you say, "Wait, millions of people are going to read this." It's sort of like a tennis player who thinks too hard about a stroke — you're temporarily crippled.
Q: How did you get out of it?
A: The furor died down, and I realized that none of it had any relevance to what I was doing. I'm just a guy who tells a story.
Q: With a lot more money.
A: There were dramatic life changes. Most, but not all, were wonderful. You lose your privacy, and that's really the big thing.
Q: Are there any parallels between your new novel and "The Da Vinci Code"?
A: There are parallels between it and all my other books. I'm back in the same world of symbols, secret societies, art, and history.
Q: What interests you about D.C.?
A: I'm fascinated by power, especially veiled power. Shadow power. The National Security Agency. The National Reconnaissance Office. Opus Dei. The idea that everything happens for reasons we're not quite seeing. It reminds me of religion a little. The power that religion has is that you think nothing is random: If there's a tragedy in my life, that's God testing me or sending me a message. That's what conspiracy theorists do. They say, "The economy's terrible? Oh, that's not random. That's a bunch of rich guys in Prague who sat down and ..."
Q: Are you religious?
A: I was raised Episcopalian, and I was very religious as a kid. Then, in eighth or ninth grade, I studied astronomy, cosmology, and the origins of the universe. I remember saying to a minister, "I don't get it. I read a book that said there was an explosion known as the Big Bang, but here it says God created heaven and Earth and the animals in seven days. Which is right?" Unfortunately, the response I got was, "Nice boys don't ask that question." A light went off, and I said, "The Bible doesn't make sense. Science makes much more sense to me." And I just gravitated away from religion.
Q: Where are you now?
A: The irony is that I've really come full circle. The more science I studied, the more I saw that physics becomes metaphysics and numbers become imaginary numbers. The farther you go into science, the mushier the ground gets. You start to say, "Oh, there is an order and a spiritual aspect to science."
Q: What led you to write about the Sacred Feminine, a woman-centered version of Christianity, in "The Da Vinci Code"?
A: Part of it was my mom — she is strong in her convictions and yet absolutely open to embracing a change in them. Part of it was falling in love and also looking at other religions, especially older ones, paganism, the Mother Earth concept. And some of it came from looking at the destructive force of man and saying, "Look at what we're doing. If we spent half the intellect and money we spend on killing each other on solving problems, wouldn't that be great?" I kind of equate that with testosterone. You say, "What if God were a woman? What if we embraced our feminine side — the more creative, passive, loving side?" It's a gross generalization, but all those things added up to my celebrating the Sacred Feminine.
Q: Are you a conspiracy theorist?
A: Not in any way, shape, or form. I am much more of a skeptic. I don't believe in UFOs or that the world is going to end in 2012. I think one reason my books have found mainstream success is that they're written from a skeptical point of view. My protagonist, Robert Langdon, doesn't buy into any of it. As an intelligent person, you can read them and say, "Oh, that's cool — I wonder if it's possible." But you're constantly connected with a character who thinks, "That's ridiculous." If I'm doing my job, what happens is that you, the skeptical reader, move through my stories and start to say, "Oh my God. Maybe. Maybe."
Q: Is it hard now to write about Robert Langdon without picturing Tom Hanks?
A: No. I've spent so much more time with Robert Langdon in my head than I have watching Tom Hanks on set. It doesn't even occur to me.
Q: What was it like to go from the writing world into the movie world?
A: Writing is a solitary existence. Making a movie is controlled chaos — thousands of moving parts and people. Every decision is a compromise. If you're writing and you don't like how your character looks or talks, you just fix it. But in a movie, if there's something you don't like, that's tough. And when you make a film, everyone sees the same Harry Potter, the same Robert Langdon. You're all having the same experience — and it may not be what you imagined.